With chilling talk of a new Cold War, CHARLIE CONNELLY remembers one upside from the last one – gripping fiction
Salisbury was, on the face of it, an unlikely setting for a chill blast of stale air from the Cold War to blow through the streets but the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia carried with it the sounds of an age we’d all thought was long gone: men with hat brims pulled low whispering in dark doorways, footsteps echoing in a long corridor, robotic numbers recited through the hiss of radio static at the dead of night.
‘He knew then what it was that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England,’ wrote John le Carré of the agent Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, ‘it was the caring about little things – the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls.’
I thought of that line as the details of the attack on the two Russians emerged; how they’d had a drink in a pub and been for a meal at a run-of-the-mill chain restaurant, a father and daughter doing what fathers and daughters do, caring about the little things, the faith in ordinary life, all adding up to two people gravely ill on a bench in a public park on a cold, damp Sunday afternoon.
The black and white portrait that appeared in the newspapers of Skripal in his Soviet colonel’s uniform, taken during the 1990s but looking like it could date from any era since the 1950s, looked incongruous next to the blurry CCTV grabs of the portly old boy in a tracksuit buying smoked sausage at his local Polish delicatessen. It only emphasised what a jolting tug back through the decades the incident was: the double agent in the braided epaulettes seemed a long way from the apparently retired local government planning officer who enjoyed a pint of lager at the railway social club.
‘He became a solitary, belonging to that class of active men prematurely deprived of activity,’ wrote le Carré about Leamas, ‘swimmers barred from the water or actors banished from the stage.’
Laid on top of the revival of a global nuclear threat, the Skripal scandal means the literature of the Cold War doesn’t seem so much like historical fiction any more.
The Cold War was a gift to writers. With its constant suspicion, threats real and imagined, things said and left unsaid, the secretive world of espionage and counter-espionage that played out almost as a parallel existence beside the one we all inhabit, not to mention the permanent threat of an escalation into actual conflict, writers were able to play on our fears, fantasies and ignorance in a range of work, from the Spy Vs Spy cartoons in Mad magazine to James Bond.
When the stories of a Russian hand in the election of Donald Trump began to emerge, Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate seemed suddenly relevant again. Selected as one of Time magazine’s ‘Ten Best Bad Books’ and turned into a pretty rotten film starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury (the film critic David Thomson called it ‘a book written so that an idiot could film it’), the plot concerned a group of American soldiers coming back from the Korean War having been converted to communism. One had even been programmed as a sleeper agent ready to commit an assassination that would pave the way for a Russian stooge to be inserted in the White House.
‘Some people like their bananas ripe to the point of blackness,’ said the New Yorker. ‘The Manchurian Candidate is a very ripe novel indeed.’
It was all too far-fetched, of course. As if the Russians could get away with installing a candidate of their choice as the leader of a major western democracy.
In the light of all this perhaps we’ll now see a resurgence in the popularity of Cold War fiction. Maybe it’ll inspire some new books too (hopefully by women: the fiction of the Cold War seems an almost exclusively male preserve). As a member of the last generation to grow up under the Cold War shadow, I’m starting to feel a certain nostalgia for a time when we had proper statesmen and women holding our futures at stake rather than a ceramic tableware salesman as defence secretary telling Russia it should ‘go away’ and ‘shut up’. It’s a feeling that has had me reaching back to some of the books published during the postwar period before the Berlin Wall came down. For reassurance? Maybe. Life somehow seemed safer then.
Gavin Williamson’s recent pronouncements put me in mind of one of my favourite Cold War era novels, The Mouse That Roared. Published in 1955 by Irish writer Leonard Wibberley the book told the story of the tiny European Duchy of Grand Fenwick who, when an American winery started producing an imitation of the wine on which the Duchy’s prosperity relied, declared war on the US thinking a quick surrender would bring riches in postwar aid. The Duchy’s armed forces, all two dozen of them, happen to arrive in New York during a nuclear drill, finding the place deserted and no-one to whom they could surrender. By chance they came into possession of the ‘quadium bomb’, the most lethal weapon in the world, and hence actually, bizarrely, win the war.
Again, with its theme of small fry planning a tactical defeat from which they can reap the most benefit only for it to backfire when they actually win, we see parallels with the Trump run for the presidency and also hear definite echoes of the Gove/Johnson commandeering of the Leave campaign.
Whether there’s a vacuum cleaner seller in Cuba sending back fake reports of non-existent agents to the British secret services remains to be seen, but Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is another great Cold War farce. If a premise as ridiculous as The Mouse That Roared can have not one but two modern parallels then maybe Our Man could play out too? Yet surely a drippy nonentity of a salesman styling himself a big player in international politics couldn’t happen here. Definitely not as defence secretary anyway.
The biggest literary legacy of the Cold War is of course espionage fiction. Indeed, arguably the first novel published with a Cold War theme was Atomsk by the American author Paul Linebarger writing under the name Carmichael Smith. Published in 1949, Atomsk was the story of the American spy, Major Michael Dugan, who, finding himself in Japan at the end of the war, was charged with exposing the secret Russian nuclear facility of the title. Linebarger’s background as an expert in Far Eastern history and politics, as well as being one of the first specialists in psychological warfare, gave him an insight into the workings of international espionage and paved the way for the likes of other secret service veterans like le Carré and Graham Greene to bring their insider knowledge to their fiction (although le Carré has said that one reason MI6 allowed him to publish The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was that it bore next to no relation to reality).
The Cold War gave us such unforgettable spies as James Bond, Harry Palmer and George Smiley and made the careers of writers like Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Indeed, the latter’s submarine thriller The Hunt For Red October almost sank to the seabed after publication until Ronald Reagan praised it at a 1984 press conference, turning it into one of the biggest-selling novels of the 1980s.
The pinnacle of Cold War fiction remains The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, however. Set in the early 1960s in a part of the world as monochrome culturally as it was physically, with its multi-layered story of bluff, double-bluff and triple-bluff the book stands up as a classic work of fiction even outside the spy genre. In Alec Leamas le Carré created a brilliant flawed, burnt-out spy clinging to the last scraps of his humanity in the morass of secrets, whispers and betrayals on which his career, and by extension life, has been based. Where the book succeeds is by combining a pacy plot whose intricacies respect the intelligence of the reader with a thick layer of humanity; its flaws, foibles, joys and disappointments.
Watching the unfolding coverage of the Skripal case I was reminded of another of Leamas’s pronouncements.
‘What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs?’ he roars. ‘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.’