Book review: The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carré

Marvellous anecdotes offer a tantalising glimpse of the acclaimed novelist, but the former intelligence officer remains, perhaps unsurprisingly, elusive

John Le Carré. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carré | Viking, 310pp, £20

John Le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel – reason for the title explained in a preface – is sub-titled “Stories from My Life”. It’s a book of scattered memories, mostly related to the author’s work, rather than an autobiography. Apart from a long piece on his father Ronnie, conman and crook, who has cast a shadow over his life while also providing him with material for his imagination and his novels, there is little about his private life. Wives and children are mentioned only in passing. It’s John Le Carré the author who is on show here, not David Cornwell, though in recollected conversations he is addressed as “David”.

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Several of the pieces have been previously published in newspapers and magazines, the one on Ronnie among them. Readers of the novels already know a lot about Ronnie from A Perfect Spy. Though Ronnie must have been an unsettling and embarrassing father for the boy Cornwell, he proved a gift to the novelist Le Carré. Writers with well-behaved, respectable parents may reasonably feel deprived in comparison.

Le Carré has never moved in the literary world (insofar as such a thing exists). He doesn’t allow his books to be entered for prizes and he has almost nothing to say about other writers. His own immersion in the world of espionage was brief, restricted to a few years when MI6 assigned him to our embassy in Bonn. Some of the best pieces recall his time there, when old Nazis were resurfacing. This gave him material for one of his best novels, A Small Town in Germany.

The Secret World has fed his imagination. He is fascinated by betrayal, distrustful of power, sympathetic to its victims, and still, in his old age, capable of righteous anger. All this fuels his fiction. He is not an easy man, and his novels are suitably uncomfortable. He has ventured into war zones in search of material and, I suspect, downplays his courage, while writing admiringly of those who served as his guides.

This book is full of brief vignettes: the visit of a German politician to discuss defence matters with a vague and out-of-touch Harold Macmillan; Le Carré’s record of a conversation with Nicholas Elliott, friend of Kim Philby, and the man sent to Beirut to persuade Philby to come clean. Le Carré asked if the Service had considered eliminating Philby rather than allowing him to be spirited to the Soviet Union. “My dear chap, one of Us?” is the reply from the spook in the three-piece suit. There are meetings with retired heads of the KGB, with Yasser Arafat, with Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch (separately), and a lunch at which Alec Guinness, preparing for the role of George Smiley in the TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, met with the Secret Service chief, Sir Maurice Oldfield, and wondered about his “very vulgar cuff-links”. There’s a nice account of the filming of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold when Le Carré served as a buffer between Richard Burton and the director Marty Ritt. The result was a very fine film, but Le Carré wryly remarks that the best films of his books were those that were never made. The chapter in which he tells of directors’ enthusiasm for projects gradually disappearing into limbo should serve as a warning to any writer excited by the first promises of a film deal.

The book is full of good stories, none better than the one which tells of the 16 year-old David Cornwell being dispatched by Ronnie to the Panamanian Embassy in Paris to collect a debt of £500 from the ambassador. Nothing was quite as it seemed. Perhaps the ambassador was a conman too. He had a very beautiful wife, or perhaps mistress, who made advances to the young David. Nevertheless, David spent the night on a park bench. He has always been one who sees and hears and stores up material, an observer rather than actor; and it is the quality of observation, linked to empathy and intelligence, which has made him the remarkable, indeed great, novelist he is. There is no one quite like him, but just what he himself is like is another secret he keeps hidden – if, that is, he knows the answer to it himself. The mask is never quite removed, just lifted for a brief and misleading glimpse.