Old friends or the cold war? What John le Carré and British Intelligence really thought of each other


But imagine he did. In Absolute Friends (2003), MI6 is portrayed as not only corrupt, but pathetic: colluding with evil CIA schemes in the desperate hope of being treated as an equal partner. It’s hard not to feel that the central character, Ted Mundy, serves as a spokesperson for his creator when he protests against the manner in which “the woefully mismanaged country that he has done a bit of this and that is to have set out to repress the natives on the basis of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyperpower which thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its lot ”.

In recent years, the Carré has rarely missed an opportunity to take an interest in the 21st century version of its former Service. In A Legacy of Spies (2017), Smiley’s former sidekick Peter Guillam came out of retirement to answer questions about the operation they conducted in The Spy Who Came From the Cold; but, morally dubious as the old guard may have been, you don’t feel for a single moment that the author wants you to side with Guillam and the optics-obsessed employees covering up MI6’s ass. today. The contempt even extends to the Service’s “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters,” a “grotesque fortress on the banks of the Thames” compared unfavorably by Guillam to the rickety old HQ of Cambridge Circus.

After Richard Dearlove made his comments in 2019, Square happily predicted that “when my new novel comes out … Sir Richard and his fictional colleagues are going to go crazy like bedbugs.” It was Agent Running in the Field, who once again described MI6 as an organization in which mediocrities triumph while real talent was wasted. More seriously, he was accused of being an accomplice in the supposed collusion between Presidents Trump and Putin to destabilize Europe.

One character analyzes the hypocrisy of the intelligence community: “Even though such people profess an admiration for Western democracy, they still prefer the easy life rather than acknowledging their duty as responsible opponents of the invading fascist enemy.

Care must, of course, be taken in attributing a character’s views to the novelist, and the character in question here is certainly not infallibly wise and rational throughout the book. Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that by the time of his death, Le Carré had lost much of the trust he had ever had in British intelligence.

Speaking to me a few years ago about his time at MI6, he said: “I thought… I was doing my best for my country. And as everyone in the secret world likes to believe, get my hands dirty so other people can sleep at night. He thought, I guess, that he would have had a much harder time maintaining that feeling of doing his best for his country if he had worked there in the 21st century.

Le Carré liked to quote Sir David Spedding’s point of view: “He gently believed that, in part thanks to my novels, MI6 had taken a reasonable place in the public consciousness: human, fallible, ambitious, contentious and part of the real life. But are his detractors within MI6 right in regarding his version of the Service as more malicious than fallible, or are they too sensitive?

Whatever the answer, one can see why they would find it urgent. Le Carré may have only worked there for a few years, in what seems to be another age. But thanks to his storytelling genius, he’s probably had more influence on how the world views MI6 than all of his other employees put together.


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