The black and soundless sky

I mentioned a while ago I was rereading my all-time favourite book which has stood by me through great times and difficult times and been an inspiration and a comfort to me. It’s a wonder to me that the author is not taught on literature courses as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He was born in 1931, and after a public school education did National Service in the Intelligence Corps, serving in post-war Germany at a time when the country was split into West and East, the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or Federal Republic of Germany as we knew it, and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik – the German  Democratic Republic. He returned to England and went up to Oxford University, to Lincoln College, and at that point he was already spying on far-left groups at the University. It’s no doubt apparent now, that I’m thinking about John le Carré, my favourite author, and my favourite book, ’Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’. It was recreated as a TV series which perfectly captured not only the characters and plot, but the pace, the tension, the cleverness – unlike the disastrous 2011 film, which captured none of it.

In actual fact, after that long preamble, I’m not at present reading ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, but the novel which follows it, the second in what’s known as ‘The Karla Trilogy’, ‘The Honourable School Boy’. I’ve read it a couple of times,, and am familiar with the main story-line, however I really don’t know it as well as T.,T.,S.,S. and it’s a while since I last settled down to it. What I had completely forgotten, wasn’t the preamble to the espionage ‘sting’  which the George Smiley and his team set up in London, taking several months to research and plan the operation, but the action involving placing an agent, Jerry Westerby in Hong Kong. There is plenty of action, but what struck me as I reread it, was the incredible descriptive powers of le Carré, bringing alive what was then the colony. The teeming population, the traffic, the social structure, the mix of different peoples from many different countries, Eastern and Western, the sights, the sounds, the smells – it’s incredible!

Without giving away any of the plot, Westerby travels on to war-torn Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand; it was a period when south-east Asia was in a violent turmoil, and I remember from the time the news footage which came out, American bombers and the bombing, sometimes of completely innocent and harmless local civilians,  displaced people,  explodions in the jungles, tales of torture and atrocities, completely pointless acts of terror, warlords, guerrillas, banditry, corruption, exploitation – I don’t know if le Carré actually visited those war zones, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research, to bring the dreadful episodes of the time so vividly and realistic leaping off the page.

I suppose because I know the story so well, know the characters (even if I have forgotten some of the details) I am not galloping through reading it, although it is compulsive and I cannot put it down, and I can appreciate even more what a truly extraodinary writer he is. He had a great ear for conversation and dialogue, a wonderful power of vividly describing scenes and action, sometimes quite simply, often quite beautifully. I came across a sentence which for some reason really struck me as elegantly written – it may not have the same effect on you, but I love the balance, the simplicity the way it evokes the scene. Westerby is deep in “enemy” territory, in a dangerous and fragile situation, and he’s trying to find a particular place, in the dark.

Open photo

High walls blocked off the inner buildings, high wires crowned the walls, the barrels of the light anti-aircraft guns gleamed bronze against the black and soundless sky.

Beautiful, beautifully simple, wonderfully evocative.


  1. MI6

    It is rare when a spy compliments another spy so just because ex-spy/historian Hugh Trevor-Roper described John le Carré’s work as “rich flatulent puff” doesn’t mean you should take it seriously or shouldn’t read the raw and noir spy novel Beyond Enkription, the first stand-alone non-fiction tome in The Burlington Files series.

    In the fifties and early sixties Kim Philby (and no doubt other Cambridge Six or More members) knew Hugh Trevor-Roper, David Cornwell (aka John le Carré) and Bill Fairclough’s MI6 handler Colonel Alan Brooke Pemberton CVO MBE. In the early fifties Alan Pemberton was ADC to Field Marshall Sir Gerald Walter Robert Templer during the guerrilla war known as the Malayan Emergency. Philby was sniffing around for information to help the communist Malayan insurgents but was cold-shouldered by Templer, Pemberton and co who didn’t like know-all couch-potatoes like Philby from MI6.

    Given Philby was the one who ended John le Carré’s MI6 career it is little wonder John le Carré turned down Bill Fairclough’s offer in 2014 to collaborate on The Burlington Files series. David Cornwell responded as you might expect saying along the lines of “Why should I? I’ve got by so far without collaboration so why bother now?” A realistic response from a brilliant writer and infamous expert in passive fiction but was that the whole story? Probably not.

    Bill Fairclough was one of Pemberton’s People in MI6 who were mostly Pemberton’s ex-army “friends” who had seen action in the Second World War. Being experienced combatants, they had little time for many of their more toffee-nosed colleagues in MI6. Needless to say those colleagues once included the traitor Philby who had outwitted David Cornwell so in their opinion both men were flawed albeit for enormously distinct reasons.

    Pemberton’s People included Roy Astley Richards (inter alia Winston Churchill’s bodyguard), Peter ‘Scrubber’ Stewart-Richardson (an eccentric British Brigadier who tried to join the Afghan Mujahideen), Peter Goss (an SAS Colonel and JIC member involved in the Clockwork Orange Plot concerning Prime Minister Harold Wilson) and even the infamous rogue Major Freddy Mace, who impudently highlighted his cat burgling and silent killing skills in his CV.

    Notwithstanding “all that”, Kim Philby did comment on Ian Fleming’s novels as “all that James Bond idiocy”. As for John le Carré, Philby liked the sophistication of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold but allegedly dismissed it as “basically implausible – at any rate to anyone who has any real knowledge of the business”. What an insult! Philby died in 1988 long before Beyond Enkription was published but no doubt he might have agreed it was a must read for espionage cognoscenti.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lois

      Thank you so much for all of this, fascinating! I know the gist of the well-known facts (or apparent facts) but not the detail. What would you recommend as reading to find out more?
      Thanks again!


      1. MI6

        Non-fiction or loosely fact based espionage novels are often more nerve racking and nail biting stuff than the brilliant masterpieces of the likes of John le Carré (not that many can write like him). Try Ben Macintyre’s fact based novel, The Spy and The Traitor. John le Carré described it as “the best true spy story I have ever read”.

        Also try Bill Fairclough’s Beyond Enkription which is raw noir mainly fact based espionage at its best in terms of “this actually happened”. Interestingly le Carré turned down Fairclough’s offer to collaborate on The Burlington Files. Hardly surprising given Fairclough was originally one of Pemberton’s People – please see this interesting article to understand that!


      2. MI6

        That’s a double dose of good news then! We do hope you enjoy reading both and if you have any questions particularly about The Burlington Files please don’t hesitate to contact me by email. If the need arises I can always contact FaireSansDire and someone, maybe even Bill Fairclough, will deal with any issues you raise and if need be contact you directly. Best wishes

        Liked by 1 person

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