Britain’s top spy, MI6 chief Richard Moore, has paid tribute to John le Carré, tweeting that the novelist had “left his mark on #MI6 through his evocative and brilliant novels”. Moore’s tweet, which conveyed the condolences of “all at the #RiverHouse” – the name le Carré gave the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) headquarters on the banks of the Thames, even blew le Carré’s cover, referring to the writer by his real name, David Cornwell.
Moore’s words of comfort were a far cry form the attitude of his predecessor at MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, who last year complained about the “corrosive” nature of le Carré’s novels, that he said were “exclusively about betrayal”, a criticism also levelled at his work by former SIS officer Baroness Daphne Park.
Le Carré’s 25 novels have always come with the added cachet of being written by someone who once worked for the intelligence services. Yet as the writer himself explained in 2013, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the 1963 novel that made him a household name, was only considered acceptable for publication by MI6 – for whom he was working at the time – because they had “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”.
The association with the reality of intelligence was one which le Carré himself was keen to downplay. He expressed his desire to shake off the association in an interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1976:
If you write a story about street girls in London you aren’t immediately accused of running a brothel, but if you write a spy story, the more credible, the more authentic, the more plausible it is, the less credit you get for an act of imagination.
Imaginative it may have been, but le Carré’s work is certainly not devoid of realism – the shadow of Cambridge Spy Kim Philby can be seen in both the “mole” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and in the career of Magnus Pym, the protagonist of A Perfect Spy, which was partly based on le Carré’s own unhappy childhood. But credibility and authenticity do not necessarily equate to reality – anyone looking for true stories with the names changed would be disappointed.
Despite being products of his imagination, the credibility and authenticity that permeated le Carré’s work served to educate the general public about intelligence work at a time when very little was said officially about the agencies themselves. MI5 was not placed on a statutory basis – that is to say, it did not formally exist – until 1989, followed by MI6 five years later.
But ten years before that, when the BBC adaptation of his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was first broadcast, an audience of over 8 million which tuned in each week (according to his biographer, Adam Sisman) learned all about the danger of “moles” – long-term sleeper agents who burrow their way into the intelligence machinery of the “other side”.
It was a timely education – in a pure coincidence of TV scheduling, within weeks of the broadcast, the public learned of the existence of a real-life, high-level mole. Sir Anthony Blunt, a former surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and wartime MI5 officer, was revealed to have been one of the Cambridge Five spy ring who were recruited before the second world war and who spied for decades for the Soviet Union from the heart of the British establishment.
Honeytraps and scalphunters
Le Carré’s novels dramatically changed the way the British public, fed on a diet of James Bond and Len Deighton, perceived the world of intelligence. They also provided welcome fodder for newspapers. A story about former MI6 chief John Scarlett’s post-intelligence career published in the i paper in November 2015 was given the headline: “The spy who came into a fortune”. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also regularly evoked in the press: “Now it’s tinker, tailor, soldier, Booker judge”, wrote Richard Brookes in the Sunday Times when it was announced that former director general of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, had been appointed to the judging panel for the literary award.
But as well as influencing public perceptions, le Carré’s intelligence jargon – “honeytraps”, “lamplighters”, “scalphunters”, “mothers”, “babysitters” and the like – had a corresponding influence on the spies themselves. As Sisman notes in his biography of le Carré, some of his terms were “subsequently adopted by intelligence professionals”.
There’s long been a strong connection between literary fiction and the world of espionage. Le Carré’s distinguished predecessors, including the likes of Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome and Ian Fleming had blazed that trail before. But it was le Carré, primarily, who took Britain’s spies out of sharp suits, fancy cars and the moral certainty of “my country right or wrong”. Instead he gave us books populated by people, like himself, who are: “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living.” No wonder some of the real spies didn’t always love his work.
Of course, this hasn’t been the best year for a lot of things as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent isolation protocols. It is curious, then, that this beleaguered franchise — so dear to the hearts of a generation of readers — and the lockdown of the global population might combine to create something with resonance, entirely by accident.
The first six books of the Harry Potter series took place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an enchanted boarding school filled with danger, mystery and magic. But for the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling chose to deviate from her established practice by setting it in isolation. Harry, Hermione and (sometimes) Ron were cut off from their familiar routines and lives, suffering through loneliness, resource shortages, cabin fever, frustration and a terrifying new world order.
For a lot of people looking back on this story, it screams 2020 — it has everything but the surgical masks.
We can write this off to an accident of history, but it also connects us to a number of compelling developments in literary theory, including French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of the episteme, American literary historian Stephen Greenblatt’s New Historicism and British semiotician Gunther Kress’s theory of semiotic resources, all of which point (in one way or another) to the simple fact that the meaning of a text is dependent on the cultural circumstances surrounding it.
As our world changed, the cultural significance of Harry Potter changed with it.
In a pandemic society, reading lines like “the pure, colourless vastness of the sky stretched over him, indifferent to him and his suffering” takes on a new capacity for immersion. Harry’s experiences of isolation and anxiety now bring him closer to us, make him more relatable and identifiable, just as a pandemic-addled society can now, in turn, grow closer to Harry and understand in greater depth the heavy psychological toll that being cut off from his life at Hogwarts must be taking on him.
We can reach further too, and allow that deepened understanding of Harry’s isolation to ripple through the narrative, enhancing things like the joy of his return to Hogwarts and overthrow of Voldemort, or the depth of his friendship to Hermione for standing by him through the worst of it. Our familiarity with his isolation makes his victories all the sweeter.
This phenomenon is nothing new. Consider, for example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a treatise on the dangers of communism, and Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, a dire warning about government surveillance and totalitarianism. At the height of the Cold War, Animal Farm provided sharp criticism of the hypocrisy of Communist regimes, one that resonated with a western audience affronted by the so-called “red scare.”
The point is simple: a story’s longevity and the legacy of its author are deeply dependent upon historical context, and since the author can’t see into the future, we have to acknowledge the role of chance as a co-author of some our most beloved texts. Even the Bard himself has had his fair share of happy accidents.
So where does this leave Harry Potter, our most recent literary phenomenon? Adrift, perhaps, but not entirely. Both Shakespeare and Orwell’s works acquire new meanings as the times change, and so too does Rowling’s series, which is a dynamic and engaging fictional world that has the potential to stand outside of time itself, to some degree, if it needs to.
How Harry’s journey is met by each subsequent generation of enthusiasts is changing, and will continue to change with the world that surrounds us. The perception that texts are stable entities is an illusion.
When COVID-19 went viral, Harry Potter caught it and was changed by it, just as we all were. Having a new excuse to read an old favourite in the light of a new world is by no means the worst thing in these trying times, especially when we’re all stuck at home anyway.
In a new series, writers pay tribute to fictional detectives on the page and on screen.
Vera stands on a windswept headland contemplating the disgruntled North Sea. She’s clad in her usual garb; the battered hat, the annoying scarf and the tent-like mac that swirls around her stocky legs and scruffy boots.
When I first met Vera Stanhope in the crime fiction of Ann Cleeves, I liked her, but not so much. It wasn’t until Brenda Blethyn brought her to life in the 2011 ITV series Vera that I became truly enamoured.
Ten seasons later, with series 11 already commissioned, Blethyn has made Vera well and truly hers through a variety of mannerisms that are easy to mock but hard to get right.
A woman with quirks
Emily Taheny recently had a go on Sean Micaleff’s Mad as Hell but didn’t quite get there. Vera is much more than the hat, the Columbo mac and the attitude.
Blethyn’s version of Vera includes a wide range of audible “hmmphs”, the interrogative “hmmmms?”, and a chesty cackle. Blethyn also does a lot with her eyes. There’s Vera’s hawk-like gaze that can spot a lie at a hundred paces. There’s the evasive sidelong glance when she’s got something to hide, usually her drinking or a sugar fix.
And let’s not forget Vera’s walk, that determined short-legged stride that somehow gets her where she wants to be faster than anyone else.
In terms of genre, Vera sits within the tradition of the elderly female sleuth. This would include Miss Amelia Butterworth who first appeared in Anna Katherine Green’s That Affair Next Door first published in 1897. Thirty years later, Miss Marple picked up her knitting and nosed onto the scene of crime.
The key difference is that Vera is no amateur, but a Detective Chief Inspector in charge of a major team whom she routinely berates like recalcitrant school pupils who haven’t done their homework.
No doubt about it, Vera can be rude and impatient. She’s also partisan, favouring her young male colleagues over her female ones, while torturing Detective Constable Kenny Lockhart (Jon Morrison) with endless boring routine investigations. Sometimes she’s hard to like.
But Vera also has extraordinary empathy with the hard done by in an area where people have been doing it tough for a very long time. The North East of England is a region of spectacular beauty, deeply scarred by the effects of the industrial revolution that ended with the closing of the mines and the shipyards in the 1980s. It’s also my home, although I left it a long time ago.
One of the now well recognised pleasures of reading crime fiction or watching a TV crime drama is the sense of place. Whether the location is evoked on screen or on the page there is always a significant relationship between the characters and the environment that has shaped them.
In a fascinating essay on the phenomenon of the TV detective tour, cultural heritage professor Stijn Reijnders outlines the difference between two sorts of places: the lieux de mémoire (places of memory, as described by Pierre Nora) and his concept of lieux d’imagination (places of imagination).
While the former are “real” locations that serve as places of pilgrimage to memorialise past events (think Gallipoli), lieux d’imagination are the places we visit that are associated with fictional happenings, such as the Morse tour of Oxford or the Wallander tour of Ystad.
Such forms of cultural tourism enable readers, or indeed viewers, to pass from the real world into the fictional one and back again on a journey of the imagination.
As convincing as Reijnders’ argument might be, it doesn’t quite encompass how I relate to the landscape inhabited by Vera which evokes my own lieux de mémoire.
Vera’s stone cottage on the moors reminds me of our family holidays in Northumbria where I would ride the moors on a grumpy, rotund, Shetland pony that might well have been called Vera.
Every time Vera goes to Newcastle, I’m fascinated by how much cleaner the quayside looks since I last stood on the sooty pavement and contemplated the mucky Tyne bridge, the junior sibling of the Sydney harbor bridge: two bridges that connect where I was then with where I am now.
And I’m particularly delighted when Vera ends up in South Shields, my home town, and has an intense conversation with a witness or a suspect on the foreshore when there’s no reason to be outside except to capture the view.
Although I take great delight in the familiar locations, I’m constantly arguing with the geographic logic of the series while being surprised that it’s not raining — although in my memory it always is.
And so I oscillate, between the fictional and the remembered, with Vera as the character who tethers me to both through a narrative that takes me to another time and place where the answers will always be found by a smart, dumpy, older woman in a raincoat.