‘I’m an Englishman born and bred, almost.’ So says Karim Amir, protagonist of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. If Karim, and by proxy Kureishi, is a funny sort of Englishman – ‘born and bred’ but not quite – then so was John le Carré, albeit in a slightly different way.
Le Carré, or to give him his real name David Cornwall, died a week ago and the obits have been flowing ever since. They generally, and correctly, observe that his true subject was never spies but England (and it was always England rather than Britain). Born to a con-man father who sent him to a public school where he never felt comfortable, and from which he ran away from before attending Oxford, le Carré’s life is the story of an English Gentleman who never quite was. His literary world is accordingly one of misfits with old school ties; cads with impeccable vowels expounding in gentleman’s clubs. Products of imperialism rendered anachronisms: born to rule in a world now dominated by the United States. This is the first great subject of his England.
Which, it has to be said, leaves me pretty cold. I came of age in an era with no living memory of Empire, and while there might have been a residual thrill at former greatness among the odd weirdo, it was pretty much all just homework to us.
Rather, it was the second great subject of le Carré’s England that enthralled me. If his early life ensured he would never quite be a gentleman, it also ensured he would never quite be an Englishman, either. Finally no longer able to bear the sadism and snobbery and stupidity of his Dorset public school, he ran away and eventually ended up in Bern. ‘When I decided I couldn’t stand my English public school for one more day, it was the German language that provided me with my bolt-hole,’ he wrote years later.
His literary world was then also one of men and women who were often never quite as English as they seemed – and not just because they were often spies. They’re everywhere in the books, his establishment outsiders, caught between worlds, and nations: Smiley’s great acolyte Peter Guillam (son of a French businessman), the Circus’s Toby Esterhase (Hungarian), Jim Prideaux (raised abroad by ‘parents in European banking’): Pukka but not really; English but not quite.
Then there are the outright exiles, the flotsam of geopolitics, that power so many of his plots: Fred Leiser, the naturalised Pole sent into East Germany in The Looking Glass War, the Estonian Vladimir, whose murder kicks off Smiley’s People. And finally, of course, there are the Jews. Mendel, the former special branch inspector, upon whom Smiley relies, and Liz Gold, luminous both in name and in her deep morality amid the unrelenting cynicism of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Most of all, though, there is Connie Sachs, the moral and intellectual centre of the circus, and its almanac.
Now here was a world that adumbrated my England. Early in his career le Carré moved to Hampstead where I grew up and went to school, and the novels consistently evoke it: this world not of clubs and ties, but of the memory of revolution and its attendant exile. At too young an age, I developed a sensitivity to the currents of politics and history, and to their capriciousness. I was dimly aware that the scowling Ayatollah on TV had forced my mother to flee Iran to Hampstead, which gave us not just a pleasant heath but also refuge. Around the supper table were writers and intellectuals who could never go back home, and who would pass through England’s institutions and remake them (founding among other things the BBC Persian Service), and all of them doing so in the flats and houses around the high street now affordable only to Russian minigarchs, bankers and tech bros. In more ways than one did le Carré write about a lost England.
And when I made my own way through the institutions I began to understand just how wide this world of exiles was. It was in my third year as a postgraduate student at Oxford that I met my now great friend (and probable distant cousin) the writer Ben Judah. Late one evening over several hours, we sat in my college room and I listened to this 18-year old discuss everything from Russia to Israel to our shared Middle East origins, in seamless staccato bursts, and understood that I was now in the presence of only the second person I had met during my time at Oxford who was truly intellectually exceptional. Halfway through the night, in walked Ben’s friend, James Schneider, up at Oxford from Winchester, who went on to co-found the left-wing organisation Momentum and become communications advisor to Jeremy Corbyn; another product of exile (via a Jewish father whose origins lay in Eastern Europe), formed by his passage through England’s institutions, and like us ‘Pukka but not really; English but not quite.’
And it is a different England that we all inhabit. As students of Middle Eastern studies, my peers and I might once have filled the ranks of Empire. Some did go onto the Foreign Office, but the most excited I ever saw my cohort get was when the management consultancy McKinsey organised a recruitment dinner at Quod. England’s most accomplished sons and daughters no longer dream of ardent imperial glory but of making money by hawking British funds and schools and mansions to the Russians and Chinese. Once our Empire spanned continental shores; now we park Kazahk money offshore. That wasn’t true of everyone on my course though. Some did answer the call of country: the Americans among us duly trotted off ‘to state’ (and perhaps other associated outfits), ending up in Iraq and beyond. Le Carré would have smiled, though probably sadly.
The gentlemen’s clubs have long since ceased to matter. Wear an old boy’s tie out in the evening and prepare to be ridiculed. Back in public school me and my friends did our best to reverse engineer the impeccable vowels we had grown up with into the cockney of the working classes we aspired to ape.
What endures of le Carré’s world is his London of exiles. And among my generation it is often these exiles that now believe, not in ideas of Empire but of England. It is Rishi Sunak, first generation British, descending from India but formed at Winchester and Oxford, who dreams of being – and could well be – our next Prime Minister.
Le Carré wrote that those with unhappy childhoods seek to reinvent themselves. So, too, do the children of immigrants. Growing up is a process of self-fashioning to mould ourselves into Englishmen and women. It was le Carré who first made the complexities of this world clear to me, and for that I owe him an unknowable debt. A great chronicler of the twentieth century has passed, and a light in my literary firmament is extinguished. I will miss him greatly.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.