13 Sep 2010

An encounter with one of our greatest story tellers

The night sleeper drew exhaustedly into Penzance station, I checked my bag, and made my way onto the platform. A cascade of other bleary eyed passengers were tumbling out of the train. As I made my way through the thicket of people, I glimpsed the shock of white hair, the weather-beaten face and the upright patrician form of the man I had come to meet.

He seemed to spot me as I spotted him- striding towards me at the same pace that I was closing in on him. A warm handshake and we were heading for his small car and the journey to our cliff top assignation.

John le Carré is merely his writing cover, David Cornwell being his real-life name. He has lived astride these spectacular Cornish cliffs for forty years. And in those forty years has never seen fit to pave the gravel track to his home. One sense the mile long hedged strip is part of the fortification that guards his writing solitude.

He and his wife Jane greeted me with breakfast – home made yogurt, fruit, eggs bacon and black pudding. In so informal a setting in front of a window, looking out on a grey misty Cornish sea, I found myself desperately trying NOT to talk about the things I wanted his spontaneous answers to ‘on camera’.

But when once the camera rolled – there was no holding him.

The solitude, even perhaps the secret life, flow from his fraudster father. He told us of how his father had a shady outfit in Mayfair – 89 registered companies and a shuffling of deals and moneys between them. How at his boarding school one weekend he failed to turn up to take him home. He was in jail. Not the sort of material you discuss in your ‘day room’ at boarding school.

But solitude and the spy are at the centre of his fascination with espionage.

Le Carré is entering his eightieth year. He still strides his Cornish cliffs with the vigour of a man half his age. He talked to us for tonight’s Channel 4 News because he has his 22nd book coming out this week – ‘Our Kind of Traitor’. Oligarchs, money laundering and compromised British politicians are at the heart of it. The spies are following the money these days. But le Carré believes they are doing more. That dirty Russian money was allowed to swill through the financial system as the world teetered on the edge of financial collapse.

He talked of his own life as a spy based in Germany in the late fifties. Of how he wrote ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ in six weeks two years before he left MI6.

He never has a plot as he writes- he just establishes the characters and ‘lets them do the rest’.

It is a riveting interview ‘my most candid and honest’ – he says. He also tells us it will be his last.

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