Tinker Tailor Soldier Spies (Plural)

By: Jake Weatherill

Wed 8/Feb/23

Hello all! Happy New Year and all that jazz! It’s the first blog of 2023 and I am spoiled for choice. I thought I could go for a very generic ‘New Year, New You’ blog, but I think you know me well enough by now to have guessed that’s not my bag (do people still say the word bag anymore?)


Kim Philby


But there’s certainly a vibe developing this month. Monday 23rd January will mark 60 years since the disappearance/defection of notorious member of the Cambridge Five Kim Philby, ITV have they’re new series A Spy Among Friends, we have shiny new Spy Collection on our E-Library, and almost fortuitously BBC are showing the Sir Alec Guinness series of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Now among the more perceptive among you may be getting a slight sense of Déjà vu. Consider this a redux of sorts. Not so much a redraft but an update on one of my earliest blogs. Ladies & Gentleman, Boy & Girls lets take an adventure down memory lane. Let’s talk about the inspiration for Sir Alec’ timeless series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

To start with this might seem a little repetitive, but let’s talk about spies! When you talk about spies, I imagine for most of you the first thing popping into your head is James Bond. But when you think about it he’s, well I don’t think there’s a particularly diplomatic way of putting it, not actually a very good spy. I mean seriously, it’s like the man hasn’t heard of a pseudonym or alias. I might be wrong but I am pretty sure MI6 in real life would probably have given bond his P45 a while ago. He’s flashy, unsubtle, and is pretty much guaranteed to leave a trail of destruction wherever he goes. Incognito Bond ain’t.


Sean Connery as James Bond


And maybe that is what’s always bugged me about Bond, because when I actually think about spies for a second, I think of long coats and wide brimmed hats. People lurking in the shadows, fighting an eternal conflict away from the prying eyes of the rest of the world. Of codes, trickery and slyness. I mean isn’t that kind of what a spy should be?


Which actually leads me very nicely back to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. What’s very interesting is that its author John Le Carre has more than a few parallels with Bond’s creator, Mr Ian Fleming. Both worked in intelligence, Fleming for The Royal Navy during the Second World War and Le Carre spent time working for MI5 & MI6. Both ultimately would take their experiences in the intelligence sphere to craft two iconic spies. Both would have their works adapted for the screen to much fanfare. Both would ultimately become renowned authors of the spy genre, although that wasn’t their only creative output.


John Le Carre


Anyhoo, enough of my waffling. So onto Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I am going to spare you the details of how I came across the book, but let us just say Gary Oldman played a part. Our story itself is on the surface possibly quite a generic concept for the genre. It’s the 70’s. The Cold War is rumbling on. A double agent is active within The Circus (aka MI6, named as such in the book for its Cambridge Circus HQ). Someone is leaking vital information to The USSR. The Circus’ head, Control, has suspected this for a while, but is forced out along with some loyalists after a seemingly bungled operation in Czechoslovakia.

Amongst these loyalists is George Smiley, Control’s protégé. Much like the other loyalists of Control smiley is forced out, and he finds himself in an unwanted retirement. An exile from the service he helped cultivate. That is until Smiley finds himself unexpectedly approached by his own protégé, one Peter Guillam.  Guillam guides Smiley to a meeting with Oliver Lacon, the Civil Servant responsible for overseeing The Circus. Lacon is concerned that Control may have been onto something after one of Guillam’ agents gets in contact regarding Gerald. A mole operating at the highest level of The Circus. Lacon reasons given Guillam being out of favour with the new guard left in charge, and Smiley no longer part of the service these are his perfect investigators.


What follows is a series of twists and turns, perfectly masterminded by Le Carre, leaving you guessing up until the revelation of the moles identity. What is most striking though is that despite a comparative lack of action to the Bond series, you never lose interest throughout. What Le Carre serves up is pure, unadulterated spy craft. The book rings of authenticity when dissecting this murky world of spies at the height of the Cold War. If Bond presents spies as the blunt weapon of statecraft, Smiley represents the accuracy of what being a spy is. It’s sticking to the shadows. It’s fighting an unseen war across the mundanity of everyday life. It’s dead drops and more than a little detective work. In short, spycraft is subtlety. It’s about finding what you need to without being noticed.

The unassuming Smiley, more reminiscent of an Oxford Don than a spy, is almost the perfect avatar for spycraft in actuality. It isn’t particularly glamorous, and this is highlighted repeatedly. The overriding impression of Le Carre’ writing is of an unswerving commitment to the realism of the trade he practiced, and the reward for the reader is undoubtedly one of the greatest spy novels of all time.