By way of smoothing the transition, Virgin showed one of the most English movies ever made (produced, of course, by the French). This was the first time that I ever saw Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I was blown away. It’s two and a half hours of solid gold Anglo-Saxon repression. The movie has hardly anything to do with espionage and a lot to do with the British class system. I’d imagine that foreigners watching it would require subtitles for the subtitles, to explain the innuendo and double meaning of every twisted phrase.
Tinker is about a group of men who met at Oxbridge, fought a war together, went their separate ways, and then returned to the fold thirty years later. They are prisoners of the past, chained to each other by nostalgia and bitterness. In place of living, they have seduction and wordplay. One oft-repeated scene is of an office party, the likes of which I have been to many, many times. It features grown men pouring vodka into the punch and dancing to cheesy disco music. Then comes the Lenin-themed drag act and a rousing rendition of the Soviet national anthem. When I heard that on the plane, I nearly leapt to my feet (for reasons that will become obvious later).
Tinker is a family drama, which is what makes the betrayal at the heart of it both pointless and profound. [Spoiler alert.] When we discover that Bill Hayden has been passing on secrets to the Russians, it isn’t England that he has let down – it’s his friends. On the one hand, he seems vain and petty (“Don’t you think the West has become ugly of late?” he says by way of explanation). On the other hand, it is his former lover that has been left to be tortured by the Soviets. King and country aside, what really matters in Tinker is the awful betrayals that occur in everyday life – the insincere kiss, the last goodbye, the unanswered call.
There’s a palpable sense of relief when Hayden is caught, and not just because he doesn’t have to lie anymore. Bill has contempt for England and contempt for his peers. He betrays their superciliousness, their stupidity, by doing something equally childish. He does it because he can. “I am a man who has left his mark,” he says – implying that Smiley’s people are mere shadows that leave no impression on the world around them. Spooks, indeed.
It’s interesting how much the English love their traitors. We have a long heritage of literature and films about the Cambridge Four, much of its hagiographic. How can we express admiration for silly boys who sold us out to the Communists and sent so many men to the firing squad? The answer is partly the English love of eccentricity and bloody-mindedness. But I suspect that we also share their frustration – even disgust - with modern Britain. The feeling that it has become “ugly of late” is widespread. Anyone observing my own lifestyle might conclude that I harbor Bill Hayden’s contempt for England. It’s not entirely true, but my alter egos of Marxist and Catholic probably look like betrayals of my class. Even my love of American conservatism has a hint of subterfuge. I once read a web chat about me in which a liberal asked why I was writing a biography of Right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan. “They met at NBC and Buchanan recruited him,” another liberal replied. “Their relationship is like Blunt and Burgess.” It most certainly is not.
The English personality contains an instinct for treachery – a reflexive urge to betray the mendacity of our race. But we can never quite bring ourselves to leave Britain altogether. We are tied to the thing that we hate the most. Like Bill Hayden, we refuse to do the decent thing and defect. Why should we? England is all we have.
Sadly, I was never a spy. I knew lots of people at Cambridge who were recruited. None of them was a James Bond: the classic profile was a shifty know-it-all with a first in Oriental Studies. I always wondered why they were tapped and I wasn’t. But, in retrospect, I had security risk written all over me. Not only was I an inveterate drunk, but I was also a communist. My first Michaelmas report concluded with “adheres to an outdated, simplistic Marxism that is bound to leave him with a poor third.” My tutor lowered the report and said in an ominous voice, “Are you a socialist?” My grade was much less important than the college’s reputation for producing Conservative cabinet members.
In the last year of my BA, I thought my moment had come. I got a mysterious invite from the college’s recruiter to come to dinner. I went expecting to be ushered into a world of international intrigue and beautiful women, but was disappointed when it turned out to be a dinner in honor of a visiting historian of the American Civil War. I knew nothing about the Civil War, so I guessed this was all a cover. But the hours clocked by while the old duffer rambled on about the Battle of the Bull Run, and still no effort to recruit me was made. I started to hit the table wine, which was, unusually, quite good. By midnight I was several sheets to the wind and dangerously bored. Finally, I found a moment over the port and cheese to sidle up to my host and make my move.
“Is there anything you want to ask me?” I whispered. He was sitting and I was standing, so I leant down and spoke softly into his ear. “Anything playing on your mind?” I gave him a wink that was, in retrospect, obscene. “You can trust me,” I breathed. “I can keep a secret.” The old don gave me a look of pure terror. Several seconds of silence passed until I realised I had a hand resting on his thigh. I stood up straight. “If there’s anything you ever want to ask of me, Professor, you know where I am.” And with that I slunk away to the door. As far as I was concerned, it was a performance worthy of Sean Connery himself.
A couple of days later, another professor told me that the recruiter had been most surprised when I had apparently tried to seduce him after a rather dry seminar on the history of the Civil War. It turned out that he had no intention of recruiting me – I was the only boy in college with an interest in America, which is why I had been invited to bulk out numbers. Humiliated by the horrible misunderstanding – and by the rumor running around that I had a thing for fat old men – I returned once again to drink. A few weeks later, I broke into the don’s shared bathroom and drew a hammer and sickle on the mirror with toothpaste. In my own, small way, I probably contributed to a national security alert.