Happy Birthday, Cuban Missile Crisis or The Girl Who Stayed Out on the Beach in Hove

Another piece by me, published in the Goteborg-Posten, last year.



Unlike most American children born after World War II, who were hiding under school desks as a regular exercise against a nuclear strike, being English, I didn’t really wake up to the Cold War until October 22nd 1962.  I was in a small psychiatric hospital in Hove near Brighton, aged 15, and during the crucial days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev testosteroned up to each other, I spent a lot of time sitting on the stony beach staring out to sea. To tell the truth, I was generally in a mopey frame of mind and sat there staring solipsistically out to sea quite a lot, regardless of the ambient or political weather. But suddenly it was the whole world, not just me in trouble. Though trouble wasn’t the right word. Trouble was what I got into and it felt like the end of the world. This was the actual end of the world. People of my age and older will recall knowing for certain that we were all going to be blown up within a few days. My adolescent narcissism took a terrible beating at the idea that everyone was going to die, and that there would be no one left to mourn me. My relief when Khrushchev blinked on October 28th and agreed to dismantle his missiles was more like gratitude. Rather than losing the game of chicken, as most commentators seemed to say, it struck me that someone was grown up enough to decide not to destroy the planet. I think I may have grown up too (though only a little) that day.

But every terror has its cultural silver lining, as well as, eventually, its myth-busting story of the absurdity of human beings. There had always been spies, of course, but when two great superpowers divide the world’s loyalties between them, the resulting network of secret agents and double-agents can only be good for fiction and the movies. The cold war happily coincided with the working class ‘kitchen sink’ fiction of the late 1950s so that John le Carré’s early novels (Call For The Dead, A Murder of Quality and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) looked like genre spin-offs that rebuked the snobbish, slick James Bond novels, just as Room At the Top and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning took down the smug bourgeois fiction that filled the bookshops (and, if truth be know, mostly still does). Le Carré, still employed then by MI6, depicted a world that was gritty and grey – both the postwar landscapes of early 1960s Europe, and the done-down withered souls of the protagonists. Of course, Graham Green and Carol Reed had already offered that world, and those souls, in the 1949 film The Third Man, but now there were some decently written novels that took on its colour and timbre, too.

Nevertheless, alongside the grit, woven into it actually, Le Carré was always dealing with a romantic, understated world of upper-middle-class English consciousness, conscience and heroism – sentimentality, even – that fully revealed itself in the not entirely ironic title of his 1977 The Honourable Schoolboy. Few of Smiley’s people who inhabited ‘the Circus’ were working-class and state-educated (and even fewer were women). These honourable schoolboys had gone to the better (if not the best) public (by which we English mean ‘private’) schools and were emotionally troubled, not to say excruciated, by the residue of their elite, brutal, male-bonding, female-excluding, family-ostracizing, though classically excellent education. They were hopeless at relationships with women, choosing the wrong ones, or driving the right ones to drink or (popular word then) nymphomania, and turning to their work and their men friends for distraction, unuttered love and gruff understanding. So much unspoken, so much unresolved. Well then, they were perfectly suited to become spies: ones who led double lives, or multiples of double lives, who lied with conviction, who sliced their conscience like smoked salmon, who pretended friendship but whose hearts were elsewhere, who peered into secrets and the lives of others and were sometimes affected, but whose heads won the argument, and who were able to function in a world where betrayal was synonymous with honour. These men were of their intellectual time – they breathed out existentialism and relativism along with their cigarette smoke and whisky fumes.

The thought processes of Le Carré’s characters became increasingly tortuous. As a reader, you tried to follow their exquisite interior conflicts, elliptical thoughts, contradictory actions, half-expressed feelings, but you were always Ariadne in the dark, and never quite sure you were following the right thread. At any rate, so it seemed to me as a woman not of the honourable schoolboy brotherhood. The hazy complexity made the books engaging, intelligent and flattering to read, like doing an elegant crossword puzzle or decoding a secret message. The perpetual ambiguity gave a feeling not just of mystery but of depth, though increasingly I began to wonder whether the mystery and ambiguity signified not so very much after all, and substituted too easily for depth.

The world of the ‘Circus’ was very remote from the beach in Hove where I waited for the H-bomb to drop. There were multiple cold wars, depending on who you were. Le Carré’s was the elite version at the sharp end. The games they played in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy brilliantly and leisurely dramatised for BBC television in 1979 over seven hours (unlike the current two hour movie), were Byzantine, whether they played the Kremlin or each other. So long as you were no longer fifteen, sitting on a beach, or in the US crouching under a school desk during four-minute-warning drill, they constituted a re-made machiavellian literature, marvellously complex and really, it seemed, dangerous only to each other. Though they dealt in death, it was a highly personal, gentlemanly risk, they weren’t anxiously waiting for common mass obliteration. Also, of course, they were brilliant, even if emotionally flawed.

But the truth, for all the apparent accuracy of Le Carré’s insider knowledge, is, as truth is inclined to be, much cruder and more hilarious. What you seem to learn as you grow older, actually the only thing I seem to have learned, is how utterly wrong was your youthful assumption of competence and know-how in experts and those running things (think banks, foreign policy, education, drug policy, oh, everything). Recently we discovered that in 2006 the masters of twenty-first century British Intelligence placed a fake rock with communications electronics inside it in a Moscow street. The Kremlin released a video showing individuals placing the rock, and others picking it up and downloading information into it. Yes, a fake rock, like the one you wouldn’t be so stupid as to put your spare keys into. Eventually, Tony Blair’s then Chief of Staff had to admit the truth and shame of Moscow’s revelation. The reality turns out to be much more James Bond plus incompetence than ‘Circus’ subtlety. I can’t bear to think of George Smiley’s response. Of course, he would say nothing, only feel the pain.