Wednesday 10 July 2013

Smiley's people

Writing in today's Guardian, Simon Jenkins makes the case that reality comprises the bits John le Carré cuts out of his novels.
There follows the transcript of an interview with John Le Carré by BBC Radio 4 Front Row’s Mark Lawson. This interview never happened.

ML: My guest today is David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, the chronicler of the secret services who needs no further introduction. John, we were talking before going on air about how much of a novel never sees the light of day and that seems a good place to start, do you write and then discard a lot of scenes?

JleC: Not if I can help it. Writing is quite hard work and you have to be organised in order not to waste your energy. But occasionally a scene will slip in, it will get past the positive vetting procedures and then fail at the editing stage. For example, in my latest novel, I had a character called Simon, an atheist so fascinated by churches that he visited them compulsively and wrote erudite books about them.

ML: Was church history going to play a major rôle in the book?

JleC: Of course not, that’s my point, this was a case of over-elaborate characterisation, a beginner’s mistake, you just don’t get such people in real life and they don’t make long speeches about the security services being out of political control. I actually made the same mistake with another character, Janet, an American, long settled in the UK, a trained philosopher, once a firebrand socialist, now mugged by reality, she was supposed to have a column in the Telegraph. I ask you! It’s embarrassing just to remember it. Who’s going to believe that? Maybe some earnest young undergraduate, but my readers wouldn't take the tosh I had coming out of her mouth about US presidents sanctioning mass surveillance and impounding journalists’ notebooks. My readers demand reality, feet firmly on the ground.

ML: That sounds very serious. Is there no humour allowed in a le Carré book?

JleC: There’s the odd high table epigram, I suppose, but you have to be careful with humour. I had a character called Stephan, for example, and I thought the scenes with him in were going swimmingly but then my editor pointed out that poor old Stephan just sounded like a buffoon, not the idea at all, and his appearances were verging on slapstick. Complete loss of dramatic tension. Out he had to go. What I think people want from my books is an insight into the hidden decision-making processes of public administration. Stephan was arguing that all personal information should be made public for the greater good. But he couldn't think of any way the greater good would be advanced. In everyday life, that would be the end of his project, Whitehall would kick it out, but in early versions of my book he was allowed to pursue his ridiculous programme. No good, you see – I'm not selling fantasy.

ML: I'm interested that you should talk there of public administration and Whitehall civil servants. Your books are political but there are no politicians in them.

JleC: I think the odd minister may turn up every now and again but, no, in the main, it’s best to have the politicians as silent characters, influences who make their requirements known mysteriously, they’re more effective that way. I tried putting a character called Nick in at one stage, a deputy prime minister who bore no resemblance whatever, I need hardly add, to any living person. Nick, in the book, was trying to introduce a computerised national electoral roll while heaping opprobrium on the previous administration for trying to introduce ID cards and a computerised national identity register. He claimed that he was a liberal, promoting democracy, and at the same time legislated to make it a criminal offence not to register. Hopelessly incredible, out went those scenes and the book is much improved now, in my opinion, with Nick saying nothing.

ML: The waste paper basket next to your desk is beginning to overflow, isn’t it?

JleC: Now now, Mr Lawson, I know I'm old, but waste paper basket, indeed! No, I press the delete button, just like other writers. But yes, you’re right, my recycle bin is filling up. I had a couple of journalists in the first draft, Fraser and Charles, writing sermons in defence of the security services, but they were caricatures, no journalist today would bend the knee just because of a D-Notice and Fraser, in particular, was meant to be a brave Leveson refusenik. It didn't make sense having him support official mass surveillance in the same breath. And I went a bit over the top having Charles compare Edward Snowden to the real spies of the Cold War. A silly mistake that the character Charles was far too intelligent to make.

ML: So what are we left with in the novel, John, what is there for your loyal readers to look forward to?

JleC: I'm rather hoping they’ll buy the book and find out for themselves but it’s not giving too much away to say that the plot revolves around a pretty young salesman called Martha who convinces a cynical former permanent secretary that all public services in the UK should be delivered on the internet and they hire a web designer from the Guardian and put him in charge of creating a national identity assurance system. He’s never done anything like that before but they get him a computer guru to help, some chap who’s left the BBC under mysterious circumstances, and soon they have a veto over government policy and they take control of government cloud computing. Only, a few days later, it’s announced that the US National Security Agency have access to everything in the cloud, there is no privacy, no confidentiality, no secrecy. Coincidentally, parliament has just decided to put all its computing in the cloud and there’s a tense scene where Joan, the woman in charge, says that it doesn’t matter about the NSA listening in, or the Chinese, or the Russians, because everything in parliament is meant for public consumption anyway and on the same day that the Intelligence and Security Committee announce that cyberattacks are the biggest threats facing the country the Board of Trade kicks off an initiative called "midata" to get everyone to store all their personal data in cyberspace.

ML: And that’s the bit you expect your readers to believe? Good luck with that, Mr Cornwell, and thank you for that insight into the writer's craft. More reality, my guest tomorrow has amassed a fortune making radical feminist films in the backstreets of Havana. Join us again to find out how it's done. Until then, goodbye.

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