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.


  1. This was a nicely done post on an unusual subject. I hadn't heard of that Ben Jonson epigraph, will have to look for it. I've not seen Skyfall yet, but am planning to watch the DVD, since I've heard so many good things about it. My favorite Bond was Pierce Brosnan.
    Enjoyed your thoughts on John Le Carre, too. You should see the film of "The Constant Gardener" it's very well done.

    1. Thank you for stopping by! I watched my Skyfall DVD tonight, enjoyable indeed. It's quite an irresistible mix of exotic locales with a lot of London/Britain, and the villain is fantastic.

      I have The Constant Gardener too, but it's a long time since I watched it - I remember it being pretty intense. Time to watch again, I think. There are still a good many Le Carre adaptations I haven't watched.

  2. Hey Clarissa, what a coincidence: I've been listening to the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy soundtrack these days (mostly Julio Iglesias' "La Mer" which is completely changed when you listen to it in the movie's final scene).

    How interesting you relate to Smiley. I couldn't relate to any of the characters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. All their predicaments seem so foreign to me! (I did, however, identify greatly with Tessa from The Constant Gardener, which is pretty scary.)

    But you know, given you live in London, near the MI6... who knows, you might bump into a spy and if you do, please please please tell me all about it, will you? ;)

    1. I remembered the very interesting post you did on spies in film, literature etc...and that wonderful artist James Hart Dyke who you discussed, who'd been commissioned by MI6 (here's his website, for those who are interested:

      My identification with Smiley is a bit of a mystery to me too. In recent years he is unquestionably in the top five fictional characters who I relate most to - it's something I feel strongly though it's hard to explain. Perhaps the fact that he looks innocent but is good at getting information out of people? ;) Actually, I think more than anything - he looks calm, but often feels conflicted about things and worries about the consequences and moral implications of dilemmas and situations. He also has moments of cold ruthlessness. Yes - I relate to all of that!

      I suspect that this being London, I may have bumped into a few spies! But I'll probably never know!!