The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
The New York Times best-selling memoir from John le Carré, the legendary author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and The Night Manager, now an Emmy-nominated television series starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie.
From his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War, to a career as a writer that took him from war-torn Cambodia to Beirut on the cusp of the 1982 Israeli invasion to Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, le Carré has always written from the heart of modern times. In this, his first memoir, le Carré is as funny as he is incisive, reading into the events he witnesses the same moral ambiguity with which he imbues his novels.
Whether he's writing about the parrot at a Beirut hotel that could perfectly mimic machine gun fire or the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth; visiting Rwanda’s museums of the unburied dead in the aftermath of the genocide; celebrating New Year’s Eve 1982 with Yasser Arafat and his high command; interviewing a German woman terrorist in her desert prison in the Negev; listening to the wisdoms of the great physicist, dissident, and Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov; meeting with two former heads of the KGB; watching Alec Guinness prepare for his role as George Smiley in the legendary BBC TV adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People; or describing the female aid worker who inspired the main character in The Constant Gardener, le Carré endows each happening with vividness and humor, now making us laugh out loud, now inviting us to think anew about events and people we believed we understood.
Best of all, le Carré gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, and his own hunt for the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.
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|Listening Length||11 hours and 36 minutes|
|Author||John le Carré|
|Narrator||John le Carré|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||September 06, 2016|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #20,510 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#48 in Intelligence & Espionage (Audible Books & Originals)
#61 in Biographies of Authors
#128 in Political Intelligence
Top reviews from the United States
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While much of his success (in life in general) has been the result of putting a powerful intellect to work in a way that we all benefit, it is also due to his curiosity and willingness to go see for himself, no matter where his current quest may take him. He constantly refers to himself as a novelist and that he is, but he is also a first rate journalist whose historical reportage is nonpareil.
Personally, I found this book answered many of the questions that I would have while reading his novels. Whether inadvertently (doubtful) or intentionally, this book provides many aha! keys to his collected works.
If you like LeCarre, this quick read will make your day!
Actually, this book was largely comprised of previously published pieces. I had seen occasional articles by him in various magazines and wondered if they would ever be assembled in book form. ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ answered that question for me, although I doubt if it is a complete collection of all of his non-novel writings.
There is also no obvious chronology. True, the pieces in the beginning mostly deal with David Cornwell’s (the birth name of the author known as John Le Carre’) experiences working for MI6, his recruitment while still in his teens, and the original experiences that formed the inspiration for novels such as ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. This includes an explanation for who were the figures from his past that were the models for George Smiley and Alex Leamas.
He also provides accounts of his experiences with the various directors of adaptations of his works, both the ones that went into production and release as well as the aborted projects. One interesting insight is that in creating the main character of ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, an actress who is also an activist for the Palestinian cause, he thought of his half sister/actress Charlotte Cornwell (the character in the novel is referred to as “Charley”). I had no idea that he had a sister that was an actress. In fact, she was his choice to play the character in the 1981 film version. As often occurs, the studio went with the far more well-known and bankable Diane Keaton for the role. Something similar happened with ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’. Cornwell’s choice was Peter Finch. The producers chose the more famous Richard Burton.
The lengthiest piece in the collection, “Son of the Author’s Father”, tackles head on David’s feelings about having a confidence man for a father and a mother that abandoned him when he was a small child and who remained a mystery to him even in the years after they reunited. He plumbs his buried memories of holding his mother’s hand as they walk by to wave at his jailed father, another of opening a door onto an intimate scene between his father and someone (mother? mistress? his mother and a lover?). He also explains how learning how to lie and live with a set of lies was excellent preparation for a job that required spying.
Although David Cornwell was in his last filmed interviews still very much an active author full of ideas for subsequent books, getting a book of this kind out before his departure was fortuitous and ensured that he exerted some control over the public account of his life and how it interacted with his fiction. It is obviously best appreciated by someone who has already read at least a few of his novels and who appreciates his writing. For that reader, it serves as a fascinating, informative farewell gift.
This is a fan book; and maybe only for his most avid fans. . It may be enjoyed as an introduction to Le Carre, but absent what his most famous character, MI5 Secret Agent George Smiley would call Back Bearings, much of the richness of Pigeon Tunnel may not be lost. Pigeon Tunnel was published just after the very good biography, John Le Carre’, The Biography. Pigeon Tunnel may be the results of his collaboration with Adam Sisman. Having stirred up so many memories he may have decided that he should have his versions and his thoughts about specific aspects of his career.
True fans of Le Carre’ already know that he was first an unpaid agent for MI6, providing information about which of his college friends might be Communist Sympathizers. He now regrets this role, but given that his generation also provided four of England’s most infamous Russian moles, (A le Carre’ term for deeply embedded enemy agents) I cannot judge him too harshly.
Prior to his formal employment as a secret agent, his childhood was spent with his father, a high living, often imprisoned con man. How much of Cornwall’s later life, and especially his love life would be bent by the lack of a mother is a matter even he cannot say. He admits that his first marriage was ruined by his failures, but this is to him, not a major focus of this collection.
Chapters follow no particular order. Le Carrie shares with us in a sequence that follows either the tricks of memory or what relative importance he gives to that collection of stories. He saves his major thoughts about his father to the last section. Chapters may not follow books in their exact progression and he may harken back to his stories from his days as a professional if low ranking secret operative. These references are his most guarded as he believes in protecting his fellow operatives, now mostly diseased, but with living families
This is not le Carre’s best work. Perhaps his natural tendency towards secrecy has him using disclosure as a method for obscuring less attractive stories of his life. An open question is why did he chose to publish under his nom de plume. The obvious answer is that le Carre’ is the name by which he is known and David Cornwall may not have the same market power. The obvious speculation is that this is the story teller version of events and the reader may not be getting the full and frank of a version.
Top reviews from other countries
A very recent article by Sisman suggests that they are on reasonably good terms now - and indeed le Carré sent a signed copy of the Pigeon Tunnel to him. So it's not a rebuff, nor necessarily a correction of wrongs.
So then, what is it?
For one thing, it is not a plugging of Sisman's inevitable gaps. There is very little in here that is not already known - either through his few interviews or through the biography. This is definitely not an autobiography.
Instead, we encounter le Carré the brilliant and witty raconteur, the master of the thumbnail sketch with a perfectly tuned ear for accents and peculiar turns of phrase. We get tiny glimpses of his creative process (such as the catalysts for his creations of Alec Leamas, or Jerry Westerby, and Tessa Quayle). There are hilariously bizarre moments from his research trips (as with Yasser Arafat) or encounters (as when Margaret Thatcher introduced him to totally nonplussed Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers). He has a nicely self-deprecating tone, and it seems that for his love of all things Germanic and scathing descriptions of the British class-system, he still contends with the excruciations of being English in socially embarrassing situations (as when he thought he was giving a signed copy of one of his books to the Italian President).
This makes for a very entertaining read - vintage le Carré, in bite-sized chunks (without the impenetrable plots). To that end, it felt a little like The Secret Pilgrim (the Smiley short-story collection on his retirement). He is quite open about the problems that a story-teller will have with memory - how can he ever be sure that his tales haven't grown whiskers with time and retelling?
So this is a book to enjoy greatly - but don't imagine it will make its author any less impenetrable than his plots
John Le Carré is a favourite writer of mine. That made 'The Pigeon Tunnel' particularly attractive: he writes with the same mastery of language and brilliance of style as in his novels. Nor is this a simple autobiography, rather a series of brief vignettes about his life. The anecdotes are enchanting. There are, for instance, stories about the elegant way newscaster Reginal Bosanquet helped Le Carré out financially, and the equally graceful way Le Carré later passed the favour forward to Vladimir Pucholt, a Czech actor who wanted to become a doctor. Or there is one of the chapters I liked most, Le Carré’s compelling picture of his conman father. It included a magnificent quotation from one of the father’s friends and collaborators:
‘We was all bent, son, but your dad was very, very bent indeed.’
Anyone who knows 'A perfect spy' will recognise such a figure as the model for Rick Pym in that novel. 'The Pigeon Tunnel' tells us how Le Carré based it on his own upbringing, but at first he came up with a draft that ‘dripped with self-pity’; it wasn’t until he revisited it, after his father had died, ‘and made the sins of the son a whole lot more reprehensible than the sins of the father’ that it became the outstanding novel it now is. As Le Carré suggests, a lot of its power derives from the son having committed a far deeper offence, although it is clearly the direct consequence of the less serious crimes of the father.
Here we are into one of the areas I found most appealing in 'The Pigeon Tunnel': it tells us about the real events that lie behind some of Le Carré’s most effective books. For instance, he talks about his interview with a member of the German Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, in a secret Israeli prison, as part of the preparation for 'The Little Drummer Girl'. That anecdote, with its surprising and poignant ending, is on its own sufficient reason to read the whole book. As is the story of his work with Palestinians groups, for the same novel, which led to his dancing with Yasser Arafat.
And there is plenty more, on other novels, including 'The Spy who came in from the cold' or the Smiley series. That includes small revelations that I particularly savoured. I didn’t realise that it was J. Edgar Hoover, iconic director of the FBI who, on being told that Kim Philby of the British intelligence service was a Soviet spy, said ‘Tell ’em Jesus Christ only had twelve, and one of them was a double’ – a line Le Carré uses to telling effect in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'.
Equally, he tells us that when his father returned home after a spell in gaol, he would stop in front of doors waiting for them to be opened for him. The prisoner’s habit took a while to fade. That, of course, is an anecdote told by Charlie in 'The Little Drummer Girl', though in her case she’s lying.
Le Carré, on the other hand, is telling the truth. Or is he? He also tells us he has a vivid memory from childhood, of standing outside Exeter prison while his father waved to him from his cell window. He admits that this is impossible – none of the cells give on to the road. Which leads Le Carré to wonder whether we need a different word for certain types of memory, those in which imagination plays a role. Something, of course, to which such a writer, whose trade it is to apply imagination to what he knows of reality, is particularly inclined.
A fascinating notion, which it was a pleasure to encounter in this delightful book. And which led me to think about everything it said in a different light. Though that only led me to enjoy it all the more.
I must admit some of his musing were of no particular interest to me, much about his father only irritated me, and I’m not sure that even though Le Carre’s relationship with his father was fraught, what he wrote verged on some sort of idolisation no matter how much he called foul on his dad. The words Le Carre used to describe his father ruining many lives with his conniving, were not condemning ones and at times seems like admiration for his wayward life. Ronnie also had a book written about him using his exploits as part of the plot, although of course he wasn’t Ronnie in the book, just his character. But the main interesting bits to me were about a real villain of the time and place and that place was London and M16.
Kim Philby’s exploits sent many a brave man, and woman, to their torture and eventual death, the most famous being Konstantin Volkov. Much of the narrative about Philby, yes Le Carre did know him, was not about Philby but of that other privileged class genre Nicholas Elliott. He was Philby’s lifelong friend and exchanged many top secrets with his over many years, it was he who was sent, after undeniable evidence of Philby’s treachery, to extract a confession. As we now know Philby fled to Russia on board a freighter leaving behind a secret service with no secrets. George Behar, alias George Blake is also mentioned, but nothing of Burgess, McLean, Blunt or Cairncross. But I will leave this with excerpts from the book, copyright John Le Carre.
On Philby being confronted, if that’s the word, by Elliott:
Le Carre: ‘So what were your sanctions if he didn’t co-operate?’
Elliott: ‘What’s that, old boy?’
Le Carre: ‘What sanctions could you threaten him with in an extreme case, could you have him sandbagged, for instance, and flow to London?’
Elliott: ‘Nobody wanted him in London old boy’
Le Carre: ‘Well, what about the ultimate sanction then – forgive me- could you have had him killed, liquidated?’
Elliott: ‘My dear chap. One of us’
Le Carre goes to the four corners of the earth to research his books and stories for his plots, he meets influential people, much like he has for most of his life. But ultimately what he has written here is very entertaining, if, to me, at times irritating. But with most ‘factual’ spy books I have read its more interesting of what is left out than what is put in and although John Le Carre plays down his security role, preferring a high-ranking Civil Servant, I feel that there is some interesting stuff that has been left out, as he had too. Much of what has been written here are his first-hand experiences, some chapters about people I have never heard of, but none the less an interesting and enjoyable book about a subject of which I have no idea of why I have an interest.
The stories are written with all the literary eloquence you’d expect from a bestselling author but I particularly enjoyed learning about the inspiration for some of the characters in his books and how he went about researching the different storylines and settings during which he demonstrates he is a master of observation. Although he refers to his time working for British intelligence, he refrains from giving much away about the work he did although it clearly informed the plots of many of his novels.
The book covers a range of subject matter from the amusing, the informative to the thought-provoking. Rather than try to cover them all I’ll just pick out a few of my favourites.
‘Official visit’ in which he recalls a visit to London by a group of young Germans. ‘All they knew about London in the sixties was that it was swinging, and they were determined to swing with it.’ In an attempt to be the perfect host and meet their request for late night female company, he seeks advice from the hotel concierge. ‘Halfway up Curzon Streets on your left-hand side, sir, and there’s a blue light in the window says “French Lessons Here”.’
‘Theatre of the Real: dances with Arafat’ in which he recalls travelling to a 1982 meeting with Yasser Arafat in Beirut surrounded by armed fighters. ‘We are racing through a smashed city in pouring rain with a chase Jeep on our tail. We are changing lanes, we are changing cars, we are darting down side streets, bumping over the central reservation of a busy dual carriageway.’
‘Lost masterpieces’ in which he reflects humourously on the films of his books that were never made despite initial interest by famous directors including Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola.
Observing Alec Guinness prepare for his role as George Smiley in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: ‘Watching him putting on an identity is like watching a man set out on a mission into enemy territory. Is the disguise write for him? (Him being himself in his new persona). Are his spectacles right? – No, let’s try those. His shoes are they too good, two new, will they give him away? And this walk, this thing he does with his knee, this glance, this posture – not too much, you think?’ (If you’ve ever watched the series, you’ll know Alec Guinness nailed George Smiley.)
I also enjoyed the insights into le Carré’s personal approach to the art of writing.
‘Spying and writing are made for each other. Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal.’
‘To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing.’
‘Cameras don’t work for me. When I write a note my memory stores the thought. When I take a photograph, the camera steals my job.’
‘The celebrity game has nothing whatever to do with writing… A theatrical performance, yes. An exercise in self-projection, certainly. And from the publishers’ point of view, the best promotional free ticket in town.’
In the book, John le Carré comes across as a humanitarian, a philantropist, a sympathetic listener, a loyal friend and someone with a self-deprecating and wry sense of humour. I got the sense that recent political and global events had left him a little disillusioned. A notoriously private man, he reveals little about his personal life, the exception being the chapter in which he talks about his difficult relationship with his father, Ronnie. Describing him as a conman, fantasist, and occasional jailbird, by the end of the chapter the reader understands exactly what an apt description of his father this is.
Towards the end of the book, he writes ‘Today, I have no god but landscape, and no expectation of death but extinction. I rejoice constantly in my family and the people who love me, and whom I love in return. Walking the Cornish cliffs, I am overtaken with surges of gratitude for my life.’ What a remarkable life it was.
'The Pigeon Tunnel' is less a memoir than a collection of articles reprinted from various journals and journals that are self-serving, self-indulgent and self-aggrandising not least because of the name-dropping that peppers virtually every piece. How much of it is true is questionable. I tend to think that le Carre was truly his father's son and invented many aspects of his life. That he was a diplomat is verifiable but his constant reference to The Official Secrets Act make any proof of his work as an intelligence officer absent. What is needed now that he is dead is a biography similar to that of Patrick O'Brian by Dean King that revealed the truth behind the O'Brian myth.
Don't waste your time and money on this farrago of a book.