Spook Central: John Le Carré’s London

By Stuart Black Last edited 23 months ago
Spook Central: John Le Carré’s London
Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager.

The espionage-soaked world of author John le Carré reaches as far and wide as Moscow and the Middle East, yet somehow the lines and the lies always seem to lead back to one place: London.

The centre of the spider’s web

For le Carré, London is the crucible of control where etiolated types who have somehow come to personify whole state departments gather in dusty rooms and creaking gentleman’s clubs to orchestrate the fates of distant figures across the globe.

London is where you are summoned, debriefed and processed before being dispatched (whichever sense of that word has been decided for you). It is the heart of spying darkness.

The men who operate here are all polluted by the grey and grubby streets of the city. As Alec Leamas, the eponymous hero of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, explains: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?”

As a young man still using his real name of David Cornwell, le Carré himself worked for both MI5 and MI6 so he knew what he was talking about. His early years involved roving around Europe, but he always had strong ties to London, his father having been a known associate of the Kray Twins.

Crooked but loveable, Ronnie Cornwell “smelled of fine cigars and pear-droppy hair oil from Taylor of Bond Street”, according to his son. Quite brilliantly, he dodged military service in the war by standing as a parliamentary candidate, though the darker side of Ronnie's scams led to his wife abandoning the family. Le Carré wouldn't find catharsis until 55 years later when he turned Ronnie into the main character of Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy.

Smiley’s city

Surely one of le Carré’s most famous creations is Londoner George Smiley, who’s been played with equal sangfroid over the years by Alec Guinness for the BBC and Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (see above). Smiley is typical of the big spiders who lurk in the centre of the web, waiting patiently for foreign agents to fly close enough to get entangled before he steps in for the kill.

His London is deceptively genteel too. Smiley spends spare time perusing the bookshops of Mayfair and visiting his club in Manchester Square, where old wartime spooks get together to slowly pickle themselves. But the two most important locations for him are his workplace, which we’ll get to in a second, and the chocolate box cottage in Chelsea which he owns with his wife Lady Ann Sercomb.

This blue-shuttered house off the King’s Road on Bywater Street looks like a picture of perfection, but it’s also where Ann conducts several un-ladylike affairs behind Smiley’s back. He finally leaves her in Smiley’s People when her choice of lover compromises British national security.

Bywater Street.

With such broken down domesticity it’s no wonder Smiley invests himself so deeply in his job at “The Circus”, the British overseas intelligence agency which has its secret headquarters above Cambridge Circus. It is thought that this location, which appears in a number of the novels, is based on real MI6 digs that made up a warren within the Broadway Buildings near St James' Park — this being long before they decided to build the distinctly un-secret ziggurat at Vauxhall.

Smiley also spends time at Sarratt, a fictional training centre for spies, just on the outer edge of the M25. While there was a real counterpart known as "The Fort", le Carré chose to base his version on a village near Watford where he’d once worked in a department store as a teenager.

How is London depicted?

While the centres of interest have shifted over time — le Carré has been writing novels since 1961 — the author’s Prufrockian vision of the city remains largely consistent. Back in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, he describes the semi-Soviet anonymity of Bayswater: “They walked to her flat through the rain and they might have been anywhere — Berlin, London, any town where paving stones turn to lakes of light in the evening rain, and the traffic shuffles despondently through wet streets.”

This is ration book London, all poky bedsits, pigeon grey streets and cornershops selling corned beef — a small mean city that seems to resent the rest of the world’s exoticism. The only glamour, such as it is, comes in the form of the Pussywillow Club on Dean Street where the promise of sex and money is offered to Alec Leamas in exchange for betraying his country.

There’s a nice description of the middle man who brokers this key meeting that neatly sums up the character of so many lost souls who lived (and still live) in the city: “Having himself no particular opinions or tastes he relied upon whatever conformed with those of his companion. He was as ready to drink tea at Fortnum's as beer at the Prospect of Whitby; he would listen to military music in St. James's Park or jazz in a Compton Street cellar; his voice would tremble with sympathy when he spoke of Sharpeville, or with indignation at the growth of Britain's coloured population. To Leamas this observably passive role was repellent…”

This is ration book London, all poky bedsits, pigeon grey streets and cornershops selling corned beef

All of this is brought brilliantly to life in the first half of the classic 1965 film starring Richard Burton — surely one of the most potent depictions of London during the Cold War committed to screen. Adding to the wintry chill are great black and white shots of Wormwood Scrubs, the dole office and the dusty Bayswater Library for Psychic Research where Leamas ends up working.

Most adaptations of le Carré’s work feature this dour, down-at-heel London, but there is one very decent exception in Fernando Meirelles’s 2005 film of The Constant Gardener. The Brazilian director turns the city into a romantic playground for Ralph Fiennes to fall for Rachel Weisz, capturing the ersatz gloss of the Blair era with scenes taking place around Tate Modern and Canary Wharf.

That said, this veneer is as thin as an Islington pizza crust, with the sinister truth of how deals are made and institutions really operate always just underneath the surface. Bill Nighy appears as a classic le Carré mandarin pulling the strings of politicians and big pharmaceutical companies halfway around the world in Africa.

With his old-fashioned patriotism and his thoroughly English ways, many think of le Carré as an arch-conservative, but his rage against the establishment has always been a key ingredient in his work — he also turned down a CBE. There’s a nice line in Smiley's People when Smiley contemplates graffiti on a wall in London that shows the radical within: “'Punk is destructive. Society does not need it.' The assertion caused him a moment's indecision. 'Oh, but society does,' he wanted to reply; 'society is an association of minorities.'”

These days le Carré is a sometime London resident with a house in bucolic Hampstead — and the Heath features as the spot where Russian defector Vladimir is found murdered in Smiley’s People.

Last Updated 20 September 2016