Alas, 'George, my dear chap', you only existed fully inside the imagination of John le Carré (David Cornwall), although his imagination was fueled by the real-life John Bingham, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, and a master of duplicity who spent the war masquerading as a Nazi sympathiser and thus winkled out countless potential or actual traitors. Both men, le Carré and Bingham, worked for MI6 and, according to The Telegraph, the young le Carré looked up to the older maestro with great admiration and fondness. Alas, the relationship, whilst never ending completely, did become strained when the first Smiley book was published and most insiders identified Bingham as the role model for the character. Le Carré was destined for onwards and upwards inside the service but possibly because there was more money in writing than spying, and also, I gather from various reports, he was building up an antipathy towards his service and the idiotic way in which it conducted its affairs, he resigned. The story of that other MI6 master of duplicity, Kim Philby, must have confirmed his worst fears.
Philby's tale is the subject of a new book, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayed by Ben Macintyre which is reviewed at length by Philip Hensher in this week's Spectator. I don't think I can bring myself to read it, although Macintyre's other books on 20th century intelligence ops have been highly praised. The fact is that I wanted, and still want, to believe in my imaginary MI6, filled not just with brave men but with clever men, too. Alas, Macintyre's investigation into Philby's activities convinces me that the top brass of post war MI6 constituted possibly the biggest collection of unbelievably stupid, old-school snobs and third-raters that British society has produced in the last 100 years - and boy, the competition is hot for that 'accolade'!
For me, the most unforgettable character in all of le Carré's books is Jim Prideaux in "Tinker, Tailor ...". He was the good, solid, brave, reliable, old vet who was sent east of the 'curtain' and was blown by the fictional version of Kim Philby. Happily, in the story, Prideaux exacts revenge by shooting the traitor dead. Alas, in real life Philby betrayed literally hundreds who were executed by the Russians or their acolytes. He, of course, fell under suspicion, was finally 'let go' by the reluctant 'old school tie' chaps but then re-engaged later. When final and absolutely irrefutable evidence of his treachery was obtained, they let him escape to Russia! His greatest chum inside MI6, Nicholas Elliot, a man who deserves the Prat of the Century award - if not something worse! - was asked later by le Carré:
"What about the ultimate sanction, then - forgive me - could you have had Philby killed, liquidated?", Elliot replied aghast: "My dear chap. One of us." [My emphasis.]
That says it all - and it makes me sick to my stomach!