Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“John Le Carré and Me,” by Barbara Fairhead

Opening shot of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin

For as along as I can remember, I have loved to read English spy fiction and my favourite is John Le Carré. I have been devouring his books ever since I reached double digits. By the time I reached my teens, I was intimately familiar with the sinister secret bowels of MI5, the British secret Service and every step of the career of George Smiley, spy master extraordinaire.  George Smiley, in his turn passed on all his knowledge to me.

From the safety of my bedroom in Notting Hill,  I learned how to  recruit and run  agents and get them out of dangerous situations.  (I particularly liked the shadowy agent exchanges  at Checkpoint  Charlie in Berlin.) With Smiley at my side, I set up dead-letter boxes, followed people, eavesdropped on their conversations and  debriefed the occasional Soviet spy.  

The Cambridge Four: Philby, Blunt,
Maclean & Burgess - upper crust
Brits who spied for the Soviet Union
Not so occasional, as it happens. Several spy scandals had erupted in London.   We even had a spy in Buckingham Palace!

Thanks to my older brother letting me read his comic books, I learned to make invisible ink – milk or lemon juice – write messages in code and, most important of all, how to heat the paper so we could see what we had written. We also set up trip wires all over the house so our parents couldn’t enter the no-parent zone without our knowing.

Then they put Smiley on TV. I watched every single episode avidly. No repeats or video-taping in those days, so you only got one shot.  Just like real secret agents perhaps.  I learned how to look enigmatic yet inconspicuous. The way you stirred your tea spoke volumes. To somebody.

And just like the characters in  the show – secret agents and spymasters alike – I started listening to Radio Free Europe and BBC World Service, particularly the English lesson. At  precisely 7.03 pm, I listened breathlessly  as an upper-crust English voice enunciated an everyday English word like “insufflators,” then repeated it several times for the benefit of all those agents sitting in a tree somewhere in Siberia. The poor sods then had to write it down in invisible ink or secret code and go off and wreak some serious havoc somewhere.

But then I hit the most byzantine of spy thrillers: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There was a Soviet mole in the upper echelons of MI5 and Smiley had been called upon to assemble a super secret team to expose him.  And this was just the blurb!  Of course Smiley was going to get his man¸ but it was going to take 550 convoluted pages in 8pt Times Roman to find out how.

By the time I got to page 14 I realised that I had encountered the intellectual equivalent of driving into a brick wall. Crack agent though I was, I didn’t know what the hell was happening.  Was the story written in code or invisible ink? Should I start reading from the back (not very helpful, as it happens) or upside down, or should I iron the whole book? 

It was like the horrible feeling you get when you sail through the easy and medium sections of your Sudoku book, and then suddenly, BAM! You have to keep looking up the solutions in the back of the book.  Unfortunately, in this case, the back of the book was as incomprehensible as the front. Was it possible that I was losing my marbles?

After Tinker, Tailor, I couldn’t bring myself to read another Le Carré for several decades. Fortunately, one day I had some time to kill at Heathrow airport, so off to the bookstore I went, where they were having a special. Three Le Carrés for the price of two?  You bet.

I’d read Absolute Friends by the time I got on the plane.  Little Drummer Girl and The Russia House still to read. Thank goodness I had a long flight, because clearly all was now right with the secret world. Had I got my brain back, or was Le Carré dumbing down?

Only one test would give me the answer: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I had avoided that book like the plague since forever.  Then came the movie.  Time to face my nemesis. To my great  delight, and surprise, I knew what was happening. My brain was running on all cylinders.  I was ecstatic! But then a moment of self-doubt: Damn, he really is dumbing down, I thought, but fortunately, not for long

Alec Guinness as George Smiley.
I listened to the review on the CBC.  Turns out the reviewer found the movie very hard to follow. Hooray!  But how could this be?  I had always thought the CBC was a high IQ kind of organisation. Then the reviewer suggested you read the book before going to the movie so you know what’s going on! 

“You must be kidding,” I snickered.

After my success at decoding the movie, I was sorely tempted to try the book again. What would Smiley say, I wondered?

"Quit while you’re ahead.”

Barb Fairhead came to Canada nearly two years ago with her husband, dog and two cats, to be closer to their daughters who live in Canada and the USA. She always wanted to write, but could never think of anything to write about, and now she can't stop! Last Wednesday, Barb and her fellow members of the Wednesday afternoon class in Burlington, gave readings of their work CJ’s Café in Bronte. Barb read “John Le Carré and Me”

For information about upcoming creative writing courses, see here.

See Brian's full schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Newmarket, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

1 comment:

  1. Great insight into the convoluted mind of a confirmed spy addict. Well done, Barb. Is Noddy a spy in disguise or is Enid Blyton really, really dumbing it down.