Spying and the British

Part of an interview conducted  by Sarah Lyall with David Cornwell ( John Le Carre) and Ben Macintyre, writers on the theme of spying:

Sarah Lyall:   Is there something about the British psyche that makes spying, or at least duplicity, an enticing prospect?

Ben Macintyre: We Brits are particularly susceptible to the double life, aren’t we? Is it because we are a sort of theatrical, and sort of unfaithful, culture?

John le Carre: I think it’s because hypocrisy is the national sport. For our class in my era, public school was a deliberately brutalizing process that separated you from your parents, and your parents were parties to that. They integrated you with imperial ambitions and then let you loose into the world with a sense of elitism — but with your heart frozen.

B.M. There is no deceiver more effective than a public-school-educated Brit. He could be standing next to you in the bus queue, having a Force 12 nervous breakdown, and you’d never be any the wiser.

J.L.C. When you’ve become that frozen child, but you’re an outwardly functioning, charming chap, there is a lot of wasteland inside you that is waiting to be cultivated.

S.L. David, you’ve spoken about your childhood, your outrageously criminal father, how you were sent to boarding school when you were 5, the lies that permeated everything. How did all this come to play when you were recruited by MI5?

J.L.C. The truth, in my childhood, didn’t really exist. That is to say, we shared the lies. To run the household with no money required a lot of serious lying to the local garage man, the local butcher, the local everybody. And then there was the extra element of class. All my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles were entirely working class — laborers, builders, that sort of thing. One of them worked up telegraph poles. And so out of that to invent, as my father did, this socially adept, well-spoken, charming chap — that was an operation of great complicity. And I had to lie about my parental situation while I was at boarding school. I only mention these things because they’re the extremes of what can warp an Englishman.

B.M. What you’ve just described — is it the root of your fiction? Your ability to think yourself into someone else?

J.L.C. Absolutely. I mean childhood, at my age, is no excuse for anything. But it is a fact that my childhood was aberrant and peculiar and nomadic and absolutely unpredictable.

A personal comment: As it happens, John Le Carre preceded me by seven years at the same boarding school.  I totally agree with his comments about it.  The difference between him and myself is that I am the only person I know who was never interviewed by the, er, government – I would have made a disastrous spy.  The experience did, however, incline me to the civilised and humane teachings of Epicurus.  The “wasteland inside me” simply had to wait 50 years to be cultivated.

  • Owen Bell

    Good grief! That’s a pretty damning indictment of British boarding schools. I never went to one, but I know people who did, and their experiences ranged from mixed to awful. I don’t know anyone who thoroughly enjoyed it.
    It’s a shame John Le Carre felt he had to lie about his true life. That’s a very British affliction, and an entirely negative one at that. There is such a thing as being excessively modest so as to be deceitful. People should be proud of their backgrounds, regardless of how privileged they are. And if they can’t live with their wealth without lying, they should give their money away.