I have just finished, very close together, Hide and Seek by Xan Fielding and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré. At first glance, you’d think they have nothing much in common. Fielding’s book, first published in 1954, is primarily an account of the years he spent on Crete as an SOE agent and guerrilla leader during the war; Le Carré’s novel, first published 20 years later in 1974, is one of the finest spy thrillers ever written. Fielding’s prose is crisp, matter of fact, undecorated; Le Carré’s prose is richer, more discursive, full of digressions; both are effective, but they work in very different ways.
Yet I found exactly the same affect underlying both works. They are books about men for whom the peace of 1945 did not justify the war that preceded it. They are not men who love war, quite the opposite, but they find much in it to admire. Moreover, the sacrifice, the pain, the loss of companions, the ever-present terror that they endured merited a better settlement at the end of it all. They went through the war to create a better world, but at the end they found more of the same.
Incidentally, when I say ‘men’, I mean it. Other than the incomparable Connie and the ever-absent Ann, Le Carré’s world is overwhelmingly male; and while Fielding praises, in passing, a number of brave and resourceful women he encounters (in particular Christine Granville, who risked her own life to ensure his escape from the Gestapo in occupied France late in the war), his companions and fellow warriors are all men. This is, in part at least, a product of the times, in their world men were the ones who took the risks and reaped the benefits. I’m not sure any of them, Fielding and his fellow SOE agents, or Smiley and his companions at the Circus, would have imagined that women might have any thoughts about the worthiness or otherwise of the peace settlement.
Fielding first landed in Crete in early 1942, and left for the last time almost exactly two years later at the beginning of 1944. During that time he organised a network of informers and the core of a guerrilla army across western Crete, he kept allied forces in Cairo informed of German troop movements and supply planes (Crete was the Afrika Corps’ main supply base for the campaign that led up to El Alamein), he took part in propaganda and disinformation campaigns against the German occupiers, and if this account is to be believed he killed no more than two Germans and played a distinctly unheroic part in the occasional firefights he describes. Like his colleague Patrick Leigh Fermor (who plays a notable part in this memoir), Fielding clearly had a romantic love of all things Greek, and especially all things Cretan. Throughout the narrative his enemies seem to be more often his supposed allies than the Germans. He is constantly expressing disgust at the former Greek army general who tried to use the conflict more for his own aggrandisement, at the Communist guerrillas who pursue their political agenda against their fellow Greeks in preference to their war against the German occupiers, at the cowardly landowner who threatens to denounce Fielding to the Germans and yet who becomes a local leader in the aftermath of the war. In short, he sees politics and self-regard (which I suspect he considers to be much the same thing), as getting in the way of the clean if rather terrible virtues of the war, and as responsible for denying those who fought that clean and honourable war the rewards that their victory should have brought them. He summed this attitude up in an advert he placed in the Times of July 31st, 1950, in which he described himself as: ‘recently reduced to penury through incompatibility with the post-war world’.
The men of Le Carré’s Circus tried to escape that incompatibility by continuing their war into the post-war world. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is littered with references back to the Second World War, as if nothing had changed other than the enemy. The core of Jim Prideaux’s Czech networks were created by him during the War, and the guilt and desolation he feels when they are wiped out as a result of the ill-fated Operation Testify is remarkably similar to Fielding’s response when any of his Cretan associates are captured or killed. Indeed, Xan Fielding and Jim Prideaux seem alike in very many ways. But then, there’s a bit of Fielding in the traitor Bill Haydon and the indomitable hero George Smiley also, none of them have successfully adjusted to life outside the war. When, towards the end of the book, Haydon makes his quasi-confession to Smiley, an exercise in self-righteous regret at the way the world has gone since the end of the War, we are told that ‘With much of it, Smiley might in other circumstances have agreed’. It’s the same story for all of them. If you take away Fielding’s unthinking anti-Communism and Haydon’s unthinking anti-Fascism, they are the same. With much of Haydon’s speech, Fielding might in other circumstances have agreed.