Earlier this year I listened to Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré & enjoyed it very much. Not long after the biography was published, it was announced that le Carré was planning to write a memoir. Whether it was the process of being interviewed for the biography that spurred him on or whether he felt that he wanted to dispute Sisman’s version of his life is unclear. The result is The Pigeon Tunnel : stories from my life.
The subtitle is significant as this isn’t an autobiography. David Cornwell (le Carré’s real name) ranges across his life, telling stories, not always in chronological order. Cornwell’s novels of espionage are probably his most famous but he continued writing after the fall of the Berlin Wall when many critics thought that he would be lost for subject matter in this brave new post-Cold War world. He has proved them wrong by tackling other subjects – corrupt pharmaceutical companies in Africa, arms dealers, post-Glasnost Russia – &, of course, there are still spies even if the enemy is now terrorism rather than the Soviet Union.
38 chapters cover Cornwell’s travels in search of material for his fiction – to the Middle East, famously meeting Yasser Arafat, to Russia, Africa, Panama & Asia. His novels have been made into successful movies & TV series & he describes the process of film making with Martin Ritt & Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) & Alec Guinness (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Almost as interesting are the chapters about the projects that never got off the ground, with Stanley Kubrick & Sidney Pollack, among others. He is self-effacing about the dangers involved in his travels, always generously acknowledging the journalists & locals who took him into dangerous places or to meet significant people. One chapter describes lunch with Margaret Thatcher after he’s refused an honour; another describes the experience of cavalierly accepting an invitation to appear on Apostrophes, Bernard Pivot’s demandingly intellectual interview program. There would be a panel of formidable critics to conduct the interview which would be live on television & take place entirely in French, a language Cornwell hadn’t spoken in many years. He amusingly describes the immersion course in French he took in London before the interview as well as the interview itself which he seems to have come through creditably. Leaving the studio he asks his driver why there’s no one on the street & is told that everyone in Paris stays home to watch Apostrophes.
The extent of Cornwell’s involvement with the British Secret Service has excited more interest than almost anything else in his long career. He has always refused to elaborate on his time as a spy, citing his loyalty to his former colleagues & the fact that he signed the Official Secrets Act which prevents him discussing it. Adam Sisman dug out a little new information but this book maintains Cornwell’s reticence. He must have used his knowledge of the Service to write his books & some within its ranks have felt betrayed by that but he maintains that he has never broken a confidence. One of the most fascinating chapters was his account of a conversation with Nicholas Elliott, a member of the Service & a close friend of Kim Philby. Elliott, like so many others, was betrayed by Philby & devastated when he defected. Cornwell knew both men & gives a sympathetic portrayal of Elliott as he describes his interrogation of Philby in Beirut just before he left for Moscow. Cornwell acknowledges Ben Macintyre’s book on the subject, A Spy Among Friends, & I’ve downloaded the audio book as this chapter was so interesting that I want to know more.
Perhaps the most personal chapter comes near the end of the book, Son of the Author’s Father. Cornwell’s father, Ronnie, was a con man, a charming rogue who spent his life coming up with grandiose schemes to enrich himself regardless of the consequences to others. Cornwell wrote a version of Ronnie’s story in his novel, A Perfect Spy, but he has obviously struggled with the legacy of being the son of a crook who served several prison sentences in the UK & Asia, was bankrupted several times & seemingly had no conscience about the damage he left in his wake. Cornwell’s mother, Olive, abandoned her husband & two sons when David was only five. He didn’t see her again for many years & had a distant relationship with her in his adult life. Ronnie was almost a constant presence – failing to pay his school fees, employing David to collect debts in Paris, using his connection as the father of the famous John le Carré to sponge off David’s publishers, being bailed out by David from an Asian prison, ironically threatening to sue David for the cost of his education etc etc. The anger that David still feels towards both his parents is obvious. He even spent a considerable amount of money on investigators to try & disentangle Ronnie’s lies – without much success. It seems he will never discover the truth about many of the questions that plague him about his mother’s disappearance or his father’s psychology. This section of the memoir is no less fascinating for being inconclusive.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted or needed to read The Pigeon Tunnel after reading Sisman’s exhaustive biography. I’m so glad I did, especially as I listened to the audio book read by Cornwell himself. I knew most of the stories from reading the biography. I knew the origin of the title, The Pigeon Tunnel, which had been the working title for many le Carré novels over the years. I’d read Sisman’s version of the meetings with Arafat, Joseph Brodsky & Andrei Sakharov but it was a different experience hearing the stories from Cornwell himself. Naturally more intimate but Cornwell came across as funnier, more self-deprecating, less earnest than he seemed in the biography. I’m glad I’ve read Sisman’s biography which filled in a lot of the background that isn’t detailed in this book. However, I don’t suppose many readers of The Pigeon Tunnel will be totally unaware of Cornwell’s life – there have been enough profiles & interviews over the years. As a collection of stories, some quite slight but many much more searching, this is an excellent insight into the complicated life of a secretive man.