We were hinted by the occasion, not catched the opportunity to write of old things, or intrude upon the antiquary. We are coldly drawn unto discourses of antiquities, who have scarce time before us to comprehend new things, or make out learned novelties. But seeing they arose, as they lay almost in silence among us, at least in short account suddenly passed over, we were very unwilling they should die again, and be buried twice among us.
— Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial: a discourse of the sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk (1658)
It’s strange how people go missing, and how difficult it can be to find them again.
Over recent weeks, I’ve been slightly obsessed with that old six-part BBC miniseries, Smiley’s People. Made it 1982 and based on the 1979 John le Carré novel of the same name, it stars Alec Guinness as George Smiley, a semi-retired MI6 officer called back to investigate the violent death of an Estonian general and sometime MI6 contact. Smiley wears thick glasses and a good suit that doesn’t fit him, is totally non-athletic, has an ironic turn of phrase and a slight air of melancholy. Intelligent but never priggish or showy, he also sees more than others do, and knows more than others realise. For some of his colleagues, especially those who enjoy office politics, he’s an anachronism, a joke, an annoying irrelevance — but to his underlings he’s a legend, inspiring loyalty and adoration in equal measure, not least due to his apparent indifference to either.
Smiley’s People, meanwhile, is rather slow-moving and low-key. My son’s critique was that ‘Smiley drives around, he talks to someone for twenty minutes, he drives around a bit more then talks to someone else for twenty minutes’, and despite being a 12-year old with the signature attention span of his generation, he has a point. Smiley’s People is also rather impenetrable, but all the more addictive for that.
Certainly, lots of people love it, and there are plenty of reasons to do so. For one thing, at this kind of distance, not only the Cold War period colour — if ‘colour’ is the right word for the monochrome gloom of a world where it’s always overcast, everyone looks drained, all cars are either beige or slate except one in Germany’s that’s a rougish eau de nil, and not one single room in the entire series has adequate overhead lighting — but also that sheer lack of haste has a period charm all its own. Smiley’s People reads like a message from a lost world in which no one has yet been distracted by scanning Twitter, googling plot spoilers, grudging the investment of time demanded by evesdropping on a twenty-minute inconclusive conversation between two similar-looking middle-aged white men men wearing suits in a badly-lit dun-coloured room. Read the rest of this entry »