Over the years, we have not lacked in matters to engage. This is the age of national security and liberty, a constant debate about balance that often turns around the role of the intelligence services. Our interest is mutually self-serving: he might ask me to review a draft that raises a legal point, I might seek his opinion on a matter that draws on his former life in “the secret world”, as he calls it, or on his life’s experience. He is wise and his life, I have come to appreciate, has been informed by a very particular past.
Le Carré believes that the credit balance of the writer is his childhood, citing Graham Greene. By this standard, le Carré was an early millionaire. He was born in 1931, in Dorset, to a family that he celebrates despite (or perhaps because of) its manifest dysfunctionality. With a largely absent mother, his father became the central figure in his early life. Ronnie Cornwell was “seriously bent”, volatile, a convicted fraudster, yet also “exotic, amusing” and lovable. He avoided military service during the war by standing as a parliamentary candidate, an Independent Progressive. The postwar period offered Ronnie a goldmine of shady activity, allowing his son to enter maturity in an unpredictable environment populated by racehorses and Bentleys, passing from St Moritz to the Savoy Grill in the company his father kept, which included the Kray twins (“lovely boys”, his aunt called them).