Originally created 12/08/96

Author John le Carre still holding back some secrets

NEW YORK (AP) - Once, a long time ago, he was a spy.

For a few years, when the Russians were still the Soviets, detente was still years away and a young man from Oxford felt he could serve his country as a spook, the writer John le Carre moved about on the fringes of the Cold War.

It was a time that greatly shaped him - even if it wasn't all clandestine adventures and secret-agent swagger.

"The marks of it never go away," said the former employee of British intelligence. "You never quite lose that inside-out way of thinking."

But don't ask John le Carre - or more accurately David Cornwell, as the name le Carre is a fiction he dreamed up back then - exactly what he did.

Suffice it to say, notes Mr. Cornwell, author of such works as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Smiley's People and now The Tailor of Panama, that it didn't amount to much.

"I did nothing of significance," he said over coffee one morning in an upscale eatery overlooking the Rockefeller Center skating rink, "I didn't alter the world order."

Years after finally acknowledging that he had been in British intelligence, Mr. Cornwell still clings tightly to the vows he made to his "Joes."

"Agent-running was always regarded by our lot as an almost pastoral occupation," said Mr. Cornwell, who does admit to recruiting spies from among the refugees living in Austria in the 1950s. "The relationship between agent and agent-runner was sacrosanct. You promised that you would never reveal what he did."

So the secrets stay hidden.

Besides, says the 65-year-old Mr. Cornwell, the espionage world was not his first encounter with deception.

It was these earlier deceptions, as much as his spying, that shaped him.

Mr. Cornwell is a patrician figure, a courteous, gentle-spoken man with the distinct bearing and voice - at least to the untrained American observer - of a British aristocrat.

And it is all lies.

"I was the son of a con man who was in and out of prison," he says flatly. Abandoned by his mother, and raised amid the snobbery of the proper British schools his father always found a way to pay, Mr. Cornwell was forced to learn his way among the gentry.

So he changed his voice, pretended, with his younger brother, to have a normal home to visit on school holidays and he wondered who his father's mistress-of-the-moment would be once the chauffeur drove them home.

"These were very early experiences, actually, of clandestine survival. The whole world was enemy territory," he said, sipping his coffee as a Zamboni sloshed water around on the ice rink outside, and a young woman in black tights waited to practice her spins.

It was a childhood that has found fictional outlet in more than one of his novels, including his latest, The Tailor of Panama.

Mr. Cornwell, who made his name probing the moral ambiguities of the Cold War, writes this time of Harry Pendel, a charming Brit who has set himself up as Panama's tailor of choice. Tracked down by a British spy offering large paychecks and threatening to reveal Pendel's prison record, Pendel becomes an informant.

The tailor's knowledge, however, is nowhere near as broad as his claims, so Pendel - deep in debt and aiming to please - invents a Panamanian netherworld of secret revolutionaries and scheming Asians out to grab the Canal. With a tip of the hat to Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene's classic comic spy novel, Mr. Cornwell spins a dark comedy of half-baked espionage.

And Pendel, an ex-convict pseudo-spy pretending a genteel history on Savile Row, sees his life of duality slipping inexorably toward catastrophe.

It's a duality that Mr. Cornwell understands.

"I've taken the metaphor of my life, kicked it around and given it to Pendel," the writer said.

Mr. Cornwell kept the story of his childhood hidden for years, forcibly buried with the fury he felt for his father, whose business dealings included elaborate lottery scams and regular cycles of splurge-and-eviction.

"I think one of the reasons I joined the spooks was I thought it would be one of the communities he couldn't enter," Mr. Cornwell said.

He laughs now about the memories, having purged much of the anger with A Perfect Spy, a semi-autobiographical novel he wrote in 1986 about a traitorous member of British intelligence and his con man father. If he never really made up with his father - though his dad did, in later years, pay secret visits to Mr. Cornwell's own children while they were away at school - the anger faded with the years.

The lessons of his childhood, though, stayed with him, even if he no longer has to pretend to be part of the upper class.

Mr. Cornwell learned to speak French and German at Bern University, returning to England for an honors degree at Oxford. Later he taught at Eton, the British prep school famed for its playing fields and future prime ministers, before joining the British Foreign Service.

While he is still evasive about his espionage resume, he did a stint in army intelligence, reportedly served in the intelligence service MI6 and hints that he may also have been active during his college years.

He began writing during his commutes to work, filling up notebooks on long rides into London. Using his own experiences as a rough template - and a pseudonym because of his profession - Mr. Cornwell created an espionage fraternity that gave him room to tell his tales.

In 1963, `The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was released. A literary phenomenon, it sold copies by the million and allowed Mr. Cornwell to retire from government service to write full time. It also established him as a writer of significance. No mere thriller writer, Mr. Cornwell proved himself a deft and thoughtful chronicler of personal and political complexity.

He has chronicled the depths and the end of the Cold War, moving on, with the fall of the Soviet Union, to evil arms merchants, deceitful Western governments and bland, brutal espiocrats.

He travels extensively researching his novels - he made five trips to Panama - and has been known to sip a Scotch or two with gun runners, mobsters and assorted underworld types.

The rest of the time is spent largely at home, writing from a house on Britain's Cornish coast. He loves his craft, and gets up early every morning to scribble a few hundred words, later to be typed up by his wife, Jane.

"It's what I live for," he says of the writing. "I know a lot of people talk about the pain of writing but I love it."

He writes, he jets off for his research, he walks along the rugged coast.

It's a life he enjoys immensely.

"I live on the end of a Cornish cliff," he said, "write my stuff and get on with my life."


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