A Legacy of Spies: Le Carré’s George Smiley is back
After more than 25 years, George Smiley is about to step back onto the page in John le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies, but who is the man behind the spymaster? We peer into his file
THE FILE ON SMILEY
Smiley, George OBE. Spy. b. 1906 (or possibly 1915). Educ. ‘Minor public school’, Lincoln College, Oxford (BA Modern Languages). Intelligence officer MI5, 1928 – (or possibly 1937 -). Undisclosed activities in Central Europe, South America, Germany, India etc. Resigned from service 1961. Researcher, University of Exeter, 1962. Re-joined service. Head North European Desk, 1965. Interim Chief of Service, 1973. Retired 1975. Persuaded to return 1977. Chair, ‘Fishing Rights Committee, 1990. m. Lady Ann Sercomb, 1945. Hobbies: baroque German literature, bee-keeping.
Any attempt to construct a spoof Who’s Who entry for John le Carré’s George Smiley is guaranteed to highlight some of the difficulties faced by a fictional behemoth who cruises on through the years, regardless of age, infirmity or even apparent death. In strict chronological terms James Bond, to whose Second World War service Ian Fleming once or twice refers, must now be in his mid-90s. Sherlock Holmes’s indestructibility was confirmed by his ability to survive being tossed over the Reichenbach Falls at the end of The Adventure of the Final Problem. Clearly, having featured in nine of le Carré’s novels, with a re-appearance in A Legacy of Spies, published next week, to come Smiley has joined this select company: immortal, protean and never quite substantiating his creator’s claim, made in an interview some years back, that he must now be ‘very old’ and ‘keeping bees somewhere.’
‘It was time to leave Smiley behind’ le Carré’s biographer Adam Sisman wrote of the aftermath of the highly successful early 1980s BBC TV adaptation of Smiley’s People, and long before his most recent run-out in The Secret Pilgrim (1990); ‘there were only so many times he could be brought out of retirement.’ But Smiley, as the statistics show, has been a victim of his own success. Quite apart from the seven-figure sales figures racked up by The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) in Britain and America, the BBC television series went on to acquire him an international reclame, bringing in audiences from as geographically detached as Argentina and Jordan. Even more decisive was the part played by Alec Guinness – his small-screen interpreter in both Smiley’s People and Tinker Tailor in 1979 – in defining the role. Quiet, reflective and studiously be-hatted, wry smile sometimes suffusing his otherwise dead-pan features, overcoat drawn up to his chin, Guinness, as the author admitted, took over the part. Forever after, when le Carré sat down to write "his voice was in my ear".
Where did Smiley – first found working in a relatively down-beat intelligence job in Call for the Dead (1961) - come from? One trail leads back to a somewhat eccentric Oxford don named Vivian Green, later warden of Lincoln College (and as ‘V H H Green’ the author of a best-selling European History textbook that sustained me through A Levels) to whose "strong moral intellect" his former pupil paid tribute. Another stops at the door of John Bingham, a colleague of le Carré’s when the pair worked together in MI5 in the 1950s, whose other half Madeleine went so far as to write an (unpublished) memoir entitled ‘Smiley’s Wife’. A third returns us to the day when Guinness, keen to research his TV role, had lunch with Sir Maurice Oldfield, the recently retired head of MI6 – like Smiley, a small tubby man, often seen with an umbrella – only for it to emerge that le Carré only met Oldfield sometime after Call for the Dead was complete.
Not, of course, that any of these identifications – or misidentifications – matter in the slightest. In terms of Smiley’s significance, they are as irrelevant as the fact that le Carré, bringing him back for Tinker Tailor after a nine-year absence from his fiction, decided to take nearly a decade off his age and shift the date at when he first joined the service forward from 1928 to 1937 or that his current age is well over 100. Whether played by Alec Guinness, pausing at the rain-swept portal of his discreet central London townhouse as the bad news trickles in from Eastern Europe, or deviously at large on the printed page, quietly conferring with his protégé-cum-deputy Guillam (thought to play a starring role in A Legacy of Spies) or scanning the latest reports on his arch-nemesis Karla, Smiley’s importance to the post-war espionage world through which he wanders takes three distinctive forms.
The first – here in a profession still irretrievably hung up on background, parentage and social suitability – is his (relative) classlessness. For Smiley is, as le Carré once puts it, ‘without school, family, regiment or trade’ – not exactly a class warrior but a meritocratic ‘New Man’ climbing up the rungs of the espionage ladder in much the same way that C P Snow’s upwardly mobile grammar school boys were making their way along the corridors of the post-war Civil Service. The second is his relationship to the twists and eddies of international power politics permanently uncoiling above his head. Far more so than Bond, Smiley is a Cold War warrior, a man whose professional life is dominated by the no-holds barred struggle then going on between East and West in which the democratic ideals that allegedly underpin the West’s response are frequently compromised by treachery.
The third, curiously enough, has to do with the professional life itself. Pre-le Carré – in the immensely successful inter-war era espionage novels of E Phillips Oppenheim, say – the ‘spy’ was essentially a cloak-and-dagger merchant, a romantic adventure who roamed the capitals of Europe with a bomb in his knapsack and a derringer pistol hidden in the lining of his well-cut evening suit. The distinguishing mark of the professional life on display in a novel like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, on the other hand, is its deep-dyed mundanity. The incorrigibly seedy locales in which the members of the ‘Circus’ go about their work could be a branch of the Inland Revenue, if it weren’t for the fact that the employees are having to deal with Karla and the machinations of the Moscow Centre rather than somebody’s delayed tax return. If we can file one prediction about A Legacy of Spies, it is that the man who saunters through a tale booked to bring ‘closure’ to his long and complicated life will be as ordinary as ever.
Updated: August 29, 2017 09:43 AM