Cornelia Parker @ Tate Britain

Cornelia Parker (CBE, RA) is a very well-known and successful figure in British art. Born in 1956, she’s become famous for her ‘immersive’ i.e. BIG works. Above all she is a conceptual artist. What is conceptual art? According to the Tate website:

Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. It emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and the term usually refers to art made from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

In some exhibitions you react to the painting or sculpture immediately, as an object in space which fills your visual cortex with sensations and impressions. You don’t necessarily have to read the wall labels. With conceptual art it is almost always vital to read the wall label in order to understand what you’re looking at. Sure, you could still respond naively and sensuously to the work’s appearance but you would be missing out on 99% of its meaning and intention.

The wonderful wall labels

This major retrospective of Parker’s career brings together almost 100 works, spanning the last 35 years. So that’s quite a lot of reading you have to do in order to understand almost every one of these pieces.

But a major feature of the exhibition is that the wall labels are written by Parker herself. Most wall labels at exhibitions are written by curators who, in our day and age, are obsessed with the same handful of issues around gender and ethnicity and lose no opportunity to bash the visitor over the head with reminders of Britain’s shameful, imperial, racist, slave-trading past etc etc.

So it is a major appeal of this exhibition that, instead of every single piece explained solely in terms of race or gender – as it would be if Tate curators had written them – Parker’s own wall labels are fantastically interesting, insightful, thought-provoking insights into her way of thinking and seeing the world. Instead of the world of art being reduced to a handful of worn-out ideas, Parker’s wall labels are as entertainingly varied as her subject matter, full of stories, anecdotes, bright ideas, explanations of technique, aims, collaborations.

They give you a really privileged insight into her worldview and into her decades’-long ability to be interested, curious, take everyday objects and have funny and creative ideas about how to transform them. After spending an hour and a half working through her thought processes for the different pieces, some of her creative spirit begins to rub off on you, you begin to see the everyday world the way she does, full of opportunities for disruptive and fun interventions. In this respect, this exhibition is one of the most genuinely inspiring I’ve ever been to.

Types of work

The exhibition includes immersive installations, sculptures, photographs, embroidery and drawings, as well as four large-scale, room-sized installations, and two rooms showing her art films. At the simplest, physical level, the pieces can be divided into two categories: Small and Large. Examples of the small will serve as an introduction to the large.

Introductory

In the downstairs atrium of Tate Britain stands a single sculpture, preparing you for the exhibition ahead.

The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Tate Photography

It is, of course, a life-size cast of Rodin’s sculpture, The Kiss, wrapped up in a mile of string. A vague symbolic gesture towards ‘the ties that bind’ people in relationships, maybe. In the nearby wall label Parker describes this as a ‘punk gesture’, which I found very significant. It’s the only time she mentions punk but she was just 20 when it hit, maybe at art school by then, so its attitude of really offensive, in-your-face irreverence must have taken her art school by storm. The point is, various later wall labels repeatedly say that she is interested in destruction and violence – but not violence against persons, against things. Her art does violence to inanimate objects in all kinds of inventive, creative and often very funny ways.

But there is, as so often, a further twist to the tail. Wrapping The Kiss in string is a relatively tame thing to do compared with Dada, Surrealist, Duchamp provocations from 100 years ago. It becomes more interesting when you learn that some opponents of conceptual art within the art world, fellow young irreverent artists, vandalised the original version of The Distance by cutting up the string into short sections, thus ‘liberating’ the sculpture.

And best of all, that Parker was undaunted and promptly gathered up all the cut-up pieces of string and tied them back together around a mysterious object at the centre, ‘a secret weapon’, which is unnamed and unknown.

‘The Distance (with concealed weapon)’ by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Small

I’ll jump straight in and give examples.

‘The Negative of Words’ (1996)

Parker realised that when an engraver engraves words into silver, for example into a cup like the Wimbledon champion’s cups, tiny fragments or curls of silver are generated. This piece is a pile of the shavings thus created. Parker contacted a silversmith, who agreed to her proposal, and it took several months to accumulate enough shavings for her to create the little mound, with sprinkled outliers, which we see on display here. As she points out, each sliver represents a letter, is the trace of a letter, is the inverse of writing, of language. They are absences made solid. This idea really resonated with me as I admired this carefully created little mound and its sprinkled outliers.

‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker (1996) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

‘Luck Runs out’ (1995)

In the case next to it is an old dictionary. Under careful supervision, Parker arranged for a shotgun loaded with dice to be fired into the back of the book. The die penetrated to different depths into the text and jammed most of the pages together.  As it happens the post-shooting dictionary automatically fell open at a page about ‘luck’. Hence the title, The luck of the draw. The roll of the dice.

‘Luck Runs Out’ and ‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Apparently it’s part of a series titled ‘Avoided Objects’, so-called ‘object poems’ which ‘explore the fractured, unmade and unclassified’. The series explores ‘the denied and repressed’, which sounds a bit hackneyed and stale until she goes on to specify what that means in practice – the backs, underbellies or tarnished surfaces of things, which is much more interesting. Hence shooting this dictionary ‘in the back’.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995)

While in Hartford Connecticut, Parker asked to visit the factory where the famous Colt 45 handgun is made. She was surprised to discover the process began with blank featureless gun-shaped casts, before any working parts were added. She asked if she could have one and the Americans, obliging as ever, gave her two and gave them a nice smooth industrial polish. Adding the word ’embryo’ to firearm juxtaposes the birth of the gun with the general idea of the birth of a human being, alongside a tool which might potentially bring it to an end.

‘Embryo money’ (1996)

Fascinated by money, Parker asked permission to visit the Royal Mint in Pontyclun, Wales. She asked for some samples of coins before they were ‘struck’ i.e. had the monarch’s face, writing, value, corrugated edges and everything else added – just the blank dummy coins. Embryo money, before it has accrued any of the power which so dominates all our lives.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995) and ‘Embryo money’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

See what I mean by ‘conceptual’. You could relate to these just as intriguing objects, but the stories behind them – the anecdotes of Parker’s expeditions to interesting and unusual places to see industrial processes in action – add immeasurably to the enjoyment.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996)

Parker developed a relationship with His Majesty’s Customs and Excise. She visited and got to know them at their Cardiff headquarters over a period of several months. One of the many, many types of contraband objects they confiscate are drugs. Parker persuaded them to let her have a seizure of cocaine after it had been incinerated. A million pounds worth of cocaine turned to ash, which is on display here, as a sad little pile.

In her wall label, Parker adds the coda, which you’d never have got from a curator, that she really loves the way Customs and Exercise destroy things in such a theatrical way, steamrollering fake Rolex watches or alcohol. ‘Like me, they are often symbolically killing things off.’ This kind of casual, candid opinion is a lovely insight into her way of thinking.

Inhaled cliffs’ (1996)

A personal favourite was ‘Inhaled cliffs’. She asked Customs about methods people use to smuggle stuff into the country, especially drugs, and discovered that some drugs can be used to ‘starch’ sheets, so a set of innocuous looking sheets turn out to be drenched in heroin, cocaine or other illicit substances which can be extracted once they’re safely in the country. This notion inspired ‘Inhaled cliffs’ in which Parker starched sheets with chalk from the white cliffs of Dover, ‘smuggling’ those great symbols of England into bed with her. She is tickled by the notion of ‘sleeping between cliffs’.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996) and Inhaled cliffs’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

I’m focusing a bit much on these objects in cases. There were conventional things attached to the wall, prints, flat objects treated in various ways. Photographs, for example. On her way to her studio past Pentonville Prison she noticed workmen plastering cracks in the perimeter wall, creating vivid white abstract shapes. They then started to whitewash the wall as a whole so, before these irregular, crack-shaped gestures disappeared, she quickly took photos with her phone and developed a set of 12 prints which are hung here, titled ‘Prison Wall Abstract’.

Or the ‘Pornographic drawings’ (1996). As part of her ongoing conversations with HM Customs she asked for examples of contraband and they gave her (along with the bag of cocaine ashes) chopped up lengths of pornographic film. Parker dissolved the fragments in solvent to create her own ink. She used this ink to create Rorschach blots i.e. poured them on one side of a piece of folded paper, pressed the other side down on the inked side and reopened it to have a symmetrical image. For some reason, all the ones she made (or chose to display) came out ‘to be particularly explicit’.

It dawns on me that these works are beyond ‘conceptual’ in the sense that they might better be described as anecdotal. Often there isn’t a grand concept, project or goal behind them – there is happenstance and accident. Seeing an opportunity to do something interesting and seizing it.

The other obvious thing is that she’s about transforming objects from one state to another. She starts with ‘found objects’ – gun moulds, unstamped coins, porn movies, cocaine and so on – and, in the examples I’ve given, doesn’t even transform them herself, but recognises their artistic potential.

Medium

Using this technique of remodelling the existing and everyday, is a middle-sized work titled ‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ from 2013. Parker describes playing hopscotch on pavements with her daughter. This led her to pay attention to pavements and to notice the antiquity of the old stone paving in Bunhill Fields near Old Street. She got permission to pour liquid rubber into the cracks in a path through Bunhill Fields. When the rubber dried she used the mould to make a metal cast, memorialising the captured cracks in bronze. She then suspended the mould on pins so that the cracks in the pavement hover a few inches above the floor, making it seem more spectral and ghostly. (It’s an accidental quirk that my photo of it features so many people’s feet.)

‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ (2013) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Large

The interest in destruction I’ve mentioned earlier really comes to the fore in the three most famous room-sized installations in the exhibition. These are by way of being her greatest hits. They are:

  • Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988 to 89)
  • Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)
  • Perpetual canon (2004)

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

I’ll quote her wall label in its entirety:

We watch explosions daily, in action films, documentaries and on the news in never-ending reports of conflict. I wanted to create a real explosion, not a representation. I chose the garden shed because it’s the place where you store things you can’t quite throw away. The shed was blown up at the Army School of Ammunition. We used Semtex, a plastic explosive popular with terrorists. I pressed the plunger that blew the shed skywards. The soldiers helped me comb the field afterwards, picking up the blackened, mangled objects. In the gallery, as I suspended the objects one by one, they began to lose their aura of death and appeared reanimated. The light inside created huge shadows on the wall. The shed looked as if it was re-exploding or perhaps coming back together again. The first part of the title is a scientific term for all the matter in the universe that can’t be seen or measured. The second part describes a diagram in which a machine’s parts are laid out and labelled to show how it works.

I’ve seen photos of this many times. Seeing it in the flesh I realised several things:

  1. it is a mobile – a very complex mobile, but in principle the same kind of thing my son makes to hang his origami figures from his ceiling
  2. it has a cubic, rectangular shape i.e. it is the opposite of chaotically exploding outwards; it is very contained
  3. this is achieved by hanging multiple objects from the same string, not just one
  4. as people walk slowly respectfully round it the eddies of air they stir
  5. and placing a single light bulb at the centre of it means not only that is casts shadows on the wall, but as the string move gently, so a) your perspective through the multiple layers of debris shifts and changes b) the shadows they cast on the wall subtly change

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Perpetual canon (2004)

Again, I’ll give Parker’s words verbatim:

I was invited to make a work for a circular space with a beautiful domed ceiling. I first thought of filling it with sound. This evolved into the idea of a mute marching band, frozen breathlessly in limbo. Perpetual Canon is a musical term that means repeating a phrase over and over again. The old instruments had experienced thousands of breaths circulating through them in their lifetime. They had their last breath squeezed out of them when they were squashed flat. Suspended pointing upwards around a central light bulb, their shadows march around the walls. This shadow performance replaces the cacophonous sound of their flattened hosts. Viewers and their shadows stand in for the absent players.

Perpetual canon (2004) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

The ghosts of music past. I was really taken by the idea that the shadows of us, the visitors, stand in for the long-dead players of these instruments.

Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89)

Tate own this piece. In Tate’s words:

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ comprises over a thousand flattened silver objects, including plates, spoons, candlesticks, trophies, cigarette cases, teapots and trombones. All the objects were ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller at Cornelia Parker’s request. She then arranged the transformed silver artefacts into thirty disc-shaped groups, which are suspended about a foot from the floor by hundreds of fine wires. Each ‘disc’ is approximately ninety centimetres in diameter and they are always hung in orderly rows, although their overall configuration is adapted each time to the space in which the work is displayed. The title refers to the biblical story of how the apostle Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus in return for thirty pieces of silver.

And in Parker’s own words:

Drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to give in to my destructive urges on an epic scale. I collected as much silver plate as I could from car-boot sales, markets and auctions. Friends even donated their wedding presents. All these objects, with their various histories, shared the same fate: they were all robbed of their third dimension on the same day, on the same dusty road, by a steamroller. I took the fragments and assembled them into thirty separate pools. Every piece was suspended to hover a few inches above the ground, resurrecting the objects and replacing their lost volume. Inspired by my childhood love of the cartoon ‘deaths’ of Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry, I thought I was abandoning the traditional seriousness of sculptural technique. But perhaps there was another unconscious reason for my need to squash things. My home in east London was due to be demolished to make way for the M11 link road. The sense of anxiety lingers even now.

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ by Cornelia Parker (1988-89) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Newer works

‘War Room’ (2015)

The biggest thing in the show is a big long room entirely lined with red paper with holes in, titled ‘War Room’, from 2015. As usual, you need to read the wall label to understand what this is about.

‘War Room’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

In Parker’s own words:

I was invited to make a piece of work about the First World War. I had always wanted to go to the poppy factory in Richmond, London. Artificial poppies have been made there since 1922. They are sold to raise for money for ex-military personnel and their families. When I visited the factory, I saw this machine that had rolls of red paper with perforations where the poppies had been punched out. The fact that the poppies are absent is poignant, because obviously a lot of people didn’t come back from the First World War, and other wars since. In this room there’s something like 300,000 holes, and there’s many more lives lost than that. I decided to make War Room like a tent, suspending the material like fabric. It’s based on the magnificent tent which Henry VIII had made for a peace summit with the French king in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. About a year later they were at war again.

The story, the anecdote, is, as usual, interesting but the resulting work less so.. You walk in, you walk round, you walk out. Meh. A slightly shimmery effect is created by having two layers of hole-y red paper hanging everywhere but…this is a minimal effect.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ (2015)

One work dominates the penultimate room. It is an enormous, thirteen-metre long, hand-sewn embroidery of the Wikipedia page about Magna Carta.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

It is a collaborative work which involved over 200 volunteers including public figures, human rights lawyers, politicians and prisoners. On the wall is a list of the worthies who signed up to be involved, an entertaining list of the usual suspects: media-friendly left-of-centre politicians (Tom Watson, 55), actors, psychotherapists (Susie Orbach, 75), academics (Germaine Greer, 83), other high profile artists (Antony Gormley, 72), writers (Jeanette Winterson, 63, Philip Pullman, 75) and so on.

What struck me was how old all these people are. Our generation is declining, now, Cornelia. We’ve trashed the planet, wrecked the economy and degraded the political system for our children: best to withdraw tactfully and not keep on shouting and marching and trying to dominate everything. We’ve had our time. Over to a younger generation and hope they can do better.

The videos

There are two rooms featuring 7 or 8 art videos running consecutively. The best thing in the first room is a new six-minute video titled ‘FLAG 2022’ and made specially for this exhibition. Very entertainingly this shows the creation of a Union Jack by seamstresses in a factory only run backwards – so we see the British flag being systematically unsown and unstitched. It’s accompanied by a straight orchestral rendition of the hymn Jerusalem. Shame. It would have been funnier if Jerusalem had been played backwards, too – but maybe that would be a bit too 1960s, too much like the old avant-garde.

The second film room is about America. Oh dear. That far away country of which we hear so little, which is so rarely in the news, whose cultural products we so rarely get to see. This room contains:

  • One film which Parker shot at the annual Halloween Parade in New York, that city we so rarely hear about. Personally, I’d have though New York has enough artists of its own to do this kind of thing.
  • Another film showing supporters of Donald Trump milling about in New York outside Trump Tower sometime during his election campaign. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Donald Trump? He was quite big in America, apparently.

Frankly, these films are a let-down. It’s disappointing to see Parker genuflecting to God’s Own Country – as if New York or America need the slightest bit more coverage or publicity than the saturation exposure they already enjoy in the British media, TV, radio, films, academia, all across the internet and the toxic marshes of social media. There are other countries in the world, you know.

I’d like to have shared FLAG or any of the others in t his review, but I can’t find any of them on the internet.

Politics

From here onwards – in the second half of the exhibition – politics emerges as an increasingly dominant theme.

As well as the flag movie, the British film room includes a film made in the empty chamber of the House of Commons in 2018 using a camera attached to a drone, titled ‘Left Right and Centre’. Not only did they make this film, but they made a film about the making of the film, in which I caught Parker telling us how damn difficult it was to make because of health and safety, fire risk assessment etc. When artists start to think they are heroes…

I thought the result was very underwhelming. The drone hovered over the table you see in front of the Speaker of the House’s chair, set between the two front benches, which usually has the Mace on it – except in this film it had been covered with copies of England’s daily papers, which fluttered in the downdraft of the drone’s little rotors.

As with Donald Trump, I am sick to death of Parliament, the succession of incompetent politicians we have had leading our nation for the past 12 years, and the corrupt newspapers which lie and distort in order to keep the ruling party in power. Watching a 10-minute film on the wretched subject of contemporary British politics went a long way to destroying the happy, creative, open impression inspired by the first half of the exhibition.

In 2017 Parker was the first woman to be appointed official artist for the General Election. In this role, she observed the election campaign leading up to the 8 June vote, meeting with politicians, campaigners and voters and producing artworks in response. She made several films during this period including the aforementioned drone movie, and one titled ‘Election Abstract 2018’, a documentation of Parker’s observations during the campaign, posted on her Instagram account.

None of this, to my mind, is as funny or inventive as flattening a load of silverware with a steamroller, or displaying a little pile of incinerated cocaine, or soaking sheets in white cliff chalk, or taking a mould of Bunhill pavement. It just looks and sounds like the news, with little or no inventiveness and no particular insight. British politicians are idiots. Our newspapers are studies in bias and lies. So what’s new?

My heart sank even further when I read that another of her films is titled ‘Chomskian Abstract 2007’ and is an interview with the American social critic and philosopher Noam Chomsky, apparently about ‘the entwined relationship between ecological disaster and capitalism’.

Oh dear God. It’s not that Chomsky’s wrong or that hyper-capitalism driven on by American corporations and banks is not destroying the planet; it’s just that he is such a bleeding obvious choice for Great Man of the Left to interview. And so very, very, very old (born in 1928, Noam Chomsky turns 93 this year).

Is this the best Parker can do in the field of ‘radical’ or oppositional politics – interview a 93-year-old? It’s like waking up one morning and deciding you need to make a film about the environment and, after careful consideration, deciding you’d like to interview David Attenborough (aged 96) on the subject. Topics, and interviewees, don’t come more crashingly obvious than this.

Each year thousands and thousands of students in Britain graduate from international studies, politics or environmental courses. It would have been so much more interesting to interview the young, the future generation, and get their point of view rather than the done-to-death, decrepit old.

And he’s another Yank for God’s sake. What is it with the British cultural establishment and their cringing obeisance to American culture, artists, film-makers, politicians and intellectuals. Of the 200 contributors to the Magna Carta embroidery, in their summary of the show the curators single out just two – Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (who stitched ‘user’s manual’ into the embroidery) and Edward Snowden (who stitched the word ‘Liberty’).

Notice anything about them? Yes, they’re both American. Americans just seem carry more weight with Britain’s art establishment. They have a little more human value than mere Brits like you and me. More pizzazz, more glamour.

Lastly, what has Chomsky actually changed in his 50-odd years of railing against the American government and global capitalism? Nothing. Come to that, what good does getting 200 media-friendly worthies to contribute bits to a 13-metre-long embroidery achieve? Nothing. It’s a feel-good exercise for everyone involved and maybe it makes some of the gallery visitors feel warm and fuzzy and virtuous, too. Which is nice, but…

But meanwhile, out in the real world, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are destroying the economy, ruining Britain’s standing in the financial world, and declaring war on the poor, the unwell, the vulnerable, even trashing support among their own middle-class, mortgage-paying supporters, in a zombie march of ideologues divorced from reality.

Flying a drone round the House of Commons or stitching a room-length embroidery are not only feeble responses to the world we live in but, worse, I found them imaginatively limiting and cramped. If you’re going to tackle the terrible world of contemporary politics, at least do it with some style and imagination. Old newspaper photos of Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn didn’t take me anywhere new – unlike the pile of silver shavings or a cast of Bunhill pavement or most of the pieces in the first half of the show, which opened magic doors in my mind.

Maybe Parker should stick to what she does best – blowing things up. Guy Fawkes Night is coming. Just a thought…


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Absolute Friends by John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, the narrative turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the wit or style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like yet another channeling of le Carré’s own life story. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – exactly like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional instance, to Berlin (le Carré went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical but the product of research – nonetheless, the character’s feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of sustained sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is one of the defining characteristics of these books).

Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Here we come to one of le Carré’s most irritating mannerisms – the way so many of his protagonists are in awe of super-famous, notorious, legendary figures. Thus everyone in Berlin knows Sasah, just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel, everyone in the City knew ‘Tiger’ Single, and so on and so on.

Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but, again, like all le Carré leading men, the smirking ‘conqueror’ of numberless women – as well as being the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

It’s rather a relief that, for the first time in five or six novels, the books features scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary and/or what total rotters each other are, in that insufferably self-congratulatory public school way.

Indeed, the scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped no end by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat. All women in le Carré novels are young and beautiful and carefree, personally I find this thread rather creepy.

They go sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons so many people experienced in the early 1970s.

Ted teaches at schools (inevitably he has affair with one of the other master’s wives), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (obviously has an affair with a painter’s wife), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council.

He also lowers his sexual sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role Ted is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha, Sasha from the old days in the Berlin commune!

Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he became a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

Now, by the time of this backstage meeting with Ted, Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as ‘red fascists’. He has begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. And then he was amazed to see his old friend Ted’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha tells Ted he wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel whenever he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling, upper-class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to his British handlers.

The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy Two the British spy, Mundy Three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a tall, shaggy, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent.

Then, one day, Jay disappears, without a goodbye or anything. Amory explains to Ted that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (i.e. the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project.

(Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, i.e. in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March to May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again and explains everything I’ve just summarised in a flashback.

Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, Ted has returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

So as ‘the present’ of the novel opens, this school has shut down, bankrupted by the (possibly) criminal activities of Ted’s business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She explains that she is the victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes Zara’s protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart a jolly decent chap, an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the reason why le Carré had his protagonist born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But despite the naked contrivance of all this, the actual descriptions of Ted’s childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving.

Above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

And so all this brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex, where alternative discourses and theories can flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion.

It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them (Klein, Stiglitz). I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha. However, Ted is not that naive and the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, only to find it full of farm equipment, and then continues up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky!

Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’ i.e. the CIA: he’s been a freelancer, advising big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end Ted loads Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The big shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall.

Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then… some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Oh. OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in the leg and shoulder. He makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside. At which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst into the attic followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out in a bid to tell the truth but is stifled.

So official sources give out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, godammit!) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasi spy and failed radical. So much for the cover-up.

We go on to learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists who, in le Carré’s view, are always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy, with the American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography of him, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit together by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy John all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood. The same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and also in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator of le Carré’s fictions is always an interloper into these secret worlds, an outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma, who ends up overturning them. Thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays his slick arms dealer chief.

As part of his odd childhood, young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever.

From which he progressed to Oxford University, also notorious for promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status.

And then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (another institution not shy of turning its masters and pupils into legends) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background of a whole series of cliqueish little worlds full of people telling each other how terrific they are, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which consistently concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars.

The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero (the Old Etonian Justin Quayle) from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission where we first meet him, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which le Carré’s many fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced into a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

1. To be vastly patronising – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148) conveys a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh.

2. Appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)

3. To pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’

4. To show how superior one is to history by mocking it – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.255)

5. To conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany as ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)

6. To puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior upper class drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’; one of the teenage actors is described as ‘Lexham, our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)

7. Loftily mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)

8. Normal, standard use of ‘our’, striking for its rarity – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)

9. ‘Our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – Kate’s working class, northern father always refers to her as ‘our Kate’ (p.204)

10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:

  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown, superior, knowing mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper-class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing, for anything which isn’t detached and ironised.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name a character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘The former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity? This mockery owes more to P.G. Wodehouse than the thriller tradition.

Endless comparisons to boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice.’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy.’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school.’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • As he starts his career as a spy, Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe and tells you it is taking in the world-spanning implications of the American military-industrial complex, it is fighting a losing battle against the narrowing impact of the le Carré’s relentlessly public school and cricket mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realised that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geopolitical ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before he quietly dropped his plan.) Thus each of the novels deals with a Big Topic:

  • The Night Manager – the international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower (America) run riot

The big issue which this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex.

‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ le Carré has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’

Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative.

Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot, and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel.

Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed fascinating light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba).

Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are, on the whole, right wing and ridicule lefty politics so their anger is all the more impactful).

But it fails in this novel because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was already angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes bananas after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi and all the rest, I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel, but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments, and their central points, all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes.

But when a character has to explain the exact geopolitical crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: to the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, to the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, to the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, so you should, too.’

It’s also dismayingly characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot as if swearing guarantees the truth o what’s being sworn about:

‘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…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

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

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has the key explanations of the big theme of each of his post-Cold War novels delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

What’s ultimately so dismaying and demoralising isn’t what le Carré is saying, it’s its complete unoriginality: when you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – who among le Carré’s liberal readership is going to disagree with any of this?

Like all his readers I know al this already because I read about it in the papers all the time. I just don’t care very much because:

a) There is nothing I can do about it.
b) It is the way of the world. Which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry? Which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to an over-mighty America?
c) That was then. Things have moved on a lot since 2004.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris’s much more canny novels). But they do neither and feel too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should.

The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make le Carré’s views look childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony. In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or of competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character in Absolute Friends does not have a my-little-pony memory but… the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210).

So I’m still just about winning my bet. I just need there to be a pony reference in his last four novels and I win a pound.


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All page references are to the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities 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 also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard 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, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional 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 with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar except there was no terrorist. Instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

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