“I do give a damn”
After years of writing superior spy thrillers, author David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré, has evolved into an impassioned political commentator. The film of his novel The Constant Gardener – which opens this year’s London film festival – is a searing indictment of Britain’s recent record in Africa. In a rare interview, he talks to Stuart Jeffries about his ‘radical period’
Thu 6 Oct ‘05
One day, perhaps, David Cornwell will write a book called A Strange Kind of Patriot. It will make the narrative twists and turns of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold seem like plot devices for the Teletubbies. Its principal character will be someone who was a master at Eton, went on to become our man in Hamburg, served Her Majesty’s Secret Services (both MI5 and MI6), and who was exposed as a spy to the Soviets by the traitor Kim Philby. But it will also be about a man who, when asked why he stays in this benighted country, replies: “When Simon Wiesenthal was asked why he lived in Vienna, he said, ‘If you want to study the disease, you live in the swamp.’ So I live in the swamp.”
Cornwell is, most likely, being histrionic. After all, Britain is not a swamp. You can’t, for instance, play cricket in swamps. And cricket is not a small matter to Cornwell, the man who has written 19 novels under the pen name John Le Carré. He sweeps into the interview suite at a London hotel looking sartorially the very image of an MCC buffer, demanding to know the Test score after being confined for the past hour to a round-table grilling by continental journalists. This is a patriot who tells me he could easily have defected if he had wanted to, though it would have deprived him of excursions to Lord’s to see England attempt to rout uppity ex-colonials.