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Invocations: Morals of the Secret World

When we began thinking of COVERT as a theme, the first thing that came to my mind was espionage. The evening’s talks focused on other wonderful topics, but the invocation for the evening was inspired by John Le Carre, who wrote many spy novels, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which was the speakers’ gift for the evening.

John Le Carre (1931-) is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, who was born in England. Cornwell worked for the British Secret Intelligence service as well as for it’s Security Service during the 1950s and 1960s. His third novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published in 1963 and was a great success. It was such a great success that Cornwell then left MI6 to become a full time novelist.

However, in his own words, Cornwell does not see himself as a spy-turned-writer:

“Let me tell you a few things about myself. Not much, but enough. In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.”


The invocation at COVERT is from an article written by Le Carre, and published in 2013 at the 50th anniversary of the publication of his third novel: The Spy Who came in from the Cold. The full article is too long for the invocation, and so I excerpted parts of it that, I thought, were illustrative of our fascination with all things covert: the ideas of authenticity and inauthenticity; of things that hide other things, or that masquerade as other things. From the article: “I was a Secret Even to Myself

I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the age of 30 under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself. I had written a couple of earlier novels, necessarily under a pseudonym, and my employing service had approved them before publication. After lengthy soul-searching, they had also approved The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. To this day, I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t.

As it was, they seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security. This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.

And to my awe, add over time a kind of impotent anger.

Anger, because from the day my novel was published, I realised that now and forever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it.

But journalists of the time weren’t having any of that. I was the British spy who had come out of the woodwork and told it how it really was, and anything I said to the contrary only enforced the myth. And since I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote, the myth stuck. Meanwhile, I was receiving the sort of attention writers dream of. My only problem was, I didn’t believe my own publicity. I didn’t like it even while I was subscribing to it, and there was in the most literal sense nothing I could say to stop the bandwagon, even if I’d wanted to. And I wasn’t sure I did.

In the 60s – and right up to the present day – the identity of a member of the British Secret Services was and is, quite rightly, a state secret. To divulge it is a crime. The Services may choose to leak a name when it pleases them. They may showcase an intelligence baron or two to give us a glimpse of their omniscience and – wait for it – openness. But woe betide a leaky former member.

And anyway I had my own inhibitions. I had no quarrel with my former employers, quite the contrary. Presenting myself to the press in New York a few months after the novel had made its mark in the States, I dutifully if nervously mouthed my denials: no, no, I had never been in the spy business; no, it was just a bad dream – which of course it was.

The paradox was compounded when an American journalist with connections told me out of the corner of his mouth that the reigning chief of my Service had advised a former director of the CIA that I had been his serving officer, and that he had told nobody but his very large retinue of best friends, and that anyone in the room who was anyone knew I was lying.

Today I think of the novel as a not-very-well-disguised internal explosion after which my life would never be the same. It was not the first such explosion, or the last. And yes, yes, by the time I wrote it, I had been caught up in secret work off and on for a decade; a decade the more formative because I had the inherited guilt of being too young to fight in the second world war and – more importantly – of being the son of a war-profiteer, another secret I felt I had to keep to myself until he died.

But I was never a mastermind, or a mini-mind, and long before I even entered the secret world, I had an instinct towards fiction that made me a dubious fact-gatherer. I was never at personal risk in my secret work; I was frequently bored stiff by it. Had things been otherwise, my employers would not have allowed me to publish my novel, even if later they kicked themselves for doing so: but that was because they decided it was being taken too seriously by too many people; and because any suggestion that the British Secret Service would betray its own was deemed derogatory to its ethical principles, bad for recruitment, and accordingly Bad for Britain, a charge to which there is no effective answer.

The proof that the novel was not “authentic” – how many times did I have to repeat this? – had been delivered by the fact that it was published. Indeed, one former head of a department that had employed me has since gone on record to declare that my contribution was negligible, which I can well believe. Another described the novel as “the only bloody double-agent operation that ever worked” – not true, but fun. The trouble is, when professional spies go out of their way to make a definitive statement about one of their own, the public tends to believe the opposite: which puts us all back where we started, myself included.

The merit of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, then – or its offense, depending where you stood – was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves 50 years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our western values, without abandoning them along the way? My fictional chief of the British Service – I called him Control – had no doubt of the answer:

I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?

Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the third world, and great banks are there to serve the public.

What have I learned over the last 50 years? Come to think of it, not much. Just that the morals of the secret world are very like our own.”

Further Reading:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy –

“I was a secret even to myself” – John Le Carre on Books review

“The Novel that Made Spies Angry” – The Express

John Le Carre author website

“John Le Carre Gives Literary Collection to the Bodlian Library, Oxford” –

 – Tamar Baskind, curator of COVERT