The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my life
John Le Carré (Viking, £20)
I WAS a writer who had once happened to be a spy,’ confesses John Le Carré and it’s certainly true that it’s not the intelligence officer of the late 1950s and early 1960s that emerges most clearly from his autobiography, but the chronicler of corruption in empires.
The book opens at his chalet in the Swiss Alps with a brief but superbly controlled evocation of the mountains and climate, his childhood spent skiing there and, later, hikes with the Oxford Rector, who was an inspiration for his most famous creation, George Smiley.
What follows next is a series of fine after-dinner anecdotes: a New Year’s Eve dance with Yasser Arafat, an interview with a Russian gangster in a Moscow nightclub, appraisals of Alec Guinness and Richard Burton. he also includes tributes to those who provided the model for different characters in his novels, from The Honourable Schoolboy’s Jerry Westerby to activist Tessa Quayle in The Constant Gardener.
Over the years, Mr Le Carré’s reputation as an expert in all things espionage has led to a few comical misunderstandings. he was called upon to intervene in a siege at the Polish Embassy in Switzerland and, on another occasion, the President of Italy grilled him on the state of his country’s intelligence services.
hovering throughout is the ghost of his father, Ronnie, a charlatan of spectacular charm, who involved his son in his confidence tricks from a young age. ‘Spying did not introduce me to secrecy. Evasion and deception were the necessary weapons of my childhood.’
It’s difficult to trust entirely the autobiography of a writer whose novels revolve around so much subterfuge and double-bluffs (‘Spying and novel writing are made for each other,’ he admits). Although The Pigeon Tunnel does follow the facts, it is—and here, one might, like Smiley, pause to polish one’s glasses—full of nuance. Michael Murray-fennell