Two islands divided by a common culture

One of the jobs we take seriously at Point of Order is reading the Guardian so you don’t have to.  

So it’s with some pleasure that we can recommend Fintan O’Toole’s biographical piece “John le Carré’s final twist: dying as an Irishman”.

Per the strapline:

He was the greatest English novelist of his generation, yet just before his death he became an Irish citizen of the EU. The reasons were both political and deeply personal, but at their heart lay one thing: betrayal”

O’Toole probes le Carré’s quintessentially English identity (Born David Cornwell in Poole, Dorset; Educated Sherborne and Oxford; MI5 and MI6).  Perhaps his publicists should have put a bit more emphasis on his time at the University of Bern.

Cornwell unquestionably did a fine line in moral ambiguity in the English establishment with his George Smiley novels.

But then the establishment is a good teacher.  So it seems was his own father.

“His own formation as a fabulist owed everything to Ronnie Cornwell: ‘conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father’. Just as, in le Carré’s most personal novel, the traitor Pym’s experience of being the son of a fraudster makes him A Perfect Spy. Rick, the lightly fictionalised version of Ronnie in that novel, has a great line in grandiloquent self-justification: ‘The burden is that any money passing through Rick’s hands is subject to a redefinition of the laws of property, since whatever he does with it will improve mankind, whose chief representative he is.’ It is not hard to see why le Carré would become a great hater of all forms of self-serving sententiousness, of all those in power who can so smoothly identify the interests of humanity with their own.”


“… his fictional alter ego Rickin A Perfect Spy, has grand plans for the family’s future at the highest reaches of the British establishment: ‘Son. It’s time for you to set those fine feet of yours on the hard road of becoming Lord Chief Justice and a credit to your old man’.”

How very English. 

Asserting him to be the greatest English novelist of his generation was surely written to provoke the quibblers.

Unlike Anthony Powell who also traded in the establishment’s currency, le Carré had bigger fish to fry.  And as he moved closer to moral absolutes, he undoubtedly found the going a bit softer underfoot.  The hurdles are high in a world where your competition includes Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

O’Toole is very good on Cornwell’s efforts to distance himself from the establishment, demonstrating – perhaps inadvertently – the difficulties when distancing is an much-loved behavioural trait.

There might also be some raised eyebrows over:

… a real case for seeing le Carré as a very peculiar kind of Anglo-Irish writer.”

The interpenetration of the literatures of the Islands of Great Britain and Ireland takes many forms and is often a thing of beauty but one struggles to see where Cornwell tackled this – moral ambiguities or otherwise.

David Cornwell became an Irish citizen shortly before he died in Truro, Cornwall, on 12 December 2020.  

An English sort of Irishman.

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