There must be thousands of people blessed with happy memories of David Cornwell, a man better known as the author John le Carré, who sadly left us a few days ago. What follows are my own reasons for being intensely grateful to this supremely talented and generous-spirited man, things that others might regard as minor, but which I didn’t feel would be right to make public before now.
I’m pretty sure that I read my first John le Carré book three decades ago in 1990 when I was living in Notting Hill in London, and the book was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. What can I say? I was entranced by it and I went on to read everything he’d written, before or since. I’m certain that not a year has gone by without me reading at least one of this great man’s works, and I’ve re-read most of them several times on account of the deep satisfaction and intense pleasure they’ve given me.
I saw the film of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, for which, in any civilised world, the late Richard Burton would have won an Oscar, so I may well have read the book of the same name around that time; all I recall for certain is that I was mesmerised by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1990 and that I subsequently devoured any book, or any film of a John le Carré book, with the utmost enjoyment.
As I’ve mentioned before, on this site and elsewhere, I fell terribly ill on March 10th 2016 and while my life was saved by some of the wonderful people who staff our NHS, I suffered badly for nearly two years after my successful heart operation at London’s Royal Brompton Hospital. My suffering was almost entirely psychological, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, but that doesn’t matter now because I’m better, I’m grateful for all the care I received and it’s all behind me.
I mention this because on March 8th 2018, nearly two years to the day since I’d fallen ill, I was alone in my former home in Sowton, reclining in my packed study, cheerfully reflecting on how life had almost entirely changed for the better over the preceding two years. My reverie was rudely interrupted by a frantic hammering at my front door, by a lady who kept her horses in the fields surrounding where I lived, to warn me that my thatched home was on fire. Or rather that the adjoining building was on fire.
Despite the very best efforts of our fire service and some of my neighbours, our home was rapidly lost in a shocking conflagration. With the brave assistance of some of these selfless people, we managed to retrieve a few personal belongings, but the vast majority were turned to ash in the pitiless flames. Due to the confusion of the night, which included me being taken to hospital to be treated for the effects of smoke inhalation, it was perhaps a few weeks before we were able to take full stock of what had been destroyed and what had survived.
To my amazement, after having lost some thousands of other books, I discovered that every last one of my John le Carré novels had survived. I still cannot understand why this was and I’ve given up trying to grasp what happened in the brief time between the fire being discovered and my home being destroyed.
A few of these books must have been piled or grouped together in my study, but the rest were scattered around the house, as I had perhaps as many as three casually on the go at any one time. I know I saved other personal possessions, but I have no memory whatever of rescuing the books in question, either consciously or subconsciously.
To put my dazed frame of mind in some perspective, I remember seeing Kristin, one of my neighbours, in my front room, in her pyjamas; it was blindingly obvious that she’d been alerted by the flames and had generously hurried over to help, because she said as much to me, but I was still baffled by her presence and I’m certain I muttered something inane to this effect at the time.
Some months later, I had a long conversation with my friend the philosopher Peter Sjöstedt Hughes, who lives in Cornwall and who, like me, is a great admirer of John le Carré and his writings. I told Pete about the strange survival of my collection of John le Carré’s novels, and he told me that he was confident that the author would like to hear of this, a suggestion I’m indebted to Pete for articulating. I’d been thinking along similar lines myself, so a few days later, I wrote to David Cornwell aka the author John le Carré in Buryan, Cornwall, confident that what I’d written would soon find its way to a world famous man who’d lived in this village for over 40 years.
I had a very good excuse to write an appreciative letter to a man whose novels I’d read and avidly re-read for three decades, while I made it perfectly clear that I wasn’t expecting a reply of any kind. It was enough for me that he learned of my existence and of my intense admiration and appreciation for his writing, so I happily dispatched my missive with no anticipation of hearing back from him.
However, just over a week later, I was taken aback to receive a reply from him by post, in which he supplied his home address. He had various things to say, all of which I was delighted to read, but for the purposes of this post, the passage that stunned me was when he said that he was humbled to learn of the survival of my collection, then offered to sign all the books for me if I could get them to him somehow.
I’m not a kid anymore – far from it – but my heart soared when I read this, something I had to do several times before it really sank in. What an incredibly generous-spirited and kind thing of him to say. I remember staring at his letter with a grin like the Cheshire Cat, as if it were first edition Holy Writ, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
I’d have loved to have had a collection of some of the greatest novels in the English language, all personally signed by their supremely gifted author, but I never took him up on it. Part of me mildly regrets this, but despite the offer in writing, I still felt it would be poor form to turn up with an industrial collection of books for him to sign, something I feel would have been even more onerous for him if I’d sent the lot by post.
I think that as things stand, I saved him a half an hour or so that he doubtless spent far more profitably and enjoyably elsewhere, while I’m left as a grateful recipient of his wonderful letter and his warm heart, so my stoic nature tells me that everyone’s a winner. Apart from his large and loving family, that is, to whom I naturally send my deepest condolences and warmest best wishes; for what little it’s worth, my own father died on December 10th many years ago, but I still recall the deep sorrow of losing a family member so close to Christmas, a time when we should all be celebrating.
It goes without saying that this past year has been very tough for everyone, so it’s no surprise that on my news feed and elsewhere I constantly read the simple exhortation “Be Kind”. And for the thousandth time, I reflect, how lucky am I? In addition to all my other many blessings, I have a personal letter from the greatest writer of modern times, full of kind words, and the offer to sign all his books for me.
What a wonderful, generous, amazing man you were, David; a shining example to the rest of us. Perhaps this isn’t entirely in accordance with your personal beliefs, but thank you from the bottom of my heart, and God bless you, wherever you are.