Saturday, 23 February 2013
'On Spies': Ben Jonson, James Bond, John Le Carré...
ON SPIES (Ben Jonson)
Spies, you are lights in state, but of base stuff,
Who, when you've burnt yourselves down to the snuff,
Stink and are thrown away. End fair enough.
I've just received my copy of the Skyfall DVD in the post, and I am looking forward to once again watching the delectable Daniel Craig as James Bond, doing insane things on the London Underground - and scary things happening at MI6 (pictured above, and not far from where I live), as well as M (Judi Dench) reciting Tennyson's 'Ulysses'. Rather awesome.
I have a peculiar fascination with spies. Sometimes it's just an idle habit of sitting on the tube and wondering who might be one. (I tend to fix on those who look like they're out of a John Le Carré novel, but it's more likely to be someone I would never think of.) It's not much to do with James Bond. As much as I love Daniel Craig, he's the only Bond I have taken much of an interest in; the violence and womanizing aren't really my thing, and most of the Bonds have not appealed to me anyway. (The fact that the suaver Bonds have done so little for me reminds of the fact that I only really like "suave" when it comes in the form of 1980s-era Bryan Ferry.)
I started reading John Le Carré when I was fairly young, probably 13 or 14, which was when I discovered The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, probably on my father's recommendation. I loved it - I have a vivid memory of sitting in the sunlight on one of the outside staircases at my junior high school, warm in the sunshine but taken by the book to somewhere cold, threatening, ambiguous and paranoid. I read quite a lot of Le Carré for some years, then less again for several more years, and I have been reading him again more seriously for the past six years or so.
I have managed to see Le Carré three times in London, which is pretty great considering he does not make many appearances. Once he gave a talk and reading at Southbank; once he read at World Book Night, transforming Trafalgar Square into the Brandenburg Gate; and I also saw him at the premiere of the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film, with the stars. Surprisingly, I came to his great Karla Trilogy - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People - very late, only starting about two and a half years ago. I would now rank them among my favourite books. Among Le Carré's other works, I've also really loved A Small Town in Germany, Absolute Friends and The Constant Gardener, among others. I tend to be weak on detail and intrigue and have to reread to figure out what's going on, but the atmosphere and characters are always incomparable.
There are some obsessions which hit on a level which is subconscious, or even unconscious, and I've felt for some time that this is one of those. I have a hard time explaining it. The real world of spydom sounds dark, amoral (or immoral) and sad. Le Carré certainly explores this. His characters tend to be unglamorous (the glamorous ones are highly suspect), stressed, clinging to the Secret Service because anything else seems equally unpalatable, and with sad, confused personal lives. George Smiley, a fat little spy, is a perfect example of this; he struggles to bring loyalty and morality into a world where such things tend to be either useless or dangerous. Smiley is curiously lovable. I was moved by this quotation from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgments in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible." When I watched Alec Guinness playing him in the BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries (I now consider it one of my favourite shows and performances) I realised that on some level I relate to him, which was unnerving. (I'm still trying to work that one out.) I loved the recent film as well, with some of my favourite actors, but the miniseries was particularly wonderful and faithful.
John Le Carré is an amazing writer with an extraordinary turn of phrase ("And now it was pouring with rain, Smiley was soaked to the skin and God as a punishment had removed all taxis from the face of London"), so my fascination has much to do with that, and the Englishness of it all ("Control hated everywhere except Surrey, the Circus, and Lords cricket ground"). But I know that I'm always intrigued by the placing of ordinary people in extreme and morally ambiguous situations. Plus, throw in a healthy dose of paranoia and I am utterly enthralled.
There does seem to be a lack of spy-themed poetry. If anyone can point me to some, I'd be delighted. Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a contemporary of Shakespeare, is best known as a playwright, and this epigraph 'On Spies' seems almost as though it could be spoken by a character in a play who is frustrated by clandestine operations and statecraft. It is an old and generally dishonourable profession.