John Le Carré is a hugely popular spy novelist. His best sellers include The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Night Manager.
He has also managed to survive a terrible childhood that could easily have left him broken and defeated. An intensely secret man about his own life, he has finally revealed in his recent autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel, how his ownchildhood was blighted by a horrid father and neglectful mother.
Le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, was born in Poole Dorset in 1931 and describes himself as an ‘emotionally crippled boy, crushed underfoot by his tyrannical father. ‘ Amongst other things he calls his father, Ronald (Ronnie) Cornwall, unpredictable, a conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird and crisis addict, who spent his life ‘walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine.’ Ronnie knew the notorious gangsters The Kray Twins, was continually in debt, imprisoned for insurance fraud and declared bankrupt in 1954.
For the last third of his father’s life the two men were estranged or at loggerheads.
Cornwall also reveals that his father assaulted his mother, Olive, who subsequently walked out on the family – he is the younger of two boys - when Cornwall was only five. Cornwall had no further contact with her until he was 21 and found her living in Suffolk. She had by then had two more children who were completely unaware of their half brother’s existence. Cornwall and his mother did not form a relationship. He writes: ‘to this day I have no idea what sort of person (my mother) was. ‘
In common with many children who have been abandoned or mistreated by their horrid parents, Cornwell held himself together by freezing his emotions: ‘…from the day of our reunion until (my mother) died the frozen child in me showed not the smallest sign of thawing out.’
Instead he remembers a ‘constant tension in myself that even in great age has not relaxed.’ To his enormous credit he managed to take something positive from his unenviable background. First he decided to find an identity for himself, looked around to see how others behaved, and extracted what he felt he needed. He writes: ‘I knew that in order to do this I had to filch from the manners and lifestyle of my peers and betters, even to the extent of pretending I had a settled home life with real parents and ponies. ‘
Pretending to have a normal life made him an expertin subterfuge and taking on different identities. Later, he wrote: ‘People who have had unhappy childhoods are pretty good at inventing themselves.’ Also by hiding the horridness of his own family life be became fascinated by the notion of dual loyalties and suspicious behaviour. He went to Switzerland to study and at 16 began working for MI5 becoming an MI5 officer in 1958 during the Cold War era.
After furthering his studies at Oxford he taught French and German at Eton College for two years, while continuing to work for MI5 and writing his first novel Call for the Dead (1961). He subsequently transferred to MI6, the foreign-intelligence service and continued writing using the pseudonym John Le Carré because Foreign Office officers were forbidden to publish in their own names. In A Perfect Spy the scheming con-man character, Rick Pym, is based on his father.
Cornwell left the Secret Service in 1964 to work full-time as a novelist.
Once Cornwall had become a best-selling author, his father, who he had not seen or heard from for years, began sending him begging letters full of ‘bullying’ demands that included repaying the cost of his own education. He also turned up unannounced in America in 1963 when Cornwell was being taken out for lunch by his publisher to celebrate the huge success of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. After a free meal he told Cornwall ‘you maybe a successful writer, son,….. but you’re not a celebrity‘. He died in 1975. Cornwell paid for a memorial funeral service but did not attend.
Cornwell has been married twice. In 1954 he wed Alison Sharp; they had three sons—Simon, Stephen and Timothy—and divorced in 1971. In 1972, Cornwell married Valérie Eustace: they have one son. For the last 40 years he has lived in Cornwall.
Cornwall, now 85, is still writing. He has revived his war spymaster George Smiley, for the first time in 25 years in a new novel, A Legacy of Spies, to be published in September 2017.
He has never sought fame for himself but his twenty three novels, ten of which have been made into films have been enjoyed by millions of people round the world.