Poole-born espionage writer John Le Carré has died at the age of 89. The English author, real name David Cornwell, was one of the defining figures of post-war British literature and the father of the modern spy genre. We look back on an incredible career and legacy, as well as the links to Dorset that he maintained throughout his life…
For such a towering literary figure, John Le Carré had a far from auspicious start to life. Born David Cornwell in 1931, his grandfather was a prominent local personality. He even served as Mayor of Poole in 1929. His mother, however, left when Cornwall was very young, and his father was sent to prison after becoming involved in a fraud scandal. The illicit activities of his father, who had a reputation as a conman, gave Cornwell his first experience of the duplicity and secrecy that he would experience first-hand as an MI6 agent, and portray so vividly as a writer. Years later, he dramatized elements of his childhood in the novel A Perfect Spy, using his father as inspiration for the scheming con-man Rick Pym.
Despite his tumultuous upbringing, Le Carré still had fond memories of Poole. In a recent interview with BBC Radio Solent, he reminisced about trips to the theatre and Bournemouth Pier. The ‘wonderfully energetic’ theatrical and artistic scene of the region left a profound impact on him. It provided Le Carré with a sense of artistic connection and creativity that was sorely lacking from the rest of his childhood. The town even provided him with his first experience of spycraft, through games ‘spotting spies’ with his elder brother on the streets of Poole.
AN INCREDIBLE CAREER
After several years at Sherborne School, Le Carré left to study foreign languages at the University of Bern. Whilst in Europe, he worked as an interpreter, questioning defectors who crossed the Iron Curtain into Allied-occupied Austria. After a period of study at Oxford, he became an MI5 officer in 1958, and transferred to MI6 two years later. While undercover as a political consul in Hamburg, Le Carré wrote his first novel, Call for the Dead. As Foreign Office officers were forbidden from publishing under their own names, he needed a pseudonym. He chose “Le Carré”, which means “the Square” in French. Le Carré’s intelligence career ended in 1964, when he left the service to become a full-time writer.
Hailed as the father of the modern spy thriller, Le Carré wrote 23 books over five decades. His books include bestsellers such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. They portray espionage as bureaucratic, mundane and morally dubious. In sharp contrast to the traditional view of spies as suave martini-drinkers. Le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, was deliberately designed as the opposite of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, who Le Carré referred to as an “international gangster”.
Le Carré’s works have left an indelible mark on popular culture. His books have been adapted for TV and film countless times. The BBC famously adapted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a classic miniseries, with Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley. A film version came in 2011, which received three Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for its star, Gary Oldman. This version even featured a cameo from its creator. Le Carré played a bystander singing Die Internationale, the socialist anthem of protesters during the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Throughout his life, Le Carré kept close links to Dorset. For one thing, he was a long-time supporter of Julia’s House. Partly motivated by his own difficult upbringing, he performed regular readings at the charity’s carol services. He became a patron in April this year.
At the time, Le Carré described how Julia’s House had “a rare and special claim on me that I find hard to describe. Perhaps it is to do with having been so lucky in our own family, with one or two minor exceptions when compared to the brave, sad misfortunes that Julia’s House confronts daily”.
The charity recently paid tribute to the author, claiming he would be “much missed by everyone here”. They also praised his “hugely valuable” role in sharing the work of Julia’s House.
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