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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

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