Imagine that you are loitering outside a front door in Kensington, a rather lovely corner of London, when a short man arrives with a bundle of dry cleaning on his arm. He fumbles for something, possibly a key, and then pauses. After a moment, he walks up to the front door and rings the bell. It is almost immediately opened by a tall, fair-haired man who doesn’t seem quite English.
“May I see Mr. Smiley please?” inquires the short man.
“He’s not here,” replies the tall fair-haired gentleman.
“Oh, well in that case, would you mind giving him this?” The short man surrenders the bundle of clothes, turns on his heel and leaves.
As this is told in the Point of View of George Smiley, the short man with the dry-cleaning on his arm, we know immediately that he had returned home after a day of doing various things he isn’t allowed to talk about, turned into the road where he resides and fumbled for his key, when something made him hesitate. And so he has gone up to his own front door and rung the bell.
One has to be English to have the sang-froid to carry off what happened next.
How many of you would have been able to suppress a gasp of surprise when a total stranger opened your front door?
How many of you would have been able to instantly take the part of being a total stranger coming into your own house, and been able hand over your own dry-cleaning over to someone you had never seen before as if it were the most normal thing in the world?
I was born and reared in England, so it is my contention – which my American husband finds so amusing – that the reason why the English produce so many wonderful actors is because we English act all the time.
Or at least we did in the 1960s, when this novel is set.
This arresting scene is to be found within the pages of CALL FOR THE DEAD by John Le Carré, in which we are introduced to George Smiley, an inoffensive, quiet, ugly, and forgettable character who is actually working for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) of the British Government, commonly known as MI6.
As many of your know, the British Government denied the existence of MI6 for years, but finally, in the 1990s, it was given a building worthy of its mission.
The architect did a brilliant design that somehow manages to convey that this building is full of spies. Maybe it is the lack of windows. Maybe it is the faint resemblance to the many castles that dot England. Maybe it is its homage to 1930s and 1940s glamor.
Whatever it is, I think this building is a rare example of architecture that actually manages to convey what its function is. Five stars for John Le Carré’s first novel about George Smiley, and for the magnificent building designed by architect Terry Farrell.