Obituary: John le Carré

John le Carré was the pseudonym of the author David Cornwell, judged by many to be the master of the spy novel.

Meticulously researched, and elegantly written, many of his books reached a wider audience through TV and film adaptations.

Le Carré stripped away the glamour and romance that were a feature of the James Bond novels and instead examined the real dark and seedy life of the professional spy.

In the twilight world of le Carré’s characters the distinction between good and bad, right and wrong was never that clear cut.

David John Moore Cornwell was born on 19 Oct 1931 in Poole, Dorset.

His father, known as Ronnie, was a fraudster, described by one biographer as “an epic con man of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values.

Those exploits gave the young Cornwell an early introduction to the arts of deception and double-dealing which would form the core of his writing.

His mother walked out when he was five and the young David invented the fiction that his father was in the secret service to explain his many absences from home.

After attending Sherborne School he went on to the University of Berne to study foreign languages.

He did his military service in the Army Intelligence Corps, running low grade agents into the eastern bloc before going to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he gained a BA.

After teaching at Eton for two years he joined the Foreign Office, initially as Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn.

During his time there he worked in the intelligence records department and began scribbling down ideas for spy stories on his trips between work and home.

His first novel, Call For The Dead, appeared in 1961 while he was working for the intelligence service.

He adopted the pen name, John le Carré, to get around a ban on Foreign Office employees publishing books under their own name.

The story introduced characters who would reappear in subsequent novels including his most famous creation, George Smiley.

“The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.”

Le Carré’s career as a spy ended when he became one of many British agents whose names were given to the Russians by the traitor Kim Philby.

Philby, who defected to Moscow, later became the inspiration for the mole “Gerald” in Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

It was his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which cemented his reputation and allowed him to take up writing full time.

Published at the height of the Cold War it challenged the perception held by many of his readers, that western spies were above the dirty tricks practiced by their counterparts in the east.

The novel won the Golden Dagger award for crime fiction and was turned into a memorable film with Richard Burton in the role of the disillusioned spy, Alec Leamas.

In direct contrast to Ian Fleming’s romantic James Bond fantasies, le Carré portrayed his spies as fallible human beings, fully aware of their own shortcomings and those of the systems they served.

Le Carré believed that The Looking Glass War, published in 1965, was his most realistic description of the intelligence world in which he had worked, and cited that as the main reason for its lack of success.

The follow up, A Small Town in Germany, was set in Bonn, where le Carré had worked, and warned of the dangers posed by a revival of the far right in German politics.

In 1971 he published an autobiographical novel The Naïve And Sentimental Lover, based on the break up of his first marriage to Alison Sharp.

His character, George Smiley, re-emerged in his trilogy, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

The books took his readers deep into “the circus” with jargon such as “honey trap”, “mole” and “lamplighter” becoming common parlance.

They also raised serious questions about the lengths to which even democracies would go to preserve their own secrets, something that exercised le Carré greatly.

He argued that in a world where official secrecy is all-pervasive, the spy novel performed a necessary democratic function. To hold up a mirror, however distorted, to the secret world and demonstrate the monster it could become.

Ironically, he delighted in maintaining secrecy in his own personal life, refusing for many years to even acknowledge that he had been a spy himself.

He jealously guarded his privacy, travelling alone and incognito when he set off to research his novels.

For years he refused invitations to do any interviews, maintaining that what he wrote was “the stuff of dreams, not reality” and he was not, as the press seemed to imply, an expert on espionage.

As the Soviet bloc began to implode le Carré switched his attention to the conflict in Palestine with his 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl.

Three years later he finally managed to exorcise the memory of his father with the publication of A Perfect Spy, which many critics consider his most accomplished work.

The life of the spy, Magnus Pym, is dominated by memories of his father Rick, a rogue and con-man whose character is firmly based on Ronnie Cornwell.

In 1987, after years of being ostracised by the Soviet authorities, le Carré was given permission to spend two weeks in Russia, as a guest of the Soviet Writers’ Union.

It was rumoured that the wife of the Russian leader, Raisa Gorbachev, was a fan of le Carré’s books and that she had a hand in gaining the necessary Kremlin approval for the trip.

His output continued to be prolific with a 1989 novel, The Russia House, marking the end of the Cold War, and the reappearance of George Smiley in The Secret Pilgrim in 1991.

The 1996 novel, Tailor of Panama was inspired by the Graham Greene story, Our Man in Havana, while The Constant Gardener, published in 2000, saw him switch his attention corruption in Africa.

In 2003 he joined a number of writers attacking the US led invasion of Iraq in an essay entitled, The United States of America Has Gone Mad.

“How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America’s anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history”, he wrote.

His remarks probably contributed to accusations of anti-American bias in his 2004 book Absolute Friends, an examination of the lives of two radicals from 1960s America, coming to terms with advancing age.

In 2006 his 20th novel, Mission Song, detailed the sometimes complex relationships between business and politics in the Congo.

Notably self-disparaging about his own achievements he consistently refused honours, insisting that there would never be a Sir David Cornwell.

“A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself”, he once said. “And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue”.

Man dies in north-west London triple stabbing

A man has died and two others have been injured in a triple stabbing in north-west London.

The victim, aged in his 20s, was found with stab wounds in St Anns Road, Harrow, after 19:15 GMT, the Met Police said.

He died at the scene and a post-mortem examination will follow. Two other injured men were taken to hospital.

Police have launched a murder investigation. No arrests have been made.

A crime scene remains in place around the St Anns Road and Station Road area – near to Harrow-on-the-Hill Tube station.

A Section 60 stop and search order has been authorised for Harrow and will expire at 10:49 on Monday, the Met said.

John le Carré: Cold War novelist dies aged 89

British espionage writer John le Carré has died aged 89, following a short illness, his literary agent has said.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy author died from pneumonia on Saturday night.

Jonny Geller described him as an “undisputed giant of English literature” who “defined the Cold War era and fearlessly spoke truth to power”.

“We will not see his like again,” he said in a statement.

Mr Geller said he represented the novelist for almost 15 years and “his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition”.

“We have lost a great figure of English literature, a man of great wit, kindness, humour and intelligence. I have lost a friend, a mentor and an inspiration.”

A statement shared on behalf of the author’s family said: “It is with great sadness that we must confirm that David Cornwell – John le Carré – passed away from pneumonia last Saturday night after a short battle with the illness.

“David is survived by his beloved wife of almost 50 years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon.

“We all grieve deeply his passing. Our thanks go to the wonderful NHS team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for the care and compassion that he was shown throughout his stay. We know they share our sadness.”

Born as David Cornwell in 1931, he wrote under the pseudonym of John le Carré.

He was educated at the universities of Bern, in Switzerland, and Oxford, before entering a career in undercover intelligence.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published in 1963, brought him worldwide acclaim and he then left the service to write full time.

Honda to resume UK output after problems at ports

Honda has said its British car plant will restart production on Monday after problems importing parts had halted output since Wednesday.

The Japanese company said in a statement on Sunday it had told staff at its Swindon plant “full production operations will resume in all areas”.

Congestion at UK ports and delays in the arrival of ships disrupted Honda’s “just-in-time” production schedules.

A number of companies have reported congestion at ports increasing.

Also on Sunday, Ikea apologised to customers after facing stock shortages due to port congestion. Angry shoppers complained they faced delays to orders and could not get through on the retailer’s helpline.

The issue at ports has been building in recent weeks, with problems initially at Felixstowe, but recently at Southampton and London Gateway as well.

The backlog has built up as companies increased orders after the initial coronavirus lockdown, while others have looked to stockpile goods before the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

Regardless of whether a trade deal is reached, there is likely to be “significant disruption” at the beginning of next year, according to a House of Lords committee. Some carmakers are thought to have been increasing stocks of components to avoid issues next year.

After last week’s temporary halt to production, Honda, which makes the Civic model at Swindon, said it was looking at other arrangements to bring in parts, such as using air freight.

Just-in-time supply chains mean companies bring in components only when they are required, but timetables are vulnerable to disruption.

Congestion at some English container ports is now so bad that some shipping firms have limited the amount of cargo they will bring to the UK. Consignments have reportedly been offloaded at continental ports such as Antwerp, Rotterdam and Zeebrugge.

Honda’s Swindon factory built just under 110,000 cars last year, but is due to close permanently next year.

Covid-19: Second batch of Pfizer vaccine arrives in NI

The second batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine has arrived in Northern Ireland.

Almost 50,000 doses have now been received in total, according to the Department of Health (DoH).

The first consignment, of almost 25,000 doses, was delivered on 4 December and further deliveries are expected before the end of the year.

News of the delivery comes as the DoH recorded four more deaths linked to coronavirus.

The total number of coronavirus-related deaths is now 1,124.

Another 483 individuals have tested positive for Covid-19, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 58,216.

Latest figures show the hospital bed occupancy rate in NI hospitals is now 98%.

The health minister has welcomed the latest delivery of the vaccine.

Robin Swann said he wanted to pay tribute to everyone who has “worked so hard on the planning and delivery of the historic vaccination programme”.

Plans are being developed to allow the vaccination of people aged 80 and over to begin.

The DoH anticipates the vaccination programme will continue until the summer of 2021.

A two-week limited lockdown ended on Thursday, but Mr Swann warned that restrictions at the start of the new year were “inevitable”.

He said the severity of those restrictions would “depend on people’s actions over the next few weeks”.

The number of Covid-related deaths registered in Northern Ireland rose again in the latest weekly figures.

A total of 98 deaths were registered in the week up to Friday 4 December, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) – 17 more deaths than the previous week.

It brings Nisra’s total of registered Covid-related deaths to 1,480 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Nisra’s figures are based on mentions of the virus on death certificates, so people may or may not have previously tested positive for the virus.

By comparison, the Department of Health’s daily figures are based on a positive test result having been recorded.

Meanwhile, Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, admitted he was “concerned” that the incidence of Covid-19 was rising again in the Republic of Ireland, after 429 new caseswere reported on Sunday.

One further death was also recorded, bringing the death toll to 2,124.

Suspected gas explosion causes Lincolnshire house collapse

A house has collapsed after a gas explosion is believed to have ripped through the property.

The explosion happened in Holly Close in Bourne, Lincolnshire, at about 09:10 GMT causing severe damage.

A male occupant suffered minor injuries and is a “little shaken”, Lincolnshire Police said.

A spokesperson said the scene had been assessed and it had been deemed that there was no need to evacuate any other properties.

The force said: “Whilst a full investigation is to be conducted, we believe it is probably a gas explosion.”

Covid: Health board sees alarming rise in cases

Coronavirus cases in one part of Wales are increasing at an “alarming rate”, a health board has said.

Aneurin Bevan health board said its hospitals were under “significant” pressure due to Covid patient numbers.

It had already announced it would be halting outpatient appointments and non-urgent planned surgery from Monday.

The stark warning comes as First Minister Mark Drakeford said Wales’ NHS was in danger of becoming the “national coronavirus service”.

On Saturday, the day the number of positive Covid-19 tests passed 100,000 in Wales, the family of Ted Edwards, 73, from Monmouthshire, said they were “really concerned” after he spent more than 19 hours in an ambulance outside the Grange University Hospital in Cwmbran.

The Welsh Ambulance Service said it was “facing high demand” across the country “with acute pressure” around the hospital leading to “some long delays with patients on our ambulances”.

The health board said: “The number of Covid positive patients in our communities is increasing at an alarming rate and we need everyone to play their part to ensure our services are available for when our sickest patients need them.”

Weekly infection rates across the five south Wales counties the health board covers averaged about 550 cases for every 100,000 people.

Speaking about the threat faced by the NHS, Mr Drakeford said unless “we take all the action we can [not just] as a government, but as a population”, even more restrictions would be “unavoidable”.

“The huge danger here is that we transform our National Health Service into a national coronavirus service.

“If the numbers continue to go up as they are, then we will end up diverting our staff resources away from all the things that we expect and need them to do, simply to take care of an ever-rising number of people who are so ill with this dreadful disease that they have to be looked after in hospital.

“We need our health service to be able to respond to all those other things that happen in people’s lives in Wales.

“If the numbers continue to escalate in the way they are then, even more restrictions straight after Christmas seem to me to be unavoidable,” he told BBC Radio Wales’ Sunday Supplement.

He has previously said the coronavirus situation was “very difficult” but not out of control.

Last month, a senior doctor said in an email, seen by BBC Wales, that she had “huge concerns” about patient safety ahead of the Grange hospital opening four months ahead of schedule.

But Mr Drakeford told BBC Politics Wales “it was the right thing to open a hospital that was ready to open”.

“Imagine what it would be like in Aneurin Bevan [health board area] if we didn’t have all the beds that are available today in the Grange hospital in addition to what is available,” he added.