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The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carre (1963) 258 p.

Although I’m not a reader of spy fiction I’d naturally heard of John le Carre, the world’s most famous and best-selling author in the genre, and because of the name I’d always assumed he was French. Turns out it’s actually the pen name of English author David Cornwell, who was naturally forced to assume an identity because he was basing his novels on all sorts of secret stuff when he was working for the British intelligence services in the 1950s and 1960s. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is probably the best-known espionage novel of all time, challenged only by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, also one of le Carre’s.

The book is a classic story from the early, nasty days of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall had only just gone up and many Western agents suddenly found themselves trapped in the East. The novel begins with Alec Leamas, the fifty-something chief of British intelligence in West Berlin, waiting at Checkpoint Charlie for the attempted escape of one of his spies from the other side. The spy is shot dead – the last of a ring that had been targeted in recent months – and with no more agents in the field, Leamas is recalled to London. There, partly to find out how the East Germans managed to uncover so many of their operatives, and partly out of sheer revenge against them, Leamas and his handlers construct a complex triple agent scheme which will see him falsely defect to the East.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is set in 1963, but this is the early 1960s, before the Beatles and hippies and free love and Vietnam. This 1960s is far more like the 1950s: cold, grey, bleak and austere. Rationing from WWII had only recently ended in England, and the war itself was still fresh in everybody’s mind. There is a palpable sense of conflict and tension, of a world being on the brink of war. It’s easy to look back and think that the Cold War, all in all, didn’t turn out too badly, but hindsight is always 20/20. Another turn of events could very easily have seen Europe torn apart again. The most interesting thing about The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is that despite so clearly being a relic of its time, it also feels very modern, because of how cynical and nihilistic it is. The novel’s overall theme is that the West’s methods are incompatible with its ideals, and Communism certainly isn’t presented in a positive light; but the spies on both sides of the Iron Curtain are portrayed as ruthless and amoral, part of a deadly game which has terrible emotional and personal consequences for them, ultimately having more in common with each other than with the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting. It’s very common now, in the age of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, to look back on the Cold War with a sort of nostalgia – a time when the line was clearly, literally drawn, when the ideologies were on a level playing field, when the soldiers wore uniforms. Nowadays, presenting intelligence work as morally murky is par for the course; take the Bourne movies, for example, in which the CIA is presented as a monolithic villain. But for its time, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold must have been very shocking.

Unfortunately, as a product of its time, it’s also deeply sexist, and not in a way that can be overlooked like in the works of John Wyndham. One of the novel’s major characters, Liz, is a woman in her early twenties. Apart from plot reasons, she’s mostly in the book to serve as a symbol of innocence and purity, which le Carre might get away with if not for the fact that this goes hand in hand with writing her as a silly, weak, impressionable, hysterical child, who falls easily and desperately in love with Leamas, as though there was never any question that she would fall for the first man to move into her orbit, and without anybody ever seeming perturbed by their gross age disparity. I don’t like to be too critical of the politics of writers who were merely products of their time, but this was really one of the most irritatingly sexist books I’ve read in a while.

Other than that, though, it’s a solid novel. A little bit too complicated – a lot of characters that go by generic surnames, a lot of doublecrossing and a lot of information withheld from the reader at critical junctures, but I suppose that’s the nature of the genre. It’s a moody, atmospheric work that I enjoyed a fair bit, even though I think it’s one of those books that’s famous for being an influential landmark rather than a particularly great novel in and of itself. I liked it enough to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy somewhere down the line.


Terry Pratchett and a pig at Hay Festival 2012
What can I say about Terry Pratchett that will add to the chorus of voices singing his praises today? A writer and a fantasist, a witty philosopher, an inspiration and an entertainer of millions of people. A wonderful person, an honest and humble man who faced down his premature death sentence with dignity, bravery and an unflappable sense of humour that I doubt many of us could muster. All I can do, as I’m sure so many of us are doing, is share my own memories and experiences.

The first Discworld book I ever read was The Fifth Elephant. This is the fifth book in the City Watch cycle and certainly not an ideal place to start, but as a kid I didn’t know any better. I must have been 11, I suppose, since it came out in 2000; although I borrowed it from the library rather than part with hard-earned pocket money on an author I’d always been dubious about. (Josh Kirby’s bizarre covers, with their crazily muscular heroes and ridiculously buxom women, always looked a bit off-putting; I was too young to realise that the covers themselves were parodies.) Like any memorable book I still recall exactly where I read The Fifth Elephant, in a caravan at the back of my aunt and uncle’s place down in Capel in the middle of winter. I can’t remember what holiday that was or what we were doing there, but I remember being completely enchanted by a cynical and savvy detective, clever political intrigue in a fantasy kingdom, and a thrilling flight from werewolves through a snowy forest.

That was what surprised me: just how much of a serious novel it was. I knew that Pratchett was a humourous writer, but The Fifth Elephant was so much more than a series of jokes and puns and silliness. It was a proper, serious, dramatic story, involving travel to a far-flung land, political conspiracies, murder, subterfuge, love, family. Although I was probably too young to properly appreciate it, Pratchett was making observations about topics ranging from geopolitics to modernisation to the nature of violence, and hundreds of little things in between; the Discworld books, as any reader will tell you, are peppered with sly and witty observations about the human condition. Dealing in fantasy and comedy, two things which are by definition not meant to be taken seriously, Pratchett was crafting some of the most realistic characters I’d yet encountered in my short reading life. And I was delighted, of course, to find that there were another twenty-three marvellous books like this to read. (Now there are forty, and it would appear that Pratchett completed a forty-first before his death.)

These days, what most people know about Terry Pratchett is that he’s a humourous writer; a comic fantasy novelist. But like most funny people, he uses humour because he wants to be taken seriously. And god damn it, I’m still instinctively writing about him in present tense, because for as long as we knew this was coming it still seems wrong that he’s gone. 66 was far too young for a man of this calibre, a titan of English letters and the finest satirist of the modern age, to be taken away from us.

If you’ve never read any Pratchett before and the collective wave of internet sadness over his passing is making you think you should, all I can say is: yes, please do. You won’t regret it. Start with Pratchett’s own suggestion of Guards, Guards, the eighth Discworld novel but the first of the City Watch cycle and the introduction of Sam Vimes, one of the greatest antiheroes of all time – or the most “fully realised decent man in modern literature,” as Andrew Brown puts it in a wonderful piece over at the Guardian.

After having read The Fifth Elephant, I hoovered down the rest of the Discworld series over the course of my early teenage years. I can honestly say that no other artist or writer – with the possible exception of Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes – had such an impact on my understanding of human nature and the messy, complex, funny, terrible, exciting state of the world. He was cynical, but not a cynic; exasperated, but amused. In some immeasurable way, to some degree, Terry Pratchett shaped my personality; certainly more so than any other books I read as a child. Like so many other young readers, I owe him a great debt.

All I can do to repay it is to urge everybody to read his marvellous body of work, which is a fairly pointless edict, since the public doesn’t need my instruction. Pratchett was popular enough as it was (the best-selling author in Britain, in fact, before JK Rowling nudged him out) and I have no doubt that with his passing, his reputation and his legacy will continue to grow. A comparison with Dickens might seem excessive – but only to people who haven’t read him.

In recent years, despite their misgivings, I put both my best friend and my girlfriend on to Pratchett, and watching them enjoy the Discworld series made me want to re-read it. Now, as a sort of Grub Street commemoration, seems like a very appropriate time to revisit the works of an author who had such a great influence on me. I’m already looking forward to it.

No-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away – until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.

– From Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett (1991)

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