Hay 2013 | John le Carre talks to Philippe Sands


‘I do believe I’m better read than heard’, says John Le Carre soon after taking his chair. This, our interviewer Philippe Sands informs us, is Le Carre’s first ever talk at Hay. ‘And last!’ the author adds, before explaining that he’s not one for media interviews and personal appearances. A reluctant and poor speaker then, we’re playfully lead to believe. Of course, Le Carre turns out to be nothing of the sort. His ninety minute talk is a dazzling display of anecdote, wordsmithery, insight, humour and old-school charm. 

Le Carre is here to promote his latest book, A Delicate Truth, which tells the story of a counter-terror operation to capture a jihadist arms-buyer in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. The novel is set a number of years after the mission and charts the consequences for various people involved in the murky incident. In his search for the truth, a civil servant named Toby is left to choose between his conscience and his duty to the service. The book’s themes of counter-terrorism, the British/American relationship, the private sector’s involvement in the forces, secret trials, and the like, are, of course, very much of the moment. 

Le Carre tells us this book can be seen as the end point in a personal journey that began 25 years ago when he became interested in the Arab/Israeli conflict. Le Carre talks about the ‘radicalisation of distressed people’ and the ‘misnomered crusade’ when discussing international issues present then and present now, showing his work’s engagement with major world affairs as well as his genius for a turn of phrase.  

As Le Carre says, A Delicate Truth covers ground long-familiar to the author, examining, as it does, ‘the responsibility of the individual’, and searching ‘for new definitions of patriotism’. These are ideas that Le Carre was exploring 50 years ago in his earliest spy novels. Back then, he says, he thought the second-worst thing to communism was anti-communism. A feeling that ‘too many bad things were being done in the name of good’ fed his early works, and that would seem to hold true today. 

Le Carre opens up a little about the time he spent in the 1950s and 1960s as a spy. He explains what an amazing experience it was to be stationed in Germany. ‘The place was swarming with ex-Nazis, who we couldn’t do anything about, as they were such good anti-communists’ being one standout line. If Le Carre’s MI5 and MI6 background is one source for his work, another is the life of his own father. ‘You once described your Dad  as a 5 star conman’, Philippe Sands tells Le Carre. ‘Yes, I did, and so did Her Majesty’s Courts’, the author replies. Le Carre gives us a number of great tales about his Dad, including his association with The Krays and the times son had to get father out of foreign prisons. The author says, ‘I put into writing the fantasies he put into life’. 

Le Carre’s mother was largely absent from his youth. This, he says, is one of the reasons women are largely absent in his early works: ‘I didn’t get women’, and so on the rare occasions women did appear they were either ‘angels or whores’. About his own romantic relationships, Le Carre says ‘I’ve been lucky enough to have had two very loyal wives’, which is perhaps a more revealing insight than was intended. 

Le Carre gives us stories about his times with Yasser Arafat, Rupert Murdoch, the President of Panama, and many other famous names. He would seem to have a story about everyone. He turned down the chance to meet Kim Philby in Moscow, saying ‘It would have been wonderful, but it would have been more than I could swallow’. 

‘Who killed Robert Maxwell?’, was a question put to him by Rupert Murdoch, which highlights the theory that knocks about which says Le Carre is still some kind of super-spook. 

Le Carre talks a great deal about the importance of this secret world: ‘The very font of power is the secret service’, goes one line. He tells us of the intoxicating sensation of getting ‘the touch’, when politicians, senior lawyers, foreign editors, businessmen and fixers are brought inside the circle. This is a world of ‘going into lifts and not knowing at which floor you’ll be getting out’. Le Carre says this secret world is all around us. Even if they don’t know it, everyone has a link of some sort to the secret world. Le Carre says this not as conspiracy theory, but as plain, boring fact. 

Who gets to join M15 and MI6? The handlers are looking for ‘people with a broad sense of morality’, goes another neat line. The reason the secret service produces so many bad eggs is because they look to recruit them, we’re told.

Philippe Sands remarks to Le Carre that in many people’s eyes there still lingers a sense of confusion around him. Is he a writer? A spook? What is he? This sense of confusion is illustrated in a small way by the fact that Sands sometimes addresses the author as David (for David Cornwell is his real name) and sometimes as John. Who is John Le Carre? What is John Le Carre?, would seem fair questions for many.

‘I’m nothing if not a storyteller… for heaven’s sake, it’s a book, it’s a story… writing is my life. It is the life I lead’, are lines Le Carre says at points throughout his talk. Perhaps that’s all there is to it: John Le Carre is David Cornwell, and David Cornwell is a writer. Certainly, that should be enough for any book fan, anyway.

The Hay audience gives Le Carre a standing ovation to finish. Thoroughly deserved it is too, for this was a talk in which pretty much every one of Le Carre’s sentences was as crisp and perfectly-formed as those in his books. Bravo. 

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis