Sunday, September 04, 2016

John Le Carre and His 'Palestinians'. And Margaret Thatcher

The prime minister’s office wished to recommend me for a medal, and I had declined. I had not voted for her, but that fact had nothing to do with my decision. I felt, as I feel today, that I was not cut out for our honours system, that it represents much of what I most dislike about our country. In my letter of reply, I took care to assure the prime minister’s office that my churlishness did not spring from any personal or political animosity, offered my thanks and compliments to the prime minister, and assumed I would hear no more.

I was wrong. In a second letter, her office struck a more intimate note. Lest I was regretting a decision taken in heat, the writer wished me to know that the door to an honour was still open. I replied, equally courteously I hope, that as far as I was concerned the door was firmly shut, and would remain so in any similar contingency. Again, my thanks. Again, my compliments to the prime minister. And again I assumed the matter was closed, until a third letter arrived, inviting me to lunch. There were six tables set in the dining room of 10 Downing Street that day, but I only remember ours, which had Mrs Thatcher at its head and the Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers on her right, and myself in a tight new grey suit on her left. The year must have been 1982. I was just back from the Middle East, Lubbers had just been appointed. Our other three guests remain a pink blob to me. I assumed, for reasons that today escape me, that they were industrialists from the north. Neither do I remember any opening exchanges between the six of us, but perhaps they had happened over cocktails before we sat down. But I do remember Mrs Thatcher turning to the Dutch prime minister and acquainting him with my distinction. “Now, Mr Lubbers,” she announced in a tone to prepare him for a nice surprise, “this is Mr Cornwell, but you will know him better as the writer John le Carré.”

Leaning forward, Mr Lubbers took a close look at me. He had a youthful face, almost a playful one. He smiled, I smiled: really friendly smiles. “No,” he said. And sat back in his chair, still smiling. But Mrs Thatcher, it is well known, did not lightly take no for an answer.

“Oh, come, Mr Lubbers. You’ve heard of John le Carré. He wrote The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and…” – fumbling slightly – “… other wonderful books.”

Lubbers, nothing if not a politician, reconsidered his position. Again he leaned forward and took another, longer look at me, as amiable as the first, but more considered, more statesmanlike.

“No,” he repeated.

Now it was Mrs Thatcher’s turn to take a long look at me, and I underwent something of what her all-male cabinet must have experienced when they, too, incurred her displeasure. “Well, Mr Cornwell,” she said, as to an errant schoolboy who had been brought to account, “since you’re here” – implying that I had somehow talked my way in – “have you anything you wish to say to me?”

Belatedly, it occurred to me that I had indeed something to say to her, if badly. Having recently returned from South Lebanon, I felt obliged to plead the cause of stateless Palestinians. Lubbers listened. The gentlemen from the industrial north listened. But Mrs Thatcher listened more attentively than all of them, and with no sign of the impatience of which she was frequently accused. Even when I had stumbled to the end of my aria, she went on listening before delivering herself of her response.

“Don’t give me sob stories,” she ordered me with sudden vehemence, striking the key words for emphasis. “Every day people appeal to my emotions. You can’t govern that way. It simply isn’t fair.”

Whereupon, appealing to my emotions, she reminded me that it was the Palestinians who had trained the IRA bombers who had murdered her friend Airey Neave, the British war hero and politician, and her close adviser. After that, I don’t believe we spoke to each other much. Occasionally I do ask myself whether Mrs Thatcher nevertheless had an ulterior motive in inviting me. Was she, for instance, sizing me up for one of her quangos – those strange quasi-official public bodies that have authority but no power, or is it the other way round? But I found it hard to imagine what possible use she could have for me – unless, of course, she wanted guidance from the horse’s mouth on how to sort out her squabbling spies.

My previous posts on him and his attitude towards Jews:



His description of the Jerusale Central Prison and its gallows in The Little Drummer Girl is off.

And this exchange is interesting.  As is his attack on Israel in 2006.


No comments: