How David Cornwell Became John Le Carré ‹ Literary Hub


“People believe what they want to believe,” wrote David Cornwell to one of his lovers. “ALWAYS.” He was referring to the “revelation” that Graham Greene had continued working for British intelligence into his seventies. “No good me telling them that GG was far too drunk to remember anything, & that his residual connections with the Brit spooks were romantic fantasy.”

When he wrote that people believed what they wanted to believe about Greene, he might just as well have been writing about himself. People were willing to believe almost anything about him, even if he denied it (especially if he denied it)—for example, that he had once been earmarked as a possible future head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, more popularly known as MI6). According to David, the Chief himself, Sir Dick White, had told him in a farewell interview that he was highly thought of within the Service; and that, had he remained, he might have been a candidate for the “top job” in due course. This is a suggestion that one former MI6 officer, with a long and distinguished career behind him, described to me as “ridiculous.” Even without the benefit of inside intelligence, the idea that anyone with less than four years’ experience in any organization could be considered as a candidate to run it in due course is, to say the least, unlikely. Yet this is what David wanted us to believe. Perhaps he believed it himself.

The secret history of David’s career in the intelligence services is that it was uneventful. “The trouble with David,” observed one MI6 contemporary who served with him, “is that he was never involved in a successful operation.”

Working in the intelligence services often involves pretending to be something other than what you really are.

Following his induction into MI6, and after undergoing training at Fort Monckton near Portsmouth, David was posted to Bonn, capital of what was then the Federal Republic of Germany, where he would serve out his short career, until the worldwide success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold enabled him to retire and write full time. (For his last few months with the Service he relocated to the consulate at Hamburg, in an attempt to avoid the limelight.) According to a colleague who worked alongside him, there was not much for him to do in Bonn. He was working under diplomatic cover, notionally as a Second Secretary: attending press conferences and receptions with other diplomats, politicians and journalists, and escorting German politicians on visits to Britain and British politicians on visits to Germany.

David’s covert role had originated in British concerns about a possible neo-Nazi revival. His perfect German allowed him to pass as a native, and he was tasked with detecting and investigating potential Nazi cells or organizations, and with recruiting German sleepers who would join such groupings in order to provide information on them. This had to be kept “ultra secret,” particularly from their German hosts, because British officials could not be seen to be interfering in German politics. But in reality there was little to do, since the feared neo-Nazi revival never materialized. Parties of the far right failed to gain mass support, and at their rallies neo-Nazis were often outnumbered by the police. David attended a few gatherings of former U-boat crews in bierkellers, but these were more sentimental than sinister. “I think David was absolutely bored stiff,” wrote his Bonn colleague. The most valuable outcome of his three years in Bonn was the material it provided for his novel A Small Town in Germany (1968), which imagined such an extreme right-wing revival occurring in the near future.

He seems to have had more fun in his earlier career with MI5. Intelligence officers in the security service were permitted to carry out acts normally regarded as criminal: breaking and entering, burgling and bugging; as well as clandestine surveillance and “tailing.” This appealed to David’s boyish instincts. “Hell, Jack, we’re licensed crooks, that’s all I’m saying,” admits one of his characters, a CIA agent, in A Perfect Spy.

David had been an undergraduate at Oxford when he was recruited by MI5 as an asset by Vivian Green, the chaplain of his college and eventually one of the models for his most celebrated character, George Smiley. David was asked to befriend left-wing students and report on what they did. This involved an uncomfortable degree of pretense, getting close to likely undergraduates in order to win their confidence. On at least one occasion he searched a friend’s rooms while he was out. He also attended meetings of left-wing societies and travelled down to London to join the sparse audiences at showings of worthy films screened at the Soviet Embassy. He was trailing his coat, hoping to attract the attention of a Soviet talent-spotter; and for a while he was courted by a “Cultural Secretary” who then suddenly dropped him, perhaps smelling a rat.

His father’s bankruptcy in 1954 compelled David to leave Oxford at the end of his second year, but he was able to return twelve months later when MI5 offered to pay his costs, funding him covertly through the local authority. In his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel David let drop that he had been inducted into MI5 in 1956, the year that he left Oxford to become a schoolmaster at Eton, at the age of twenty-five. Assuming this date to be accurate, it indicates that he knew he was destined for MI5 throughout the two years he spent teaching. Such deferred entry was not unusual; the Service liked recruits to have some experience of the world before joining.

David claimed that I had given an incomplete account of his covert work in my biography, though he declined to elaborate. He referred to the promises he made to his old German contacts, as well as to the Official Secrets Act. “I am bound, legally and morally, not to reveal the nature of my work in SIS,” he wrote to me at one point. His overt role required him to cultivate German politicians and journalists, and it seems possible that he gathered intelligence as a by-product: especially on left-leaning politicians who might be suspected of having contact with figures in the East. It would have been understandable if he preferred not to admit that he had been spying on close friends—for example, on a prominent West German politician who would become godfather to one of his own sons. While refusing to be drawn, he was willing to concede that his covert role was “negligible:” he did not run agents into East Germany and never ventured there undercover himself. His penetration of the Eastern bloc was limited to a few excursions into East Berlin, each lasting no longer than a few hours, of the type available to any tourist at the time. Whatever some readers might come to believe, he was no George Smiley.


Working in the intelligence services often involves pretending to be something other than what you really are; and pretending to be doing something other than what you are really doing. To paraphrase a line of David’s, spying is lying.

“I’m a liar,” he told two private detectives whom he had hired to investigate his life, at a time when he was contemplating some form of autobiography. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.” I spent many hours interviewing David, and while he was apparently open with me on most subjects, I quickly learned not to rely on anything he said. When he complained, as he did more than once, that I didn’t always trust what he told me, I quoted his own words back at him.

Often, I am convinced, he was not trying to deceive me, but was confident in the truth of the story he was telling. On one occasion, when I was able to demonstrate to him that something he had just told me was false, he seemed genuinely unnerved. I came to appreciate that these two tendencies were consistent. He was a performer, who so inhabited each role he played that he believed it to be real. This was a valuable quality in someone who lied for a living.

David was always fascinated by Kim Philby, the Soviet double agent who penetrated so deep into MI6 that (unlike David) he was for a while a serious candidate to become its chief when the post next became vacant. David’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) relates the hunt for a mole who has burrowed deep into the heart of British intelligence, just as Philby had done.

The secret history of David’s career in the intelligence services is that it was uneventful.

David claimed a personal affinity with Philby: like him, he had a monster for a father; like him, he had served his time in institutions from which he had become alienated. “I felt I knew him too well,” he wrote, in an introduction to an edition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Philby was his “secret sharer,” who had done what David himself might have done, what Magnus Pym in fact does in A Perfect Spy. For Kim, as for David, “women were his secret audience.”

He used them like he used society: he performed, danced, phantasized with them, begged their approbation, used them as a response for his histrionic talents, as a consolation for a manhood haunted by his father’s ghost. When they came too close, he punished them or sent them away….

In the mid-1980s David would tell Sue Dawson—a member of his own “secret audience”—that Philby had “haunted my entire career.” Over a boozy and flirtatious lunch he had told her the colorful story of how he had learned of Philby’s defection, while still serving with MI6 himself, stationed in Bonn. One night in January 1963, as duty officer, he had decoded a message to the effect that an officer of the Service in Beirut had suddenly gone missing. To his rapt audience over lunch, he re-enacted his own astonished reaction as the identity of the defector had become apparent: “Christ!—It’s Kim!”

Towards the end of his life David would claim that he had been “blown” by Philby: that Philby had revealed to his Soviet handlers that David was an MI6 officer. How David knew this, he did not say. Had it not been for Philby, he implied, he might have remained within MI6, maybe even risen to the top. In a television interview given to Channel 4 News in 2010, David stated that his “betrayal” by Philby was one reason why he had avoided meeting him on his visit to the Soviet union in 1987.

By this late stage of his career David was widely regarded as a sage, his pronouncements accepted without question. But there are grounds for doubt, at least on matters concerning Philby. For one thing, it seems extremely unlikely that Philby would have been aware of David’s existence when he defected in January 1963. Philby had resigned from MI6 almost ten years before David joined; and though he continued to be funded by the Service as a source while working as a journalist in Beirut, he had remained under suspicion. It was therefore inconceivable that he would have access to the names of new recruits at such a time. Though it was theoretically possible that Philby could have come across David’s name as a lowly informant to the Berne SIS station in the late 1940s and have thought this information worth transmitting to his Soviet handler, this is so unlikely as to stretch the bounds of credulity. The head of the Berne station at the time, Nicholas Elliott, was a close friend of Philby’s; nevertheless he would not have been so unprofessional as to share the names of his informants, not even with his chum Kim. Nor was there any conceivable motive for him to have done so.

It is impossible to prove a negative; but it is difficult to credit David’s claim that he was “blown” by Philby. The likely truth is more banal: that he blew his own cover, in the early 1980s, when he finally admitted what had long been suspected, that he had been a spy. (John le Carré’s cover had been blown much earlier, in January 1964, when the Sunday Times “Atticus” column revealed that the name was a pseudonym for an unknown civil servant called David Cornwell.)

David’s anecdote of learning about Philby’s defection as a young duty officer does not ring true. In the early 1960s Englishmen of his class addressed even close colleagues by their surnames. Would he really have exclaimed “It’s Kim!” about a man whom he had never met?


Excerpted from The Secret Life of John Le Carré by Adam Sisman. Copyright © 2023. Available from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Add Comment

Recent Posts