The Pigeon Tunnel: John le Carré's Last Confession or Another Deception?

With the stealth of a seasoned spy, the late John le Carré inveigles his way into our lives once again in the Errol Morris documentary The Pigeon Tunnel, answering a series of questions that aim to tunnel beneath the author’s carefully cultivated public image. Do they succeed? As George Smiley, a career intelligence officer with the 'Circus', might muse: “Direct questions were the height of bad taste, but direct answers were worse.”

Treachery, a theme running through The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Night Manager, isn't merely a fictional concept. Le Carré was a master of betrayal. He battled with biographer Adam Sisman while trying to manage the telling of his life story. While alive, le Carré (real name David Cornwell) could influence the narrative, but as Sisman eloquently put it, "Now that he is dead, we can know him better."

The Pigeon Tunnel documentary is based on le Carré’s 2016 memoir in which he discusses being raised by a con man father from the age of five when his mother disappeared. We learn more intriguing details through the candid questioning of Errol Morris. Le Carré doesn't remember her saying goodbye. He wasn't even sure if his mother was alive until he turned 21 and tracked her down through a relative. She explained that she found life intolerable with le Carré's father, an unfaithful schemer. Le Carré was recruited into the secret service while studying in Switzerland, graduated into a job in military intelligence, and was an MI5 informant at Oxford before running agents for MI6.

Le Carré's Secrets

The title, The Pigeon Tunnel, is a reference to Ronald Cornwell, his father, and Cornwell's Monte Carlo gambling set who'd gather at a private sporting club. They'd shoot pigeons raised to fly through narrow cliff tunnels. Any surviving birds were returned to traps and sent back out again later. The image of the pigeons haunted le Carré as a teenager. He later thought of the birds as a metaphor for East Berliners desperate to cross the Iron Curtain and for le Carré’s own sense that his early life set him up for a career in the hall of mirrors.

“Betrayal fascinates me,” le Carré tells Morris. "I've lived through a period of endless betrayal. When I went into the secret world I served in two successive service, both of which were betrayed to the hilt." He also describes his father as intermittently charming and violent, living life on a stage where “pretense was everything, being offstage was boring and risk was attractive”.

Le Carré's life was dominated by feelings he was a fraud and from an early age he considered himself a spy. His father begged, borrowed, and stole to ensure his son had an upper-class education which allowed le Carré to learn the manners and attitudes of a class to which he did not belong. He played the role convincingly nonetheless: “Thinking you’re a fraud may be similar to thinking that you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know, really, what I’m doing.”

He planned to become a barrister but instead studied modern languages and became the type of person that interested British spy agency MI5: "It's terribly difficult to recruit for a secret service. In the end you're looking for somebody who is a bit bad but at the same time loyal," he said. "There's a type they were looking for in my day and I fitted perfectly - separated early from the nest, boarding school, early independence of spirit, but looking for institutional embrace. I can see my own life still as a succession of embraces and escapes."

He was disenchanted by the Cold War and seeing former Nazis still walking around East and West Germany: "The power of enforced forgetting was extraordinary." Le Carré moved from MI5 to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, but eventually soured on both agencies.

He turned to writing, a home for his 'larceny', and described The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) as profoundly expressive of his feelings at the time. "What the hell do you think spies are?" le Carré's character Alec Leamas asks. "Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives."

After the 1965 movie starring Richard Burton as Leamas, John le Carré was a household name.


"Writing is a journey of self discovery," le Carré said. "In writing about George Smiley, of course I'm writing about the ideal father I never had... These are attempts at self knowledge."

Le Carré's son, Stephen Cornwell, said the author's quest for identity runs through much of his work. Le Carré's first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), introduces Smiley as he returns to England and marries the unfaithful Lady Ann Sercombe, a betrayal that resonates throughout the master craftsman’s work and personal life.

The Pigeon Tunnel: John le Carré's Last Confession or Another Deception?

BY
Caroline Byrne
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With the stealth of a seasoned spy, the late John le Carré inveigles his way into our lives once again in the Errol Morris documentary The Pigeon Tunnel, answering a series of questions that aim to tunnel beneath the author’s carefully cultivated public image. Do they succeed? As George Smiley, a career intelligence officer with the 'Circus', might muse: “Direct questions were the height of bad taste, but direct answers were worse.”

Treachery, a theme running through The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Night Manager, isn't merely a fictional concept. Le Carré was a master of betrayal. He battled with biographer Adam Sisman while trying to manage the telling of his life story. While alive, le Carré (real name David Cornwell) could influence the narrative, but as Sisman eloquently put it, "Now that he is dead, we can know him better."

The Pigeon Tunnel documentary is based on le Carré’s 2016 memoir in which he discusses being raised by a con man father from the age of five when his mother disappeared. We learn more intriguing details through the candid questioning of Errol Morris. Le Carré doesn't remember her saying goodbye. He wasn't even sure if his mother was alive until he turned 21 and tracked her down through a relative. She explained that she found life intolerable with le Carré's father, an unfaithful schemer. Le Carré was recruited into the secret service while studying in Switzerland, graduated into a job in military intelligence, and was an MI5 informant at Oxford before running agents for MI6.

Le Carré's Secrets

The title, The Pigeon Tunnel, is a reference to Ronald Cornwell, his father, and Cornwell's Monte Carlo gambling set who'd gather at a private sporting club. They'd shoot pigeons raised to fly through narrow cliff tunnels. Any surviving birds were returned to traps and sent back out again later. The image of the pigeons haunted le Carré as a teenager. He later thought of the birds as a metaphor for East Berliners desperate to cross the Iron Curtain and for le Carré’s own sense that his early life set him up for a career in the hall of mirrors.

“Betrayal fascinates me,” le Carré tells Morris. "I've lived through a period of endless betrayal. When I went into the secret world I served in two successive service, both of which were betrayed to the hilt." He also describes his father as intermittently charming and violent, living life on a stage where “pretense was everything, being offstage was boring and risk was attractive”.

Le Carré's life was dominated by feelings he was a fraud and from an early age he considered himself a spy. His father begged, borrowed, and stole to ensure his son had an upper-class education which allowed le Carré to learn the manners and attitudes of a class to which he did not belong. He played the role convincingly nonetheless: “Thinking you’re a fraud may be similar to thinking that you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know, really, what I’m doing.”

He planned to become a barrister but instead studied modern languages and became the type of person that interested British spy agency MI5: "It's terribly difficult to recruit for a secret service. In the end you're looking for somebody who is a bit bad but at the same time loyal," he said. "There's a type they were looking for in my day and I fitted perfectly - separated early from the nest, boarding school, early independence of spirit, but looking for institutional embrace. I can see my own life still as a succession of embraces and escapes."

He was disenchanted by the Cold War and seeing former Nazis still walking around East and West Germany: "The power of enforced forgetting was extraordinary." Le Carré moved from MI5 to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, but eventually soured on both agencies.

He turned to writing, a home for his 'larceny', and described The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) as profoundly expressive of his feelings at the time. "What the hell do you think spies are?" le Carré's character Alec Leamas asks. "Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives."

After the 1965 movie starring Richard Burton as Leamas, John le Carré was a household name.


"Writing is a journey of self discovery," le Carré said. "In writing about George Smiley, of course I'm writing about the ideal father I never had... These are attempts at self knowledge."

Le Carré's son, Stephen Cornwell, said the author's quest for identity runs through much of his work. Le Carré's first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), introduces Smiley as he returns to England and marries the unfaithful Lady Ann Sercombe, a betrayal that resonates throughout the master craftsman’s work and personal life.

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An author of foresight

Fans have come to know the author better following his death in 2020, which triggered books, tell-alls, and tales.

Adam Sisman updated his biography to reveal John le Carré was a serial philanderer, having trysts involving cover stories and cut-outs. Writer Nicholas Shakespeare weighed in on le Carré’s rivalry with 007-creator Ian Fleming and his distaste of the suave Bond character. Le Carré’s alleged mistress detailed their rendezvous in a safe house and described him as vain and duplicitous.

And now, John le Carré, master of black ops, double-crosses, and disinformation, shares even more about himself in Errol Morris’ documentary. Yet, le Carré charms viewers without revealing his hand. "I'll answer any question you wish me to answer as truthfully as I can," he said.

One can’t help but wonder: was le Carré hoping to set the record straight once and for all? Or was this another chess move in the great game - part misdirection, part clandestine mission - an operation as intricately woven as Smiley’s People to distract from the real David Cornwell? If it was the latter, it worked beautifully.

“George, you won,” said Peter Guillam, as they walked slowly towards the car.

“Did I?” said Smiley. “Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.”

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