‘The perennial lodestone of liberalism’ – BOOK REVIEW: Toby Manning’s “John Le Carré and the Cold War”

John Le Carré and the Cold War
Toby Manning

London: Bloomsbury, 2018

Toby Manning - JLC and the Cold War

le Carré’s position on communism was considerably closer to that of the British state than is critically acknowledged or popularly understood. (Manning, p.11)

This book is an important intervention in JLC studies, analysing six George Smiley-centric novels in considerable depth. Manning places the novels in historical context and employs rigorous close-reading in order to shed light on political ideology within the novels. He focuses not just on what is there, but is also what is not there; developing an argument that JLC fundamentally elides any deep discussion of communism as an ideology or cause.

Whether central or ancillary, Smiley has always embodied, contained and ‘resolved’ these novels’ ideological dilemmas: he is the perennial lodestone of liberalism. (Manning, p.183)

Where many writers in Britain ignore liberalism and capitalism as powerful ideological forces, Manning carefully defines and inteprets them. This is especially the case with liberalism: he teases out the contradictions between the individualist, imperialist and often authoritarian Hobbesian strain and milder, twentieth-century social liberalism. Indeed, he locates these as tensions in the ‘national ego’ which are embodied by George Smiley, who is contradictorily portrayed as sometimes a humanistic arbiter and at other times as a forceful, illiberal agent who brings victorious closure to the narratives. GS’s knowledge empiricism is also identified and placed in an intended binary with the unbending, ideological communist enemy, represented by Karla.

Manning makes a powerful argument that JLC’s Cold War fiction fundamentally backs the hegemonic Western Cold War position of ‘containment’, and does not, as many critics have argued, posit a moral equivalence between liberalism and communism. There is typically some acknowledgment of ‘our’ side having to do bad things, but these are invariably shown to be necessary to contain an ‘other’, alien communism. Where communism is mentioned, it is always with emotive language such as ‘evil’. Manning identifies this treatment of the communist enemy as Manichean and not all that far from Ian Fleming’s presentations of the eastern foe. In this argument, he builds on Andrew Hammond’s wide survey of British Cold War Fiction in 2013. As I have argued previously, one of the few writers to seriously question the West’s geopolitical position was Graham Greene. Manning locates Greene alongside Eric Ambler as being fundamentally influenced by their experience of the 1930s and the ‘Popular Front’.

Manning’s other advance is to find references in the texts to the contemporary domestic politics; while there is generally denigration of working-class geographies in the novels – such as the municipal blocks of flats in The Looking Glass War (1965) – Call for the Dead (1961) is said to differ. This occurs in its climactic action, where Smiley kills Dieter Frey and Smiley’s remorse is said to incorporate ideas of ‘home-grown radicalism’, with  textual quotations from an 1830 folk song. Manning describes JLC as usually endorsing ‘an essentially establishment England’ of public-school and Oxbridge; just for a brief moment, here in the first Smiley novel, are glimpses of the domestic political alternative of the Diggers, the Jacobins, John Ball, Williams Blake and Morris. This implicit alternative emerges when Smiley doubts his own ‘gentlemanly’ status, having carried out the brutal act of murdering Frey. Manning’s attention to detail has certainly made me want to go back and read this novel again; exactly what you want from any such academic study.

Manning also deftly interweaves Britain’s post-colonial angst with its Cold War geopolitics; explicitly avoiding the sort of compartmentalising that too many scholars engage in. The main novels where Britain’s colonial legacy features are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

This book is the culmination of wide reading, with skilful reference across a range of secondary texts used to place the six primary texts in a rich historical context. There’s a precision in dating the novels’ publication and in identifying the major world and UK events surrounding them. He also utilises contemporary UK and US book reviews to highlight how JLC has previously been denied canonical status by taste arbiters.

Manning is a le Carré enthusiast and scholar who has also written popular music journalism.* He astutely situates these novels in post-WW2 cultural context while elucidating their explicit and implicit politics. Even adherents of the view that these novels are ‘just’ exciting thrillers will be convinced by Manning’s comprehensive investigation of their politics. He convincingly establishes just how wedded to the ‘establishment’ status quo these novels are, always giving us Smiley’s or other upper-class characters’ perspective and barely ever allowing working-class or communist characters a hearing.

Manning places this ‘repression’ of other voices within the context of the mid-1970s. With developments in Vietnam, Portugal, Jamaica, Laos and Angola, the West’s Cold War ‘victory’ seemed far from assured. He also identifies just how anti-American The Honourable Schoolboy is, with JLC again endorsing Smiley’s urbane, traditional but muscular liberalism as the prefered way. The Circus’s intractable bureaucracy is analogised to the Russians’, with Smiley often criticising it, only to himself ultimately steer the UK state bureaucracy to notable victories.

The careful elision of the concept of social class only proves its very power within these fascinating novels, with JLC using a ‘mythic register’ in presenting Oxford, Cornwall and spies’ training centre Sarratt as the true England and Smiley’s liberal, gentlemanly habitus as justly leading to victory in the Cold War.

* I really hope Manning gets his planned ‘folk-spy hybrid’ novel Border Ballads published! He can be heard mentioning this and discussing his JLC book here.

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“Heroes fit for homes”: ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES… and wars hot and Cold

Series 01.06 ‘The Russians are Coming’
TX: BBC-1, Tuesday 13/10/1981

Knowing our luck, there won’t even be a bloody war…

OF&H1

In 1981, Only Fools and Horses… wasn’t yet a “national institution”, or the “best-loved” British sitcom, as Samsung’s November 2017 poll indicated. (1) This first series of the sitcom averaged 7.7 million viewers and the audience’s Reaction Index had a mean of 70, increasing from the first episode’s 62: emphasising how John Sullivan’s sitcom was gradually finding its audience. (2) The finest episode of its first series was an unusually focused look at domestic implications of the Cold War.

The episode was shown in the midst of the ‘Second Cold War’; the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, while Reagan had been elected as a more bellicose US President in November 1980. In the same year, Cold War ‘doom’-pop had included Kate Bush’s ‘Breathing’, UB40′ and ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ and The Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)’ was due in November 1981. The BFI filmed a poetry performance at Chelsea Old Town Hall on 15th April 1981 named Poets Against the Bomb, capturing anti-nuclear poems from the likes of Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Judith Kazantzis, Harold Pinter and a drily humorous Ivor Cutler. Panorama had addressed the subject ‘If the Bomb Drops’ very early (TX: BBC-1, 10/03/1980).

Only Fools… got to the topic sooner than The Young Ones (‘Bomb’, TX: BBC-2, 30/11/1982), or, indeed, the science-fiction spin-off from Play for Today, Play for Tomorrow – Caryl Churchill’s opening episode ‘Crimes’ (TX: BBC-1, 13/04/1982) featured Dave Hill as a mendacious seller of nuclear shelters. It also got there sooner than Q.E.D.‘s ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ (TX: BBC-1, 26/05/1982), which was followed by The Underground Test (TX: BBC-2, 28/05/1982), where two London couples each volunteered to carry out a ten-day ‘consumer test’ – underground in a nuclear shelter. The programme showed the results of this experiment, which had taken place in the cold Winter of 1981/82.

In ‘The Russians Are Coming’, the Trotter household self-assemble a nuclear fall-out shelter – using stolen lead worth £1,000. The notably all-male family dramatise arguments about nuclear weapons, with Del the voice of complacency and Rodney articulating the explicit and bleak official ‘guidance’ people were being given, as in the public information film, Protect and Survive (1976).

As with Steptoe and Son (1962-74), the lack of women is tangibly felt. We are presented with now-retrograde, then-typical dialogue outlining sexual fantasies (leading to Del describing Rodders as a “sicko” and “pervo”) and nationality stereotyping (“Paddies”). It can be argued that this roots such a sitcom in the naturalistic flavour of its times.

Both Del and Rodney question how they’d know the “four minute warning” was starting, considering that no-one had been informed what the sound was. This reflects how much of the official advice and guidance on nuclear war seemed insufficient and even pointless, considering the cataclysmic main effects of such a war.

However, Del Boy argues for the character-building nature of war, paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854): “Mine is not to reason why / Mine is but to sell and buy”. He argues that British youth have always needed “a decent war” and that the current younger generation are starved of a war, in this age of computerisation; “they’re doing their National Service on the Space Invaders!” Computer games provide a poor surrogate, in his view. He then speaks of “real war”, using wholly film examples: of Errol Flynn and Kenneth More.

Grandad responds to Del Boy’s claims of these film wars as “Glorious, valiant war, that!”: “Don’t talk like a berk, Del Boy”. He speaks of how, as a “nipper”, he saw soldiers marching off to serve in WW1 and how his brother George was at Passchendale. He brings in personal reminiscences and facts to challenge Del’s second-hand culturally-formed view of war: “Nigh on a half million allied troops died there all for five miles of mud”. He explains the reality of soldiers returning home as maimed, gassed victims.

OF&H2

GRANDAD:
They promised us homes fit for heroes…

They gave us heroes fit for homes…

Grandad is allowed ample time to make his points here: a sign that sitcoms were willing to countenance straight, serious monologues as part of their arsenal. At no point in Lennard Pearce’s long oration does he try to elicit a single laugh. This monologue is used as a centre-piece of the episode, stating harsh truths about war in the twentieth-century. The episode’s dominant mode of fatalistic gallows humour is immeasurably strengthened by Sullivan’s decision to make the episode just not funny for such a long stretch.

Rodney, who’d silenced Del to allow Grandad to speak, presses home the assault: “I’d never wear a British uniform on principle”. This elicits the first laugh for a while, as he explains the reason; not due to high ideals, but that he’d want to avoid being shot at by Russians. However, Rodney sports a UK Decay band t-shirt; his affinity for this Luton post-punk band, with links to the radical likes of the Dead Kennedys and Crass, does connote his broad sympathies for the counter-culture. He reels off knowledge of the scarcity of resources a nuclear war would bring, and shows awareness of the effects of Strontium 90 and of radiation: causing mutations.

Rodney and Del seem to take comfort in their alone being safe; a sense of exceptionalism that rings increasingly hollow as the final shot depicts the location of their nuclear shelter as directly annexed to their tower-block. The sense that Sullivan is aiming for Oh! What A Lovely War bleakness Grandad’s “War is Hell”. Jingoism is rooted in film representations indicated to be false; the Falklands War was still half a year away. Ironically, however, both Grandad and Rodney can only recall the “War is Hell” quote as being from cinema, speculating on whether it was Alan Ladd, Audie Murphy or Rock Hudson who said it.

(1) Anon. (2017) ‘Revealed: Britain’s favourite sitcom’, Mid Sussex Times, 21st November.

(2) Jan Hewson (1982) Audience Research Report: ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES…, BBC WAC, VR/81/341, 22nd January