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Kathy Sheridan: Le Carré embodied a basic English decency that will outlast Brexit

The author’s story is a reminder to keep in sight the millions of decent Britons

John le Carré. File photograph: David Azia/the New York Times

A year after the Brexit referendum, the author John le Carré addressed an awards ceremony for German teachers at the German embassy in London. What might have been a worthy speech by a former German teacher turned into something unexpectedly stirring, timely and radical for Brexit Britain.

At the age of 13 in an English public school he loathed, at a time when few of his schoolmates knew a word of German beyond Achtung and Hände hoch learned from war movies, it was a teacher who drew him to the language.

Mr King must have been quite an outlier in the 1940s. He “was that rare thing; a kindly and intelligent man who in the thick of the second World War, determinedly loved the Germany that he knew was still there somewhere”. Rather than join the chorus of anti-German propaganda, King “preferred doggedly, to inspire his little class with the beauty of the language and of its literature and culture. ‘One day’, he used to say, ‘the real Germany will come back’. And he was right, because now it has”.

Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, 'Let me be very clear', I reach for my revolver

It was the German language that led le Carré to a Swiss university, took him to Austria for his national service, to Oxford to study the subject and to Eton to teach it and then to stints as a diplomat/spy in Bonn and Hamburg that would be the springboard for bestselling masterpieces spanning 60 years.


The decision to learn a foreign language is not just a route to negotiation, said le Carré. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking. And those who teach language, those who cherish its accuracy and meaning and beauty, are the custodians of truth in a dangerous age.

“Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, ‘Let me be very clear’, these days, I reach for my revolver.”

The European argument

German teachers would help to balance the European argument, to make it decent, to keep it civilised, especially for Britain’s “enlightened young, who – Brexit or no Brexit – see Europe as their natural home, Germany as their natural partner and shared language as their natural bond”.

He may have been a bit ahead of himself.

Le Carré could have turned out like his father, a Kray associate who spent much of his son’s childhood in prison. Yet his death this week, marked with reminders of the Englishman’s essential, enlightened decency, was a necessary straightener for anyone inclined to give up on Britain.

As Brexiters tragically confused trade negotiations with an assertion of one’s independence as opposed to managing our interdependence (to paraphrase the experienced Spanish foreign minister), a long-ago British tabloid editor tweeted that he wouldn’t “be dropping a tear for Ireland. They are a tax haven . . . The Irish love the Germans. They were neutral against the Nazis. Wouldn’t fight to save six millions Jews. Sickening” . The old dinosaur and his editor successors who run the silly gunboat headlines but never got within earshot of a war, are not alone sadly.

In an interview last year with John Banville, le Carré said he found it “emetic” (any agent that produces nausea or vomiting according to the dictionary) to hear Brexiters claiming that Britain won the war single-handedly.

“The wonderful right-wing military historian Max Hastings points out that we were bad fighters, that we were extremely badly organised and our contribution in terms of blood and wealth and material was – I can’t say trivial, but tremendously small by comparison to the sacrifices of the other major powers. Russia lost, what, 30 million men? And in treasure, heaven knows what. We didn’t win the war in that sense. We were on the winning side by the end, but we were really quite minor players.”

Their media moguls

For all the faults of the Irish media (Twitter is a treasure trove of flailing abuse and defamation lest we forget) this country has never suffered the cynicism, distortions and manipulation visited on ordinary Britons by their media moguls. A vast swathe of people who get their political information from agenda-ridden comics (plus some once-respected broadsheets) and are treated like mushrooms can hardly be regarded as informed citizens.

But intimations of a lived, painful Brexit, are already contradicting the easy slogans. Project Blame-the-Irish-and-EU is well under way. But the polls suggest an awakening. More than two in three Britons say the government is handling Brexit badly. Die-hard Brexiters have fallen to one in four.

The only upside is that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and co are in situ, forced to own the monster they created.

While it all plays out, le Carré story is a reminder to play the long game, to keep sight of the millions of decent Britons who like him and Mr King are actively struggling to safeguard the memory of a nation that as well as its perfidious, rapacious history, also gave the world great art, literature and erudition, wit and humour, honour and courage.

They may be gone a while but a turning is in sight.