John le Carré, Beirut, Lebanon, 1983; photograph by Don McCullin

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John le Carré, Beirut, Lebanon, 1983; photograph by Don McCullin

What happens when a biography collides with an autobiography? Adam Sisman’s careful, comprehensive life of “John le Carré” (his real name is David Cornwell) has been followed within months by the novelist’s own memoir. It covers many of the same anecdotes and characters. Did Sisman realize that David Cornwell was going to do this? I don’t know the answer, but at some stage he probably did. More to the point, would Cornwell have written the book if he hadn’t read Sisman’s take on his life first? I am pretty certain he would not.

So there’s a causal relationship between these two books. But it would be wrong to see The Pigeon Tunnel as some sort of angry riposte. By Sisman’s account, he and his subject became something like friends after four years of work and fifty hours of interviews; his book seems very fair and often close to affectionate. Possibly, though there’s no evidence for this, there are things Cornwell now wishes he hadn’t told his biographer. But I suspect that the main motive is professional. It’s the pang of a writer who lends out his or her best anecdotes to be written up by somebody else.

There is also a difference of form. The Pigeon Tunnel is mostly a book of personal encounters. Each section introduces a figure—beloved, contemptible, terrifying, comical, or mysterious—who has left a mark on David Cornwell’s life and work and, often enough, served as inspiration for a character in a le Carré novel. In contrast Adam Sisman’s biography, while including many of these encounters, is a full account of a life with all its circumstances as well as its people.

Nobody writing in English does better biographies than Sisman. His last book, a life of the inflammable English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, was generally found to be a triumph: accurate, fair, and often funny. He is intelligently judgmental about his touchy subjects without boxing them into crude psychograms. And if he doesn’t know why somebody acted “out of character,” or what they did when they temporarily disappeared, he says so. He does sensible commentary but not much intrusive guesswork.

So given Sisman’s skill at his craft, it’s curious, with the appearance of le Carré’s own The Pigeon Tunnel, that his book about John le Carré/David Cornwell almost runs out of his control.

The problem is Cornwell’s father. Ronnie Cornwell was an exuberant con man whose excesses and betrayals shaped the characters and lives of his children. David (today in his eighties) spent half his life struggling to escape from him, from his disasters, his emotional blackmail, his domineering love that David found so hard not to return. Many of his novels, A Perfect Spy especially, reflect or are even part of this struggle, featuring father characters in whom Ronnie can be directly or indirectly seen.

And Ronnie, although he died in 1975, keeps stealing the scene in this biography that is supposed to be about his son. Readers and critics have long ago grasped the idea that the le Carré novels—and not just the early “spy” fiction—can be understood as a mordant allegory of British decline; or, more accurately, of the British elite’s persistent refusal to recognize that decline. Sisman handles that element deftly. But the fact is that Ronnie’s real life is an even more lurid allegory of the same thing.

He pretends to be powerful and wealthy when he is bankrupt and on the run. His charm and Old World savoir faire, his hints that he is at the center of everything and knows everyone, never cease to fool people who entrust him with their savings and property. His style and pageantry, his lavish offices and champagne hospitality, are legendary—until the bills come in. Ronnie’s boasts of influence over foreign presidents and maharajahs—soaring fantasies of post-imperial greatness—win him free suites at credulous Grand Hotels all over the world. And he bounces back. Arrested on one continent or jailed on another, in no time he reappears in the Savoy Grill buying everyone splendid meals with someone else’s money.

There must be moments in Washington when presidential advisers, wondering if they will ever get those supercilious Brits off the White House lawn, see the United Kingdom as a collective Ronnie Cornwell. Delusions of global importance—“a Victor Power of the Second World War”—persist. Behind the absurdity of the “Brexit” campaign, agitating to take Britain out of the European Union, lay the remains of an ancient imperial faith, the obstinate certainty that the Kingdom is exceptional and never to be clubbed together with “mere nations” like France and Germany. Meanwhile, the heavily armed little island finds difficulty in paying its creditors.


“Britain”? In reality we are talking here about England, as Scotland goes increasingly its own way. And we are talking not about the patient, kindly, but increasingly fed-up English people but about the elite that rules them. If that elite still feels like a self-perpetuating caste, that is because for the last two hundred years it has skillfully recruited and assimilated people like David Cornwell from lower strata in society. In his case, that was from a nonconformist small-business background in Poole, Dorset. Ronnie was the mayor’s son, attractive and ambitious for wealth and social advancement. Even then, he displayed a small-town hypocrisy as he diddled widows and pensioners out of their savings with an “air of injured sanctity.” As David’s brother Tony put it, he had “a hand on your shoulder and the other in your pocket and both gestures would be equally sincere.”

He soon went to jail for fraud, the first of his convictions. Tired of his infidelities, his wife left him, and David, aged only five, was sent to the first of a long series of boys’ boarding schools. The disappearance of his mother and single-sex confinement throughout childhood and youth meant that “he was left ignorant of women, and mistrustful of them,” and he has admitted to Sisman that “he finds it difficult to write about women as a consequence.” He was beaten and humiliated, in the usual fashion of such schools, but absorbed their “proper” accent and was trained in their class ethic (contempt for the “oiks,” or lower-class children who went to state schools). At his next school, heavy emphasis was laid on the glories of the Empire, and at Sherborne, the “public” school into which he was wangled by Ronnie’s influence, the Colonial Service was still considered the finest future for the boys. A career of selfless duty, naturally, rather than pleasure. David remembered a school careers adviser “who had warned that anyone who condemned a native to death jolly well ought to attend his execution.”

David increasingly felt himself an outsider, inwardly alien to this class and its pretensions. He felt lasting anger toward those who had flogged him. And he began to nurse fantasies of escape—almost of rebirth—into some quite different culture.

His refuge turned out to be German culture. Leaving Sherborne early, which his schoolmasters thought scandalous, David went to live as a starveling student in Bern, Switzerland. There he learned German and its literature, made German friends, and began to understand the bitterness of Germany’s postwar partition. Equally important was the moment in the English church in Bern when he was picked up by “Wendy” and “Sandy” of the British embassy, who asked him questions, then wondered if he would like to be of service to his country. He said he would. So “Sandy” instructed him to frequent left-wing student meetings and report back on the views of any British boys or girls he met there.

It was the beginning of his experience with British intelligence. But soon he had to return to England, summoned to help Ronnie in his attempt to get elected to Parliament in the 1950 elections. Sisman gives a marvelously comic account of this. The Tories tried to force Ronnie to withdraw his Liberal candidacy by threatening to reveal his prison sentence for fraud. But Ronnie—with superb courage and chutzpah—turned to his audience and asked: “Each one of you, if one of your sons or grandsons had made a mistake, and paid the price for it, and he then asked to be taken back, which one of you would slam the door in his face?” Their hearts melted. But he lost the election to the incumbent Labour MP.

His son famously inherited these talents for acting and disguise, and for shape-shifting so instinctive that at times neither Cornwell could be quite sure which identity was real and which was feigned. David, so all his friends say, is a brilliant mimic and entertainer in private. More solemnly, he transplanted his soul from stuffy middle-class England into the high-strung Sturm und Drang Germany of the Romantic period; he felt himself a different, freer person as he spoke German with increasing mastery. He became a clever cartoonist and then, very rapidly, a novelist whose imagination was to dominate “cold war” fiction in the late twentieth century. And, for a relatively short time, he became a spy.

After his first experience of undercover work in Switzerland, he did his compulsory two years of military service in the Intelligence Corps. Sent to Austria, still under postwar occupation, his work was mostly interrogating border-crossers escaping from Eastern Europe. The Russians, yesterday’s valiant allies, had become today’s evil enemies, a switch of Orwellian suddenness that may—Sisman speculates—have planted in David Cornwell the first grains of skepticism about cold war values. But he was still vulnerable to calls for patriotic vigilance. At Oxford he was approached by MI5 (counterintelligence) to act as an informer on student communism. Affecting left-wing views, he joined the Communist Club and proceeded to report on the views and activities of his fellow students, including some of his own close friends.


As far as Sisman’s book reveals, this was the moral low point of his subject’s life. Professional intelligence work a few years later is another matter. But informing on student colleagues and friends was seen then—and still is—as lamentable.

Long afterward, when the Berlin Wall had fallen, David Cornwell had an exchange about this with Timothy Garton Ash, who had written a fine account (The File: A Personal History*) of the East German informers who had contributed to his Stasi dossier. David suggested that he should feel sorrow, not indignation, about those poor informers, “the real victims…crabbed, intimidated, blackmailed.” Commenting on David’s letter, Sisman writes:

There was of course a similarity between the actions of those East German informers and what David himself had done; he acknowledged that “I betrayed, in your terms.” Yet, he argued, it was justifiable to betray the trust of people whom you have befriended in order to gain information for the British state, as it helped to defend a free society. “For me—but I’m one of your bad guys in the end—you’re too fine, too unaccepting of the realities of having to do & act and protect what’s worth protecting.”

Garton Ash found that response “troubling.” It’s obvious that a free Oxford student in the 1950s was not under the sort of pressure that drove informers to betray their friends in Soviet Europe. But having read my own Polish secret police file, I share David’s distrust of moral absolutism in the matter. Those who “informed” on me—with one exception—humiliated themselves as the price for keeping open a contact with the Western world. I knew they would have to do this, and they knew that I knew.

Adam Sisman, unexpectedly, suggests that as a student David Cornwell might almost as easily have been recruited by the Soviet KGB, which was on the lookout for young Brits with “an inherent class resentfulness, a predilection for secretiveness and a yearning to belong.” But by then MI5 had already earmarked him, and his young wife, Ann (they married in 1954), had been vetted and “indoctrinated” by the Security Service.

Meanwhile Ronnie went bankrupt yet again; money dried up and David was obliged to leave Oxford and teach school for a living. His good French and German landed him a job at Eton, where boys had traditionally looked down on their schoolmasters as a species of jumped-up servant. They tolerated “Corned-Beef,” however, who was witty enough to keep them in order. He, in return, found Eton bizarre: “I didn’t know the language and I didn’t know the ethic.” The snobbery and arrogance of some of the boys, and what he called their “Herrenvolk” assumptions about their future place in the world, staggered him.

David now began a novel—A Murder of Quality—which is set in a public school much like Eton. But he put it aside unfinished, and by the time it was published he had joined MI5, the Security Service. His work seems to have been surveillance of “Communist influence,” running agents who reported to him from left-wing organizations they had infiltrated. He found MI5 a drab, depressed place with a “smell of failure” about it and an undistinguished staff mainly recruited from the Colonial Service. It was here that he started to draft his first espionage novel, published as Call for the Dead, and invented his most famous character, the dumpy, patient, melancholy, but relentless spy George Smiley.

England being England, a class difference separated MI5 from the overseas intelligence agency MI6—the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Where “5” was dogged, middle-class, and technocratic, “6” was perceived as an outfit of brilliant amateurs who cut corners, disdained security checks, and relied on the public school network to produce the right chaps for spying. MI5 obstinately pursued increasing evidence that Kim Philby (who had risen to head MI6’s own counterintelligence) was a Soviet agent. But MI6 found this irritating and kept Philby—“one of us”—out of the Security Service’s clutches.

David Cornwell soon transferred to MI6/SIS and received the “tradecraft” training that he made famous in fiction. In reality, as he told Sisman, he “would never be at personal risk in his secret work [or] use…a 9mm automatic pistol.” But with training completed, he was posted to the British embassy in Bonn, using the cover of a junior diplomat. And in the same year, 1961, Victor Gollancz published Call for the Dead under the pseudonym “John le Carré.” (Where the name originated, Cornwell himself seems to have forgotten.)

John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by David Levine

As a journalist based in Bonn, I got to know him in 1963: a restless, irreverent, and very funny friend. About his real trade I knew nothing, nor about the miseries building up under that confident surface. But his marriage to Ann was foundering; he was hopelessly in love with another woman; he was finding the stuffiness of embassy life unbearable. And Ronnie kept bursting into his home, now out to make a fortune with an unsinkable “Amphicar”—an amphibious automobile—that sank.

In his spare time, David was working on another novel, about a spy who came in from the cold. He is still reticent, even to Adam Sisman, about what he really did for his secret service in Germany. It seems that he was tasked to watch for signs of a Nazi revival—never at all likely—and he certainly grew cynical about the crowds of old Nazis prospering around him in West Germany. Neither was he comfortable about his secret profession, although its people, its craft, its internal vendettas and moral dilemmas seized his imagination. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the powerful main character, Alec Leamas, furiously denounces the supposed glamour of spies: “They’re just a bunch of squalid, seedy bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians.”

One autumn day in 1963, David and I sat on a bench outside Hamburg’s main station, waiting for the Sunday papers to arrive from London with reviews of books we had written. The ecstatic reception of The Spy changed his life forever. Its triumph in Britain and America made him instantly wealthy; his pseudonym was penetrated within a few months; his days were overrun by importunate agents, publishers, film directors, and tax accountants. He described the impact as “like being in a car crash.”

His secret employers were upset by the sour picture of them in The Spy and its successor The Looking-Glass War. Still, they stiffened their upper lips and stoically cleared his stories for publication. (Ronnie, delighted, was to be found in Berlin posing as David’s agent and selling imaginary movie rights to film studios.)

David left the Secret Intelligence Service in 1964. From his school and university years and his brief time as a spy, he retained the impression of a failing old nation surviving—Ronnie-fashion—on charm, bluff, and occasional brutality.

Liberated from his double life in public service, “le Carré” went on to produce the superb series of espionage thrillers that made him world-famous. The inhibitions binding David Cornwell’s private life burst too. His encounter with the wild-boy novelist James Kennaway and his wife, Susan, became a triangle of passion, drink, rage, and erotic remorse that ended in tears and hastened the end of his first marriage.

As time passes, le Carré’s popularity is coming to rest as much on brilliant television adaptations as on his later books. The first TV series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Alec Guinness cast as Smiley, is still remembered with nostalgia more than thirty years later, while Susanne Bier’s six-part television version of The Night Manager emptied British streets during its run earlier this year. Literary critics, on the other hand, have sometimes given the books a bumpy ride, patronizing his work as what BBC voices call “John-Ra.”

But whatever genre means, it doesn’t circumscribe le Carré. After 1989, a gleeful clamor arose suggesting that the end of the cold war would leave him with nothing to write about. Quite to the contrary, his direct experience of the New World Disorder released a flow of large, impassioned novels about global injustices: The Constant Gardener (Big Pharma in Africa), The Tailor of Panama (neocolonial pressures), and The Night Manager (the international arms trade) are among the best-selling examples. Some reviewers have found them “preachy,” and it’s true that they lack the laconic severity of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Others complain of le Carré’s persistent “anti-Americanism” (“the long, dishonorable history of American colonialism…. I do not believe that the United States is fit to run the post–Cold War world”).

His fury reached a peak over the 2003 Iraq invasion. The central character in Absolute Friends (2003) protests that “this dismally ill-managed country [Britain]…is being marched off to quell the natives on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyperpower.” But le Carré has done his homework on many dangerous grounds of Africa and Asia, and he knows what he is writing about. These angry novels with their enormous sales have educated millions of readers to recognize the evils under their feet, and have done something to challenge them.

Fiction, like the deceptions of spying, asserts the truth of something that is not the case. Sisman often remarks, and his subject often agrees, that David Cornwell has quarried the characters and events of his early life so often that “what really happened” can’t always be recovered. Some things he told Sisman can be shown not to have taken place, or to be recalled in conflicting versions. Other things—some of his secret work—remain hidden.

To write the “life” of a living person is hard enough. Much more so when the person is a natural fabulist and deceiver, even without a secret service’s training in deceit. Cornwell is said to have told Sisman that he could ask anything, “but don’t believe a word I say.” But Sisman was able to see—and quote from—diaries, letters, and e-mails written with reckless candor by David and by many others in his life.

Sisman concludes that le Carré has been “one of the most important English writers of the post-war period” for his treatment of the end of empire, the cold war, and the collapse of communism. But the poet Blake Morrison calls him “the laureate of Britain’s post-imperial sleepwalk,” and that’s nearer the mark. David is still writing, now far beyond that postwar setting, while Britain, like some ageless, expensively suited conman, is still sleepwalking.

The title of The Pigeon Tunnel is absorbing in itself. It shows how a novelist carries around a jingling peddler’s bag of images and stories borrowed or found, sure that they will come in useful somewhere. Gambling with his father in Monte Carlo, David was shown a lawn under which ran parallel tunnels. Live pigeons were pushed into them, to be shot down by “well-lunched sporting gentlemen” when they emerged at the other end.

An allegory of something, but what? Almost anything the image can be fitted onto. David has tried again and again to use this grotesque scene as a book title, only to be dissuaded by puzzled publishers. Now at last he can do what he likes.

The pigeons are extraordinary. Most of them occur briefly in Sisman’s pages; here they and their stories get richer space. There is the phony Panamian countess yearning to seduce the boy David in Paris; Dima the Moscow mobster king; Yevgeny Primakov, Russian foreign minister (and his startling story that Saddam Hussein in 1990 had begged him: “Get me out of Kuwait,” while George Bush senior and Mrs. Thatcher insisted on war). There’s the genial British journalist Peter Simms, whom David had somehow already invented as “Jerry Westerby” in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Yvette Pierpaoli, fiery little warrior for the world’s children in peril. And among a dozen more encounters, there is Mrs. Thatcher, so expertly presented that you can instantly hear That Voice in your ears.

The best pigeon, cooing with wit and ambiguity, is his older SIS colleague Nicholas Elliott. Thin, sardonic, and immaculately laid-back, he gave David and his wife an apparently indiscreet and thrillingly candid recital of his relationship to Kim Philby. Once the two had been close friends in the service. But when even MI6 was brought to recognize the force of the evidence against Philby, Elliott was sent to Beirut to confront him. Obliquely, Philby confessed that all through their friendship and their work together he had been serving Soviet intelligence.

Elliott took some time and went back to London with the written half-admission. He told the Cornwells that Kim’s sudden bolt to safety on a Soviet freighter took him by surprise. But years later Cornwell realized that Elliott had only been giving him a skillful cover story. The truth may well have been that Elliott was sent to “leave the door open” for Philby to escape to Moscow, so sparing the service the damaging publicity of a trial.

“The long chapter about my father Ronnie goes to the back of the book rather than the beginning because, much as he would like to, I didn’t want him elbowing his way to the top of the bill.” Here John le Carré sees the literary trap that Adam Sisman hasn’t quite avoided. His chapter on Ronnie, “Son of the author’s father,” is a masterpiece partly because he has kept the big beast almost completely out of all the tales and memories that precede it.

Ronnie walked on thin ice by choice:

He saw no paradox between being on the Wanted list for fraud and sporting a grey topper in the Owners’ enclosure at Ascot. A reception at Claridge’s to celebrate his second marriage was interrupted while he persuaded two Scotland Yard detectives to put off arresting him until the party was over…. He was a delusional enchanter and a persuader who saw himself as God’s golden boy, and he wrecked a lot of people’s lives.

Here and elsewhere, David asks himself whether his childhood—con man father, absent mother—led him inexorably toward the spy profession. He felt no affection for his parents but remembers “dissembling as we grew up,” pretending that he and his brother had “a settled home life with real parents and ponies.” Much to his credit, he does not make a facile link between childhood lying, adolescent disguise, and the deceits of intelligence work. He concedes that “when the secret world came to claim me, it felt like a coming home,” but the lasting effect of those young experiences was to make him a writer of fiction. Le Carré’s readers may be reluctant to admit that he was a spy only for a short time in his life but a novelist for something like seven times as long.

The older he gets, the more incredulous at his own memories of espionage he becomes. At MI5 he was the agent in contact with a Communist Party informer called “Harry” (another of his “pigeons”), but he now observes that “no British communist I ever met would have subscribed” to the view that he was “the enemy inside the home camp.”

In other words, British intelligence’s seventy-year obsession with the Communist Party was a complete waste of time. While David Cornwell still declines to talk about much of his secret work, out of personal rather than national loyalty, he is scorching about the pretensions of espionage and its lack of accountability.

He concludes: “Nobody [but the spies] does a better job of pretending to be a cut above a public that has no choice but to pay top price for second-rate intelligence whose lure lies in the gothic secrecy of its procurement, rather than its intrinsic worth.” For two generations now, the flashlight of le Carré’s imagination has explored those gothic vaults, with their eccentric janitors patrolling empty shelves, and it’s our good fortune that David Cornwell is still at work. There is more exploration to come.