‘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.

Advertisements

A vital corrective: A UNITED KINGDOM (2016)

Rosamund Pike: They were sitting side by side, the two of them close up to each other. It was like someone had flicked on a switch […] I felt tears streaming down my face. Something about them moved me so much […] It bore out everything I’d hoped for […] I find their story incredibly inspiring and moving, and that’s what I ask for in movies I go and see. I want to see movies like that. I want to see movies that make love heroic and the act of love courageous.[1]

a-united-kingdom-poster

The hit Netflix’s series The Crown – in many ways admirable stuff – almost entirely omits non-whites from Britain’s story; Kenyans feature more as backdrop figures than as agents themselves. British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga has recently presented Black and British: A Forgotten History on the BBC. Oxford-born black British actor David Oyelowo pronounced: ‘People of colour have been expunged from Britain’s history’.[2] Oyelowo has acted on this imperative by starring in A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante, best known for 2013’s acclaimed 18th-century-set Belle (2013).

This new film dramatizes the controversy surrounding heir to the throne in Bechuanaland getting married in 1948 to a white British woman. Oyelowo first came across the story via Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar (2006) in 2010 and began developing the idea for a film with producers Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason, who acquired the rights.[3] Oyelowo has also spoken of the film being an attempt to tackle history that educational curricula choose to ignore.[4] He also commented that the recent rise in racist rhetoric has validated the reason for making the film.[5]

The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa.

The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa. As Asante argued: ‘Why wouldn’t we show the beautiful sunsets? I remember waking up in my mother’s African village to beautiful sunrises and beautiful sunsets.’[6] The film also pays close attention to power, politics and persuasion, as in what Stables refers to as Seretse’s ‘game-changing speech’.[7] Where Peter Morgan captured some of the paranoid psychosis of Idi Amin’s Uganda in The Last King of Scotland (2006), screenwriter Hibert fashions a story containing many political tensions, but also an inexorably buoyant narrative. Such an avowed love letter to social liberalism feels embattled in ever less tolerant and pluralistic 2016. I would agree with Kate Stables in Sight and Sound that it is a ‘laudable retelling of a less than glorious chapter in British history.’[8] Sadly, far from the last ignominious such chapter…

The film ends with independence on the cards, using captions to convey the rest of Seretse and Ruth’s story. It seems it wasn’t, as some might expect, particularly sanitised. It leaves you wanting to find out more about the real situation in Botswana from the 1960s until today, which is a good thing.

seretse-and-ruth

In real life, Seretse Khama took a brave gamble and renounced his chieftaincy, and stood for election, winning in 1965: leading to independence for the renamed Botswana in 1966. On that Independence Day, Queen Elizabeth II conferred a knighthood on him. He kept to Westminster style political arrangements, avoiding a one-party state. His economic policy was more free-market than socialist; as Keatley states, ‘He insisted on a strict balance of payments and a sound currency’.[9] This economically ‘Victorian’ figure was, however, defiantly anti-Apartheid and towards the end of his reign he established free universal education in his country. Keatley praised Khama’s ‘legacy of tolerance and stability that have made Botswana one of the happiest countries in Africa’.[10] One of the better researched articles on the film from Jessamy Calkin confirms the positive picture of Botswanan culture and society: ‘Historically, it was less heavily colonised than much of the continent […] Good management and wealth brought by the discovery of diamonds have ensured that its citizens are entitled to free healthcare and education, and each can claim a piece of land, 40m by 40m, once they are 21, for which they don’t have to pay. (In two days here, I have met many people who have done so.)’[11] Calkin also comments that Seretse Khama’s personality has impacted on the culture’s genteel and courteous nature today, where it is ruled by his son Ian Khama.

a-united-kingdom-aa

Director Asante, 47, Streatham born with Ghanaian roots, has had a notable life: her parents ran a shop that sold African cosmetics and then groceries; she experienced racism in Streatham while growing up, was in Grange Hill (“it taught me that I could not act”), met Nancy Reagan as part of the “Just Say No” campaign and is a massive Prince fan who had a private meeting with him.[12] In 1998, she wrote and directed the Liverpool-set Brothers and Sisters which featured the then 22-year-old David Oyelowo. Asante has spoken eloquently on ethnic minority and female under-representation in British cinema and has claimed that the Brexit vote wouldn’t have happened without class inequality.[13]

Its 66-year-old screenwriter Guy Hibert, a veteran of 1990s BBC film-drama strands Screen Two and Screenplay, comes up with a concise, focused film celebratory of liberalism: cross-racial romance, democratic values. Seretse is conveyed as similarly eloquent in his use of rhetoric to Martin Luther King, as depicted in Selma (2014).

Acting-wise, Jack Davenport is particularly assured as Alastair Canning, a sadistically bland British government functionary who offers sherry while giving Seretse the absurd offer of a posting to Jamaica. Tom Felton is a little more cartoonish – reflecting some of the occasional unsubtlety picked up on by Stables. Jack Lowden, with Nikolai Rostov, Oswald Alving and Thomas Wyatt already under his belt at 26, gets to play a heroic, twenty-something Tony Benn. Rosamund Pike continues her specialism in enacting post-WW2 characters; following An Education (2009) and Made in Dagenham (2010) with a sensitive and humane portrayal of middle-class clerk Ruth Williams.

ros-pike1
Rosamund Pike, also representing the sorely lacking British conscience in Made in Dagenham…

Local and international power politics are well conveyed, as highlighted by Davis: ‘Since South African uranium was a key ingredient of the West’s Cold War nuclear arsenal, Britain was reluctant to antagonise the Pretoria regime.’[14] While Khama’s own people are won over quite quickly by the couple, the British led by Attlee are unwilling to jeopardise key economic assets in the geopolitical context of the Cold War. In the 1951 General Election campaign, Churchill – unseen, sadly and not played by John Lithgow – promises that Seretse will be allowed to return to Bechuanaland. Once in the power, the old ‘statesman’ – or is that grandiose rogue? – reneges on his promise and extends Khama’s exile. Kermode has argued it successfully blends the personal and political and is necessary in being crowd-pleasing, working well with a large audience.[15] It seems the ideal film to appeal to this critic’s liberal-left Christian sensibility.

In a Live Q&A in November 2016 following a film about his diaries, Alan Bennett bemoaned Britain being a less ‘tolerant’ country than it was in the 1950s. A Britain that is now lacking in Ruth Williams’[16] – hailed by Stables for ‘her stoicism and community efforts’ – and drowning in boorish Farages and Johnsons.  A United Kingdom sketchily depicts some of the underlying racism of the late 1940s, but has a powerful sense of its romantic leads both being outsiders in each other’s cultures. It also balances the Attlee government’s compromises with ‘Anthony Benn’ figuting as a morally crusading advocate for Seretse and Ruth. As Calkin commented, the couple named one of their sons after Benn.[17] To me, it feels like empathy within British society and support for the Welfare State has eroded and we are less tolerant. Our younger British generations are generally past racism, but the media keeps fermenting it, especially successfully among older citizens, who vote more and are more susceptible to such a message.

In the context of 2016, A United Kingdom forms a vital corrective to our severely disunited kingdom, by showing and understanding the follies of the past and presenting an inspiring story of love as a progressive, necessary force.

a-united-kingdom

[1] Griffin, S. (2016) ‘The power of love’, Yorkshire Post, 25th November, np

[2] Stables, K. (2016) ‘Reviews: A United Kingdom’, Sight and Sound, December, p.89

[3] Clark, A. (2016) ‘Amma Asante: ‘I’m here to disrupt expectations’ – As her movie A United Kingdom opens the London film festival, the British director talks about her new membership of the US Academy – and why the whole industry needs to change’, The Observer, 2nd October, p.6

[4] Loughrey, C. (2016) ‘Finding love in a time of division’, The Independent on Sunday, 27th November, p.89

[5] Anon (2016) ‘Film industry is ‘doubly testing’ of women, says Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike’, The Herald, np

[6] Clark, A. (2016) ibid., p.6

[7] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[8] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[9] Keatley, P. (1980) ‘A legacy of tolerance’, The Guardian, 14th July, p.6

[10] Keatley, P. (1980) ibid., p.6

[11] Calkin, J. (2016) ‘The true story of the first president of Botswana and the English woman he fell in love with’, The Daily Telegraph, 4th November, np

[12] Jacobs, E. (2016) ‘A change of narrative’, Financial Times Weekend Supplement, 12th November, p.18

[13] Jacobs, E. (2016) ibid., p.18

[14] Davis, C. (2016) ‘THE SECRETARY AND THE PRINCE – Their relationship scandalised 1950s Britain but Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama had a happy marriage, as a new film reveals’, The Express, 17th November, p.13

[15] Kermode, M. (2016) ‘A United Kingdom review’, BBC Radio 5, 25th November

[16] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[17] Calkin, J. (2016) ibid., np