Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Is it secret, is it safe?

"And his fancy that he was being followed? What of that? What of the shadow he never saw, only felt, till his back seemed to tingle with the intensity of his watcher's gaze; he saw nothing, heard nothing, only felt. He was too old not to heed the warning. The creak of a stair that had not creaked before; the rustle of a shutter when no wind was blowing; the car with a different number plate but the same scratch on the offside wing: the face on the underground that you know you have seen somewhere before: for years at a time these were signs he had lived by; any one of them was reason enough to move, change towns, identities. For in that profession there is no such thing as a coincidence."

John le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, p. 323.

I chose that bit not just for the alarming use of colons and semi-colons, but because of an alarming pair of incidents yesterday.

At a little after 9.20 yesterday morning, I poddled to the train station at the end of our road, for the purposes of getting to work. The chap in front of me at the coffee counter was gazing at the Dr Who headlines in the tabloids. It was my learned colleague M., who lives a couple of streets away.

We had a happy chat about Droo's conquest of all media, and either he was rivetted by what I had to say, or too squodged in by other passengers, because he forgot to get off at his stop. I bid him a hearty farewell as he went to look up a King Zog (I think that was his name), and stomped off through the park to my labours.

The station at the end of the road can be a bit infrequently trained in the evening, so I come back by one of two others, both involving a 15 minute walk. I'd got to the bit in Tinker, Tailor where Jim Prideaux is sure there's a busload of women after him, so was reading it as I strolled back home. This is not too easy to do without treading in what dogs have left or walking into trees, but Priddo was too exciting to leave. He has to be being tailed, you see, because the coincidence is too silly.

And then, walking towards me is M. Looking shifty. Just happened to finish with Zog and be coming back home aroundabout the same time as me... despite the different station involved, and no word on what time I'd get off work...

I am of course now checking out the window before going to the toilet. Just as a precaution.

M. did ask whether the book was any good, remembering the TV version as all a bit slow. It very much is - oddly for a book that is largely about a boring old duffer having drinks with old workmates he never really liked in the first place. I need hardly explain that George Smiley is looking for a mole among four of his top-tier colleagues in the secret service. And it's not easy because he's been booted out with a bunch of other losers, and it may all just be in his head because his wife's left him.

It is odd, though, reading it having seen the TV version because I know exactly who the baddie is. And so, it seems, does George Smiley right from the get-go. There's so much more about the villain than the other three possibles that it hardly seems a surprise.

I'll not reveal it anyway, just in case. And anyway, I'm sure it's a sign of a well-crafted mystery that it all seems inevitable once you know.

Another thing that's odd is how much everyone relies on their memories of tiny, incongruent details, and the ability to match these odd bits up with each other. Smiley's investigation means hours going through mountains of file, checking the tick-boxes against who did what when. It's a question of critiquing minutiae, of people paid for the ability to squirrel-away facts; a strange, alien existence from the time before computers.

Smiley's skill is not just his memory but his awful understanding of people. The book's full of brilliantly observed characters, all of them real and believable. More than that, they're memorable - their names and personalities sticking so firmly in the mind that when they're referred to in other le Carre books, they're instantly with us again.

Connie (played by Beryl Reid on the telly, and with much more finesse than when telling off Cybermen) is in just one scene, wintering with her cats and frustrations. I'd remembered her as a major character - and despite how little we see of her, she is.

It's been said elsewhere that Smiley's the nice guy in a shitty industry, knowing full well the misery involved in his work. It's said - even in the book itself - how ironic it is that he can't control his own wife Ann. She's unseen in the TV version and barely glimpsed here, but her presence - or the lack of it - is felt throughout.

But I think it's because Smiley really does understand what people are, is worn down to stooping by the weight of it, that he knows better than to attempt to stop her.

Now on to the next book in the sequence, The Honourable Schoolboy. Will report back soon. If I'm not compromised.

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