Book review: The Man Who Was George Smiley

IN 1958, a young man called David Cornwell, a convicted fraudster’s son who had taught at Eton, walked into the headquarters of MI5 for the first time. There the new recruit fell under the influence of a veteran agent-runner called John Bingham. The age gap between the two was more than 20 years, and if Cornwell’s life had been eventful, it was as nothing compared to Bingham’s.

The Man Who Was George Smiley by Michael Jago

Biteback, 320pp, £20

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The heir to an Irish peerage, Bingham had worked for the Sunday Dispatch before the war and then joined the Security Service, tracking Nazi agents in Britain and running interrogations in Germany during the early days of the Cold War. To the younger man, he must have seemed like a hero from a vanished world. Cornwell gave him an affectionate French nickname, “the Square” – “le Carré”. And he later chose his mentor’s nickname as his pseudonym: John le Carré.

As Michael Jago points out in his brisk and intriguing biography of Le Carré’s old friend, the similarities between fact and fiction did not end there. Le Carré’s most celebrated hero is, of course, George Smiley, the outwardly imperturbable, bespectacled, slightly shabby figure played on the screen by Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman. One of the models for Smiley was le Carré’s old college chaplain Vivien Green. The other, however, was Bingham himself.

Like Smiley, Bingham wore heavy glasses; like Smiley, he had a cautious, even gentle manner; like Smiley, he seemed the soul of stoical self-abnegation. The obvious difference was that Bingham was nowhere near as shabby. “His suits were always bought off the peg,” writes Jago, “but they did at least fit him.”

Although the details of Bingham’s past in MI5 remain frustratingly elusive, Jago has a good deal of fun with the increasingly awkward relationship between the “real” Smiley and the man who invented the fictional one. When Bingham read the first Smiley book, he complained that Le Carré had made him too ugly, and things went downhill after that. Who would want to be the real George Smiley? He is a miserable, downbeat, seedy figure, after all, and his wife even runs off with his best friend.

By 1965, when Le Carré published The Looking Glass War, which takes an extraordinarily caustic view of the intelligence world, Bingham was becoming very frustrated indeed. To make matters worse, he fancied himself as a thriller writer too, but none of his 18 books came even close to rivalling the success of his old protégé. “He was my friend,” Bingham wrote at the end of his life, “but I deplore and hate everything he has done and said against the intelligence services.”

Alas for Bingham, who died in 1988, his own career is now almost completely forgotten. Not even Jago’s best efforts are likely to change that.