A globally recognised author will be the special guest at a fundraiser in Shaftesbury on Wednesday. Alfred spoke with John le Carré about his award-winning spy novels, his Dorset connection and Julia’s House Hospice.
John le Carré has just published his 25th novel, Agent Running in the Field. The 88-year old writer has gained millions of fans with his spy novels, including ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and ‘Smiley’s People’. The Times considers him one of ‘The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945’.
John spends much of his time in Cornwall, but he does have strong Dorset connections. “I was Dorset born. I had a troubled family life. My father was all over the place. I spent many of my early years with my grandparents in Poole. If you look it up, you’ll find that my grandfather was Mayor of Poole and there was a great scandal because my father was sent down for fraud and did time at Winchester and Exeter jails. That cast a terrible blight over the family,” John recalled.
He attended Sherborne School, an experience he did not enjoy but his family connections with our county offer happier memories. “I think of Dorset for two things. Sherborne and my grandparent’s house. I had a very kind aunt who lived in the grandparental home and spoiled me rotten when I came to visit. And of course, I remember beautiful countryside, which has always been some kind of solace for me.”
On Wednesday evening, 11th December, at 7pm, John will address the congregation of Carols by Candlelight at St James’ Church. “I’m reading a rather thunderous Tennyson poem which brings in the new year,” John said.
John has agreed to take part in the event because he’s passionate about Julia’s House, the children hospice and respite care charity. He supports the charity with substantial donations. “I’m a great supporter of it. I have fourteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and by a miracle of nature, we have so far, touch wood, had no member of the family who was afflicted by any of the things that Julia’s House tries to alleviate and does indeed alleviate,” said John.
“In my observation, parents who have children with very short life expectancy and terrible, incurable and wasting disabilities love their children quite exceptionally. It’s a deep invested love that is almost exceptional and beyond normal parental love. They have to learn not to think about their children’s future. All the time that wisdom is tremendously precious.”
John told ThisIsAlfred that he believes the charity’s work is very important. “What Julia’s House does, which I think is wonderful, is provide respite. They provide administrative care to release the parents, sometimes from their child, so that the parents can get on with their relationship and get out of that perpetual crisis mode in which they would live,” said John.
There are many keen writers in Shaftesbury and anyone who wants to meet the author will have the chance to after the service. “We will have a glass of wine and a mince pie,” said John.
Le Carré’s novels are widely acclaimed and it seems that reviewers disagree over his finest work. John says his best novel hasn’t been written yet. “Always the next book,” he said. “Every time I close the book, I have a great sense of loss. The feeling is that I haven’t yet gone to the edge of my talent. I think any decent artist, in any field, will die feeling the same thing. That is the whole joy of writing. It’s a journey towards an impossible horizon.”
A recent press article suggested that John’s latest release ‘Agent Running in the Field’ would be his last book. That’s not the case. “Well, if you look at my age, it’s a reasonable guess,” he laughed. “No book will be my last book except that perhaps the last one will not be finished.”
Another Dorset writer, Hardy, has been on school curriculums for decades and his words and meanings have been dissected by generations of schoolchildren. John says his novels are also studied. “In terms of history, people regard the Cold War books I wrote, like ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ as some kind of historical document to that strange period. When I wrote ‘Legacy Of Spies’, I had to remind myself that many of my new readership would have had no experience whatsoever of the Cold War. For them, it is as remote as the Great War is to me.”
I asked John whether he has control or veto over the portrayal of his book characters by TV or filmmakers. “I have it, legally speaking, I suppose. In reality, how can I possibly exercise it? I’m not a filmmaker. I don’t know the gallery of actors from which to cast. I’m quite incapable of commenting,” he said.
“I co-wrote, in effect, ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ – the movie. I do sometimes work closely with writers. I did write the whole of ‘Smiley’s People’ because the writer who was working on it for health and other reasons, fell down on the job. Alec Guinness and I sat down for about four weeks and rewrote the whole six hours script. Generally speaking, I want the film of the film, and not the film of the book. I want filmmakers to exercise their own creative talents and take off from my books and do something of their own. I think that’s when it works. If you take ‘The Night Manager’, by the time it got on the screen, it was far removed from the book. And Susanne Bier, the director, and the two main actors had a lot of input about how the thing would unfold. Not on set, but beforehand. That’s real filmmaking. I can’t sit there like some ancient monitor saying, ‘You can’t do this’.”
John once worked for MI5 and MI6 himself. To an outsider, spying used to appear a covert activity. Now, with the highly public events up the road in Salisbury, things seem to be different. John disagrees. He says he has become aware of outrageous and shocking activity but has chosen not to feature disturbing facts in his fiction.
“When I was doing intelligence work in Germany, although I didn’t know it at the time, the CIA had West German secret sites where it tortured people, subjected them to experimental treatments of a terrible kind and killed those people. They were mainly expendable ex-Nazis, who were being put on trial. I couldn’t put that into any novel, not for security reasons, but it becomes obscene and too rich and too horrible,” he said.
“When I was researching for ‘The Constant Gardener’, I discovered some of the horrors of fake clinical trials, fake consent forms and human guinea pigs being used. In Spain, eight separate doctors who refused to comply with the pressures of big pharma were murdered. Again, that is too gothic and that’s too extreme for the story I wanted to tell. The reality has always been more monstrous than fiction. We’re dealing with that now in politics and other fields. It isn’t right to say, ‘Gosh, with all this stuff going on, how can you possibly make up a story?’ The answer is, a story turns a nightmare out there into a single human experience. All of a sudden it becomes more emotive, more real to the reader.”
Le Carré will address his Shaftesbury audience on the day before the general election. He is politically aware but, like many, still hasn’t decided who he will support at the ballot box. John joined 24 other public figures declaring their refusal to vote for the Labour Party because of its association with anti-Semitism. He’s held a fundraiser for the Lib-Dems and voices clear disapproval of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.
“As I approach the election, I’m still uncertain about how I shall vote. What I do think is we are threatened with something terrible in the Johnson administration to come. You start reading the small print of what they intend to do, and they try to rewrite the constitution. I think we’re in the hands of very bad people,” said John.
Le Carré has made his opposition to Brexit clear in interviews and in his latest book, which also takes a swipe a Trump. He is worried about what will happen to this country outside the EU. “This offshore island, unregulated, deprived of the biggest trading union that the world knows. It’s kept us going perfectly well until now,” he said, adding that his next book is likely to reflect how leaving the EU will alter Britain’s political axis, which will impact on his area of expertise – the security services.
He makes a clear distinction between pride and provocation. “Patriotism is okay. With nationalism, you need an enemy and part of this process is to make us enemies of the European mainland and that is utterly shaming,” said John.
Whether voters will give a clear steer on this country’s future on Thursday remains to be seen. But on Wednesday, you’ll be guaranteed patriotic verse and warm words about a special charity, from the Cold War’s greatest thriller writer.