Ever since John Le Carre, the creator of George Smiley, announced that poor old George was based on both his friend, John Bingham, and one of his Oxford professors, it seems that my father has been consigned to being half of a person, or a demi-spymaster. There is even a biography being written called JOHN BINGHAM, THE REAL SMILEY, when really it should be called JOHN BINGHAM, HALF THE REAL SMILEY.
The wonderful thing about being a child is that you accept what happens in your young life as normal. From the time I was quite small I thought everyone's father kept a gun in a drawer under the drink cupboard, carried a knuckle duster in his pocket with his loose change, and set out to work every morning - around eleven, never earlier - smartly dressed and carrying a Wilkinson swordstick. It never occurred to me that it wasn't quite normal, just as it never occurred to me to ask what he actually did at the War Office. As far as I was concerned, what he did between eleven o'clock in the morning and the early hours of the next one was not in the least bit interesting, while what he did as novelist sitting at his typewriter - often wrapped in an eiderdown against the cold of post war winters - was however enormously interesting.
My father was a writer. I could tell other children that when I went to school. Some children didn't believe me. I had to produce one of his books to prove it, or tell them to ask their parents because they were probably reading one of his very exciting books. Other children were openly envious of his eiderdowned occupation. They wished their fathers were writers. I walked tall as a child of a writer, and kept quiet about the War Office bit, which for some reason, despite guns in drawers and knuckle dusters and Wilkinson swordsticks, I found vaguely embarrassing.
Poor old George Smiley with his nymphomaniac, oddly entitled wife Lady Anne Smiley, he always seemed to me to be paying a high price for his marriage, but obviously once faced with a double agent, or a knotty situation, he took out his frustrations on agents, double or otherwise. What he doesn't seem to possess is a sense of humour, whereas the George Smiley/John Bingham I knew, married to a woman who was neither an aristocrat nor a nymphomaniac, loved to laugh. By the greatest good fortune I married not only a man who could make George/John laugh, but along the way acquired an Irish father in law, who could do the same. Many a night when the rest of us crept off to bed at George/John's Cotswold weekend cottage, we would be kept awake by the laughter from downstairs as the two old men, whisky glasses in hand, sat up reminiscing about Ireland and the old days.
George/John loved dogs with a passion, put sweets and cakes by your bed when he came back from a grand dinner, dressed you up in his Mason's apron -strictly against the rules, but then he never did go much by rules - and made you try to read out from their secret coded handbook. He was frankly bored by babies whose heads he always thought were going to drop off - possibly due to having seen Alice in Wonderland at too young an age - loved to do conjuring tricks, and to play chess. He was bored by cards, and loathed charades with a vengeance, yet couldn't wait to dress up as a Roman senator when asked to fancy dress parties. He often complained that men didn't wear enough jewellery, said he would have liked to have been a Roman general and mourned the fact that even in BC short sight would have kept him out of the Roman Army.
George/John loved pretty women, but was terrified of them if they had big bosoms, often moaning that they reminded him of one of his aunts. When for the purposes of his daytime job he had to do something daring, his eyes would light up with the excitement at the adventure he was about to go on - on behalf of HM's government.
'Your father won't be in to dinner tonight, he has to do a burglary' was a statement I never questioned when trying to make up an eight for a dinner party.
He was never on any one person or party's side, except his that of his country. Patriotic to the core, like so many who are part of the unseen forces in our country, politics were of no interest to him. On the other hand he was the most generous of friends, encouraging David Cornwall, aka John Le Carre, to write crime novels, finding him an agent, recommending him to his publisher, and writing in a margin of my manuscript when I was about to give up on my first book, 'carry on kid, you might make a hundred pounds!' He loved the company of actors, some of whom worked for him as his spooks,
ts, got on splendidly with his literary agents, whether they were posh or
sheer show business. He was a Christian, but didn't really mind which church he was attending, He was courteous to the core, but never sycophantic, and although not a man to cross, he was someone everyone instinctively trusted.
He often told me if he hadn't been a writer he would have liked to have been a gardener, but would not have enjoyed the apprenticeship - 'pricking out seedlings endlessly'. He smoked a pipe, and unlike George Smiley, never, ever wore a hat, unless to lark about, or on occasions when it was bad form not to wear one. He was a very slow driver, and once was apprended in the East End by a policeman who thought he was a drunk because he was driving
so carefully, but when shown George/John's security pass in fright ran off into the night.
He was the least snobbish of men, and like many aristocrats, bored stiff by ancestry, his or anyone else's, unless it was funny. He was unashamed of crying, maintaining that Pitt the Yonger would pour tears in Parliament, and describing himself as 'howling like a wolf' at Lord Mountbatten's funeral.
If he had a fault it was that he was almost too tolerant, but was far too fastidious to have put with a nymphomaniac wife like Lady Anne Smiley. He loved to drink, but like Winston Churchill's father, was never seen to be drunk. He liked good food, and was addicted to chocolate. If you went to the cinema with him, once he had sorted out the change in his pocket from his kuckleduster, he would buy you an embarrassment of sweets. He was bored by Shakespeare, often wondering how many Hamlets you could see in a lifetime. On the other hand he loved musicals, saw Fiddler on the Roof nine times - he always took his agents to musicals - and at the end of his life when ever I visited him, he and I would sing I was Born under a Wandering Star and If I was a Rich Man as a duet. He was born into great riches, but when mismanagement and misfortunes of every kind deprived him of them, he never complained, was never bitter, always taking whatever came along with grace.
So this is the other half of George Smiley, the funny and colourful half, the half that is missing in John le Carre's books, the man I knew and loved, ny father.