Home: Opinion

John le Carré was a 21st-century writer

On his death, the establishment is patronising England's great novelist as a Cold War figure, rather than confronting why he hated them.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
14 December 2020, 4.14pm
David Cornwell and Anthony Barnett demonstrating against President Bush’s visit to London, November 2003, photo Judith Herrin.

The David Cornwell that I knew, who is famous as John le Carré, is a 21st-century writer, an author for our time and a forensic investigator of its ills.

Overwhelmingly the salutations in his obituaries emphasise his role in the Cold War. They are filled with a stench of stale melancholy for past self-importance. He despised such sentimentality, personally there was nothing nostalgic about him.

Starting with 'The Constant Gardener', which he published in 2001, he wrote seven novels in this century alone. His theme was the predations of corporate power, the corruptions of finance, the inhumanity of the looting of Africa, the venality of modern capitalism, the abuse of surveillance and the vile penetration of arms-dealing, as politicians danced to the tunes of oligarchs. Often his contemporary work is described as ‘angry’ as if his views could be dismissed as the weaknesses of old age. In fact they were a tough, always carefully calibrated, exercise of hard judgment.

They mattered because of his fame.

This was exceptional and it did not come just from his being a bestseller. He became an event when 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' was published. He personified the correct belief that something funny was going on, that we did not know about, and that power on our side was not all that it seemed. This was then reinforced by the films and TV adaptions of his work and his indefatigable productivity.

He was indeed a subtle writer, who recounted the ambiguities of our own side without ever conceding a moral inch to Stalinism. His capacity as a great story teller made his books literature. His overview shaped the perception of the Cold War world.

But in addition there was something self-indulgent and narcissistic about his popularity. Americans loved the way he allowed them to project their own bad faith onto the Brits while feeling morally superior to the declining empire. They made him genuinely wealthy.

But he did not give an inch to US power or Israeli aggression.

He enjoyed playing up the ambiguity, the weaknesses and corruption of power and money, and the vacuum at the heart of those who purport to represent us. At the same time he absolutely refused to collude with or become a part of it – hence his rejection of British honours.

For his self-presentation as a chronicler of deception was itself a mask. It veiled an adamantine, steadfast commitment to fundamental integrity.

Integrity is always work in progress, and is something that needs to be protected. He understood this well and was controlling about his influence and reputation (which made life hard for his biographer Adam Sisman). One deception that helped him was the use of his writer’s name John le Carré. His real name was David Cornwell. In the last century he deployed the device to keep his public writing and his private life distinct. The David Cornwell and John le Carré of this century, however, became two sides of the same person – giving interviews and performing.

This John le Carré, the David-Cornwell-who-was-himself, the writer who was “becoming real” entered the early life of openDemocracy and supported it at a critical moment.

It came about because he was writing 'Absolute Friends' whose hero was a revolutionary in 1968. David himself had driven past a 60s demonstration: who knows, I might have been on it. Had we met then we would not have hit it off. Thirty years later, in 2002, he wanted to check his manuscript with someone from the other side of the car window and Tim Garton Ash suggested he contact me. I was happy to help and we clicked.

When the book was published I was delighted that in the conclusion, when the story of THE AMERICAN RIGHTISTS’S CONSPIRACY AGAINST DEMOCRACY was revealed, it was in “a not-for-profit website dedicated to transparency in politics”. Much more important, he had dissected Steve Bannon before he even became Steve Bannon.

David came to the office of our non-fictional website for a meeting over sandwiches with the staff to discuss Iraq. Out of it came his article in The Times in January 2003, ‘The United States of America has gone mad’. It linked to the openDemocracy debate of writers on the coming Iraq war, led by his brief contribution (reproduced below).

The war was a historic turning point in fact. The depth and clarity with which he saw this also changed him. No longer was there any ambiguity in the exercise of power by Washington and London. With extraordinary lucidity he described the change in himself through his hero in 'Absolute Friends', Ted Mundy.

So what had happened to him that hadn't happened before?

He'd weathered Thatcher and the Falklands ...  The lies and hypocrisies of politicians are nothing new to him. They never were, So why now?...

It's the knowledge that the wise fools of history have turned us over once too often, and he's damned if they'll do it again.

It's the discovery, in his sixth decade, that half a century after the death of Empire, the dismally unmanaged country he'd done a little of this and that for is being marched off to quell the natives on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyper-power that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment...

So Mundy redux marches ... with a conviction he never felt before because convictions until now were essentially what he borrowed from other people...

It's about becoming real after too many years of pretending, Mundy decides. It's about putting the brakes on human self-deception, starting with my own.

pp 255-7

We marched with him and his wife Jane in London against the visit of President George W. Bush in November 2003. With his bright eyes David picked out a demonstrator with large polished boots as a policeman.

In 2006, enraged by the Israeli attack on Lebanon and with his views no longer so welcome in the mainstream press, he published a surgical condemnation in openDemocracy and in support of Saqi Books.

When we needed to launch a funding campaign he gave us its lead endorsement:

Let’s support openDemocracy to the hilt. Intelligent, unbought, unspun opinion, uncomfortable but necessary truths and a lot of good horsey argument: heaven knows they are in short enough supply!

I enjoyed “horsey”, a superbly ambiguous term of praise, signalling with exactitude the site’s publishing of arguments that while they smelt of life may not be ones you would want to live with!

In 2013, I helped a little with his rendition of New Labour treachery in 'A Delicate Truth'.

I thought of David as indestructible – and still do. He was a man of the future that we need to have.

Last year, in a 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft to publicise his most recent anti-Brexit novel, 'Agent Running in the Field', this most European of writers whose books covered the world was asked if he felt he was English. His reply was typically exact as he rephrased the question.

“What kind of Englishman at the moment? Yes, of course, I'm born and bred English. I'm English to the core. My England would be the one that recognizes its place in the European Union. That jingoistic England that is trying to march us out of the EU, that is an England I don't want to know”.

He is everything his country could have been, that it should be, that, in the hands of its contemptible leaders, it is not – the England that it can become, but only when the generation that have betrayed it, Labour and Conservative, has left the scene.


John le Carré's contributions to openDemocracy

28 August 2006, Israel invades Lebanon

So answer me this one, please. If you kill a hundred innocent civilians and one terrorist, are you winning or losing the war on terror? "Ah", you may reply, "but that one terrorist could kill two hundred people, a thousand, more!" But then comes another question: if, by killing a hundred innocent people, you are creating five new terrorists in the future, and a popular base clamouring to give them aid and comfort, have you achieved a net gain for future generations of your countrymen, or created the enemy you deserve?

On 12 July 2006 the Israeli chief-of-staff granted us an insight into the subtleties of his nation's military thinking. The military operations being planned for the Lebanon, he told us, would "turn back the clock by twenty years". Well, I was there twenty years ago, and it wasn't a pretty picture. Since then, the lieutenant-general has been as good as his word. I am writing this just twenty-eight days after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, a common enough military practice not unknown to the Israelis themselves.

In that time, 932 Lebanese have been killed and more than 3,000 wounded. 913,000 have become refugees. Israel's dead number ninety-four, with 867 wounded. In the first week of this conflict, Hizbollah fired some ninety rockets a day into Israel. Last week – despite 8,700 unopposed bombing sorties flown by the Israeli air force, resulting in the crippling of Beirut's international airport, and the destruction of power-plants, fuel-dumps, fishing-fleets, 147 bridges and seventy-two roads – Hizbollah upped its daily average of rockets to 169. And those two Israeli prisoners who were the purported cause of all the fuss have still not come home.

So yes. Exactly as we were warned, Israel has indeed done to the Lebanon what it did to it twenty years ago: laid waste its infrastructure and visited collective punishment on a delicate, multicultural, resilient democracy that was struggling to reconcile its sectarian differences and live in profitable harmony with its neighbours.

Until four weeks ago, Lebanon was being heralded by the United States as a model of what other middle-eastern countries might become. Hizbollah, it was widely and perhaps optimistically believed by the international community, was loosening its ties with Syria and Iran and on the way to becoming a political rather than a purely military force, yet today this very force is the toast of all Arabia, Israel's reputation for military supremacy is in tatters and its cherished deterrent image no longer deters. And the people of Lebanon have become the latest victims of a global catastrophe that is the work of deluded zealots and has no end in sight.

This piece was written in support of Lebanon, Lebanon, to be published by Saqi on 28 September 2006; all proceeds will go to children's charities working in Lebanon

12 January 2003, High Noon for American democracy

This is High Noon for American democracy. The rights and freedoms that have made America the envy of the world are being systematically eroded. A new McCarthyism is abroad. Bush tells us that those who are not with him are against him. I am not with him.

The American over-reaction is beyond everything Osama could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams. But this war was planned long before Osama struck, and it is Osama who made it possible. Without him, the Bush junta would have been mired in Enron, electoral scandal and taxation sleaze. Thanks to Osama, Americans are instead being daily misled by their leaders and by their compliant corporate media.

There is a stink of religious self-righteousness in the air that reminds me of the British Empire at its worst. I cringe when I hear my Prime Minister lend his head prefect’s sophistries to this patently self-interested adventure to secure our oil supplies.

“But will we win, Daddy?”
“Of course we will, child, and quickly, while you are still in bed.”
“But will people be killed, Daddy?”
“There will be a few Western casualties. Very few. Go to sleep.”
“And after that, will everything be normal? Nobody will strike back? The terrorists will all be dead?”
“Wait till you’re older, dear. Goodnight.”
“And is it really true that last time round Iraq lost twice as many dead as America lost in the entire Vietnam war?”
“Hush child. That’s called history.”

Where’s the hurry? Iraq is a vile dictatorship, and Saddam is a monster who sits on the world’s second largest oil reserves. But there is ample time to consider how to unseat him before we plunge into this predatory and dishonest war. Leave the UN inspectors there. Convene Iraq’s neighbours. And consider for a moment where the will came from to make this war in the first place.

Americans can still awake to the shame of what is being done in their name.

Britain is half way there. The French and Russians have been bribed and browbeaten into submission. Only the good Germans have so far succeeded in sticking to their silent guns. I wish profoundly that the rest of us Europeans, in the spirit of a nobler President, would declare ourselves to be citizens of Berlin.

Published as the lead contribution to 'Writers, artists and civic leaders on the War'

©John le Carré

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData