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Simon Schama: Why John le Carré Is a Writer of Substance

Simon Schama: What Makes John le Carré a Writer of Substance https://www.ft.com/content/04df988d-9b09-4e6a-b7d8-70b1a5e654dc: ‘Someone, sometime, had to translate Dean Acheson’s famous 1962 characterisation of a Britain that had “lost an empire but has not yet found a role” into literature. But until le Carré came along, no writer had nailed the toxic combination of bad faith and blundering, the confusion of tactical cynicism with strategic wisdom, with such lethal accuracy.... His writing did... have some precedents.... He belonged to the same “lower-upper-middle-class” as George Orwell.... Like Orwell... le Carré had a pitch-perfect ear for the disingenuous hypocrisies sustaining those who mistook “Getting Away with It” for national purpose. Le Carré’s other literary pedigree... came from Anthony Trollope: the shrewd sense that institutions had collective personalities and psychologies, as if they were extended families. As such, they were the theatre of deadly, high-stakes dramas of loyalty and betrayal…. The scene at the beginning of An Honourable Schoolboy in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, where “a score of journalists, mainly from former British colonies . . . fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness, a chorus without a hero” is one of the great set pieces of le Carré writing. At its centre is one of his Dickens-Modern creations: the ancient Aussie, “old Craw” based on someone le Carré knew from that field trip to south Asia, and “who had shaken more sand out of his shorts than most of them would walk over”…

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John le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy https://github.com/braddelong/public-files/blob/master/readings/book-le-carre-schoolboy.pdf: 'Perhaps a more realistic point of departure is a certain typhoon Saturday in mid-1974, three o’clock in the afternoon, when Hong Kong lay battened down waiting for the next onslaught. In the bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a score of journalists, mainly from former British colonies - Australian, Canadian, American - fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness, a chorus without a hero. Thirteen floors below them, the old trams and double deckers were caked in the mud-brown sweat of building dust and smuts from the chimney-stacks in Kowloon. The tiny ponds outside the highrise hotels prickled with slow, subversive rain. And in the men’s room, which provided the Club’s best view of the harbour, young Luke the Californian was ducking his face into the handbasin, washing the blood from his mouth...

...Luke was a wayward, gangling tennis player, an old man of twenty- seven who until the American pullout had been the star turn in his magazine’s Saigon stable of war reporters. When you knew he played tennis it was hard to think of him doing anything else, even drinking. You imagined him at the net, uncoiling and smashing everything to kingdom come; or serving aces between double faults. His mind, as he sucked and spat, was fragmented by drink and mild concussion - Luke would probably have used the war-word ‘fragged’ - into several lucid parts. One part was occupied with a Wanchai bar girl called Ella for whose sake he had punched the pig policeman on the jaw and suffered the inevitable consequences: with the minimum necessary force, the said Superintendent Rockhurst, known otherwise as the Rocker, who was this minute relaxing in a corner of the bar after his exertions, had knocked him cold and kicked him smartly in the ribs. Another part of his mind was on something his Chinese landlord had said to him this morning when he called to complain of the noise of Luke’s gramophone, and had stayed to drink a beer.

A scoop of some sort definitely. But what sort?

He retched again, then peered out of the window. The junks were lashed behind the barriers and the Star Ferry had stopped running. A veteran British frigate lay at anchor and Club rumours said Whitehall was selling it.

‘Should be putting to sea,’ he muttered confusedly, recalling some bit of naval lore he had picked up in his travels. ‘Frigates put to sea in typhoons. Yes, sir.’

The hills were slate under the stacks of black cloudbank. Six months ago the sight would have had him cooing with pleasure. The harbour, the din, even the skyscraper shanties that clambered from the sea’s edge upward to the Peak: after Saigon, Luke had ravenously embraced the whole scene. But all he saw today was a smug, rich British rock run by a bunch of plum-throated traders whose horizons went no further than their belly-lines. The Colony had therefore become for him exactly what it was already for the rest of the journalists: an airfield, a telephone, a laundry, a bed. Occasionally - but never for long - a woman. Where even experience had to be imported. As to the wars which for so long had been his addiction: they were as remote from Hong Kong as they were from London or New York. Only the Stock Exchange showed a token sensibility, and on Saturdays it was closed anyway.

‘Think you’re going to live, ace?’ asked the shaggy Canadian cowboy, coming to the stall beside him. The two men had shared the pleasures of the Tet offensive.

‘Thank you, dear, I feel perfectly topping,’ Luke replied, in his most exalted English accent. Luke decided it really was important for him to remember what Jake Chiu had said to him over the beer this morning, and suddenly like a gift from Heaven it came to him.

‘I remember!’ he shouted. ‘Jesus, cowboy, I remember! Luke, you remember! My brain! It works! Folks, give ear to Luke!’

‘Forget it,’ the cowboy advised. ‘That’s badland out there today, ace. Whatever it is, forget it.’

But Luke kicked open the door and charged into the bar, arms flung wide.

‘Hey! Hey! Folks!’ 
Not a head turned. Luke cupped his hands to his mouth.

‘Listen you drunken bums, I got news. This is fantastic. Two bottles of Scotch a day and a brain like a razor. Someone give me a bell.’

Finding none, he grabbed a tankard and hammered it on the bar rail, spilling the beer. Even then, only the dwarf paid him the slightest notice.

‘So what’s happened, Lukie?’ whined the dwarf, in his queeny Greenwich Village drawl. ‘Has Big Moo gotten hiccups again? I can’t bear it.’

Big Moo was Club jargon for the Governor and the dwarf was Luke’s chief of bureau. He was a pouchy, sullen creature with disordered hair that swept in black strands over his face, and a silent way of popping up beside you. A year back, two Frenchmen, otherwise rarely seen here, had nearly killed him for a chance remark he had made on the origins of the mess in Vietnam. They took him to the lift, broke his jaw and several of his ribs, then dumped him in a heap on the ground floor and came back to finish their drinks. Soon afterwards the Australians did a similar job on him when he made a silly accusation about their token military involvement in the war. He suggested that Canberra had done a deal with President Johnson to keep the Australian boys in Vung Tau which was a picnic, while the Americans did the real fighting elsewhere. Unlike the French, the Australians didn’t even bother to use the lift. They just beat the hell out of the dwarf where he stood, and when he fell they added a little more of the same. After that, he learned when to keep clear of certain people in Hong Kong. In times of persistent fog, for instance. Or when the water was cut to four hours a day. Or on a typhoon Saturday.

Otherwise the Club was pretty much empty. For reasons of prestige, the top correspondents steered clear of the place anyway. A few businessmen, who came for the flavour pressmen give, a few girls, who came for the men. A couple of television war tourists in fake battle-drill. And in his customary corner, the awesome Rocker, Superintendent of Police, ex-Palestine, ex- Kenya, ex-Malaya, ex-Fiji, an implacable warhorse with a beer, one set of slightly reddened knuckles, and a weekend copy of the South China Morning Post. The Rocker, people said, came for the class. And at the big table at the centre, which on weekdays was the preserve of United Press International, lounged the Shanghai Junior Baptist Conservative Bowling Club, presided over by mottled old Craw the Australian, enjoying its usual Saturday tournament. The aim of the contest was to pitch a screwed-up napkin across the room, and lodge it in the wine rack. Every time you succeeded, your competitors bought you the bottle, and helped you drink it. Old Craw growled the orders to fire and an elderly Shanghainese waiter, Craw’s favourite, wearily manned the butts and served the prizes. The game was not a zestful one that day, and some members were not bothering to throw. Nevertheless this was the group Luke selected for his audience.

‘Big Moo’s wife’s got hiccups!’ the dwarf insisted. ‘Big Moo’s wife’s horse has got hiccups! Big Moo’s wife’s horse’s groom’s got hiccups! Big Moo’s wife’s horse’s -’

Striding to the table Luke leapt straight on to it with a crash, breaking several glasses and cracking his head on the ceiling in the process. Framed up there against the south window in a half crouch he was out of scale to everyone: the dark mist, the dark shadow of the Peak Behind it, and this giant filling the whole foreground. But they went on pitching and drinking as if they hadn’t seen him. Only the Rocker glanced in Luke’s direction, once, before licking a huge thumb and turning to the cartoon page.

‘Round three,’ Craw ordered, in his rich Australian accent. ‘Brother Canada, prepare to fire. Wait, you slob. Fire.’

A screwed-up napkin floated toward the rack, taking a high trajectory. Finding a cranny it hung a moment, then flopped to the ground. Egged on by the dwarf, Luke began stamping on the table and more glasses fell. Finally he wore his audience down.

‘Your Graces,’ said old Craw with a sigh. ‘Pray silence for my son. I fear he would have parley with us. Brother Luke, you have committed several acts of war today and one more will meet with our severe disfavour. Speak clearly and concisely, omitting no detail, however slight, and thereafter hold your water, sir.’

In their tireless pursuit of legends about one another, old Craw was their Ancient Mariner. Craw had shaken more sand out of his shorts, they told each other, than most of them would ever walk over; and they were right. In Shanghai, where his career had started, he had been teaboy and city editor to the only English-speaking journal in the port. Since then, he had covered the Communists against Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang against the Japanese and the Americans against practically everyone. Craw gave them a sense of history in this rootless place. His style of speech, which at typhoon times even the hardiest sight pardonably find irksome, was a genuine hangover from the Thirties, when Australia provided the bulk of journalists in the Orient; and the Vatican, for some reason, the jargon of their companionship.

So Luke, thanks to old Craw, finally got it out. 
‘Gentlemen! - Dwarf, you damn Polack, leave go my foot! - Gentlemen.’ He paused to dab his mouth with a handkerchief. ‘The house known as High Haven is for sale and his Grace Tufty Thesinger has flown the coop.’

Nothing happened but he didn’t expect much anyway. Journalists are not given to cries of amazement nor even incredulity.

‘High Haven,’ Luke repeated sonorously, ‘is up for grabs. Mr Jake Chiu, the well-known and popular real estate entrepreneur, more familiar to you as my personal irate landlord, has been charged by Her Majesty’s majestic government to dispose of High Haven. To wit, peddle. Let me go, you Polish bastard, I’ll kill you!’

The dwarf had toppled him. Only a flailing, agile leap saved him from injury. From the floor, Luke hurled more abuse at his assailant. Meanwhile, Craw’s large head had turned to Luke, and his moist eyes fixed on him a baleful stare that seemed to go on for ever. Luke began to wonder which of Craw’s many laws he might have sinned against. Beneath his various disguises, Craw was a complex and solitary figure, as everyone round the table knew. Under the willed roughness of his manner lay a love of the East which seemed sometimes to string him tighter than he could stand, so chat there were months when he would disappear from sight altogether, and like a sulky elephant go off on his private paths until he was once more fit to live with.

‘Don’t burble, your Grace, do you mind?’ said Craw at last, and tilted back his big head imperiously. ‘Refrain from spewing low-grade bilge into highly salubrious water, will you, Squire? High Haven’s the spookhouse. Been the spookhouse for years. Lair of the lynx-eyed Major Tufty Thesinger formerly of Her Majesty’s Rifles, presently Hong Kong’s Lestrade of the Yard. Tufty wouldn’t fly the coop. He’s a hood, not a tit. Give my son a drink, Monsignor,’ - this to the Shanghainese barman -’he’s wandering.’

Craw intoned another fire order and the Club returned to its intellectual pursuits. The truth was, there was little new to these great spy-scoops by Luke. He had a long reputation as a failed spook-watcher, and his leads were invariably disproved. Since Vietnam, the stupid lad saw spies under every carpet. He believed the world was run by them, and much of his spare time, when he was sober, was spent hanging round the Colony’s numberless battalion of thinly-disguised China-watchers and worse, who infested the enormous American Consulate up the hill. So if it hadn’t been such a listless day, the matter would probably have rested there. As at was, the dwarf saw an opening to amuse, and seized it:

‘Tell us, Lukie,’ he suggested, with a queer upward twisting of the hands, ‘are they selling High Haven with contents or as found?’

The question won him a round of applause. Was High Haven worth more with its secrets or without? ‘Do they sell it with Major Thesinger?’ the South African photographer pursued, in his humourless sing-song, and there was more laughter still, though it was no more affectionate. The photographer was a disturbing figure, crewcut and starved, and his complexion was pitted like the battlefields he loved to taunt. He came from Cape Town, but they called him Deathwish the Hun. The saying was, he would bury all of them, for he stalked them like a mute.

For several diverting minutes now, Luke’s point was lost entirely under a spate of Major Thesinger stories and Major Thesinger imitations in which all but Craw joined. It was recalled that the Major had made his first appearance on the Colony as an importer, with some fatuous cover down among the Docks; only to transfer, six months later, quite improbably, to the Services’ list and, complete with his staff of pallid clerks and doughy, well-bred secretaries, decamp to the said spookhouse as somebody’s replacement. In particular his tête-à-tête luncheons were described, to which, as it now turned out, practically every journalist listening had at one time or another been invited. And which ended with laborious proposals over brandy, including such wonderful phrases as: ‘Now look here old man if you should ever bump into an interesting Chow from over the river, you know - one with access, follow me? just you remember High Haven!’ Then the magic telephone number, the one that ‘rings spot on my desk, no middlemen, tape recorders, nothing, right?’ - which a good half dozen of them seemed to have in their diaries: ‘Here, pencil this one on your cuff’, pretend it’s a date or a girlfriend or something. Ready for it? Hong Kongside five-zero-two-four...’

Having chanted the digits in unison, they fell quiet. Somewhere a clock chimed for three fifteen. Luke slowly stood up and brushed the dust from his jeans. The old Shanghainese waiter gave up his post by the racks and reached for the menu in the hope that someone might eat. For a moment, uncertainty overcame them. The day was forfeit. It had been so since the first gin. In the background a low growl sounded as the Rocker ordered himself a generous luncheon: ‘And bring me a cold beer, cold, you hear, boy? Muchee coldee. Chop chop.’ The Superintendent had his way with natives and said this every time. The quiet returned.

‘Well, there you are, Lukie.’ the dwarf called, moving away. ‘That’s how you win your Pulitzer, I guess. Congratulations, darling. Scoop of the year.’

‘Ah, go impale yourselves, the bunch of you,’ said Luke carelessly and started to make his way down the bar to where two sallow girls sat, army daughters on the prowl. ‘Jake Chiu showed me the damn letter of instruction, didn’t he? On Her Majesty’s damn Service, wasn’t it? Damn crest on the top, lion screwing a goat. Hi sweethearts, remember me? I’m the kind man who bought you the lollipops at the fair.’

‘Thesinger don’t answer,’ Deathwish the Hun sang mournfully from the telephone. ‘Nobody don’t answer. Not Thesinger, not his duty man. They disconnected the line.’ In the excitement, or the monotony, no one had noticed Deathwish slip away.

Till now, old Craw the Australian had lain dead as a dodo. Now, he looked up sharply. ‘Dial it again, you fool,’ he ordered, tart as a drill sergeant.
 With a shrug, Deathwish dialled Thesinger’s number a second time, and a couple of them went to watch him do it. Craw stayed put, watching from where he sat. There were two instruments. Deathwish tried the second, but with no better result.
 ‘Ring the operator,’ Craw ordered, across the room to them. ‘Don’t stand there like a pregnant banshee. Ring the Operator, you African ape!’ Number disconnected, said the operator.
 ‘Since when, man?’ Deathwish demanded, into the mouthpiece.
 No information available, said the operator.

‘Maybe they got a new number, then, right, man?’ Deathwish howled into the mouthpiece; still at the luckless operator. No one had ever seen him so involved. Life for Deathwish was what happened at the end of a viewfinder: such passion was only attributable to the typhoon.

No information available, said the operator.

‘Ring Shallow Throat,’ Craw ordered, now quite furious. ‘Ring every damned stripe-pants in the Colony!’ Deathwish shook his long head uncertainly. Shallow Throat was the official government spokesman, a hate-object to them all. To approach him for anything was bad face.

‘Here, give him to me,’ said Craw and rising to his feet shoved them aside to get to the phone and embark on the lugubrious courtship of Shallow Throat. ‘Your devoted, Craw, sir, at your service. How’s your Eminence in mind and health? Charmed, sir, charmed. And the wife and veg, sir? All eating well, I trust? No scurvy or typhus? Good. Well now, perhaps you’ll have the benison to advise me why the hell Tufty Thesinger’s flown the coop?’

They watched him, but his face had set like a rock, and there was nothing more to read there. ‘And the same to you, sir!’ he snorted finally and slammed the phone back on its cradle so hard the whole table bounced. Then he turned to the old Shanghainese waiter. ‘Monsignor Goh, sir, order me a petrol donkey and oblige! Your Graces, get off your arses, the pack of you!’

‘What the hell for?’ said the dwarf, hoping to be included in the command.

‘For a story, you snotty little Cardinal, for a story your lecherous, alcoholic Eminences. For wealth, fame, women and longevity!’

His black mood was indecipherable to any of them.
 ‘But what did Shallow Throat say that was so damn bad?’ the shaggy Canadian cowboy asked, mystified.
 The dwarf echoed him. ‘Yeah, so what did he say, Brother Craw?’
 ‘He said no comment,’ Craw replied with fine dignity, as if the words were the vilest slur upon his professional honour.
 So up the Peak they went, leaving only the silent majority of drinkers to their peace: restive Deathwish the Hun, long Luke, then the shaggy Canadian cowboy, very striking in his Mexican revolutionary moustache, the dwarf, attaching as ever, and finally old Craw and the two army girls: a plenary session of the Shanghai Junior Baptist Conservative Bowling Club, therefore, with ladies added - though the Club was sworn to celibacy. Amazingly, the jolly Cantonese driver took them all, a triumph of exuberance over physics. He even consented to give three receipts for the full fare, one for each of the journals represented, a thing no Hong Kong taxi-driver had been known to do before or since. It was a day to break all precedents. Craw sat in the front wearing his famous soft straw hat with Eton colours on the ribbon, bequeathed to him by an old comrade in his will. The dwarf was squeezed over the gear lever, the other three men sat in the back, and the two girls sat on Luke’s lap, which made it hard for him to dab his mouth. The Rocker did not see fit to join them. He had tucked his napkin into his collar in preparation for the Club’s roast lamb and mint sauce and a lot of potatoes.

‘And another beer! But cold this time, hear that, boy? Muchee coldee, and bring it chop chop.’

But once the coast was clear, the Rocker also made use of the telephone, and spoke to Someone in Authority, just to be on the safe side, though they agreed there was nothing to be done.


.#noted #2020-12-17

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