I think, like George Orwell, George Smiley is another George I know by osmosis.
Fictional I know, but I was only eight in 1961 when Call for the Dead, the first of John le Carre's George Smiley novels was published and I've largely missed the boat with the rest, apart that is from his most recent novel A Most Wanted Man, which much to my enduring surprise I really enjoyed, I even said at the time
'I might even feel bold enough to read a few more now I'm getting the hang of it.'
It was all much to my surprise because I've always pigeon-holed John le Carre in the Cold War - Espionage bunker along with Ian Fleming, books in which I can't say I'm that interested.
But when a stack of re-issued George Smileys arrived to coincide with the current BBC Radio 4 dramatisations, the books pitched up on the doorstep at just the right moment.
I feel as if I've been reading a succession of high end lit-fic not only to keep ahead of the Booker game, but also because the books have all been too tempting to resist. Eventually enough's enough and my reading palate demands something entirely different and George Smiley felt very different.
I settled down on that gloriously sunny day last week, resting beneath the Gaze-Bo and I barely moved for the entire 168 pages.
I feel as if I know George Smiley only because I know Alec Guiness's portrayal of him, even though I never really watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Smiley's People either. This was the early 1980s, I was busy birthing and raising, fat chance of following any TV series beyond the scope of Bananaman (Eric,17 Acacia Road etc) but you just couldn't avoid the Smiley-hype at the time.
The new radio adaptations feature Simon Russell Beale, can you believe Bookhound (not a huge lover of Shakespeare) clearly recalls being dragged along to Russell-Beale's Hamlet and is very proud not to have been the person who fell asleep and snored.
That was the man in the row behind us.
It always feels good when you've missed the book boat, in that way that I have with Mankell-Wallender and Harrod-Eagles- Morland to actually go right back to the beginning and so I have with Call for the Dead, enjoying George Smiley's entrance on the world stage.
Hints and clues are starting to gather around this man of mystery who I think I'm going to become well-acquainted with. Thus far poor George does seem to have those traits of dear Kurt Wallender, unlucky in love, strange foibles, not too physically alluring, prone to the occasional mugging and that necessary pervasive melancholia, but also someone who seems to inspire loyalty and respect in those that work with him and I'm now very taken with George Smiley.
The book demanded that level of concentration to detail and sense of unknowing that I had learned in my recent reading of A Most Wanted Man. It's classic spy stuff, strange unexplained murders, who to trust, who's fooling who, post-war vengeance, bit of Russia, man with a limp, some Dresden, all very involving, plus an ominous theatre trip and a production of Edward II which was always going to make your eyes water and not just with tears of grief.
But this was also very local espionage.
I mentioned I was eight when the book was published in 1961 so discovering that some of it is plotted in Mitcham, which was in Surrey when I was eight but might be somewhere else now, all gave me a little affinity, because this is where we lived then.
I was even reminded of one of those hilarious family moments as George Smiley and a colleague head out from Mitcham to Battersea, because the day our own Tinker (father of dgr) fell asleep on the bus and missed his Mitcham stop and eventually woke up at Battersea Power Station is writ large in our family Laughter Book, along with the day he fell through a deckchair but that's another story.
Grounded and just beginning my education in all things Smiley, I barely drew breath before I picked up the next in the series A Murder of Quality safe in the knowledge that I'd stumbled across a Series of Quality too.
John le Carre writes to thrill and engage and I was interested to read that Robert McCrum thinks likewise, examining the writer-reader relationship as the cult of the Literary Festival heads towards its perennial summer flowering,
'Today, writers are acutely aware of the market, but in the abstract. They fret about sales and advances, but rarely translate their concerns into any consideration for readers. Practically speaking, they often disdain them. How often have you come away from a literary festival with a sense of regret at the failure of the big name in the marquee to live up to your expectations?
Apart from Rowling, a one-off in all senses, if there is a genre where the old contract between writer and reader is still going strong it must be thrillers. Sarah Waters worries about satisfying her fans. Martina Cole understands who her readers are and cares about them. So do John le Carré, Henning Mankell and Robert Harris.'
Interesting, what do you think?