John le Carré

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Luck's just another word for destiny … either you make your own or you're screwed.

John le Carré is the pen-name of David John Moore Cornwell (19 October 1931 – 12 December 2020), who was a British writer of spy novels and a former spy himself.

See also: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People


  • Where I kick myself is where I think I actually contributed to the myth of the intelligence services being very good.
  • Every writer wants to be believed. But every writer knows he is spurious; every fiction writer would rather be credible than authentic.
    • As quoted in "Master of the Secret World: John le Carré on Deception, Storytelling and American Hubris" by Andrew Ross, in Salon (21 October 1996); also in Conversations with John le Carré (2004) edited by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli and Judith Baughman, p. 140
  • I use the furniture of espionage to amuse the reader, to make the reader listen to me, because most people like to read about intrigue and spies. I hope to provide a metaphor for the average reader's daily life. Most of us live in a slightly conspiratorial relationship with our employer and perhaps with our marriage. I think what gives my works whatever universality they have is that they use the metaphysical secret world to describe some realities of the overt world.
    • As quoted in "Master of the Secret World: John le Carré on Deception, Storytelling and American Hubris" by Andrew Ross, in Salon (21 October 1996); also in Conversations with John le Carré (2004) edited by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli and Judith Baughman, p. 141
  • "This is a war," Leamas replied. "It's graphic and unpleasant because it's fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it's nothing, nothing at all beside other wars – the last or the next."
  • "Who do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me". (p.231)
  • What the hell do you think spies are? Model philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me, little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants, playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong? (from a clip from the film adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, an alcoholic cynical British spy)
  • A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.
  • Tessa Quayle: Sir, I’ve just got one question. I just wondered: Whose map is Britain using when it completely ignores the United Nations and decides to invade Iraq? Or do you think it’s more diplomatic to bend the will of a superpower and politely take part in Vietnam the sequel?
    Justin Quayle: Well, I can’t speak for Sir Bernard.
    Tessa Quayle: Oh, I thought that’s why you were here.
    Justin Quayle: I mean, diplomats have to go where they’re sent.
    Tessa Quayle: So do Labradors.
    Justin Quayle: Ouch. Well, I think that, no, Sir Bernard would no doubt argue that when peaceful means are exhausted, then -
    Tessa Quayle: Exhausted? Mr. Quayle, they’re not exactly exhausted, are they? I mean, they’re just — they’re just — no, they are just lying in the way of the tanks. No, let’s face it: We’ve taken 60 years to build up this international organization called the United Nations, which is meant to avoid wars, and now we just blow it up because our car is running out of petrol.
  • [She] reports that [the company] recently donated fifty million dollars to a major U.S. teaching hospital, plus salaries and expenses for three top clinicians and six research assistants. Corruption of university Common Room affiliations is even easier: professorial chairs, biotech labs, research foundations, etc. 'Unbought scientific opinion is increasingly hard to find.'

"The United States of America Has Gone Mad", The Times [UK] (15 January 2003)

  • America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.
  • The reaction to 9/11 is beyond anything Osama bin Laden could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams. As in McCarthy times, the freedoms that have made America the envy of the world are being systematically eroded. The combination of compliant US media and vested corporate interests is once more ensuring that a debate that should be ringing out in every town square is confined to the loftier columns of the East Coast press.
  • The imminent war was planned years before bin Laden struck, but it was he who made it possible. Without bin Laden, the Bush junta would still be trying to explain such tricky matters as how it came to be elected in the first place; Enron; its shameless favouring of the already-too-rich; its reckless disregard for the world’s poor, the ecology and a raft of unilaterally abrogated international treaties. They might also have to be telling us why they support Israel in its continuing disregard for UN resolutions.

  • Savages...are by nature rash. They have no middle gear. The middle gear of any man is self-discipline.
  • Luck's just another word for destiny...either you make your own or you're screwed.
  • If you're in a hole, don't dig, they say.
  • When you assimilate, you choose.
  • Elections are a Western jerk-off.
  • Why is it that so many men of small stature have more courage than men of size?
  • Peace, gentlemen, it is well known, does not come of its own accord, and neither does freedom. Peace has enemies. Peace must be won by the sword.
  • The friends of my friends are my friends.
  • Never trade a secret, you'll always get the short end of the bargain.
  • We were both hybrids: I by birth, he by education. We had both taken too many steps away from the country that had borne us to belong anywhere with ease.
  • No problem exists in isolation, one must first reduce it to its basic components, then tackle each component in turn.
  • A good man knows when to sacrifice himself, Brother Michael liked to say. A bad man survives but loses his soul.
  • Nothing in life... even a few broken bones, is without its reward.

Radio interview (November 2008)

Interview with Ramona Koval. The Book Show, Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio National. (19 November 2008)
  • There are some Arabs who think that the Germans did the right thing by the Jews. This makes it easy to recruit Arab terrorist.
  • There is a big difference between fighting the cold war and fighting radical Islam. The rules have changed and we haven't.
  • We were not faced (in the cold war) in a conflict with people who are prepared to die for their cause. We weren't in conflict with people whose idea is to kill as many as they could.
  • In the war on terror we did everything wrong that we could have done.
  • You can't make war against terror. Terror is a technique of battle. It's a tactic that has been employed since time immemorial. You can conduct clandestine action against terrorists, and that must be done.
  • To operate an intelligence network against the Islamist terror is terribly difficult because they don't have a central command and control center such as we would understand. Therefore you cannot penetrate at the top and find out what will happen on the ground.
  • Because we are so unfamiliar with the motivation of the people we are dealing with, we are more afraid of them than we need to be.
  • On one hand we go like hell for every terror cell we can find, we penetrate it, we destroy it. On the other hand, there is a much bigger need for a political solution.
  • In recent years, Union Bank of California, American Express Bank International, BankAtlantic and Wachovia have all been caught moving huge sums of drug money, but no one went to jail. The banks just admitted to criminal conduct and paid the government a cut of their profits.
  • Those critics don’t read their own newspapers, and nor perhaps have they noticed that a former head of MI5, our security service, who was translated to the House of Lords, was recently denied the senior post on a security committee on account of her connections with oligarchs in the Ukraine... supposedly connected with criminal conspiracy.
  • If I could generalize about my work in intelligence in those days, for better or worse, we counted ourselves an elite with a very considerable responsibility: to speak truth to power, like good journalists, that whatever we came upon, however offensive it was to those in power, we told it straight.
  • What I fear I have seen in the run-up to the Iraq War in this country is the politicization of intelligence to fit the political intentions of our masters. And to my mind, that was a terrible moment in the history, the visible history, of intelligence work in this country, where the intelligence service itself became effectively co-author and signatory to the so-called dodgy dossier, which — on the strength of which Colin Powell was able to present a dire picture of the threat from Iraq, which turned out to be untrue.
  • I can’t understand that Blair has an afterlife at all. It seems to me that any politician who takes his country to war under false pretenses has committed the ultimate sin. I think that a war in which we refuse to accept the body count of those that we kill is also a war of which we should be ashamed. We’ve always got to be careful of that. I think that — I wasn’t speaking as a prophet, I was just speaking as an angry citizen, I suppose. I think it’s true that we’ve caused irreparable damage in the Middle East. I think we shall pay for it for a long time.
  • If people knew basically, for example, what we had done in Iran when we ousted Mosaddegh through the CIA and the Secret Service here across the way and installed the Shah and trained his ghastly secret police force in all the black arts, the SAVAC, if people understood the extent to which we had humiliated Iran, then they would understand the later developments in Iran and Iran’s posture now. If people would look at the map and see the extent to which Iran is encircled by nuclear powers, they wouldn’t take it perhaps quite so seriously that Iran is seeking to arm itself with — if it is — with nuclear weapons.
  • I remain terrified of the capacity of the media, the capacity of spin doctors, here and abroad, particularly the United States media, to perpetuate false lies, perpetuate lies.
  • I’d have asked him [Tony Blair] about his faith, because we were told, when journalists asked about Blair’s faith, the reply was, “We don’t do God here.” Well, of course, he does do God, and he reports that his actions have been put before God and confirmed, as if somehow God has signed a chit for him.
  • And the second question I would ask him... Have you ever seen what happens when a grenade goes off in a school? Do you really know what you’re doing when you order shock and awe? Are you prepared to kneel beside a dying soldier and tell him why he went to Iraq, or why he went to any war?
  • I think that if anything has happened to Europe since 1945 that defines it, it is collectively Europeans do not believe in war anymore, until it comes as an absolute last resort, and then they’re going to do it rather badly. The United States, I think, still sees war as a necessary part of its existence..
  • I was at odds with the whole notion of a preemptive strike. And I think many Europeans have that in common, of course with very many Americans, too, feel the same. So I would have tried to challenge him in that area.
  • The tragedy of Congo is almost — it is appalling. It isn’t really — it isn’t the Congo’s fault even. Congo has become the battleground for other people’s wars, repeatedly. Congo is cursed with amazing mineral resources — diamonds, coltan, now, I believe, up in the northeast of Congo, oil even. God help them, because without any civil society to function, they have been exploited, not simply in terms of boy soldiers, awful gang wars that sweep through the jungle, mass rape as a military weapon, they’ve been subjected to every hell on Earth, these poor people.
  • And meanwhile, don’t think that Africans are disposed to corruption where we are not, so to speak. Actually, most of the corruption that has taken place in Congo on a vast scale is Western-driven.
  • There are something like 80 or 90 “airlines” — in quotes — registered in Congo, and these simply belong to tiny exploitative companies that harness boy soldiers and kids to dig out the diamonds or the coltan, whatever it may be, and ship it out of Congo without paying duty or anything of that sort. Without paying royalties to anyone is theft. And Congo is being exploited by everybody on account of these reasons, in addition to providing the battleground for other people’s wars.

Quotes about John le Carré

  • The legendary British author John le Carré has died at the age of 89. In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, John le Carré was a fierce critic of President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In January 2003, he published a widely read essay called “The United States of America Has Gone Mad.”
    He died on December 12th at the age of 89. Le Carré was a master writer of spy novels, in a career that spanned more than half a century. He worked in the British Secret Service from the late 1950s until the early '60s, at the height of the Cold War, which was the topic of his early novels. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became an international best-seller. Le Carré's gritty depiction of the realities of the spy world contrasted sharply with the characters in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series.
    John le Carré continued writing, expanding with a series featuring his British spymaster George Smiley, including the hit novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As the Cold War ended, John le Carré continued to write prolifically, shifting focus to the inequities of globalization, unchecked multinational corporate power, and the role national spy services play in protecting corporate interests. Perhaps best known among his many post-Cold War novels is The Constant Gardener, depicting a pharmaceutical company’s exploitation of unwitting Kenyans for dangerous, sometimes fatal, drug tests.
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