A Spy For Our Times

A Spy For Our Times

After the brazen, muscular intervention of Jason Bourne, a reawakened killer who smashes through a catalogue of overpriced hit men and corrupt government projects with an onslaught of impossibly long brawls, James Bond returned to our screens. Daniel Craig's increasingly humourless, and uncultured Bond has taken a wrong turn somewhere: his career when we left him seemed to consist of hired muscle in the utilities sector, protecting water supplies through the demolition of dull hotels. But whilst James drives to the gym in his Ford Mondeo, another man prepares to enter the public consciousness; an angry, quiet, dedicated man, whose lovelife is a disaster, whose idea of an invisible car is something local driven steadily through the checkpoint, and who has other people to do the messy stuff, most of the time.

The film adaptation of John LeCarré's novel- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - is due to be released next month. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, representing the spy to a new generation of viewers. Following the success of HBO's Mad Men and the ongoing brilliance of the BBC's drama The Hour, TTSS is set in the past, but is almost certainly set to reflect and inform our view of the world today.

George Smiley is an Englishman, a scholar, a cynic, and a loyal servant of the Crown. Bond had limitless financial resources under New Labour: smart cars, smarter boats, and the sort of gadgets that made up the worst excesses of Ministry of Defence procurement before the spending review. Jason Bourne was up against corrupt elements within the heart of US government, secret projects, unlawful killing, and the moral vacuum of special operations at the same time that - offscreen - Bush was in the White House.

George Smiley's world is one in which 'the circus' for whom he works - MI6 to you and me - is compromised: there is a mole passing classified information to the Russians, and Smiley's task is to reveal the traitor. The dilemma of the plot is revealed in a single memorable line: "it's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?" The title refers to the codenames of some of the potential double agents that the circus must consider. Smiley is beggerman, not as flash as some of his contemporaries, in an organisation which throughout John LeCarré's novels, seems strapped for cash.

Smiley's problems are familiar in the coalition age: there is Smiley's all-too-familiar exhaustion following yet another departmental rearrangement:

Reason as motive, or reason as logic, or reason as a way of life? They don't have to give me a reason - I can write my own damn reasons - and that is better than the half-baked tolerance that comes from no longer caring

Through another character in the plot, LeCarré wrote that secret services are "the only real measure of a nations political health, the only real expression of its subconscious" and whilst that is a statement hard to conclusively assess, the evidence from the Chilcot inquiry is of an intelligence service which itself feels betrayed. This was not the betrayal of one agent to the other side, but perhaps betrayal of another sort. As one real life spy told the inquiry:

"It soon became an issue that there was a public portrayal, if you like, of senior intelligence officers, a public portrayal of them as Whitehall courtiers, and I think that was damaging externally in relation to the reputation of [MI6] for professionalism, and ... the service's own sense of intellectual integrity".

Smiley's revival is notable. He is a flawed man whose trust in the world is almost nonexistent:

"I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,' Smiley went on, more lightly. 'Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things."

LeCarré's circus deals with the realities of espionage, the difficulties of balancing morality with efficacy, exposed nowhere more clearly that in the current dilemmas exposed by British policy on the interrogation of terrorists. Smiley's world is filled with characters who confront the same issues. Smiley's instructions come from the Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet, Sir Oliver Lacon, who neatly touches upon the questions that must always be asked with the exercise of power, and the ambiguity of expression, the ambiguity of definition which can be adopted:

"I once heard someone say morality was method. Do you hold with that? I suppose you wouldn't. You would say that morality was vested in the aim, I expect. Difficult to know what one's aims are, that's the trouble, specially if you're British."

In fiction, then, Gary Oldman's George Smiley will seek to clean out an organisation corrupted from within. The emphasis the filmmakers put upon the story is yet to be seen, but perhaps the portrayal of spies in fiction is itself some measure of public belief in our intelligence services.


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