Friday, 16 December 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Last night we finished watching the DVDs (from zip.ca) of the BBC series. The new movie is now showing in Vancouver, and it is on my to do list, but for me George Smiley is Alec Guinness. Just as before the tv series started (many years ago) I re-read the novel, because something once seen cannot be unseen, and if you hear something on the radio first (like The Hitchhiker's Guide) or read it you already have a clear visual memory of what you have not seen, that is going to be replaced.

The six part tv series seemed slow going this time around- even though thanks to DVD we could watch two episodes back to back, and zip was careful to send us the disks in sequence. With the book - and yes I re-read that too, having to buy an new copy (why do otherwise honest people never return the books they've borrowed?) - I often stopped reading to think about how the plot was working. Even though there was no "who dun nit" by then. The movie is going to have to be very compressed to get all that plot in. The book is a bit like a dance of seven veils. The opening chapters of Jim Prideux as a school teacher appear to have nothing to do with spies. Jim just seems paranoid. Or perhaps a bit shell shocked.

If you have not seen the movie I will not spoil it for you. But you should know that there really were moles in the British Secret Service. One of them even turned out be the Keeper of the Queen's Pictures (Anthony Blunt). Kim Philby is the model for le Carre's mole, I think.

I was a lad from the East End. Went to grammar school. Left wing politics were part of my being. When I started encountering the upper classes they were still very snobby about background, and questioned my loyalty simply because I was not a Tory. I spoke BBC English - but not the strangled vowels of the "public schools" (which in England are, in fact, private). "A thizeand pinds in my trizers". Somehow the treachery of the aristocracy - the donkeys who lead the lions - the self serving of every villain in English Literature from Shakespeare onwards - the cruelty of the bullies, the selfishness of the rich, the double standards - "the law is for the guidance of wise men and the instruction of fools" meant that I was hardly surprised at all at the revelations of real double agents, who came from privilege and Oxford.

And besides, Deighton had already covered the territory of the lower class, smart lad in Intelligence in a masterly counterpoint to the myth of James Bond.

Reading le Carre now - especially his newest books - he does seem dated. But one thing that did strike a chord last night was the denunciation by the mole of "the Americans". Substitute "the 1%" or "multinational corporations" or "the elite" and you have a very good justification for why someone who cared about social justice might indeed be willing to spy for the Soviets, and would feel quite justified betraying his colleagues. All of whom have some very unpleasant characteristics. The Circus is populated withe real, fallible human beings and is a much more credible account of the workplace than The Office.

And where did this bit of dialogue come from

"I question your loyalty sometimes"

"I question it all the time"

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