The Reading Room

The Pigeon Tunnel

John Le Carré’s memoirs…

jSo here it is then, the autobiography Le Carré fans have hoped for, the life as told by a man renowned for his distaste of interviews with the media at large. But like his novels, this isn’t what it seems.

The Pigeon Tunnel is not an autobiography but rather a collection of stories and anecdotes from his career. If you are hoping for a family tree at the front or a kiss and tell of former girlfriends then you will be disappointed but I for one, was not. There is a recent biography of Le Carré by Adam Sisman which should do enough to satisfy ardent fans in that regard, this is far more interesting and ultimately tells the reader more about Mr David Cornwell than one might think.

He adds little to what we already know about his life in the Secret Service and I genuinely believe him when he says his role was a very modest one compared to Graham Greene who gets several notable mentions. He does, however, know many well-placed intelligence officers and none more interesting than the late Nicholas Elliott whose friendship and betrayal by Kim Philby is part of British spy history and folklore. His chapter on Elliott called His Brother’s Keeper is a fascinating insight into the golden age of British Intelligence and worth the price of the book alone.

There are recollections of meeting Greene, of refusing to meet Philby and a nostalgic reminder of the brilliance of Sir Alec Guiness and his decidedly nervous approach to playing the television role of George Smiley. Robert Maxwell’s descent into bankruptcy and supposed suicide is given interesting additional information as well as background to the famous roles he created in his novels, not least that of Jerry Westerby in The Honourable Schoolboy.

Le Carré fans will be well aware of his relationship with his father, it has been retold brilliantly both in print and film but in this memoir we are given a heartfelt feeling of a boy living with the reality of a detached mother (Olive) and a father (Ronnie) whose life was the stuff of fiction. Cornwell is deeply reflective but seeks no sympathy as he describes the way in which his father affected those he came into contact with in such extreme ways. Graham Greene, he tells us “wrote that childhood is the credit balance of the writer” to which he surmises “By that measure at least, I was born a millionaire”. But he stops short of using writers licence, throughout the book he relives instances in his life with a measured pen. His father beat him ‘but without much conviction’ whilst his recalling the moment an elderly night porter checking him into a Viennese hotel quietly told him “Your father was a great man, you treated him disgracefully” is a sober and gut-wrenching confessional last line to a remarkable chapter.

It is well written, by hand on Hampstead Heath or in his Swiss chalet as he tells us of his preferred writing locations. It isn’t self-promoting, name-dropping rubbish we have come to loathe in the modern day autobiography but rather a charming mix of tales full of characters from another time. It is a memoir of a life and times the like of which we will not see again and I cannot help but wonder if, like Gore Vidal, there will be more than one memoir. He is an elderly man, if, as I suspect there is, more like this which hasn’t been included, then a volume two would be most welcome.

The Pigeon Tunnel ‘Stories from My Life’ by John Le Carré

Published by Penguin Random House

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