JOHN LE CARRÉ The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my life. Reviewed by Peter Corris
The distinctive flavour of le Carré’s writing is unmistakeable from the first page of The Pigeon Tunnel.
This review is of the audio version of the book. That format has given me an extra insight into the abilities of David Cornwell, aka John le Carré. In his 2015 biography of the writer, Adam Sisman noted that Cornwell is a good actor and an accomplished mimic. These gifts are on display in the audiobook, which is read by Cornwell himself.
I am a great admirer of the good readers of talking books, and they are almost all good, and also of talented mimics. Cornwell is superb on both counts. His reading is measured and fluent, and his ability to capture accents – German, French, Russian, Italian, British (class and regional) is unsurpassed in my experience. In particular, Cornwell does a credible version of Rupert Murdoch’s accent. This is no mean feat. Good actors, like Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and James Coburn in The Great Escape, fail lamentably at the Aussie accent – they go Cockney. Not so Cornwell. Wisely keeping his imitation short, he captures perfectly Murdoch’s (and our) slightly nasal, slightly harsh tone.
All that is by the by; The Pigeon Tunnel itself is a curiosity. As Cornwell makes clear in the Introduction (where he also explains the title) it is a collection of anecdotes and stories about episodes in his life that have had a bearing on his writing. A good many of these, such as his encounter with a Russian gangster, his dealings with Richard Burton and Alec Guinness and other luminaries, reproduce what Sisman wrote in the biography. In that book, which is occasionally hostile to Cornwell, Sisman noted that Cornwell was unhappy with certain passages but, as befits someone cooperating with a biographer, let them pass. With this book it is as if Cornwell is not so much correcting the record but amending it to give it his personal flavour.
That flavour is unmistakeable from the first page. Cornwell is one of those writers whose style, whose writing manner, is immediately identifiable.
That style or manner is difficult to define but it is manifestly present here in Cornwell’s statement about the connection between writing and spying –
Spying and novel writing are made for each other. Both call for a ready eye for human transgressions and the many routes to betrayal.
– and in his account of how all zones of conflict have a bolthole/watering hole for journalists, spies and so on:
In the end I flew to Beirut anyway, and booked myself into the Commodore Hotel because it was owned by Palestinians, and because it was known for its indulgence towards journalists, spies and similar fauna.
It is also evident in his graphic description of the ill-fated Stephen Ward (charged with living off Christine Keeler’s immoral earnings in the notorious Profumo Affair) in court:
But I do remember with certainty the exhaustion in Ward’s face as, aware that we were some sort of VIPs, he turned to greet us: the fraught, aquiline profile, skin stretched tight, the rigid smile and exophthalmic eyes reddened and ringed with tiredness; and the husky smoker’s voice, playing it for nonchalance.
A subject he devotes considerable time and interest to is films, particularly those made of his own books: ‘Movie-making is the enforced bonding of irreconcilable opposites.’
Cornwell is adept at capturing the pointed and often funny bons mots made by people he has met. For example, he happened to be with poet Joseph Brodsky when the news came through that Brodsky had won the Nobel Prize. The poet grabbed Cornwell in an embrace and whispered in his ear, ‘Now for a year of being glib.’ On another occasion with the cast and crew of the BBC production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Cornwell was standing by Alec Guinness when a late arrival turned up wearing a bright green checked suit and orange shoes. ‘Oh, Bernard,’ Guinness said, ‘you’ve come as a frog.’ Needless to say, Cornwell captures the Guinness delivery – soft, slow, slightly camp, unique – perfectly.
As a more or less stay-at-home novelist who has drawn material from brief excursions to relatively safe spots such as Morocco, California, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and Norfolk Island, I am filled with admiration for Cornwell’s researches in Cambodia, the Congo and the Middle East, where he was sometimes seriously in harm’s way. His treatment of these episodes is low-key, focussed not on himself but on those in even more distress or danger.
Some of the stories are inconsequential or the joke does not quite come off. But there are not many of these, and not often. The long chapter about Cornwell’s con-man father, Ronnie, is a tour de force.
Cornwell has ventured here before, particularly when writing and being interviewed about his 1986 novel A Perfect Spy, where he based the protagonist partly on his father. But in The Pigeon Tunnel he goes into much more detail, ducking and weaving, seeking himself in Ronnie and checking on his childhood memories. And he draws his mother, with whom he had no contact for 17 years, and his older brother, with whom he seems to have had a strange relationship varying from love and dependence when young to cool scepticism later, into the enquiry net. This chapter contains the best descriptive, and imaginative, writing in the book. It is all done with the style and manner referred to above – urbane, self-deprecating, generous.
But again, much of the content is a response to material in Sisman’s biography. The two books stand in a very odd relationship. I can’t imagine that Sisman would take it kindly, but I suppose, when you are John le Carré, you can do as you please.
John le Carré The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my life Viking 2016 PB 320 pp $32.99; CD $39.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.