It is one of the ironies of John le Carre’s extraordinary career as the master of spy novels that while the British intelligence chief widely regarded as the model for his fictional MI6 hero served his country in Belfast in the war against the IRA, his celebrated imaginary facsimile never set foot there.
Maurice Oldfield, the head of MI6 from 1973 to 1978, was drafted to Northern Ireland in the autumn of 1979 after the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and the deaths of eighteen British soldiers in the Warrenpoint ambush, all at the hands of the IRA.
Oldfield’s task was to get the RUC and British Army intelligence operations working together against a common enemy but the following year, 1980, he left Belfast under a cloud after admitting he had used the services of male escorts.
George Smiley, Le Carre’s Delphic spy chief, who many believe was modeled on Oldfield also had sexual difficulties, but his were of the heterosexual sort and mostly revolved around his adulterous wife, Ann. And he never served in Belfast.
Given the centrality of the Troubles to British life during much of Le Carre’s writing career and the fact that the war between the IRA and the British was largely fought out in the dark world of agents, informers and their handlers, this begs the obvious question. Why did Le Carre never send Smiley across the Irish sea?
Both myself on this blog, and Village magazine in Dublin were prompted to write articles posing that question. You can re-read the pieces here.
I decided to take the matter a step further and wrote to le Carre himself to ask the question and to wonder whether he might write a few words on the matter for this blog (if you don’t ask, you don’t get!).
First my letter to John le Carre (real name David Cornwell) followed by the response. At least I tried: