Author John le Carré: My father beat me, then begged me for money
The father of John le Carré, one of the greatest spy novelists, was a violent conman who beat him and his mother and would later call the writer from prison to beg him for money.
Le Carré has revealed how his father Ronnie beat his mother Olive, forcing her to flee the marriage, before turning his attention to his son.
In a compelling and long-awaited autobiography, Le Carré, a former MI5 and MI6 agent, described Ronnie as a “conman, fantasist [and] occasional jailbird” whose violent temper prompted Olive to “bolt”.
The young Le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, would sleep in front of his mother’s bedroom door holding a golf club to deter his father, describing himself as “her ridiculous protector”.
He adds dryly: “Certainly Ronnie beat me up too, but only a few times and not with much conviction. It was the shaping up that was the scary part: the lowering and readying of the shoulders, the resetting of the jaw.”
Le Carré writes in his autobiography, The Pigeon Tunnel, serialised in The Guardian, that his childhood was largely lacking in love as a result.
“Today, I don’t remember feeling any affection in childhood expect for my elder brother, who for a time was my only parent,” he writes. “I remember a constant tension in myself that even in great age has not relaxed.”
Le Carré adds that his father would ring him from various foreign prisons asking him to bail him out with cash and later tried to sue him after watching his son’s appearance in a documentary and deciding “there was an implicit slander in my failure to mention that I owed everything to him”.
In his memoir, Le Carré recounts how he went on to work for British intelligence before taking up writing, outlining the first-hand research and punishing travel schedule that went into producing more than 20 novels – including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager.
His working methods involve “writing on the hoof, in notebooks, on walks, in trains and cafes” and he has no time for laptops and digital devices.
“Arrogantly, perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanised writing,” he says.
Le Carré’s success has brought him in contact with some of the modern world’s most powerful people, including Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, but appears to have remained generally unimpressed by the lure of power.
The novelist, now 84, refuses to reveal details of his spy work, carried out mostly in German, saying he is “bound by my vestiges of old-fashioned loyalty to my former services, but also by undertakings I gave to the men and women who agreed to collaborate with me”.
He adds: “The work we engaged in was neither perilous nor dramatic, but it involved painful soul-searching on the part of those who signed up to do it. Whether today these people are alive or dead, the promise of confidentiality holds.”
But Le Carré is surprisingly sympathetic towards Edward Snowden, the former CIA analyst who leaked details of the US’s surveillance programmes before seeking asylum in Russia.
He says the British public have been “encouraged by spoon-fed media to be docile about violations of its privacy”.