The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré (1996)

‘In Panama everyone knows Harry Pendel.’ (p.68)

Le Carré’s narrative technique

Le Carré is masterfully cunning at releasing his information in dramatic instalments, deploying the constituent parts of the plot with great rhythm and timing. In its predecessor, Our Game, and in this novel, le Carré opens by selecting a key scene from his narrative, choosing it to be ‘the present’, portraying it at great length to establish setting and characters – and only once this static island in time is firmly anchored, then arranging a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and memories in the rest of the text to paint in all kinds of elements of backstory, characters’ history and psychology, memories, re-enactments and so on – simultaneously moving the story forward to tell us what happened next.

Quite often the amount of ‘what happened next’ narrative is smaller than, or less vivid than, the ‘flashback’ material, so that reading the book feels more like watching a tree or bush grow in a nature programme, with tendrils moving out in all directions – completely different from the much more straightforward linear narrative of a Deighton or Forsyth.

Thus the first hundred pages of the Tailor describe a day in the life of the eponymous tailor, Harry Pendel, leading up to his appointment to measure a new customer, Andrew Osnard. Except that Osnard is quickly revealed to be no ordinary client. He spends the measuring session probing Harry extensively about his past – before revealing that he knows Harry’s carefully cultivated front as a partner in a posh tailors’ firm is rot; his firm never existed on Savile Row, the sadly deceased partner he likes to spin long yarns about is a complete fiction.

No, Osnard knows that Harry grew up in poverty in the East End of London, went to work for his Uncle Benny in the rag trade, was caught burning down Benny’s warehouse in a plan to defraud the insurance company, was convicted of arson, imprisoned and, immediately upon his release, fled England with guilty Uncle Benny’s help to Panama, where he married a local American woman whose parents had money.

Osnard says he knows that Harry has used up that entire inheritance to buy a rice farm out in the countryside, but that the water has dried up, it will never be viable, and he is losing money fast on the loan he took out to buy it at an extortionate rate of monthly interest. In fact, Osnard reveals to a stunned Harry that he was stitched up by his banker ‘friend’ (Ramón Rudd), who was the one who tipped him off about the opportunity in the first place and encouraged him to make the purchase and loaned him the money, but who is in cahoots with the rice farm estate manager (Angel) to drive it into the ground, then buy it at auction for a song, restore the water, make it a thriving concern and sell it off at a big profit. He’s been had.

Having reduced Harry to speechlessness by the depth and devastating content of his knowledge about him, Osnard then reveals that he is a spy for Her Majesty’s government and asks Harry if he wants to work for him. Osnard has done his research and knows that Harry, as a snobbish tailor to the great and good of Panamanian society (including, believe it or not, the President himself) gets to hear a surprising amount of gossip and confidential information. ‘Report it back to me and there’s money in it for you, old boy,’ drawls Osnard. Harry’ll be able to repay the loan which is threatening to bankrupt him. Harry hesitates, but can’t really say anything but yes.

A kaleidoscope of flashbacks

All this – a man has a fitting session for a new suit – takes up no fewer than 100 pages.

And from this slender incident in the present opens up a flood of memories and backstories from the past, which come in numerous fragments, sometimes less than a page long, sometimes just a few, or even one, paragraph. These paint rapid sketches of Harry’s miserable childhood in the East End of London; him finding out he’s illegitimate; what it was like working for kindly Uncle Benny; getting caught setting fire to Benny’s warehouse to claim the insurance; the police beating the crap out of him; his miserable experiences in prison and Uncle Benny seeing him onto the boat to Panama, complete with a letter of introduction to his old friend form London who’d emigrated there, Mr Blüthner.

It is Blüthner who finds Harry a shop, loans him material, puts customers his way. Harry falls in love with the American woman, Louisa, but it is always a troubled relationship, then has an affair with the Panamanian girl, Marta. The US Air Force comes to bomb General Noriega out of power but ends up destroying the poorest slums in Panama City and killing hundreds of civilians including all of Marta’s family, while Harry and Louisa watch terrified from their house up the hill.

Later, in the febrile post-air raid atmosphere, Harry is driving Marta home when they are stopped by Noriega’s fascist Dignity Brigades and, because she is wearing a white t-shirt associated with the resistance to Noriega, Marta is really badly beaten with baseball bats, leaving her face permanently disfigured, Harry pinned down by the cops and forced to watch, begging them to stop.

When the Dingbats walk off, Harry drives the bleeding Marta to the apartment of his friend, Michelangelo ‘Mickie’ Abraxas, who takes them both on to an undercover doctor, who makes a mess of trying to fix Marta’s face, and the next day reports them to the cops, but only knows Mickie’s name and address. So it is that the cops arrest Mickie and send him to prison, where the beautiful young man is repeatedly raped and brutalised, emerging a shattered shadow of his former self.

All of this comes out in a tumble of vivid, often lurid, flashbacks, not necessarily in the correct order, sometimes repeated with variations of new facts or phrasing, building up a mosaic or kaleidoscope of Harry’s life and the back stories of the novel’s main characters, with key moments – like the bats smashing Marta’s face, the roar of the flames in Uncle Benny’s warehouse – emerging and re-emerging like gold strands in a tapestry.

And also interspersed among them are the ‘now’ parts of the narrative, as Harry drives home from his session with Osnard thoroughly confused and anxious, worrying about Osnard, worrying about the rice farm, worrying about his wife. The structure, the use of these scattered flashbacks, is very effective:

  • with its repetition of key scenes it builds up a powerful sense of the important memories and elements of the characters’ personalities
  • with its repetition of descriptions, it takes you deep into a thoroughly imagined world, into the humid Panama of hotels and drug barons, roadside militia and brothels
  • above all it allows le Carré to get right to the point: to give just a snapshot of a moment, to describe the key moment or phrase or word, which defines a situation, a decision, a narrative turning point – bang! – and then move on.

Osnard ‘recruits’ Harry

Around page 200 le Carré finally gives us a lengthy description of Osnard’s back story. Although employed by MI6, he is basically a crook on the make. He went to Eton and has used his connections to cruise through a number of unsatisfactory jobs before being recruited into Intelligence. When he is offered Panama, he senses the possibilities and, within days of arriving he’s shaping a plan: he realises that he will get to handle large amounts of non-attributable slush money if he can persuade his bosses there’s a big underground liberation movement in Panama which needs supporting.

Some research brings him to Harry, a well-connected liar and ex-convict, and the long opening scene is there to demonstrate Osnard’s technique of coercion and the way his plans begin to fall into place as he realises how scared and malleable Harry is.

Thus Osnard prompts and encourages Harry to invent out of thin air a network of spies with members among the student movement, the fishermen and workers and to concoct the so-called ‘Silent Opposition’ of political rebels. Osnard winks at Harry nominating his best friend, the ex-convict and down-on-his-luck drunk Mickie Abraxas, as head of this fictional SO. In a typical piece of wit, Osnard christens his imaginary source BUCHAN, which allows all concerned to make jokes about the ‘brave Buchaneers’ etc.

Political background

The background to all this is that the Americans commissioned, funded, ran and kept military watch over the Panama Canal from its opening in 1914. In 1977 the Democrat US President Jimmy Carter (roundly despised by all the right-wing characters in the book) signed a treaty promising to hand the canal over to the Panama government in 1999.

As a result, US authorities, the US Army and – to a lesser extent – allied governments are all anxious that some other foreign power might take control of this vital gateway of world trade, maybe not militarily, maybe just doing favourable trade deals with the Panama government. Osnard knows he can screw money out of his employers back in London – and maybe even out of the Yanks – if he can convince them some big conspiracy is afoot.

Once the ‘spy network’ is up and running, and Osnard is feeding entirely fictional reports from Agent Buchan back to base, he finds himself under pressure to provide more factual detail, and so it is he asks Harry to commit the ultimate ‘betrayal’, and spy on his wife (who works for the Panama Canal Authority, another factor which helped Osnard decide to approach Harry in the first place). Harry embellishes the resulting documents, and then Osnard embellishes them a bit more – including accounts of the Panama President’s recent trip to Japan and South-East Asia – to make it seem as if the Panamanians (or ‘Pans’ as they are dismissively referred to in the neo-colonial slang of the white protagonists) are about to flog the Canal to the ‘Japs’.

[Historical note: back in the early 1990s the expert view was that the West was about to be economically and militarily overtaken by the Japanese and the other South-East Asian Tigers. So much for the geopolitical ‘experts’.]

The media mogul

Osnard’s boss back in London, Luxmore, a canny Scot, encourages Osnard in his wild fantasies, which seems puzzling until we discover this is because he is on the payroll of a wicked media mogul, the potty-mouthed Ben Hatry – not unlike the wicked media mogul played by Jonathan Pryce in the Pierce Brosnan-James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Hatry wants to engineer an American takeover of Panama in order to rally round the forces of reaction, to galvanise his audience and sell newspapers and make money. But he is pushing at an open door of right-wing conspiracy theories, xenophobes, bigots and at the paranoid door of the US Army.

Thus, as the novel climbs to dizzier and dizzier heights of unreality, Luxmore flies to the Pentagon where he has a meeting with ‘senior generals’ who he persuades that BUCHAN’s ‘intel’ is the real McCoy and, ‘Gentlemen, we must move swiftly to protect our vital interests’. Luckily, the Americans have both a very big army and air force which, at the bloody climax of the novel, they send to bomb the crap out of Panama City. Again.

Mickie kills himself

While all this has been happening, rumour and gossip about Mickie Abraxia have leaked out and spread, not least via a vile gossip columnist ‘Teddy’. The police arrive on Mickie’s doorstep, threatening to send him back to prison, the same prison where he was brutalised and gang-raped. With Harry’s help and money, Mickie leaves Panama City and drives to Guararé, another Panamanian town, which is having a carnival – lots of fireworks, lots of bangs. One of the bangs is the sound of Mickie shooting himself in the head; he couldn’t face being sent back to gaol. Mickie’s girlfriend, Ana, rings up Harry in hysterics, and he honourably decides to drive to the town to calm the distraught woman, smuggle Mickie’s body into his 4 by 4, and drive it to an ancient religious site, out in the woods where, heart-broken, he arranges and leaves it.

Louisa gets drunk

Meanwhile, Harry’s wife, Louisa, suspects from all his furtive behaviour that he is having an affair. When he gets a phone call from a hysterical woman and insists on driving off into the night with no explanation, she becomes convinced of it and first of all drinks a lot, far too much, crying, shouting and swearing against her unfaithful husband. In this state she breaks into Harry’s desk and finds all the documentation about the made-up spy network, including the paperwork incriminating her as a major source.

Appalled, she drives over to confront the man who seems to be at the root of all the problems, Osnard. She interrupts his meeting with Luxmore where Luxmore had been explaining about the small fortune he’s brought from London to fund the uprising of the ‘Silent Opposition’, and how it’s to be co-ordinated with the US attack. Osnard farcically smuggles Luxmore out the back way, then lets in the extremely drunk Louisa. Unfortunately, she is wearing only a flimsy housecoat and in their tussle all its buttons ping off so she is naked and, well, guess what happens next.

In the morning she awakes humiliated and ashamed in Osnard’s bed to find him packing. Osnard realised his number was up when Luxmore arrived in Panama City and he and the Ambassador announced they wanted to take over the running of BUCHAN. The secret of the con will be out in days, if not hours. Osnard takes the bags full of money which Luxmore had brought with him and left the night before, and absconds. Louisa borrows underclothes, t-shirt etc and makes her way home.

But they are not reconciled. They hear the drumming of the American helicopters overhead and know that history is repeating itself: once again they will stand on their hillside balcony and watch the quarters of the poor be carpet bombed by the warlike Americans. Disgusted with himself and the world, Harry sets off down the hillside, past the injured and screaming people fleeing in the other direction, walking into the bomb blasts and the flames.

If the novel was ever intended to be a comedy, this fatalistic, doomed, heart-broken savage ending is a very sour note to end it on, and eclipses whatever levity preceded it.


After the Cold War

Decades ago critics wondered what spy novelists like Len Deighton or John le Carré would do when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed and – according to Francis Fukuyama – history ended. The orthodox answer is that le Carré seamlessly transferred the mind set and worldview of the intelligence agencies over into the numerous other issues and conflicts which carried on troubling the world – regional conflicts, the iniquity of multinational corporations, drugs and arms smuggling.

Posh

My impression is that le Carré’s response was to go posh.

The world of his early novels, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is cold and shabby, down at heel, a world of losers.

Around 1990 the feel of le Carré’s novels changes, they start to feel considerably buffed up and to focus on formidably posh circles of chaps who went to major public schools, are members of the right clubs, and bonk foxy gels fresh from finishing school. There’s more sex, a lot more sex, in these later novels, and the business of espionage, of recruiting your own agents and persuading chaps from the other side to cross over, is described more and more in the language of love and seduction. There are more warm bedrooms in South America with naked women in them, than cold alleyways in Berlin with armed guards.

Above all, the figures at the centre of the novels increasingly talk in a distinctly posh, upper crust manner, complete with public school slang and Oxbridge banter.

Thus Ned, the retiring intelligence officer narrator of The Secret Pilgrim, appears at first to be a caricature of an old posh buffer – except I think we’re meant to take him seriously. The circle of friends, lovers and fixers surrounding the British arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper, in The Night Manager are extraordinarily posh, from his jolly hockeysticks girlfriend to his sideman, a gin-swilling retired colonel, what, what. The narrator of Our Game is another unbelievably posh bloke whose CV reads ‘Winchester, Oxford, British Intelligence’, who inherits a pile from a rich old aunt and a West Country vineyard from Uncle Bob, terrific fellah, did you know Uncle Bob? A long way from the back alleyways of Berlin.

Now, whatever the location, be it Panama or the Caucasus, le Carré’s characters carry the indelible mark of upper crust, élite, public school and Oxbridge attitude and locutions along with them.

In his earlier novels the fact that he spent five years working for the ‘Foreign Office’ is probably the most relevant part of le Carré’s career, giving him unparalleled insight into the realities of interviewing, vetting, interrogating suspects; in these later novels, by far the most important fact is that he taught at Eton.

Lots of people have made up spy stories, but not so many have drowned them, like le Carré does his later stories, in torrents of public school slang and banter. For Eton isn’t just a school. It is the apex of an educational system devised to run the greatest empire on earth, and still has extraordinary cultural and political dominance in this country. As the Evening Standard pointed out the other day, if actor Damien Lewis is selected as the next James Bond, it will be the first time that the current Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury and James Bond all went to the same school. Eton. Where le Carré was socially, intellectually and culturally distinguished enough to be acceptable as a master and to teach our future rulers.

The author’s experience at the heart of British snobbery and elitism seems to me to underpin the dominant tone in these later novels, where almost all the characters not only went to public school, but soak their talk and dialogue and thinking in confident, arrogant public schoolboy banter and slang.

Posh English

So although The Tailor of Panama is indeed set in Panama and although – in its first hundred pages or so – it contains convincing descriptions of the buildings, layout and geography, of the roads and rush hour traffic jams, the street beggars, the heat and noise of Panama City, the characters are strangely insulated from it all, carrying everywhere with them the class-conscious attitude and argot of the public school-educated Englishman.

Thus the novel opens with the tailor of the title, half-Jewish Harry Pendel, waking, breakfasting with his wife and kids before driving to his shop, and here he is visited by a new chap in the country, one Andrew Osnard. And although it is set in Central America, the reader is transported to a timeless scene – the seigneurial relationship between a posh Englishman and his canny tailor, a scene that could be from Thackeray.

Pendel regards his quiet and civilised shop and fitting room as an oasis of calm in a busy world. But it is much more than that. It’s an oasis of old-fashioned pukka Englishness, with its cucumber sandwiches, copies of the Times and Country Life strewn about, and the servile tailor serving the insouciantly superior cad, who murmurs on in his upper class drawl:

‘Bravo… thing is, old boy… little local difficulty… splendid… frankly, a bit of a facer… good show …’

Which public school did you go to?

My heart sank and I began to withdraw even more from the novel when, around page 150, we’re introduced to the (senior) staff at the British Embassy in Panama who are, at first, annoyed by the imposition of an Intelligence agent on them. In thumbnail portraits of the Embassy staff we learn that the ‘Ambass’ went to Harrow, the first secretary, Stormont, to Shrewsbury (then Jesus, Oxford: a disappointing Second in History). They are both a bit jealous of Osnard who, we now find out, was educated at Eton. Eton. Harrow. Shrewsbury. It’s a broad social mix, I suppose.

The only woman on the team, Francesca Deane, is depicted from word go as a sex object (‘A body to kill for, the brains to go with it’ -p.138. Or, as Luxmore describes her, ‘That prim Sassenach virgin with large attachments and come-hither eyes.., Is she what in my young days we called a cock-teaser?’ p.393)

Fran is lusted over by the Ambassador, and most other men who meet her, but resists all offers until she is swiftly seduced and bedded by Osnard. She is the daughter of a Law Lord and ‘in London she had spent her weekends with a frightfully handsome hunting stockbroker named Edgar.’ (p.218). She knows a bit about Osnard because her simply weird half-brother, Miles, went to Eton too, and tells her about old Andy’s chequered career there. Apparently he doesn’t like to talk to his time there and refers to England’s most prestigious public school as ‘Slough Grammar’. What a wit. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Luckily for Francesca, fat, sweaty Osnard turns out to be a demon lover, tactfully not referring to his previous ‘conquests, although ‘many and varied’, and touching her in a special way only he knows how, taking her

without a word, endlessly, wonderfully, tirelessly, hours, years on end, his thick body skimming weightlessly over her and round her, one peak after another, something that till now had only happened to Fran in her schoolgirl imagination. (p.222)

Yes, as Stormont tells Maltby, ‘He’s shagging Fran’. Lucky old Andy, eh.

Public school comparisons

One of the most tedious thing about people who went to prep school and then a bloody good boarding school is the way the total institutionalisation of their childhood and youth follows them to the end of their days so that whenever they think of their childhood they think only of their odd and unusual circumstances as if they are common. In these books, when comparisons and similes are made, so so often the old schooldays are the ones that come to mind.

Chance favours only the prepared mind. It was the favourite dictum of a science master at  his prep school who, having flogged him black and blue, suggested they make up their differences by taking off their clothes. (p.230)

Osnard had assumed his head prefect tone, though he had only ever been on the receiving end of it, usually before a beating. (p.257)

His voice had acquired the saw-edge of schoolboy sarcasm. (p.258)

‘Gave him the carrot, then waved the stick at him, sir,’ he reported in the Boy Hero voice he kept for his master. (p.268)

[All Fran can think of when Osnard takes her to a casino] was her first gymkhana when her pony which like every other pony in the world was called Misty took the first fence perfectly then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury. (p.327)

‘We shall need an enormous amount of stuff,’ Maltby went on, with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy looking forward to a new train-set. (p.356)

‘Intelligence is like exams. You always think the chap sitting next to you knows more than you do.’ (p.365)

Maltby, sitting like an obedient schoolboy at Mellors’ right hand… (p.376)

For a moment Fran is in her old school chapel, kneeling in the front pew and watching a huddle of handsome young priests as they chastely turn their backs to her… (p.381)

Legendary

Now in this kind of school, everybody is famous for something, for being top at games or lessons or having a Duke for father or a Princess for a mother or being heir to some great business fortune. This attitude carries over into these later novels, where all the main characters are the well-known this or the legendary that. It is one of the strategies of the books to make you think that, in a country of 60 million people (Britain), only about 200 or so people really count and they all know each other and they’re all frightfully clever; that in Panama there may be swarms of blacks and half-breeds cluttering up the place, but there are only really a handful of chaps like you and me who appreciate the finer things of life, who understand the value of a well-made alpaca suit, appreciate buttons made from genuine tagua, wear shoes hand made by Ducker’s of Oxford (or possibly Lobbs of St James’s, p.120), who enjoy cucumber sandwiches and a spot of tiffin.

The scuffed leather porter’s chair, authenticated by local legend as Braithwaite’s very own. (p.42) [Braithwaite being the other partner in the tailoring firm of Pendel and Braithwaite, a legend in Savile Row and then a legend when they came out here to Panama.]

[Pendel’s assistant Marta made the cucumber sandwiches.] ‘I don’t know whether her renown has reached you.’ (p.44)

[When approaching the brothel where he is to meet Harry, Osnard finds ‘the fabled pushbutton’ of room number 8] (p.251)

[Rafi Domingo and Mickie Abraxas make] ‘a famous playboy pair’. (p.313)

Allow me to introduce a Brother who needs no introduction, so a big hand, please, for our wandering sage and longtime Servant of the Light, diver of the deep and explorer of the unknown, who has penetrated more dark places – dirty laughter – than any of us round this table today, the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah! (p.287)

Now we are in the tailor Pendel’s cutting room, known to customers and employees alike as the Holy of Holies. (p.385)

Of course, simply everyone in Panama knows who Harry Pendel is. Similarly, he introduces his friend, jailbird Mickie Abraxas, as ‘one of Panama’s few real heroes’ (p.85) and later as ‘Mickie Abraxas, the great underground revolutionary and secret hero of the students’ (p.121). We know the important people. We know what’s really going on. For the simple reason that we ourselves are the only important people: the only people who went to Eton or Winchester or Harrow or Shrewsbury…

Thus, Stormont is appalled when he hears that the committee back in London in charge of the project is being chaired by a certain Geoffrey Cavendish. Of course he knows him. They all know each other, that’s the point.

Cavendish the influence-peddlar, he was thinking. Cavendish the defence lobbyist. Cavendish the self-styled statesman’s friend. Ten per cent Cavendish… Boom-boom Cavendish, arms broker. Geoff the oil. (p.213)

And Luxmore doesn’t prepare one-page reports for his colleagues in Intelligence, he prepares ‘his famous one-page summaries for submission to his mysterious planners and appliers.’ (p.333)

Hell

‘Hell did the G stand for?’… ‘Hell’s the crest o’ the Prince of Wales hanging outside for?’… ‘Hell happened to that woman?’ (p.48) … ‘Hell did they give him that for?’  (p.51) … ‘Hell d’you do that for?’ (p.65) … ‘Hell did he swing it?’ (p.76) … ‘Hell’s that mean?’ (p.77)

Breviated words. Breviated sentences. Omit pronouns. Sound more pukka. ‘No time to dawdle, old man, Got an empire to run. Crack on. One more for the road? Won’t say no.’ Fat drunk merchant banker Jamie Pringle talks like this in Our Game. Most of the horrible drunks in The Honourable Schoolboy ditto. And this is how the central figure in Tailor talks, all the time – 458 pages of top hole, old chap, good fellah, hell you up to?

Public school tags & quotes

Like over-educated public schoolboys, characters in these later novels dress up their trite chatter and banal insights with tags and quotes, bits of Latin, rags of Shakespeare, religious stuff fondly remembered from morning chapel and the Founders Day service back at the old alma mater, what, what. Clichés. They talk in clichés.

‘Great wheel of time, eh?’
‘Indeed, sir. The one that spins and grinds and tramples all before it, they say,’ Pendel agreed. (p.47)

‘As I’m sure your good father will have told you many a time and oft.’ (p.54) Shakespeare.

‘For all the people to come to eat your sandwiches. So they increase and multiply and order up more suits.’ (p.110) Bible.

No gilded porticos or grand staircases to instil humility in lesser breeds without the law. (p.136) Kipling.

Pendel waited, as must all who only stand and wait. (p.155) Milton.

The quotes make the people using them feel and sound clever. But their real point is to emphasise that you’re one of the club, one of the chaps who’s at home with all these quotes and references and in-jokes and tags, one of us, people like us, properly educated at a bloody good traditional school, on the inside!

Fuck

In the 1990s le Carré’s characters passed through some kind of threshold of restraint and good manners and now all his characters liberally say ‘fuck’. At first in the novel it is just the sweaty middle-aged men, then a so-called expert on international affairs says ‘fuck’ in every sentence for 3 or 4 pages, then the media mogul Hatry says ‘fuck’ in every sentence (‘Let’s fucking do it’ p.334) as does his creature ‘Cavendish’ and by the end of the book it seemed like everyone was saying ‘fuck’ in almost all situations: Louisa says ‘ Fuck you, Harry’, Osnard says ‘fuck’ all the time (‘Fuck do I care?’ p.201), even Harry ends up saying ‘fuck’. The repellent gossip columnist Teddy, viciously tells Harry, ‘How you can fuck that faceless half-breed is beyond me.’ (p.324)

[Policeman] ‘He fucks you, doesn’t he?’
[Marta] ‘No, he doesn’t fuck me.’ (p.384)

Louisa asks Marta whether Harry gave her money ‘for fucking?’ (p.387)

So ‘fuck you’, ‘fuck this’, ‘fuck that’ it is, then. (‘Do you mind putting that fucking thing out, please.’ p.341) Not really very funny. (‘This is my fucking patch, not his.’ p.378) In fact, quite wearing after a while.

‘Fuck you, Harry Pendel! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! Wherever you are. You’re a fucking cheat!’ (p.399)

More than that, the novel is in danger of using hyperbole – in this instance a blizzard of ‘f’ words – to paper over the gaps in the plot. In Our Game the academic Larry Pettifer was promoted by the incredibly posh narrator as being the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a fountain of brilliant, incisive insights into geopolitics etc etc. But when we actually hear him talk, he says things like:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Which is hugely disappointing, buffoonish, thick and he carries on talking like a crude dimwit to the end of the novel. In this book there are several places where we get to hear the ‘thinking’ of the shadowy powers behind the scenes – and they, just as disappointingly, also turn out to be full of men saying ‘fuck’, as if that makes the ‘arguments’ more powerful.

The first of these scenes takes us to one of le Carré’s characteristic milieus, an exclusive men’s club full of oafish, swearing ex-patriates, one of whom – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – is singled out as some kind of expert about the future of the Canal. But what he actually does is drone on for pages about the ‘fucking Japs’ and the ‘fucking Chinks’ and the ‘fucking Yanks’, as if such dismissive swearing improves his ‘insights’. But there are no insights, no intelligence and, like a lot of other le Carré experts, he sounds from the start like a foul-mouthed, drunken idiot.

Here is Jonah explaining that the Japanese have, supposedly, developed a new technology for converting their poor quality oil sources into good quality oil, thus turning them into a world-shaking threat:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle… The Nips have found their magic emulsion. Which means that your tenure here in Paradise is scheduled to last about five minutes by the station clock. You pour it in, you shake it all about, and bingo, you’ve got oil like all the other boys. Fucking oceans of it. And once they’ve built their own Panama Canal, which is going to happen in the flick of a very small mayfly’s dick, they will be in the very happy position of being able to flood the fucking world with it.’ (p.290)

Bar room drunk. And, of course, wildly wrong: the Japanese were just about to embark on their twenty-year period of ‘stagflation, during which they have been eclipsed by other up-and-coming powers. ‘Then there are the prolonged scenes with the wicked media mogul Hatry ‘discussing’ his plans with his sidekick Cavendish – which amount to page after page of the crudest bar-room prejudices wrapped up in the coarsest swearing, in which they try to outdo each other with the potty-mouthed stupidity of their shouted opinions.

Quite possibly the men who run everything do shout ‘fuck’ at each other all the time, but as a rule of thumb, the more swearing there is in these novels, the less analysis or insight.

Religion

Religious imagery and vocabulary are also dragged in to help inflate events and descriptions, to make everything bigger sounding, louder and more significant.

The rows of ladies’ summer frocks like convent martyrs… (p.115)

The Blüthner household became his secret paradise, a shrine that he could only ever visit alone. (p.128)

In the beginning was the Hard Word, he told himself… Arthur Braithwaite, known to Louisa and the children as God. (p.277)

The Canal smouldered to the left of them and the mist coiled over it like an eternal dew. Pelicans dived through the mist and the air inside the car smelled of ship’s oil and nothing in the world had changed or ever would, Amen. (p.189). [Why the Amen? The opening phrases are brilliantly descriptive: why drag it round to a pointless orotund piece of bombast?]

When Harry goes to meet the US general in charge of the canal Louisa describes it as ‘a pilgrimage’. As he drives up the hillside of the US base he feels as if ‘he had experienced a vicarious promotion on his way to Heaven’ (p.196) When Osnard decides to try for the Foreign Office, he realises he has found his ‘Grail’ (p.233) Luxmore speaks of the righteousness of Osnard’s ‘high mission’ (p.245). When Maltby invites Fran for breakfast, that’s not how he phrases it; he asks

whether it would be an offence against Creation if he took her to the Pavo Real for a boiled egg. (p.382)

The rule of three

Classical authors writing about rhetoric formulated ‘the rule of three’. This is simply that, as a general rule in speaking and in writing, concepts or ideas presented in threes are more interesting, more enjoyable and more memorable than in ones or twos, while four is too many.

Again and again, as you read through the novel, you feel that le Carré doesn’t analyse situations or people: he massages and shapes them, using strings of synonyms, repetitions, high-flown comparisons. The repetition gives the impression of that analysis or understanding is taking place, but it is purely rhetorical. Sometimes more or less, but often in tell-tale threes:

[Harry] was Robin Hood, bringer of hope to the oppressed, dispenser of justice. (p.89)

‘The people the other side of the bridge… the hidden rank and file… the strivers and believers…’ (p.89)

‘The sham, Andy, the veneer, the beneath the surface…’ (p.88)

‘[Louisa] greets, she covers, she papers over the cracks.’ (p.81)

[Harry’s philosophy aims…] To make it tolerable. To befriend it. To draw its sting. (p.78)

A long slow complicitous, insinuating, unnerving policeman’s shrug, expressing false ease, terrible powers and an immense store of superior knowledge. (p.99)

I’m here for ever. Banged up. In the womb. Doing time. Turn off engine, turn off air-con. Wait. Cook. Sweat. (p.115)

Mickie my failure, my fellow prisoner, my spy. (p.315)

My suits are not confrontational. They hint. They imply. They encourage people to come to you. They help you improve your life, pay your debts, be an influence in the world. (p.315)

‘These men of the world understand that. They know what it is to be unseen, unheard, unknown.’ (p.332)

‘All that is being offered here is a helping hand – the counsel of wise heads – a steadying influence upon a brilliantly managed operation.’ Suck of teeth, sad frown of troubled father, the placatory tone raised to entreaty. (p.380)

Here, take this, it’s Osnard’s money, Judas money, Mickie money, now it’s yours… Undertaker money. Police money. Chiquilla money. (p.383)

I am chosen. I am blessed. I walk on water. (p.399)

[Of Osnard sexually ‘taking’ the drunk Louisa] Then he took her very slowly and deliberately, using all his skills and hers. To shut her up. To tie a loose cannon to the deck. To get her safely into my camp before whatever battle lay ahead. Because it’s a maxim of mine that no reasonable offer should ever be passed up. Because I always fancied her. Because screwing one’s friends’ wives is never less than interesting. (p.4110

In these examples the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation of rhetoric is pleasantly satisfying, filling, gives you the sense you’ve learned or grasped something. But you haven’t. It is fine-sounding wind.

‘The Silent Opposers. Mickie’s Boys. Waiters-in-the-Wings,’ I call them. (p.94)

‘We’re not asking her to plant a bomb in the Palace o’ Herons, shack up with the students, go to sea with the fishermen.’ (p.262)

The rule of threes (ie how to pad out your writing but also make it sound weighty and meaningful) also applies to paragraphs.

The imp again. (1) The one that pops up to remind us that nothing goes away; (2) that a moment’s jealousy can spawn a lifetime’s fiction; (3) and that the only thing to do with a man once you’ve pulled him low is pull him lower. (p.90)

It sounds fine. Is any of it ‘true’ or worth a second thought? At other moments the rule is applied to make life choices or situations sound profound and serious. For example, Marta refuses to move back to her old house:

Can’t because her parents had lived where this building now stood.
Can’t because this was her Panama.
Can’t because her heart was with the dead. (p.130)

Interestingly, the rule works fine if the prose is not straining for pseudo-profundity. Simple descriptions often benefit from the rule, when used to create atmosphere, a mood, a scene.

A silence for spies while the waiter replenished their water glasses. A chink of ice cubes like tiny church bells. And a rush like genius in Pendel’s ears. (p.93)

But either way, there is a strong compulsion on every page to exaggerate, over-write, big up, and repeat, repeat, repeat things numerous times in different ways. Which partly explains why these novels feel so very long.

But she didn’t answer, didn’t stir, didn’t turn her head. (p.428)

Like the ‘legendary’ status given to everyone in the books, like the profuse swearing, the tags and quotes and the fake religious vocabulary, the addiction to saying three times what could more crisply and clearly be said once, lends the characters and plot a spurious importance. But these threes are merely one sub-set of the dominating quality of this prose style, which is:

Bombast and exaggeration

Present in and dominating every paragraph, every page, every description and piece of dialogue, is the overwhelming use of bombast, exaggeration and hyperbole – high sounding but empty of information. Rich in attitude – poor in insight.

The Club Unión is where the super-rich of Panama have their presence on earth. (p.73)

This kind of heavy-handed facetiousness was rampant throughout The Honourable Schoolboy, set among the ‘legendary’ hard-drinking journos of Hong Kong, but it becomes really ubiquitous, in fact it is the chief characteristic of the novels after The Secret Pilgrim. The tone of one, very narrow class or type. It is at its most pronounced when le Carré is describing actual upper-class toffs but it isn’t limited to them and in this novel extends, implausibly, to the other not-public school characters, such as half-Jewish Borstal Boy from the East End, Harry. When Harry is deciding whether or not to accept Osnard’s offer, he finds he can’t get into bed with his wife. How is this little decision couched? He

leaves his bed to the pure in heart. (p.124)

When Harry arrives at his office and goes out back to say hello to the girls who sew the suits, he exchanges words with them like ‘a great commander on the eve of battle’ (p.133). At the hotel where he introduces Osnard to his circle, he talks like this:

‘Allow me to present my good friend Andy Osnard, one of Her Majesty’s favourite sons recently arrived from England to restore the good name of diplomacy.’ (p.74)

When Harry really starts embellishing his reports, he is

now genius, now slavish editor of his imaginings, master of his cloud kingdom, prince and menial in one… An explosion, Harry boy, an explosion of the flesh. A rage of power, a swelling up, a letting go, a setting free. A bestriding of the earth, a proving of God’s grace, a settling of debts. The sinful vertigo of creativity, of plundering and stealing and distorting and reinventing, performed by one transported, deliriously consenting, furious adult with his atonement pending and the cat swishing its tail. (p.318)

And when he confronts the body of the dead Mickie, he knows that

Harry Pendel, tailor, purveyor of dreams, inventor of people and places of escape, had murdered his own creation. (p.427)

It is almost like a challenge, like a party game where you have to talk for a minute converting every single phrase you use into the most bloated, pompous, pretentious, overblown, hyperbolic bombast you can think of – and score double if you can slip in an old tag from the Bible, Shakespeare or the more obvious English poets, along with as many public school idioms as possible – ‘good chap, stout fellow, good man, plays with a straight bat, sound chap, wonderful fellah, she’s a bit of alright, shouldn’t mind old boy’.

I laughed out loud when Harry is driving back from talking with Osnard, having decided to work for him, and the text therefore describes him as ‘the Great Decider.’ Not an atom of text must go uninflated. The next day, in his cutting room, Harry begins work on a suit and le Carré does – what? – take the mickey? express affection? – when he describes him as:

The Mature Man of Affairs, the Great Weigher of Arguments and Cool Assessor of Situations. (p.134)

A set of three grand abstract nouns, in capitals. Even little details are inflated. The scrambler phone to London is known as ‘the digital link with God’ (p.228). Luxmore has a phone in his office which ‘links him with other immortals on Whitehall’s Mount Olympus.’ (p.241)

There is an explosion of this kind of thing when Harry is called to an audience with the President of Panama to measure him for his new uniform. The capitalised epithets fly so thick and fast I realised that this scene and their use are meant to be funny.

The Sun King himself, the All Pervading, the Shining One, the Divine Misser of Hours…His Sublimity strode forward… the Immortal One.. his Radiance…his Supremacy… his Immensity… His Transparency… the World’s Greatest Leader… the Master of the Earth… the Lord of the Universe, the Grand Master of Panama’s political chess-board… the Keeper of the Keys to Global Power… His Luminosity… (pp.154-57)

So is that why they’re used so liberally elsewhere? Is this kind of laboured facetiousness what my English teacher used to call ‘attempts at humour’? Thus, when Osnard becomes ‘the official Canal Watcher’ is that, in and of itself, supposed to be funny? Or when Cavendish explains that drinking booze at lunchtime is frowned upon these days in America, he doesn’t put it like that, he says:

In today’s Born Again Washington, said Geoff Cavendish, alcohol at lunchtime was regarded as the Mark of the Beast. (p.338)

Why the hyperbole, why the grandiose reference to religion/the Bible? Why can nothing be simply said? If it’s intended to be funny, it isn’t – it’s tiresome.

Mealy mouthed

Defined by the dictionary as ‘not willing to tell the truth in clear and simple language’. Le Carré’s verbosity, his fluency, his unstoppable torrent of lyric descriptions and multiple descriptors, amounts eventually to a sustained evasion of telling it straight. Here he is being characteristically facetious about an important politician in Panama.

The peerless Ernesto Delgado, Washington-approved straight arrow and Preserver of the Golden Past. (p.108)

The prose gets up on stilts and uses capital letters, legendary nicknames, religious quotes, public school banter and exaggeration to such an extent that it eventually becomes quite hard to understand what’s going on. I read the three pages which describe the media mogul, Hatry’s, plan to support the US invasion of Panama several times, but it is depicted in such a sweary, hyperbolical and overblown dialogue that I still don’t really understand his motivation. And at moments like this the suspicion arises that the bombastic style and dialogue is deployed so widely because there often is no reason behind the conversations or the plot. (It is telling that the entire character of sweary, shouty Hatry, his entourage and conspiracy, is dropped from the movie. The plot doesn’t, in fact, need it.)

These later novels are written in such a tone of permanent sarcastic facetiousness that it begs the question: if the author doesn’t take his own characters or stories seriously – if, in fact, he devotes a good deal of energy to taking the mickey out of them, exaggerating, stylising and mocking them – why should we?

Conclusion

Whether you like le Carré’s later novels comes down to whether you enjoy the ponderous facetiousness, the heavy humour, the showy bombast and the slang and banter of the tremendously posh public school characters which they describe. If so, you will enjoy the hundreds of pages in which you are marinaded in their pukka prose style and upper-class attitudes.

The plots are clever. The background research pays off. The locations are colourful. The tradecraft is very believable. The sophisticated structuring, the use of flashbacks, memories and key moments to create depth and colour to the characters, all work really well. And there are felicities of description and phrasing on every page. But for me these achievements are cancelled out by the heavy-handed and over-the-top style, by the permanent boom of the upper-class bombast, which outweighs the book’s many, many virtues.


The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 2001, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan as Osnard and Geoffrey Rush as Harry Pendel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as his American wife, Louisa. Interestingly, le Carré co-wrote the screenplay and was Executive Producer.

The most obvious change required by the movie version of any novel is to transform the lead characters so they can be played by bankable stars, and to trim and simplify the plot so it can be understood by teenagers in Iowa. Thus vast swathes of the upper class content and attitude is ditched; Osnard is no longer an impossibly posh, fat, sweating old Etonian: he is Pierce Brosnan. My son watched it with me and made three penetrating observations:

1. Why do they have to swear so much? Brosnan effs and blinds all the way through, setting the tone of the film early on when he watches a pretty girl dancing in a hotel and says, ‘I’d fuck that.’ When Harry is reluctant to go along with his plans, Brosnan says, ‘Don’t be a cunt, Harry.’ And early on, explaining spying, he says, ‘It’s like oral sex – it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it.’ Funny? No. Embarrassing? Yes. Lowering? Very.

2. It’s a bit ‘rapey’. Both my kids use this word to describe men who are creepily lecherous, constantly making suggestive remarks, touching, looking or talking inappropriately. Thus Brosnan talks about ‘fucking’ more or less every woman he meets and – very improbably – he does. Posh Law Lord’s daughter Francesca is the only woman on the embassy staff and has maybe two minutes of screen time before she is being fucked very hard standing up in his apartment, later on being seen being fucked very hard lying down on his bed. It must be very depressing being a female actor. Two or three moments of rolling her eyes at Brosnan’s suggestive banter and then we are watching her boobs bobble about as he ruts her.

Brosnan tries to chat up Jamie Lee Curtis (as Harry’s wife, Louisa) every time he sees her, creepily stroking her back on a family outing with Harry and their kids, and then grabbing her breasts when she comes to his apartment late at night, before pushing her forcefully onto the bed into a pre-rape position.

Both Francesca and Louisa are supposedly highly intelligent professionals – a senior embassy official and a senior figure in the Canal Administration, respectively. But their main role in the film is to swoon when the male hero comes in sight and then get their breasts out. The ease with which they are both seduced is so unlikely as to make the whole film seem a preposterous male fantasy. When this film was released, the writer (le Carré) and director (Boorman) were both about 69 years old. It seems like a blast from an old-fashioned, much more sexist past, as my son was quick to point out. But it is true enough to the spirit of the book in which various lecherous old men try to seduce young, old, married or single women. At Louisa’s dinner party one of Panama’s eminent men spends his time working his shoeless foot up Louisa’s legs towards her crotch, while ogling the married woman opposite,

squinting down the front of Donna Oakley’s dress which is cut on the lines of Emily’s dresses, breasts pushed upwards like tennis balls and the cleavage pointing due southward to what her father when he was drunk had called the industrial area. (p.175)

Lovely.

3. Is it meant to be funny? Like the book, the film thinks it is funny, but is so heavy-handed, crude and violent as to be gobsmackingly humourless. When Harry measures Osnard for his suit there’s a moment when he asks whether Osnard ‘dresses’ to the left or the right. As in the book, Osnard says, ‘Never know where the bloody thing is. Bobs about like a windsock’ (p.61) and the film pauses there for the audience to laugh its pants off. In fact the film likes this joke so much that it has Harry repeat it down the phone to his wife, Louisa, who laughs like a drain. But is it funny? No. Just crude.

Brosnan insists on having his secret meetings with Harry in a brothel. Here he can lie on a bed and watch porno films while Harry spins his lies. At one moment Brosnan pops a coin in the slot and the whole whorehouse bed starts vibrating and the miserable Harry has to continue recounting his stories while his voice oscillates absurdly. My son and I discussed this: presumably the writer and director thought this made for a funny scene. But in fact Harry’s unhappiness, Brosnan’s coarseness, and the hard core porn film which we see a lot of in the background, are the opposite of light and witty. They are crude and heavy. It is the regular recurrence of scenes of sweaty lechery, interspersed with scenes of sickening violence, which dominate the film’s mood and undermine attempts at lightness or humour.

In the very last scene Brosnan has made his getaway with the money and is on a charter plane flying out of Panama. The pretty stewardess plumps down in the seat in front of him and Brosnan uses the same line he used to chat up Francesca from the Embassy: ‘There are two ways we can do this, wait until the last minute to have a passionate affair and not regret having done it sooner; or go for it now and find out whether we like it or not.’ a) Those alternatives are not really relevant to a short air flight b) presumably we’re meant to smile and tut at the old dog up to his waggish tricks; presumably it is meant to be a sharp, witty ending to the film. And it is an appropriate end to the film, but not in the way its makers intended – instead it tends to confirm the uneasy feeling you’ve had all along that this is an out-of-date, dingily lecherous, middle-aged man’s fantasy.


Credit

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré was published in 1996 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes and references are from the 1997 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford and personally recruited – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has seduced his girlfriend, Emma, too, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three, expensively-educated but stupid upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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