le Carré’s People

A fiftieth anniversary symposium on  The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was held on 7 September 2013, at the Barbican. This post was contributed by Janice Morphet, UCL.

le Carre

The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold has been celebrated in a number of ways. Penguin Books have published a special edition, which replicates the original cover design and concludes with archival material on the novel and its subsequent film adaptation. Le Carré also wrote an afterword for this special edition and has been giving media and book festival interviews. Much of this insight has focused on the sometimes variable recollections of the author, the writing process and his own psychological state at that time.

In contrast to these events, Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature, supported by Penguin Books, held a symposium on the contemporary cultural context within which The Spy was written and published. The series of talks and the associated discussion told of life in the late 1950s and early 1960s that was essentially wider than the inevitably personal memories of the author.

The Spy was a novel that captured its moment, creating the iconography of the Cold War. Like Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File, Alec Leamas is an anti-hero who, despite his lack of deference, still supports his country even after Suez and its diminishing influence through Empire. Whilst much is made of its dull settings in Bayswater and East Berlin reflecting this new bleak reality, The Spy also has lyrical passages about the joys of London parks and the freedom to walk its streets akin to those in Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956), another Bayswater novel written by another outsider. This is what Leamas longs for in his prison cell in Wormwood Scrubs.

Although it was a turning point towards a new realism in showing the Cold War’s spread from Eastern Europe to the streets of London, The Spy had a long line of antecedents. Toby Manning reminded us how the warnings in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four provided a justification for active espionage. Matthew Wraith argued that le Carré used the language of David Trotter’s ‘paranoid modernism’ by repurposing Eliot’s image of a ‘wilderness of mirrors’. And Bianca Leggett demonstrated the ways in which Graham Greene defined the characteristics of Englishness and its ethical code in his spy fiction, which le Carré admired.

The external nature of this new Cold War was also captured in the changing relationships with former allies. The USSR was now an enemy and the US was taking a rather less positive view of the ‘special relationship’ in the post-Churchill era, as pointed out by Jennifer Glennon.

At the same time as this external context was becoming more threatening, domestic culture was changing. Steven Morrison reminded us of Peter Hennessy’s view that the Cold War was a not a people’s war. Increases in television viewing created both a common culture and an internalised viewing experience. This is recalled in the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech, also in 2013. External threats could be more effectively realised in the safety of the family sitting room.  Tom May’s paper told of the emergence of hard-hitting social realist television plays. They created a context in which, in the 1970s, television adaptations of le Carré’s work emerged as an iconic feature of British popular culture.

Although The Spy is now being celebrated as a book, it is more remembered as a film that captured post-war Britain’s view of the Cold War and the lengths to which the state went to protect its information sources and agents. Whilst Fleming’s James Bond narratives were focused on whether the hero would escape, in le Carré’s fiction the country’s survival was uppermost. Adam Sisman, le Carré’s official biographer, reflected on those involved in translating these stories from book to film.
Whilst some worked on both the Bond and the le Carré franchises, those franchises’ respective successes were rooted in their differences.

Thus, in providing an appreciation of the social and cultural context of the publication of The Spy, the symposium reminded us why it became an iconic novel rather than just another airport paperback, and why it will continue to be discussed in the next fifty years.


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