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England, His England: The Sceptical Patriotism of John le Carre

December 2, 2012
John le Carré at the "Zeit Forum Kultur" in Hamburg on November 10th 2008.By Krimidoedel

John le Carré at the “Zeit Forum Kultur” in Hamburg on November 10th 2008.
By Krimidoedel

In his long career John le Carré’s (the pen name of David Cornwell) greatest achievement would probably be merging genre fiction with the literary novel. This is no mean feat. Most authors tend to be great at one but awful at the other, although to be fair le Carré’s one non-spy novel The Naive and Sentimental Lover was scathingly reviewed and probably deserved it. I have just finished reading The Tailor of Panama and found it to be one of le Carré’s best, and perhaps the best of his post-Cold War work. The plot concerns  ex-con Harry Pendel, who has built himself a comfortable life as the owner of Pendel and Braithwaite, Panama’s most successful tailoring business. Pendel caters to a rich and powerful clientele, which includes His Excellency, the Panamanian President. One day Pendel receives an unwelcome visit from a young Foreign Office employee Andy Osnard. Osnard knows all about Pendel’s criminal past and wants him to spy for British Intelligence in the build-up to the American handover of the Panama Canal. But what plausibly can Pendel tell Osnard? Soon, he lets his imagination run away with him and events spiral wildly out of control.

This is le Carré’s most unique novel, as instead of the dour Cold War world of espionage, the tone is openly satirical and at times farcical, being heavily indebted to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. It is a joy to read le Carré’s acerbic descriptions of the great and good English institutions. He seems both scathing of their failings and, nonetheless, strangely fond of them. This leads to some glorious comedy when the habitually lazy Osnard, an old Etonian, is trying to decide on a career:

The question was how. He had no craft or qualification, no proven skills outside the golf course and the bedroom. What he understood best was English rot, and what he need was a decaying English institution that would restore to him what other decaying institutions had taken away. His first thought was Fleet Street. He was semi-literate and unfettered by principle. He had scores to settle. On the face of it he was perfectly cut out to join the new rich media class. But after two promising years as a cub reporter with the Loughborough Evening Messenger his career ended with a snap when a steamy article entitled ‘Sex Antics of our City Elders’ turned out to be based on the pillowtalk of the managing editor’s wife.

A great animal charity had him and for a while he believed he had found his true vocation. In splendid premises handy for theatres and restaurants the needs of Britain’s animals were thrashed out with passionate commitment. No gala premiere, white-tie banquet or foreign journey to observe the animals of other nations was too onerous for the charity’s highly paid officers to undertake. And everything might have come too fruition. The Instant Response Donkey Fund (Organiser: A. Osnard), the Veteran Greyhound Country Holiday Scheme (Finance Officer: A. Osnard) had been widely applauded when two of his superiors were invited to account for themselves to the Serious Fraud Office.

After that, for a giddy week he contemplated the Anglican Church, which traditionally offered swift promotion to glib, sexually active agnostics on the make. His piety evaporated when his researches revealed to him that catastrophic investment had reduced the Church to unwelcome Christian poverty. Desperate, he embarked on a succession of ill-planned adventures in life’s fast lane. Each was shortlived, each ended in failure. More than ever, he needed a profession.

‘How about the BBC?’ he asked the Secretary, back at his university appointments board for the fifth or fifteenth occasion.

The Secretary, who was grey-haired and old before his time, flinched.

‘That one’s over,’ he said.

Osnard proposed the National Trust.

‘Do you like old buildings?’ the Secretary asked, as if he feared that Osnard might blow them up.

‘Adore them. Total addict.’

‘Quite so.’

With trembling fingertips the Secretary lifted a corner of a file and peered inside.

‘I suppose they might just take you. You’re disreputable. Charm of a sort. Bilingual, if they like Spanish. Nothing lost by giving them a try, I dare say.’

‘The National Trust?’

‘No, no. The spies. Here. Take this to a dark corner and fill it in with invisible ink.’

Le Carré’s Cold War novels were partly constructed as a defense of British, or more broadly Western, values. He has never been the flag-waving type; indeed, as a man of the left he is critical of the English class system. Perhaps this dates back to his early life when his criminal father could swindle enough money together to have him educated at the Sherborne School and Oxford, but he was never, understandably, respectable enough to be truly part of this privileged world. And yet there is a real humour and fondness in his Englishness: in The Honourable Schoolboy a sex scene between Peter Guillam and Molly Meakin is described simply as ‘She surprised him with a refined and joyous carnality’. In an excellent profile of the author Peter Love, goes as far as describing le Carré as a ‘Radical Tory’. I think le Carré would probably shudder at the label. After all, in The Tailor of Panama Tories are described as ‘Empire-dreamers, Euro-haters, nigger-haters, pan-xenophobes and lost, uneducated children.’

Subtle.

Nevertheless, I think le Carré would comfortably describe himself as a patriot, and his more recent work has conveyed an aging man’s anxiety at the future direction of the country. In works such as Absolute Friends, it is clear le Carré does not regard the War on Terrorism as justified a cause as the Cold War and has become increasingly bitter about Britain’s ‘Special Relationship’ with the US. Now, anti-Americanism aside, perhaps this sceptical patriotism, combined with an affectionate and disarming portrayal of the flaws in our national character, is the best type to have.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    March 22, 2015 9:59 pm

    Good essay. I wish le Carre would use humor and farce more frequently. As an American, I sometimes get frustrated with his knee-jerk anti-Americanism, but I am continually drawn to his intelligence, his excellent prose, and his “sceptical patriotism” — much like Graham Greene. And thanks for the link to the Love profile.

    • March 22, 2015 11:49 pm

      Thanks for commenting Steve. Yes, Le Carre’s increasing anti-Americanism is irksome. Although I should he is equally scathing of the British Establishment in his recent novels. His problem is that whereas he believed in what the West was defending during the Cold War Le Carre has never been able to grasp any moral purpose in the War on Terrorism. It has made his post Cold War novels, with a few exceptions like Tailor of Panama, lacking in purpose.

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