by fugitive ink
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.
And then, perhaps also an artefact of its time, there is unflinchingly moral side to Smiley’s People. John Le Carré’s books insist on Smiley’s priest-like quality, while in his later years Alec Guinness, a Roman Catholic convert, habitually brought something priest-like to most of his performances.
More to the point, though, for all its smokescreen of cynicism and moral equivalence, the logic of Smiley’s People hinges to quite a remarkable degree on the distinction between right and wrong. Karla, Smiley’s arch-nemesis, variously organises murders (shown fairly graphically, so we care about them), wrecks people’s lives, even those very close to his own, emperils nations — whereas Smiley himself is a sort of long-suffering father-confessor, all-knowing and understanding. He eventually gets to Karla by discovering the one part of Karla’s soul that still has some natural good about it. This is an obvious point that has been made by many critics before me, and the next step is, invariably, to set up the similarly obvious comparison between Le Carré’s work and Graham Greene’s painfully impacted Catholicism on one hand, Ian Fleming’s glittering secular cynicism on the other.
Yet, that non-ironic moral note aside, the other most evident quasi-religious quality of Smiley’s People surely lies elsewhere, in the almost liturgical quality of the dialogue. I am old enough to remember the 1970s, and so I can promise you that even in the 1970s, people really did not speak as they do in Smiley’s People.
Rarely can there have been a masterpiece of acting — because Smiley’s People is nothing less than a masterpiece — in which the dialogue is so stunningly, unapologetically mannered. Few exchanges of any significance involve more than two speakers, meaning that everything is, in liturgical terms, preces: versicle and response. Often, the delivery is just like that, too: gently emoted, but never so much so as to detract from the regular ebb and flow of the liturgy, its seemingly ineluctable movement towards an inevitable conclusion.
This sounds like a criticism, but in fact I mean it as praise. Liturgy, after all, satisfies and consoles in ways that ordinary speech does not. The greatest of Smiley’s People set-pieces — Smiley and Connie, Smiley and Toby Esterhaze, Smiley and Tatiana — all proceed like this. None of this means that the exchanges are without emotion, or uninvolving — only that they always lack the staccato contingency of actual speech. I suspect it’s all a gift that Guinness brought to the party in a personal capacity, as it also appears, taken to its logical, strangely compelling extreme in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), particularly in the scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi convinces the stormtroopers ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’. In both films, the effect is that of some cleansing rite being performed upon a dark, messy, hopelessly flawed world. So that, too, is a reason to admire Smiley’s People. We need all the cleansing rites we can get.
Yet my minor obsession with Smiley’s People has, I have recently realised, an entirely different origin, extrinsic to its aesthetic or moral merits. Television, even very good television, mostly bores me, so what was the appeal? Days, weeks passed before the answer occurred to me. Here it is. Like some chance archaeological discovery, a sherd or bit of battered bone — reminding us all that wherever we step, we are traversing an infinity of other, vanished, unrecoverable lives — Smiley’s People grabbed my attention because, for me, it unearthed something half-lost. For although in many ways they were quite different, Alec Guinness’ George Smiley reminded me, almost too vividly, of a friend of mine, John Wood, dead these past 25 years. And now, like Sir Thomas Browne contemplating that shattered urn dug up at Walsingham in the darkest days of the Interregnum, I am very unwilling that John should die again, and be buried twice among us.
If you try to google “John B. Wood” in order to find out who I’m talking about, you’ll discover very little. For instance, I recently spent quite a while trying to find a photo of John online. This one, borrowed from an excellent website in memory of Institute of Economic Affairs founder Sir Arthur Seldon, will have to do.
The photo dates from the late 1970s or early 1980s. Left to right, we have Harold Rose, Arthur Seldon CBE, Ralph Harris (later Lord Harris of High Cross), Friedrich Hayek CH, John Wood, and Sir Anthony Fisher. The context, inevitably, was some event in which the founders of the world’s first free market, classical liberal-type think tank made much of classical liberalism’s greatest Nobel laureate economist and philosopher. In other news, John did not much like having his photograph taken, and it shows, especially in that odd yet very characteristic thing that he is doing with his hands.
John was one of the founders of the Institute of Economic Affairs. But while the other founders all had their own clear-cut mythic roles, tropes firmly affixed to them by the time I arrived there in 1990, John’s significance was always less obvious.
We all knew, for instance, that Sir Antony Fisher was the charismatic Old Etonian war hero who had provided much of the funding and energy behind the early IEA, but by the time I turned up at the IEA, he was long dead. Very much still on the scene were Ralph Harris, a pipe-smoking proto-Thatcherite who could charm funds out of a stone, and also Arthur Seldon, the East End-born son of Jewish immigrants who was not only a vigilant editor, determined builder of networks and deeply intelligent man, but also that rare thing, an actual card-carrying member of the Liberal Party in what was, to a larger extent than anyone liked to admit, otherwise a bastion of Conservatism. Lord Harris was the cheer-leading money-man, Arthur Seldon the touch-stone of academic integrity. So what did that leave for John, third member of the IEA’s holy trinity, to do?
Many years later, a Winchester don explained to me that while the school required brilliant thinkers, particularly mathematicians so deeply wrapped up in their own worlds as to make little sense to anyone else, as well as its fair measure of gifted sportsmen, quick-witted linguists and practical geniuses, it also needed ‘glue’ — the people who hold things together, largely by imparting a general air of civilisation and hence making life bearable for the rest.
John, then, was ‘glue’. Born in 1924, he grew up in the countryside beyond Manchester. I think he was educated at Oundel. Then he started a degree — at Oxbridge, somewhere. But at this point, the Second World War intervened. John very quickly ended up working in Whitehall, doing something involving economics. His good knowledge of French and German may also have helped. Then, after the war, he started another degree, from memory at Caius College, Cambridge. At other points I think he must have worked in the City, if only because he later had such good contacts there, and also in journalism. He dabbled at the edges of Tory party politics. He made friends with people.
If this sounds like a rather vague biographical precis, that is precisely the point. It is extremely hard to discover the details of John’s biography now, even for someone who sets out on purpose to do so — and how many would?
Be that as it may, as we approach John’s IEA career, the scrying-glass clears at little. The IEA was founded circa 1955 by Antony Fisher, who at that time was a chicken farmer appalled by the collectivist impulses conspicuous on both the right and the left of the postwar political divide, and hence much taken with alternative vision presented by Friedrich Hayek. At the start, the central strategy of the IEA was to sidestep politics, as Hayek famously advised, and instead to influence ‘opinion formers’ — academics and journalists — as a more reliable way of shaping outcomes. By 1957, Fisher had met Ralph Harris, then a young economist and soon drawn into the work of the IEA. Harris, in turn, knew John, perhaps from Cambridge days, and in due course John was absorbed into the IEA circle. This led to more formal connections: by 1963 John was a trustee; in 1969 he joined the staff as a part-timer; in 1971 he became full-time deputy director; in 1985 he became editorial director. John also wrote or co-wrote various papers for the IEA, including How Little Unemployment? (1975) and Exchange Controls Forever (1979).
With the election in 1979 of Margaret Thatcher, some of whose closest colleagues were profoundly influenced by the IEA’s work, the Institute reached what was probably the zenith of its obvious public policy significance. Yet there is always something double-edged about the experience of having all one’s wishes come true. After a decade of Thatcherism in practice, the IEA was threatened by longeur, the possibility of complacency laced with self-parody. Genuinely, there was a need to stir things up.
It was perhaps for that reason that 1988 marked a climacteric in the IEA’s history. In that year, Lord Harris and Arthur Seldon stood down from their roles. The trustees appointed Graham Mather as the new general director. Mather, educated at Hutton Grammar School and Oxford, was a soi-disant Christian gentleman who had previously provided legal advice in the Grunwick Dispute, done something for the Freedom Association and headed up the Institute of Directors. It was Graham, bluff yet somehow always oblique, who hired me — an economically illiterate, slightly aimless 20-something, just finishing one of several history degrees at Cambridge — to work at the IEA. I should add at this point, before things start to go awry, that Graham was never less than charming to me, either then or afterwards. But from the start, he was on a sort of collision course with the IEA’s old guard, meaning that everyone in that Lord North Street office soon had to pick a side.
For one thing, by the time I arrived in the summer of 1990, the old guard were still very much on the scene. Lord Harris had resigned, yes, but he still did a formidable amount of fundraising. Politicians — not only Tories, either — wanted this energetic cross-bencher’s views. Meanwhile visiting academics and think-tank people regarded Arthur Seldon as an out-and-out celebrity — here, after all, was the man whom Hayek had asked to finish some of his own later work — and hence were desperate for his brusque, accurate insights. So even if Graham regretted a degree of back-seat driving, unwanted scrutiny or perhaps simply an unflattering comparison — and, let’s face it, to do so would have been only human — his options were limited to looking annoyed, lobbying the trustees and perhaps having the odd lunch with friends who knew someone at Private Eye. (In 2009, I wrote something about the IEA, including the odd reference to its civil war era, here.)
John, too, having happily given up whatever formal roles he had once occupied, continued to drift in and out of the building, on more or less specific errands. He was viewed, even by Graham, as a useful addition to the IEA’s programme of lunches, which I suppose is the point about ‘glue’. But he was also secretary of the Wincott Foundation, a body that existed (and still exists) to encourage high-quality economic, financial and business journalism. John also had a role in one or two other prize-giving bodies and dining societies.
None of these were directly related to the IEA, and the IEA had no responsibilities in respect of them. As a man of his age and background, John could not, of course, quite bring himself to do anything resembling secretarial work. Yet these organisations of his all needed a bit of secretarial intervention to keep them afloat. Meanwhile, there I was, a youngish female, and hence by definition someone who was assumed to be able to type, keep files and make telephone calls. What did it matter that I was paid by the IEA, to do IEA work? It was for this reason, presumably, that John set out to recruit me.
I don’t remember my first meeting with John, possibly because my early days at the IEA passed in a bit of a blur.
Having spent a few happy, richly unproductive years at Cambridge near the end of the Thatcher era, I was, like most of my conservative contemporaries, no stranger to high-ranking Tory politicians. Between the attention-seeking efforts of the Cambridge Union Society and CUCA (the student Tory group), most of the Tory front bench, a few ancient grandees and an infinity of minor figures had, at some point in my Cambridge career, turned up for speaker meetings, Union debates, lunches or dinners, to the extent that when some Tory has-been surfaces in the obituary columns these days, my instant recollections are all about inconsequential small-talk, never great matters of state.
Few, by the way, did very well on the small talk index. From Ted Heath (to whom I was presented, possibly because literally no one else in the Union Bar at the time could be trusted not to shout ‘wet!’ at this lugubrious former PM) I had the striking declaration, which emerged after what seemed a full two or three minute-long reflective pause: ‘Nixon …. he was a very strange man’. Well, I’m glad we clarified that. On another occasion I was expected to make conversation with John Redwood for nearly half an hour, standing outside the locked door of a nondescript pub that no longer exists, until help arrived. Because political correctness had not yet really happened in the late 1980s, at least not within CUCA, both Alan Clark and Cecil Parkinson, deep in self-parody mode, slightly flirted with me (Parkinson, staring deep into my eyes: ‘I saw you watching me as I was speaking, and if you’d looked away, I would have been devastated’ — but it was a speaker meeting, so of course I was looking at him!) Meanwhile the very young Norman Lamont seemed different in no way whatsoever from the ambitious, anxious infant politicians seated around him upstairs at Don Pasquale; I was vaguely aware that Patrick Mayhew wasn’t remotely ‘sound’, but I liked him enormously as a lunch companion; Enoch Powell, having somehow learned that I was reading reformation-era history, fixed me with distant stare of a minor prophet and proceeded to lecture me at some length on the origins of Englishness, as the predicable demonstration against him, complete with placards and loud-hailers, flourished outside.
I am aware that to some, this may sound like egregious namedropping. In truth, though, it’s the exact opposite. All these things seemed entirely normal at the time, and indeed with the passage of a few more decades will pass for normal once again, if only because virtually no one will recognise any of these clankingly-dropped names. My son, for what it’s worth, was far more impressed by the revelation that, in my Trinity days, I actually met Chris Weitz.
And yet the IEA, in those first few months, was something else, at least for an idealistic, enthusiastically libertarian, in many ways painfully naive infant Tory. Mrs Thatcher was still prime minister. This was a Good Thing, by the way, as I and my fellow baby Conservative Party libertarians tended to view her as a libertarian like ourselves, her libertarian ambitions constrained mostly by the perfidity and spinelessness of the wretched wets. Anxiously, we compared notes on whether our elders were ‘sound’ — a mysterious, capacious, ultimately entirely subjective category — and judged them accordingly, with the sea-green incorruptible certainty only vouchsafed to the very young or the very stupid. Few passed the test.
Imagine then our joy, wonder and self-congratulatory critical engagement when, through the doors of 2 Lord North Street, there streamed in, over the weeks and months, most of the central figures of Thatcherism, as well as plenty of also-rans, never-rans, a legion of would-be future leaders, and yes, even the odd statistical outlier: genial wets, naughty Liberals, even ‘nice Labour people’ (in practice, this latter phrase was code for Frank Field). As IEA employees, I and my fellow young recruits could stare at them, listen to their table-talk, even ask them the odd question or elicit the odd surprising remark. We were living, for a season, in the antechamber of history, and we were determined, correctly, to make the most of it.
The set-piece lectures were all very well, but best of all were the lunches. For years, the signature IEA event was the Hobart Lunch, a name derived from the time the organisation had spent at Hobart Place, just off Eaton Square. Into a large ground-floor room festooned with black-and-white photos of classical liberal economists — their names by then known only to God or possibly the IEA librarian, Ken Smith — were crammed the maximum possible number of wobby metal tables, around which were in turn crammed the maximum possible number of cheap metal folding chairs. A meal was served, generally consisting of things that had been boiling all day in the kitchen downstairs — resulting in the IEA’s distinctive scent of old sprouts, stale wine and extremely cheap instant coffee. The vegetarian option, I soon discovered, was a square of Euro-cheese-mountain type cheddar, presiding over its slightly greasy plate in solitary splendour. Bad drink flowed freely. At least one of the uniformed serving staff — she applied her bright lipstick with all the mad brio of a mid-1940s Jackson Pollock — was lurchingly drunk, although this did not stop her from flirting with the guests. After the meal came a speech, given by someone vaguely famous, and then questions from the assembled multitude. Lunch began at 12.45 for 1 pm, but rarely ended much before 3 pm — while the last guests often lingered until old-fashioned pub opening time, despite the fact that pub opening hours had, by then, long since been liberalised.
As a formula for winning hearts and minds, the Hobart Lunches should not have worked, but to a large extent, they did. Their great merit, as will have become evident by now, lay in their extremely catholic, generous, occasionally almost indiscriminate guest-list. Free-market zeal turned out, in the end, to be an efficient solvent of hierarchy. So it was that at an old-school Hobart Lunch, a single table might include a Tory ex-home secretary, a reasonably well-known journalist, the owner of a waste disposal company, a fresh-faced Steve Hilton, a loud old bore in a lovely old Huntsman suit who came along to to all the lunches whether we invited him or not, a few star-struck students plus the head of the MCC — presumably the Monopolies & Mergers Commission, not the cricket club, although really, by the end, nothing would have surprised us.
The effect could be quite surreal, but also revealing. I remember, for instance, a lunch at which the aged Keith Joseph, seated at our table, appeared to doze off throughout the entire talk — and then snapped to afterwards, asking a sharp little question that not only proved he’d been awake all the time, but also that he’d thought about the topic more deeply about it than the rest of us put together.
Of course, there was more to working at the IEA than interrogating Tory grandees over boozy lunches — just not much more. Yes, we sometimes lived through Smiths lyrics in those days.
My role, insofar as it was defined, involved helping the general director, Graham Mather, with fundraising. In time, this expanded to helping the unflappably pleasant, easy-going deputy director, Frank Vibert, with the odd bit of typing or filing, or — more often — just chatting our way through the day’s news headlines. But with hindsight, there was always plenty of opportunity for long and aimless conversations, amateur archaeology amid those old fundraising files, extremely lazy afternoons spent leafing through disregarded decade-old visitors’ books with a fellow IEA staffer in search of those legendary names: Friedman, Hayek, Thatcher herself. Well, why had we ended up at the IEA in 1990, if not to catch the fast-fading rays of a day that was to end all too soon?
And, once John had spotted the opportunity, it turned out that there was also plenty of time in which to help him with his own administrative requirements, however little these might have to do with the work of the IEA — and however much this might occasionally annoy the IEA’s new management, which of course might also have been part of the point, because John, for all his apparent diffidence, could be quite mischievous, too.
The thing that’s impossible to convey about John, across this distance of nearly three decades, is less the biographical precis than what he was actually like: the dry sense of humour, for instance, or that air of absolutely herbivorous harmlessness into which he sometimes lured the inattentive, rude or stupid.
But then John would have preferred it that way. He did not much enjoy being the centre of attention. He deplored the obvious, avoided anything that looked like sustained effort and cultivated a magnificent indirection. Admittedly, there was a degree of artifice around all of this. In an institute predicated on the central significance of intellectuals, John enjoyed playing the diffident, slightly baffled, definitely non-intellectual minor public school boy. If the IEA had been Dad’s Army — and sometimes it felt that way — then John would have been its Sgt. Wilson.
John worked hard to retain his amateur status. When he actually published work with the IEA, it was often more about practical, hands-on topics — for instance, guides explaining in simple language how share-ownership works, in case ordinary people might want to try it someday — than abstruse matters of theory. He spent a lot of time reformulating academic economists’ writing into functional, perhaps even pleasing English. This cover allowed him to pretend that he wasn’t a much of an economist himself. When he created international networks for the distribution of IEA materials in a way that often paved the way for new liberal think-tanks, he shrugged this off as mere logistical support for someone else’s much more valuable efforts.
After the high-level fundraising lunches (the ones to which the younger members of the Institute were very definitely not invited) John would often appear in my office, throw himself into the other chair and wearily profess to me his gratitude that the conversation had turned to Quinlan Terry, gossip about some hapless PPS or tales of an amusing mishap during a visit to someone’s villa near Ninfa — anything, really, rather than the dismal science itself. Also, I literally cannot imagine John doing anything as crass as asking potential contributors for actual money, which in some contexts might be seen as quite an important feature of fundraising. And yet even John’s detractors within the Institute deemed him to be a valuable IEA asset at these lunches, not least because he could make the sort of civilised small-talk that others could not. Also, let’s remember that John had graduate-level qualifications in economics from Cambridge, so he can’t possibly have known or cared as little about economics as he sometimes liked to pretend.
In truth, John reveled in his non-seriousness. For the other senior members of the IEA old guard, classical liberalism was all there was, family and a few neglected hobbies apart. For John, in contrast, the IEA was only one facet of a life that was obviously much more complex and indeed enjoyable, however little he might vouchsafe its full complexity to any of us.
There were bits that we could piece together. We all knew, for instance, that in the 1960s John had been partially responsible for rescuing the bombed-out wartime wreck of St John Smith’s Square from demolition, and re-establishing it as a major London concert venue, all of this without a penny of government help. Although amusingly dismissive of his own skill as a cellist, John derived huge pleasure from classical music, and knew a great deal about it. He also knew a great deal about art, architecture, drama, literature and history. He traveled a lot, too, because he had friends everywhere.
At the age of 64, John’s social life, despite his tireless protestations to the contrary, was busy and varied. Although theoretically appalled by most features of electoral politics and present-day journalism, he knew many politicians and journalists. Yet his friendships stretched far and wide beyond those circles, so that one never quite knew where they might end up. He was not above a bit of personal gossip.
Other people, particularly older ones, sometimes used the IEA as a sort of charitable drop-in centre in the less-used rooms of which they might hope to rescue themselves from irksome solitude. They hung around because they had nothing else to do. John, in contrast, was always gathering up his things, explaining regretfully to me that he was required at supper with so-and-so (theatrical roll of eyes, as if to imply not only that I must know who he meant, but that I must also share his fond bemusement at this person’s evident ridiculousness) or that he was being forced to use up someone’s spare opera ticket, for such-and-such a sold-out performance (ditto). And then off he would go, looking faintly weary and put-upon, but also rather happy. Ultimately, the IEA needed him a lot more than he needed the IEA, and it showed.
John’s private life — although it’s a bad phrase, that, if only because so much of John’s life was private, or at least very efficiently compartmentalised — remained a closed book. He never married. He professed to be delighted that he had no children, playfully advocating tax breaks for people like himself who didn’t produce extra burdens on the world’s resources. He certainly didn’t suffer for a lack of attentive female company.
All the same, rumours simmered regarding an attachment that had been a source of sorrow, somehow — perhaps the woman in question had other commitments, or something else had gone wrong. Also, there were moments when John seemed to cultivate a slightly melancholy quality, a sense of some loss or evasion that was also, in a very mid-century, upper-middle-class British and hence inherently strangulated way, rather sad. But whatever it was, it remained — for the younger staff of the Institute, anyway — a mystery, and did nothing to detract from John’s peculiar glamour.
Within a month or two of my arrival at the IEA, John and I had struck up quite a distinctive, rather odd relationship.
How this came about, how it started, is now lost to history. But somehow, a situation developed in which John and I would go out to lunch together a lot — by which I mean, at least once a week, often more — invariably, to a place called The Footstool, the rather good café that helped to subsidise St. John’s Smith Square. Because these lunches took place at the instigation of one of the IEA’s founder directors, no one could really object to the fact that they very often transcended the sixty minute span generally ascribed to a ‘lunch hour’, any more than anyone could object to their extravagant and ostentatious aimlessness. Of course, it was also true that I would end up doing John’s admin work for him, a bit of photocopying here and a few typed letters there, but the dullest observer could have seen that I’d have probably done that anyway, whether John took me to lunch or not. This is why I am so sure that the need to irritate Graham featured there too somewhere.
The Footstool restaurant, a pleasant and leisurely two-minute stroll from the front door of the IEA, sat at the bottom of a short flight of worn stone steps in the crypt of Thomas Archer’s bizarre, unwieldy Baroque masterpiece. It was rather dark and very clattery, if that’s a word — crypts always do have freakish accoustics — and the food, not unreasonably, ran to 1990s clichés such as salads overstaffed with radicchio, or roast salmon dressed with caligraphy executed in blackly sticky balsamic vinegar. The wine list was very good, even at the low end. Perhaps because John was known by all the staff to be a saviour of the place, the service was at once affectionate and highly professional.
That, though, was hardly the point.
Looking back, older and wiser, it’s almost embarrassing to imagine the two of us at lunch together. Aged 24, despite the best efforts of Cambridge to make me otherwise, I was still basically a witless and awkward child, alternately full of arrogant certainty yet also desperately, frantically shy. John was — what? At 64, he was old enough to be my father — my father’s age, more or less exactly, as it happens — and yet we were entirely free of any of that sense of compulsion or obligation that inevitably colours parent-child relationships. With hindsight, I can only explain to myself that John must have been slightly bored, or perhaps he simply regarded eating a meal alone as a sadder enterprise than eating in company, however limited that company might be. Or, more optimistically, perhaps he actually found the extent of my idiocy marginally amusing. Nearly thirty years on, how I hope this might have been the case!
I learned so much from those long lunches. Where to start? Let’s list a few of the many things I learned from John.
It is perfectly correct, for a start, to drink red wine with salmon, depending on the type of red wine and what’s been done with the salmon. The countryside surrounding Manchester is not at all grimy and post-industrial, but, on the contrary, in parts very beautiful. The Guardian newspaper has its origins in the Manchester Guardian, which wasn’t the tiniest bit left wing. There are stories behind the phrases ‘and Bob’s your uncle’, ‘jam tomorrow’, and ‘with snow on their boots’. Enoch Powell’s anti-Americanism was, in its way, as problematic as his views on race. The pronunciation of names like Lysaght, Leveson-Gower, Douglas-Home and Somers-Cocks really isn’t at all what one might expect. (Just imagine the tact necessary to impart this information to a shy child without causing permanent trauma, and you will have begun to gauge the extent of John’s kindness.) It’s good to go to the viewings for art auctions even if you have no money whatsoever, as it’s an excellent chance to get close to pictures and to ask questions about them to people who are likely to know the answers. Disliking modern architecture is an embarrassing affectation. So is liking modern architecture uncritically. Some wets are perfectly okay on specific subjects, and are often likeable people too, so it’s wrong to write them off entirely.
John and I also had a running joke about pudding wine. I professed to find it repulsive, as I don’t much like sweet things. John thought this was insanity, and took it as a challenge. He always ordered the wine at lunch (he also paid for lunch, an early timid attempt on my part to split the bill having been met with a robust ‘don’t be ridiculous, students don’t have any money’ — in my case, broadly correct) and so, as the months went past, we worked our way up the list of pudding wines, until John was literally asking my opinion, solicitously and without any hint of irony, regarding better and better vintages of Chateau Yquem, which even I had to admit were actually not at all bad once one got used to them.
But then that was very much John’s sense of humour — so oblique, occasionally, as to be detectable only with quite a lot of retrospect. So, too, were his compliments, which were many and delightful, yet always carefully disguised as mere dry observations, apologies, insignificant asides. It was somehow taken as read in our endless conversations that I was a great beauty, extraordinarily intelligent, both perceptive and discerning. None of these contentions, I hasten to add, had much validity, and hence say more about John’s good manners than anything else.
Yet writing that, I recall suddenly the only time John was ever visibly cross with me. Like a lot of people, I’ve a strong impulse to shrug off compliments — ‘no, this jumper is a million years old’, ‘oh, what are you talking about, that blog post was totally incoherent and far too long too’ — etc, etc. I must have done this once too often, though, and it clearly annoyed John.
‘Don’t argue with compliments — it’s terrible manners. For God’s sake, if you can’t think of anything better, just repeat “thank you, what a kind thing to say” and leave it at that.’
As anyone who knows me in real life will attest, this advice, at least, hit home.
All of which makes it sound, incorrectly, as if John did most of the talking. Absolutely the opposite was true. On the contrary, John exhibited an almost anthropological interest in the circumstances of my life: on what it was like to grow up in the American South in the 1960s and 70s, what Cambridge was like these days, the intricate tribal loyalties and antipathies of student politics, the everyday facts of being a 20-something person in early 1990s London. Here, perhaps, we return most directly to Smiley’s People: as with Alec Guinness playing George Smiley, John somehow had the gift of eliciting surprisingly detailed, reflective answers, which he showed every sign of finding both deeply fascinating and potentially significant.
And that, in the end, was the greatest compliment of all, if the least remarkable at the time. The young are, in their way, shockingly self-centred, so in those days I took it as a matter of course that my activities and views were, in some absolute sense, interesting. Years later, I have learned how scarce, in fact, that sort of conversational generosity turns out to be, and what a great gift it constitutes. How I miss those lunches.
Did it ever occur to me to ask John a direct question? Quite possibly not, because I really was very shy, much more so than I am now, and at the time the idea of cross-questioning a ‘grownup’ would have horrified me. But perhaps that, too, suited John, always happiest when evading close scrutiny.
John was nothing if not diffident. He was, in fact, if such a thing is possible, diffident in quite a showy way. That, perhaps, explains why so much of his career seemed to have been spent — at least the way he told the story — trailing happily in the slipstream of bigger, more extrovert personalities, like Ralph Harris, at whose roaring laugh, raised pipe and infectious enthusiasms John could always raise a half-mocking eyebrow.
But it is also true that John had worked very closely, from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, with another ‘big personality’, if that isn’t a ridiculous way in which to describe Enoch Powell.
We had better, I suppose, pause to unpick what this does and does not mean.
What people understand by ‘Enoch Powell’ is, to a degree, generational. For my generation, even amongst quite a lot of Tories, Powell tends to be viewed with reflexive distaste, because his whole long career is, at for those who came to political maturity in the 1970s and 80s, viewed through prism of that infamous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. For us, he symbolises a racist, nativist streak within conservatism all the more culpable for coming from someone who, with all that education and obvious intelligence, ought to have better. The 2016 vote on Brexit and some of the rhetoric around ‘Leave’ has, if anything, made Powell’s legacy seem even worse.
I wonder, though, whether this is changing? I recently read David Olusoga’s excellent Black and British: A Forgotten History — in case you are wondering, I was trying to find out how often, if ever, black faces would have featured in sixteenth century Norfolk, but ended up reading the whole thing, because it’s a very good book. In it, Olusoga offers, among other things, a sustained, measured and generally eye-opening reconsideration of Powell’s legacy. It isn’t that Olusoga exonerates Powell — nothing of the sort — but he goes to a lot of effort to spell out exactly what Powell did and didn’t say, did and didn’t believe, and generally to put those ‘rivers of blood’ into the context of a long, complicated and in some ways rather self-contradictory political career. Would anyone, outside an exclusive clique of Tory biographers, have bothered to do that a decade ago? And yet for all his flaws, which were many, Powell was much more than one phrase in one speech, so the re-evaluation is probably overdue.
Certainly, for his contemporaries and near-contemporaries — and let’s remember that Powell was John’s elder by more than 20 years — there was no urgent need to define Powell in terms of racism, not least because at the start of the 1960s, Powell’s ‘famous’ oration was the Hola Massacre speech. In this speech — which Dennis Healey, for one, pronounced the best he ever heard in Parliament — Powell was quite clear that it was wrong to employ methods against Mau Mau insurgents that would be unacceptable in any other context, for instance a European one. He was, clearly, an opponent of free migration — but as a long-time supporter of free migration myself, I can promise you that his reservations were and are widely shared across the political spectrum, not only within the Conservative Party. No, in the mid 1960s, it made at least as much sense to define Powell in terms of his distinctive views regarding British engagement in the Far East, House of Lords reform, the Common Market, or indeed free market economics, for which he was an early and relatively consistent advocate, as it did to think about him in terms of race. While it’s always hard to make a mental leap across the decades, the effort of imagination necessary to be fair to Powell in this respect is more challenging than most.
John helped Powell with the publication of several books: A Nation Not Afraid: the thinking of Enoch Powell (1965), Freedom and Reality (1969), Still to Decide: Speeches of Enoch Powell (1972), perhaps others.
What are we to make of this?
Oddly — or perhaps not oddly — in all our many conversations, John said very little about his erstwhile colleague and mentor. The main thing I remember, because he mentioned he did it more than once, was his critique of Powell’s anti-Americanism. John felt that Powell had minded awfully about the end of Empire and the decline of British overseas influence, that he had blamed this largely on the USA, and that pretty much everything else in his career followed on from that. He spoke of this as if it were some sort of regrettable, almost tragic disability on Powell’s part. John, in contrast, quite liked the USA. I don’t think this was purely good manners in deference to my American origins, either. I suspect John found the strong strand of literal-minded earnestness in American culture rather touching, just as he was amused by its occasional grotesqueries and sports. He loved, for instance, the fact that Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer, whilst agreeing that President Reagan was a lot less stupid than generally assumed. How I wish I could have heard John’s views on Trump, who would have appalled and entertained him, both at once.
Also, in our many hours of wide-ranging chats about anything and everything, John never expressed the slightest concern about immigration. He was also no racist. I am sure of this, because our conversations took place at a time in which older people very often said or did things that were startlingly racist in character. Yet John never crossed this line, even when we were discussing — as we so often did — either South Africa or my own American childhood. What, then, he made of that aspect of Powell’s legacy, I do not know. Perhaps he was simply more interested in Powell’s economic views than he was in other, less encouraging aspects of his thought. That is one possibility. Or perhaps, at the margins, he simply found Powell’s larger-than-life personality sufficiently amusing that he could afford to ignore the points on which they differed. John had, after all, that admirable gift, not given to many of us, of being able to maintain friendships in the face of profound political disagreement. I should have asked him, of course, but I did not, and now it is too late.
In his role as Powell’s editor John could hardly have missed the coat-trailing tendency always so evident in Powell’s oratory. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, asked in the course of an examination to translate a long passage from English into Greek, Powell famously produced, very swiftly, two alternate versions — one in the style of Plato, the other more like Thucydides — for which he received a double-starred first. How could this have failed to go to anyone’s head? Powell’s public persona was the very opposite of playful, and yet there are moments where one wonders whether he wasn’t guilty of taking a dark, donnish pleasure in sheer rhetorical facility, to the extent that he became a little bit casual about the fact that language does, sometimes, actually have practical, rather than simply aesthetic consequences. Or is that letting Powell off the hook too easily? Probably so.
I have never taken the time to plough through John’s editions of Powell’s thought, although someday I will. Not least, it would be instructive to see whether, in these, John made any effort to row back from some of his subject’s sillier or nastier positions.
Certainly, in his Spectator review (1965) of John’s collection of Powell’s speeches and articles (mostly from 1963), no less agile a critic than Iain Macleod (the relevant review is transcribed incredibly poorly here) cheerfully accuses John of imposing an unjustified consistency on Powell’s thought. Macleod knew Powell very well, so it’s worth noting that he, too, flags up Powell’s propensity toward coat-trailing and kite-flying, as well as his fondness for hiding his rather mysterious inner self behind a much simpler facade.
Macleod also refers to John variously as Powell’s ‘acolyte’ and ‘disciple’, but of course this might be a sort of joke, in the sense that all sorts of things written by people like Iain Macleod, David Gilmour or Maurice Cowling both are and are not jokes, simultaneously, in a way that science cannot yet adequately explain.
Although I only worked full-time at the IEA for about sixteen months — filling the gap between completing one academic degree and starting another — quite a lot of things happened during the time I was there.
I can remember, one evening, Graham Mather rushing round the corner into my tiny, dowdy office to tell me — presumably, because there was no one else around, and he had to tell someone — that Nelson Mandela had been released from prison. Graham had been listening to Radio 4’s PM Programme. This was what life was like before iPhones, news alerts and Twitter. There was a lot of rushing about to tell people things, and a pardonable pride in being the one doing the rushing, too.
I can also remember the IRA’s mortar attack on Downing Street. The building between us and Millbank was under scaffolding at the time, so we all assumed the very loud noise was simply building-related nuisance. But I further remember, on another morning, ambling with my mug of coffee into the IEA library and encountering Ken Smith, the IEA librarian, normally convivial and red-faced, but on this day absolutely ashen: ‘They’ve killed Ian Gow‘.
For indeed, we were then living in a time wherein one IEA trustee was driven around in a part-armoured car due to IRA threats against him, where we were often confined to the building during lunchtime because of some sort of bomb threat against the nearby Conservative Central Office, where for reasons that were never entirely clear to me, every single random cupboard or unused desk drawer seemed to contain at least one small bronze bust of the late Ross McWhirter, also murdered by the IRA.
Yet at the time, strange to say, it was still possible for anyone with a House of Commons pass to gain entry to the Palace of Westminster without going through any search or scan procedure whatsoever. Scanners existed, true, but more often than not, a friendly policeman would simply wave me through, usually with a joke about the tweed-covered anglers’ bag in which I carried my papers: ‘catch anything good for my dinner, love?’ The existence of gates at the entrance to Downing Street was still viewed as novel, and perhaps rather shaming. Left-of-centre MPs like Jeremy Corbyn could hang around in public with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Doing so attracted outrage, of course, but all the same, it’s hard to imagine the equivalent happening with representatives of the Islamic State today.
Yet for all of us at the IEA — the younger employees, certainly — the greatest catastrophe of those months was, without a doubt, the fall of Margaret Thatcher.
True, we had all quoted at each other for many years that weary old saw about all political careers ending in failure. At some level we must have realised that nothing lasts forever. Nor, truth be told, was the Iron Lady herself above criticism. We deplored her more authoritarian impulses, we questioned her ministerial selections, we sometimes struggled to work out whether she was being magnificent or actually just flat-out bonkers. Still, in political terms, right or wrong, she was our all-nournishing mother, powerful yet terrifyingly vulnerable, and no matter how much we might sometimes doubt her, at the same time, we knew ourselves to be bound to her with an awful, terrible, ineradicable tribal loyalty.
I was coming back from dinner, walking down Great Smith Street, with a companion who was in possession of a mobile phone, roughly the size and weight of a brick, when the news of Geoffrey Howe’s resignation came through to us. The enormity of the situation was instantly apparent.
What followed was a fevered season of rumours, frayed nerves, a woozy sense of onrushing catastrophe lit only by occasional flashes of hope: surely, there must be something we can do to save her?
The IEA, despite the fact it was a charity with no political alignment, immediately transformed itself into a forward operating base. Normal work ceased, but no one cared. In a world without Snapchat, there was still a need for out-of-the-way rooms in nondescript offices. We looked out the windows, just to see who might be strolling casually in one direction or the other, and read the runes accordingly. Rumours of midnight conferences flourished. Anyone who might know anything was debriefed to the best of our limited ability, ensuring that our grasp of badly-sourced, inaccurate gossip was second only to that of the media more generally.
My desk was co-opted, without explanation or apology, by a semi-famous academic economist. The economist in question, who will remain nameless here, was in fact pretty much the Left’s most lazily clichéd fantasy vision of an evil, right-wing economist. Ex Winchester and Balliol, a pair of George-Smiley type glasses obscuring surprisingly limpid, dreamy, slightly troubled eyes, he was a Thatcherite avant la lettre — pro poll tax, anti Europe, with an unparalleled record for attaching himself to unpopular causes, the more rebarbative and doomed, the better. We all liked him for this, whether or not we agreed with him, not least because there was a sort of furious purity about it. Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, as the days passed and the piles of discarded paper on my desk grew ever deeper, the semi-famous economist appeared, genuinely, be undergoing a nervous breakdown. I am sure he would have given his life to buy his heroine another few months in power. The fact that he could not do so hurt him. He did not eat, and hardly slept. He merely laboured and suffered — all in vain. I have never seen anything like it.
All this was very distressing to watch, of course, but also quite impressive in its way.
John, for his part, had surveyed the ebb and flow of political crises many times before, so took everything rather more calmly than we did — the tension, those terrible minor betrayals, the car-crash of disbelief, and then the flat dead feeling when the end finally fell. In truth, although at some level he adored Mrs Thatcher as much as we all did, he was doubtless also more aware of her limitations.
‘I love her, of course, but she could never love me,’ he explained, ruefully. ‘Whenever I meet her, I end up making small-talk, which she doesn’t enjoy — and also, she famously distrusts public school boys.’
Smiley’s People has some very strange features.
For one thing, it is shot through with nostalgia. The book is more obvious in this context than the miniseries, but both set a pretty high standard for looking back over one’s shoulder with an aching, hopeless longing for the fairly recent past. Explicitly, much of this longing is for the pre-lapsarian world in which Bill Haydon’s betrayal — or ‘the Fall’, in the book version’s charmingly non-subtle slang — might have been evaded, but of course, this is also very much wrapped up with the decline of Smiley’s marriage, and all the personal anguish, the worse for being in some ways so public, that was consequent on that. One of Guinness’ great achievements as an actor is the extent to which ‘how’s Anne?’ comes to feel, an episode or two in, like an actual punch to the guts. As far as that goes, though, the self-conscious myth-making tendency — again, stronger in the books than the miniseries, albeit present in both — achieves the same thing, the vigorous sense of looking back towards something that cannot ever be fully recovered or indeed repaired. Well, John never wiped his glasses with the fat end of his tie, as far as I know, but the old guard partisans at the IEA were definitely aware that we were living in the end-times of something that would, in due course, surely become legendary. That was part of the charm of the whole enterprise, as was the dandyish disdain — very Smiley, this, by the way — for the anxious, striving, CV-stroking tendency that animates all office politics.
Smiley’s People is also, to a degree, an exercise in defining unlikely heroes. The book version of Smiley, admittedly, is far fatter, more unfit and dysfunctional than Guinness, never without a strong streak of vanity, could bring himself to portray. All the same, Guinness definitely plays Smiley as old, so much so that it comes as a shock to realise that Guinness’ three outings as Obi-Wan Kenobi — a much more physically vital person than Smiley — are more or less concurrent with his Smiley’s People performance. The supporting characters also conform to this model. Connie is a dying, self-centred alcoholic; Esterhase is more than ever a glorified con-artist, albeit with his heart in the right place, but an ageing one, too. What is particularly odd, given all this, is that the old are nevertheless the glamorous, interesting and able ones; in Smiley’s People, it’s the young who struggle to keep up with their elders, vying for their approbation or something even their recognition. (‘You do remember me, don’t you, Mr Smiley?’) If I had watched Smiley’s People when it came out, in the early 1980s, this would have meant little to me, but observing it now, from the treacherous terrain of middle age, it’s nothing if not encouraging — almost as if that late-bottled vintage might be sweeter than the earlier ones.
And then there is Smiley himself, and all the various things that are wrong with him. Again, Guinness to some degree altered the Smiley of the published volumes to suit his own purposes. No stranger to depression himself, I suspect he put so much effort into portraying himself as robust, effective — ‘normal’ — that he couldn’t really bear to play Smiley as what the books so clearly show him to be, which is a high-functioning depressive. It’s all there, though, for anyone who looks: the frequently obsessive behaviour, the silences and solitudes, the long mysterious walks, the generalised damaged quality eliciting protective behaviour on the part of those who know him well, dismissive scorn on the part of those who don’t. But then if Smiley didn’t know something about being damaged, that super-power of human empathy might well have been denied to him.
John wasn’t, at least to any hugely obvious extent, depressive — indeed, if any of that crowd were, it was probably Lord Harris, who had experienced the awful tragedy of having two beloved sons predecease him, and whose endlessly sunny exterior may well have existed to distract us all from something more complex — but that didn’t stop me from feeling quite protective regarding John, or indeed the IEA old guard more generally. It annoyed me vastly when people didn’t see the point of them, or laughed at them in the wrong sort of way.
Actually, it annoys me still. But then perhaps that is much an eccentricity of my own as it is anything else — the same enduring, perhaps innate character trait that makes me pick up old books that someone has put out in the rubbish, that makes me call rooms in my house after the dead people who lived in them 70 years ago, that causes me to be bored by gardens bereft of the odd weed or snail, or that propels me into genuinely dark places when some idiot wants to demolish a perfectly good 1920s house on the pretext that it is somehow unsuitable for ‘contemporary living’, whatever that might mean. Well, I suppose that many people out there like their world new and shiny, unworn and uncomplicated, with no hint of the unsaid, uninvited or unknown, which is perhaps why they failed to understand what I liked about John. But in that case, I can’t imagine that they’d like Smiley’s People very much either.
One very important difference between John Wood and George Smiley is that John was not, as far as I know, a spy. He was many things — an economist, editor, think-tank co-founder, amateur cellist, low-key supporter of charitable causes, friend to politicians and journalists, generalised right-of-centre man-about-town — but clearly not a spy.
And yet even as I type that, something makes me pause.
If John Le Carré’s Smiley books insist on one thing — and they insist on plenty of things, actually — then that’s the hotly-contested nature of the boundary separating espionage from the worlds of business, finance, politics, sport, the arts, prostitution, organised crime, journalism, all sorts of miscellaneous networks. It’s not so much that spooks get everywhere, as it is that even quite ordinary people, doing ordinary things, invariably get caught up in agendas much more complicated than they might realise at the time. A few confidences over drinks, a little bit of specialist information shared with an old friend, just doing someone a favour — this is how the world of Smiley’s People works, with the actual above-the-line full-timers like Smiley being relatively thin on the ground.
What this meant for the IEA is debatable. Heaven knows late 1970s Britain, with its chaotic politics and dysfunctional labour relations, all the dark rumours of communist infiltration and potential military coups, offered plenty of opportunities for getting caught up in other agendas. During my time at the IEA, the apparently eternal effort to put the Institute’s records onto a computerised database was already underway. Notwithstanding this, every desk and file cabinet seemed to contain someone’s old Rolodex, each testifying in variously spidery and decisive hands as to what lay, as it were, in the Institute’s more or less guilty subconscious. Bored and under-occupied, the younger IEA crowd used to pass lazy summer afternoons leafing through these. More often than not, we found at least one card giving contact details for the Economic League, as well as various other names that would perhaps have caused excitement amongst the more hard-working sort of conspiracy theorists.
Meanwhile another 2 Lord North Street habitué, the entirely respectable daughter of a KB and granddaughter of an earl, had spent a lot of her youth attending, among other things, CND rallies — not out of any zeal to ban the bomb, of which she very much approved, but rather to provide useful information about the organisation for others who might be interested in such things. Some of our contemporaries were rumoured to have taken part in the London poll tax riots, livening up dull bits and taking souvenir photographs.
Some of the IEA’s early associations were similarly unnerving. As locum keeper of the IEA fundraising files — two whole cabinets full of dusty, green-jacketed foolscap folders, smelling terribly of stale tobacco and time, some of them so old that the treasury tags had rusted directly onto the yellowing, fading contents — I was perhaps more aware than some of the early links connecting the immaculately classical liberal IEA with the earlier versions of the Freedom Association, Western Goals and other related mirrors, variously cracked, of the whole General Sir Walter Walker world-view.
Friends on the Left will find this unremarkable, because they tend to lump all the Right together, ignoring the finer distinctions — but to the sort of fastidious, indeed quite squeamish libertarians that we were at the time, all of this seemed both outrageous and also luridly fascinating, in precisely the same way that different denominations of Maoists or Leninists not only see themselves as wholly distinct from their semi-indistinguishable comrades, but are often more interested in exploring these differences than they are in engaging in any more positive form of political activity. Your lot, in other words, had your trots and tankies — we had our ‘authoritarians’ and, what’s more, we hated these more than we hated you, too. Anyone who ignores this will, perforce, miss some important truths about UK (ex) Conservatives in 2017, and in particular, why some of us have distinctly mixed feeling about Theresa May.
But then my generation was, in all sorts of ways, a censorious yet proleptically nostalgic one, and never more so than during my IEA tour of duty, 1990-91. It was on our watch that the Iron Curtain had been ripped away and trampled underfoot — except, of course, where it was due to be cut into bits and sold by hipsters as ‘vintage’. Clearly, everything had changed. The grey Moscow Centre of Smiley’s People had turned into quite a nice posting for Harvard-educated economists, keen to instruct the natives in the civilising arts of central bank governance, wholesale privatisation and transparency. Francis Fukyama published his essay ‘The End of History?’ which, even at the time, alternately thrilled and distressed young classical liberals and the more obviously house-trained libertarians. Would we have made the right choices, been brave enough to take the right risks? Would we ever have the chance to find out? Or had we, by being born too late, missed all the action?
We feared that this might be the case. Wistfully, we told each other tales about Roger Scruton driving through Eastern Europe with fax machines hidden in the bodywork of his car, worrying silently that nothing as authentic, terrible and also thrilling would ever take place in our own lives. The battle of ideas was all very well, but rather less glamorous than other kinds of battle. Different people handled this in different ways. Some gave up on policy, making a life for themselves in business or finance. Conversely, that fixture of IEA lunches, the amiable Stephen Masty, went full-on Great Game and vanished into Afghanistan, from which he sent periodic warnings to the effect that radical Islam was a threat, but more to the point, it was a threat that Western governments were already handling it badly. He was a decade or so older than most of us, though, and at any rate died in 2015, at the age of 61.
But back in the early 1990s none of us had heard of Wahhabism, none of us could read a word of Arabic or find Raqqa on a map, any more than we could hack a server or set up Wikileaks — why would we want to? — while the fall of Thatcher suggested painfully that the future would, in any event, be an ideology-free zone, presided over by managers rather than leaders, and thus that any victories we might win for liberty over the ensuing decades would be of the incremental, unglamorous sort, unlikely to live on in legend. Also, if our friends from university were even then being recruited by the security services, as was surely the case, these were never the ones who had dabbled in student politics. Meanwhile, as for the whole idea that Russia might try to infiltrate or undermine Western institutions — that was the ridiculous stuff ridiculous spy thrillers, not real life.
In short, then, those of us left hanging around in think tanks in 1990 were, just to generalise slightly, less Smiley’s People than Smiley’s indulged, lazy and in short rather disappointing nephews and nieces. What’s more, in our more reflective moments we realised this, too.
John, though, shared his own biographical timeline with George Smiley. (For the pedants out there, yes, Smiley’s timeline has slipped a bit over the years, one of the many practical advantages fictional people have over actual ones, but the general point holds.) Although John’s war was spent in Whitehall — his eyesight was terrible so there may well have been a medical reason why he didn’t do active service — it doubtless influenced him, just as the early Cold War must have in some sense his ‘normal’, even in the early 1990s, just as my generation will always carry with us the expectation that life basically ought to be either late Thatcher, early Blair or points in between. In 1958 John had helped to produce the first English-language edition of West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s Prosperity Through Competition (I suspect Edith Temple Roberts produced the translation while John was the economically-literate editor), which turned out to be, at least for a while, a central text for showing how classical liberalism might deliver that pleasing thing, an ‘economic miracle’.
And then at the IEA, John set up networks, informal and fluid, all around the world, including difficult terrain like South America and Africa, of like-minded classical liberals. This was helpful, as it made it possible to disseminate classical liberal texts, to get them translated (where necessary) into relevant local languages, to kick-start the evolution of forms of classical liberalism that didn’t clash with existing cultural norms but in fact worked in sync with them. John’s City and Fleet Street connections may have helped with this. His charm, good memory and a degree of guile doubtless helped too. So did a basic interest in people.
When there was nothing better to do at the IEA, John would occasionally talk me through parts of those faded green foolscap files, explaining the dynastic links between the various Scottish families that presided over the financial sector in Hong Kong, or the histories and eccentricities of various long-time donors to the Institute, all of which might conclude in advice regarding why if X was invited to a lunch, then Y must be too, ‘only remember that Malcolm McAlpine can’t bear garlic, and if Lord Carrington is going to be there then we might as well have someone who knows about pictures, too, for instance, Z’ — ‘Z’ invariably being perhaps the least obvious possible connoisseur of fine art, and hence very possibly a joke on John’s part. It was sometimes very hard to tell.
The new guard at the IEA largely laughed off this wisdom — it was not very modern — but also benefited from it.
So there we have it, really. John, clearly, was no Smiley. John was just a man who spent most of the Cold War setting up anti-communist networks, informal and undocumented, who knew a lot about all sorts of influential figures, and who maintained good links with journalists, City people and politicians. We’ll leave that one there.
It would be neat, here, if I could tell you John’s actual views about John Le Carré and Smiley’s People, but in truth I cannot remember ever hearing John give an opinion regarding a television programme. I suspect that, like me, he mostly only ever watched the news, although he was no stranger to the theatre, opera-house or concert hall.
In contrast, we discussed current affairs exhaustively and happily. We often disagreed about things. At the time, for instance, like most of my Tory brethren, I regarded Nelson Mandela as a recovering ex-terrorist, not entirely redeemed by the accident of having been imprisoned by what was, clearly, an appalling and illiberal regime. John, in contrast, was quite a Mandela fan. He saw, as I did not, how very unusual and precious was Mandela’s lack of rancour, his generosity toward the people who had done him and his fellow South Africans so much harm. ‘He’s like George Washington’ said John, slightly mischievously, knowing my enthusiasm for my American ancestors, some of whom, in the War of Independence, were loyalists. ‘So many people would want revenge, but Mandela is capable of rising above that. He’s an admirable man.’ And so, broadly speaking, it turned out.
Similarly, John had much more time than I did for the late Princess of Wales. The royal marriage was, in 1990, already starting to show a degree of wear at the seams. People were choosing sides. With the terrifying puritanism of the young, I condemned Diana for, in effect, not doing her job properly. Quite possibly she’d made a mistake, but that was her problem. Her constitutional role, dignity, propriety, all those sorts of things, surely came first? John, though, for his part, pointed to Diana’s relative youth — something that made no sense to me, since she was by four years my elder, which of course meant she was old, not young. Further, having seen her at close quarters, he could vouch for her charisma. Her erratic, sometimes self-indulgent behaviour notwithstanding, the royal family needed her. I was unconvinced. Looking back, though, John’s sympathetic tone here reads an awful lot like adult knowledge of the ways in which relationships can and do break down. Had he acquired this knowledge at some personal cost? I hope I didn’t say anything too awful to him, inadvertently kicking at an old wound, although I expect I probably did.
John didn’t really argue, in the normal sense of the word. He would solicit, with every indication of genuine interest, my view. Then he’d either agree, or put forward an alternative position in such neutral, inconsequential yet friendly tone that the result felt less like a disagreement than something else altogether. At very worst, he would — in Le Carré’s happy phrase — preserve a mandarin silence.
This was all very disarming. John also never pulled rank when it came to being older, more important or wiser than I was, which curiously had a similarly disarming effect. It was as if he argued without any ego whatsoever, as if argument wasn’t a matter of winning or losing, as if what was interesting and worthwhile was simply this comparison of world-views with someone whom he genuinely liked, almost as an end in itself. And yet today, decades after the fact, I find it impossible to think of any of these disagreements where I didn’t, in the end, come round to agreeing with John’s point of view.
One afternoon in July, John appeared in my tiny office. He was hot and out of breath. But then it was a very hot day. The IEA existed, then as now, in a trim little early Georgian building in Westminster, which meant fierce little electric space-heaters in the winter and wide-open windows, in my case with a long view onto the Liberal Democrat headquarters in Cowley Street, in hot weather.
John often wore a curious sort of safari suit in the summer, which faintly recalled Scoop and made him look both very pale and hopelessly English. He had come by bus from Chelsea, somewhere in or around Cheyne Walk, where he lived. Having recently turned 65 — my own father’s age, as it happened — he was immensely pleased to be in receipt of a senior bus pass. But then the breathlessness, the inability to withstand heat, the lack of athletic ability, the elaborate enthusiasm for the minor perks of being a pensioner rather suited John, perhaps because it was both a very dry joke and also a naked admission of something rather tragic and genuine that could, at the same time, be passed off as that dry joke mentioned previously.
On this occasion, though, John sat down on the other chair and drew an envelope out of a worn leather satchel. Out of the envelope, in turn, he drew a legal document. From the paper and the spacing of the type, I recognised it immediately as a will.
‘I’m going into hospital in a few days’ time. Would you witness this for me? Don’t get too excited, by the way, I’m not leaving you everything. But then perhaps you couldn’t be a witness if I were?’
We debated this point inconsequentially but pleasantly for a few minutes, if only in order to evade the more general question of John’s mortality, which possibly unnerved us both. Then I signed the will, carefully, with the careful and hence uncharacteristic signature I only ever use for legal documents, and returned it to him.
We discussed a few more ordinary office-type things, and then John was off again, down the stairs, and I turned back to my work, or perhaps just to staring out the window. And I that was the last I ever saw of him.
John went into hospital, somewhere in Chelsea. What I was told, I can’t remember by whom — probably Lord Harris, although it may have been John himself — was that he needed a biopsy for something to do with his kidneys. Having had the biopsy, which incidentally showed that his kidneys were fine, and while still in hospital, he developed an infection.
At the start, it didn’t seem anything very bad, or out of the ordinary — just a setback. The faction at the IEA that liked John sent him fruit, or perhaps flowers — I can remember the debate around this, but not the outcome — or perhaps it was first one, then the other.
Shirley, the tiny, fierce tea lady, who liked and respected John, spearheaded this effort. Shirley was that rare thing in those days, an indigenous Westminster-born, working class person. She had lived her entire long life in the nearby Peabody Estates, had no discernible party-political opinions whatsoever, and was an enormous snob. Her verdict on John identified him, correctly, as an old-fashioned gentleman.
More days passed. John wasn’t getting any better.
Various people visited John in hospital. Should I have visited him? But then I hate hospitals, and in some sense I didn’t know John at all well. I wasn’t a friend of very long standing, and I certainly wasn’t family. So I didn’t visit him. Later, I remember saying to Lord Harris that I regretted not visiting him, to which I was given a very swift and firm response: no, John was vain, his old colleague told me, and wouldn’t have wanted me to see him like that. At the time I didn’t question this, although with hindsight, now that I’m older, and Lord Harris too is dead, I’m suddenly suspicious: was this yet another sly kindness I failed to spot at the time?
In any event, by the time the news came through — less than a month after John had gone into hospital — we were all, in some sense, prepared for it. Which is to say, at some very formal level, I was aware that John was likely to die, so that when he died, his death didn’t seem entirely unreasonable.
John’s funeral was held at St Matthew, Great Peter Street, Westminster, in August 1991. The church was so crowded that eventually the chairs ran out. The party from the IEA arrived with little time to spare, so — typically — what sticks in my mind is a moment of embarrassment. As I looked around for a seat, a rather frail old man in immaculate morning dress rose to offer me his chair. I realised, to my horror, that he was Enoch Powell. What to do? To reject the chivalrous gesture on the basis that Powell was ancient and infirm would, at some level, have been unspeakable — but then taking a chair from a fragile 80-year old, when I was in my 20s, didn’t seem to have much to recommend it either. At this point, however, some sort of hive consciousness kicked in, an extra chair was spirited out of nowhere, and disaster was averted. John would, I think, have found this both excruciating and also quite funny.
Other than that, I remember precisely nothing of the funeral.
Afterwards there was a reception at St John’s, Smith Square — site of all those lunches, a place that John had helped rescue from postwar destruction and in which he had latterly enjoyed a great deal of music. At the time, Westminster was still a famously hard-drinking place, in which context the IEA had secured a hard-won reputation for particularly heroic feats of conviviality. So it was that we drowned our various sorrows that afternoon as best we could, in a restaurant that had once been a crypt.
As sometimes happens, particularly when death has, as it were, ambled up in a relatively casual, non-urgent way, there were moments when the wake felt almost jolly. The less famous participants enjoyed spying on the far more famous ones. Old friendships were reaffirmed. There was more than a little laughter. As the champagne flowed, not all the conversations had much to do with John. Even as his coffin embarked on its journey out of London towards some bleak and architecturally unsatisfactory suburban crematorium, life was going on. John would, surely, have accepted this too. He was nothing if not a shrewd observer of human nature, no stranger to boozy wakes, worldly amusements or indeed putting on a good façade. Half numb, though, as much with the heartlessly happy buzz of the company as with the champagne, I was at last beginning to feel the weight of John’s death.
Near the end of the reception, I met John’s brother’s children, a boy and a girl, probably also, like me, in their twenties. They were both attractive, slightly aloof, perhaps a bit bemused by all these people gathered together in memory of an uncle whom they obviously took for granted, as young people often do with elderly uncles. I can remember, all too clearly, trying to explain to the male one that John had been so funny, so wise, that he had been a friend to me and that I would really miss him.
What hurt, then as much as now, was the fact that in his bemusement, John’s nephew regarded me with a quizzical, ironic, indeed playfully appalled look that came straight from John himself.
One of the less well-rehearsed sadnesses of growing old is not so much the gnawing consciousness of one’s own mortality (too obvious, too unbecomingly selfish) as it is the sense of real bereavement at the loss of all those other lives — the visceral memory of them, the raw recollections that never quite survive translation into other media — that will, inevitably and definitively, perish with one’s own. With the passing of John’s generation, my own generation is losing not only its bond with John’s contemporaries, but also with the men and women of an earlier generation who, to an extent, made John who he was. That, too, is sad.
One thinks in this context, for instance, of Diana Spearman. For John, Ralph Harris, so many others of that vintage, this famously formidable woman and her ad-hoc conservative salons were the stuff of legend, but who thinks of her now? I am pleased to say that, browsing the internet for any remaining evidence of her existence, at least someone out there is, it seems, keeping her memory alive. Yet as far as I can see, there isn’t a photo of her on the internet, not a biography, nothing but a few bibliographical references and images of fading dust-jackets — a pale reflection of those tales John used to tell about her, certainly, which were vivid but also often very funny. How easily might she simply vanish, if only because her role was less a matter of great offices of state and official papers than it was that very intangible thing, an impact made largely untraceably on a cohort of lives now coming, one by one, to their natural ends.
But as far as that goes, who now knows John Wood? I can think of a few old friends who may well see this, people of more or less my own age, who will remember John, just as I do. But who else?
Let us read out, then, edited highlights from the bede roll of the IEA dead. Of John’s own generation, more or less, were bluff charmer Ralph Harris and also the earnest, incandescently decent Arthur Seldon, John’s friends and fellow IEA founders. Both are gone now. Then there were the Tory grandees who, for varying reasons, had some association with John, all a little older than he was, and now also dead: for instance, Enoch Powell, Peter Tapsell, Nicholas Ridley, Lady Thatcher herself.
Of the IEA crowd, one thinks also of those who are no longer with us today, their relative youth notwithstanding: brilliant, anarchic Chris Tame, co-founder of the Libertarian Alliance, who died in 2006, aged 56; profane, hilarious, Hibs FC-obsessive Walter Allan, who died in 2010, aged 54; indeed John Blundell, who went on to become the IEA’s general director, and who in turn died in 2014, aged 61, with a degree of stubborn courage that surprised literally no one who knew him.
And then there were all those other people who, in the early 1990s, used to hang around the IEA for more or less obvious reasons, so that in time one simply expected to find them there, offering neither explanation or apology, at more or less any hour of the day or night, without anyone actually knowing what they did. The groups includes, for instance, Barry Bracewell-Milnes, who used to discuss my adored Guyana with me — back when it was British Guiana, this apparently least martial of men had apparently done some of his national service there — and who loved the Book of Common Prayer. Barry entered into IEA legend when he made a speech on positive externalities, after which we all came away with the conviction that Barry’s ideal minimal state would have devoted its energies mostly to military bands and — I am not making this up — bookbinding. Barry died in 2012.
Also, there was Peter Clarke, who did quite a few different things, only some of which resulted in scandal or libel actions, and who gave as much wholly innocent pleasure to his friends as he did fruitful material for diary-writers, political gossips and the inevitable obituary columns. Peter, whom I liked enormously, died earlier this year. The last time we met had been at John Blundell’s memorial event, in what used to be the IEA library — the same place in which Ken Smith, now also dead, told me about Ian Gow’s murder. One can see why the Shinto-minded Japanese insist on rebuilding their sacred structures periodically, if only to thin out the ghosts.
Finally, it’s painful to think that amongst the IEA’s dead must now be numbered my old friend the fierce, brilliant, admirable if infuriating Helen Szamuely, who departed this earthly life only a couple of weeks ago. Someday there may be something useful to be said about her. Today, though, there is only — on my part, at least — dazed resentment at the fact that she, too, gone.
Here, though, is the obvious point. Whenever someone who knew John dies, a little more of John’s life vanishes. All of which means that John is vanishing, more and more completely, with each passing year, with every new ‘it is with deep regret’ email, with every competently-written obituary notice that still somehow misses its target.
Once or twice, someone has tried with me to piece John’s life back together.
For instance, a year or so after John’s death — in about 1993 — when I had finished my brief sojourn at the IEA and was back in Cambridge, wandering through the Union Society one afternoon I chanced upon Keith Joseph and his wife, waiting patiently for something, or possibly just forgotten by the students who were meant to be minding them, two elderly figures standing at the top of the main stairs. Having met Lord Joseph quite a few times at the IEA, and worrying that he might be feeling neglected, I approached and introduced myself. The conversation very quickly turned to the late John Wood, and how we both missed him. Lord Joseph was, as ever, mentally sharp, intensely sympathetic, eager to share memories of John — but he was also frail, with the slightly rheumy eyes of the very old and a noticeable tremor, and I could see his wife’s anxiety that with all this reminiscing he was tiring himself out.
Keith Joseph died in 1994. I still cherish, though, like some numinous talisman the memory of that conversation — not least, what felt like a genuine sense of relief, entirely mutual, when Lord Joseph and I discovered in each other someone who wanted and indeed was able to remember John Wood.
So few people, so very few, remember John these days. And someday there will be no one left at all, and then another sort of death will have taken place, quite possibly unnoticed and unremarked by anyone.
When it was cold, John wore a dark blue cashmere coat, of a sort that really hasn’t gone in or out of fashion over the intervening decades. So it is that occasionally, walking through St James’s or one of those little streets running south from the King’s Road in Chelsea, I see a white-haired old man in the distance, wearing glasses and that same blue coat, and there’s a moment before the rational part of my brain kicks in and reminds me that of course it can’t possibly be John Wood. Or sometimes in Norfolk, where quite a few of our neighbours are men in their late 80s and early 90s, an ironic turn of phrase or put-on diffidence will make John live again, if only for a second or so.
All the same, I like these moments, because they allow me to imagine that someday, I will run into John somewhere, and we will greet each other with slightly awkward formality camouflaging whatever enthusiasm we’re really feeling, and we will exchange some offhand casual gossip about mutual acquaintances, a funny story or two, a few rueful reflections on the state of present-day politics, before going our separate ways again.
When, in the first decade of this century, Lady Thatcher was widely deemed to be slightly gaga, the evidence always adduced for this was her belief that her adored husband Denis, who died in 2003, was still around. Well, if so, I suspect she was doing no more than making a little too obvious the comforting strategy many of us adopt in respect of the dead, which is trying to avoid contemplating the hard-to-grasp permanence of their departure, tolerating our own comforting little fantasies and evasions. Heaven knows, there are plenty of old friends whom I don’t see very often. Does it really matter, past a point, whether seeing them is still possible? Also, it must surely be true that for plenty of us, there are dead people who, frankly, are much more definitely and positive influences in our lives than some of the living. So in a sense, Lady Thatcher’s refusal to accept the her husband’s death was simply an acknowledgement of this — not sentimental or morbid, but practical and pragmatic, like so much that she did.
But then there are also those places where one runs into the dead, unexpectedly yet pleasantly — in this case, not at a bus stop on the King’s Road, but in a television miniseries, watched on a whim — and they are also to be embraced with gratitude.
The exact point at which it occurred to me that I was enjoying watching Alec Guinness’ George Smiley, largely because he reminded me of John Wood, occurred during a scene near the end of the last episode. Plot spoilers cannot be avoided here, so if that sort of thing bothers you — and, more to the point, if you image that the main point of Smiley’s People is the plot — look away now.
The rather elderly Smiley has spent the entirety of the previous episodes — albeit with a magnificent indirection all his own — dragged out of semi-retirement, trying to understand the circumstances behind an agent’s death, a search which will eventually lead him to very close indeed to his longtime nemesis, Karla — a Russian intelligence chief who, at various points, has very nearly wrecked Britain’s security structures, killed a few people and, not incidentally at all, helped to ruin Smiley’s marriage. Eventually, this search leads Smiley to an upmarket lunatic asylum near Bern, Switzerland. Here, he interviews a Russian girl — young, impulsive, gauche, perhaps too honest, perhaps not as mad as all that, but certainly plagued with the fantasy that her father is a very important man, too important to exist, who murdered her mother.
It’s one of the pivotal scenes of the whole drama, and one of Guinness’ best. In it, he has a chance to show off something this famously guarded, distant yet emotionally needy man did very well indeed: putting on a façade that suggests he’s really just normal, even slightly offhand, while at the same time, very conspicuously hiding plenty of other complicated, difficult emotions behind it. So on one hand we have a visiting ‘uncle’ asking this girl genial if increasingly pointed questions about her father, while on the other, we also see, passing across Guinness’ face, everything from extreme steeliness of purpose to, by the end, intense human sympathy.
Parental love, by the way, is absolutely central to the logic of Smiley’s People. It’s well known that both John Le Carré and Alec Guinness had dismal relationships with their various parents. Guinness’ mother was a monster, while Le Carré’s mother abandoned him at the age of five; meanwhile Le Le Carré’s father had been that sad thing, an unsuccessful gangster, whereas Guinness’ father was, at least the way Guinness himself told the story, merely one of a number of random men whom his mother had entertained in the course of a single outing on Lord Moyne’s yacht. And then Guinness, too, went on to be rather a bad father.
Perhaps this is why, ultimately, Smiley’s People is in large part a consoling fable regarding parenthood. We are shown in it, variously, a mother who abandoned her young child but — good news, this — turns out to have spent her life desperate to get that child back; at the same time, even the wickedest man in the Smiley’s People universe, otherwise entirely cynical and amoral, cannot quite resist the chance to be close once again to his daughter. And at the heart of this is — who else? — Smiley himself, a father-figure all the more ideal for his own, faintly wounded childlessness.
At the end of the scene where Smiley is questioning the girl in the lunatic asylum, he is about to drive away, when he suddenly notices that the girl has escaped her nurses, for a moment, and tries to run after his car, until the nurses overtake her and drag her away. As Smiley stares back from the driver’s seat towards her, there is, perhaps uniquely in the drama, nothing guarded or enigmatic about his expression: his look is one of absolute anguish. (This part of the scene, incidentally, carries a lot more weight in the television version than it does in the novel, although the — mostly very faithful — television script excises an exchange in which the girl asks, clearly playfully, if Smiley is her father, to which he replies ‘sadly’ that he has no children.) If there’s been callousness before regarding other women — the wife of an agent, his former colleague the dying Connie Sachs, another younger colleague who’s had a nervous breakdown in the service of the agency, even Smiley’s own painfully unfaithful wife, turned suddenly penitent — there is no callousness at all here.
There is, for whatever reason, a bond between Smiley and the mad girl. Perhaps the bond is the need they both feel to get through to Karla. So when Smiley eventually reels Karla in, one has to wonder, marginally, at his actual motivation: is this all about Karla (and let’s remember, in the end, Smiley can’t even be bothered to pick up the token that Karla drops at his feet), or is it something more pure, personal, even redemptive? Possibly, someone may be reaching across the whole tangled mess of the Cold War in order to do something basically kind for someone else whom he hardly knows at all, just because he can.
All in all, then, Smiley’s People is a very comforting fable, operating at a very different level than the myths attached to those other distinguished British Cold War spies, James Bond and Harry Palmer. Things may look rather complicated and bad, Smiley’s People tells us, and of course everything is rather opaque, but ultimately it’s quite all right, really, because there is a wise, kind and unfailingly moral father-figure there who will not only maintain his own integrity, but has both the wit to understand what is really going on and the courage to sort it all out for us. In the early 1980s, this was a cheering message, but here in 2017 — the age of Donald and Ivanka Trump, Robert and Becca Mercer, Cambridge Analytica’s own Brexit, ‘fake news’ and of course that monster Putin himself — its appeal has in no way diminished. For all that Smiley’s People is framed as a thriller, what could be more soothing?
That, anyway, is a brief account of how people go missing, and also how the illusion of finding them again can, however briefly, flourish.
Remember that any historian who, for some hard-to-imagine reason, scrutinised the IEA’s employment records might come away with the impression that John and I never even met, given my rather lowly status within the organisation coupled with the fact that John had no proper role there in last year or so of his life. Remember also that, a few bibliographical footnotes and a website reference two aside, John hardly exists any more. To discover much about him, one would have to go far out of one’s way to do so — yet why would anyone do that? In any event, what’s most distinctive about him has vanished, and is wholly unrecoverable, as there is nothing so hard to pin down as dry humour, a particular quizzical but also knowing expression, all those reasons why people actually end up liking one another. A list of publications, however complete, is not the same thing as the man who wrote or edited them, and who did a lot else besides.
Remember, also, a further oddity of the way in which public memory works. Anyone perusing — again, for some hard-to-imagine reason — my own life, might well be working under the quite reasonable assumption that some relationships have mattered more than others — but in totting up this extremely subjective calculus, might equally well end up with an answer that’s entirely wrong.
For instance, anyone who’s persisted with this almost heroically self-indulgent exercise up to the present point (don’t worry, friends — we’re very near the end now, any moment now Karla will make his hesitant way over the bridge, the lighter will drop onto the wet West Berlin pavement and then the story will be over) may perhaps not be wholly surprised to learn that my own relationship with my parents was less than ideal, and that my relationship with my father in particular was not a success. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Let’s leave it at that, shall we? And yet this notional archaeologist of my life, for lack of evidence to the contrary, might take it as read that my relationship with my father mattered more, in the end, than a brief friendship with an elderly work colleague. Whereas I, for all sorts of reasons, would argue exactly the contrary. My father was, at best, an absence. John, in contrast, didn’t have to spend a single minute in my company.
‘Oblivion is not to be hired. The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the register of God, not in the record of man.’
That is Sir Thomas Browne again, my Norfolk neighbour who died in 1682. Sir Thomas is still remembered, of course, because through the quality of his prose this otherwise rather obscure doctor and amateur scientist became a literary figure — although despite that, most of the detail of his life is now lost to posterity, so that the literary figure and the actual dead person exist in a strange sort of tension — contested, confusing, unsatisfactory, as death so often is, even when viewed from a great distance.
I wish that I could see John again. I should like to ask him about all sorts of things, not least his views on Brexit. As the pattern of political and personal allegiances set out above makes clear, John — like many at the IEA, then and now — was a lifelong Eurosceptic, but there are moments when I wonder whether the sheer nastiness of the ‘Leave’ campaign might have repelled him, just as it did me. Or is that too much of a projection of my own prejudices? A civilised, irenic man, he would at any rate have been saddened by the jagged, superating wound that the Brexit vote has inflicted down the middle of the Tory party, down the middle of the IEA’s own little family of classical liberals and libertarians, indeed across the torso of UK body politic more generally. He would, no doubt, have been very entertaining on the subject of the charmless Theresa May, acid about Trump, fascinated by the paradoxes embodied in the lives of Emmanuel Macron, Alistair Campbell, Seumas Milne. As a publisher of sorts, he might have enjoyed blogs. I have no idea what he would have made of Twitter.
More personally, though, I would like him to know how these last 26 years have been for me. In sum, I’ve been very lucky. In the end, I got my PhD, but not my academic career. I have an intelligent, eccentric, amusing 12-year old son who loves political gossip without taking any of it very seriously. I have a house in Soho, and also a house in Norfolk — John would have found both these things quite funny. I own more pictures than I did before. I still write a bit. Also, although I could be wrong about this, I am pretty certain that I’m marginally less doctrinaire, naive, callous, self-centred and generally appalling than I was back in 1991, due in part to John’s vague yet benevolent influence, as well as the wearing action of time more generally — not that I could say any of that last part, obviously, but perhaps he’d notice?
I would like him to know all these things. But mostly, I’d like, just once, not to have to make do with these dry, fragile little memories, wearing away a bit more each time I bring them out into the open, or with faint refractions off the surface of someone else’s story.
And as for George Smiley — well, who can blame Le Carré, now aged 85, for summoning our hero back from retirement for just one more outing?