8 September 2013

Cornwell’s Cornish Cover Crumbles

Whether J K Rowling or John le Carré is the better-known English writer, I wouldn’t like to say. But certainly le Carré is famous enough for many people to know that his real name is David Cornwell. This is often mentioned in profile pieces and the article about le Carré by Phillipe Sands in the FT Weekend Magazine*, 7/8 September issue, is no exception, touching on it in the first sentence. Sands is a prominent British lawyer and legal academic, specialising in international law. He explains:
I am sitting in a sunny and perfectly ordered garden in north London, engaged in tea and conversation with my neighbour, David Cornwell, the writer John le Carré. We cover our usual topics (Hampstead …
a location which recurs:
I got to know John le Carré by accident, 10 years ago in my local pub, The Wells, after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Before that he’d been a recognisable regular (white hair, warm eyes, brown suede shoes, safe and establishment look) but I had no idea who he was. 
… We’ve not looked back, lunching at The Wells every few months, topping the hours with a rhubarb crumble and a fight over the single scoop of vanilla ice-cream that we allow ourselves, fearful of our respective wives. 
… He and Jane [Mrs Cornwell] are often together in the pub, having lunch, animated, sans crumble [**]. 
… “Come over and meet Murat,” le Carré said one day. So I went to his house … a few days later le Carré and I accompanied Murat to my son’s school … 
There are plenty of reasons to enjoy the company of my neighbour …
I didn’t think that Sands’ article added very much to the previous profiles that I’d read, although his was more up-to-date, with mentions of Edward Snowden and Syria. Sands obviously admires and likes le Carré and it all seems very civilised and agreeable up there in Hampstead. It was this matter of locale which struck me as odd because I’d somehow gained the impression that le Carré lived in Cornwall. Googling ‘le+carre+cornwall’, I could see why:
Wikipedia: “Le Carré has resided in St Buryan, Cornwall, UK, for more than forty years where he owns a mile of cliff close to Land's End.” (referenced to a Guardian article in 1999) 
The author’s official website: “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. Three days and nights in a city are about my maximum. I don’t see many people.” 
This is Cornwall in 2010: “But when you eventually find it, overlooking miles of sparkling deep blue sea, it is easy to see why the three old derelict stone cottages and barn that he and his wife Jane have painstakingly turned into one beautiful structure have become the refuge of one of our country's most famous spy novelists. "I love it here, particularly out of season," he says, as he gazes out across the bay. 
… At 78, he could easily retire to an exotic island … But David John Moore Cornwell, the man behind the le Carré nom de plume, prefers the peace and solitude, the low-key friendships and community, that he has found on a cliff top near Penzance. "The Cornish leave people alone, which is wonderful," he explains. "Here, I don't see many people. I write and walk and swim and drink. Jane and I have put our hearts and souls into this place. We love it here." 
The New York Times Magazine in April 2013: On a recent Saturday morning in February, two dozen or so scent hounds streamed through the streets of St. Buryan, a small village in Cornwall, England. … [Fox-hunting is] an ancient part of the rural culture, [Le Carré] said. It’s egalitarian in this area (some 300 miles west-southwest of London), not an upper-class diversion. 
… Le Carré’s house, where he has lived for more than 40 years with his second wife, Jane, sits atop a cliff near Penzance that offers wraparound views of the English Channel. There is wind-raked solitude here, which he prizes. 
… Soon after his divorce, he married Valerie Jane Eustace … Before long they were spending much of their time in Cornwall. His house and its outbuildings are stately but unpretentious, with a brewing sense of natural drama. …, le Carré has written that an early draft of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” began with this mental image: “a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside towards him.” 
… Le Carré remains obsessed with this terrain. He’s more agile than men 20 years his junior mostly because, when his mornings spent writing fiction are complete, he sets out on arduous hikes. His wife only recently made him curtail these adventures. “I now walk the interior, instead of scampering along the cliffs, because she worries about me taking a fall,” he said … 
When I arrived at the le Carré compound, after a winding 10-mile drive from Penzance along narrow roads lined by hedgerows, he first took me on a brisk tour of the grounds. ...
And so on. As a check, I googled ‘le+carre+hampstead’. First hit was a 1993 article by Zoë Heller on the Independent website:
Once, many years ago, while I was having lunch with my father in a Hampstead restaurant, he furtively pointed out a white-haired man sitting at a nearby table. 'That's John le Carré,' he told me. 'Don't gawp. He doesn't want to be noticed.' 
… on arriving at Le Carré 's home in Hampstead, you find the front door not only sans reinforcements but swinging wide open. In the hallway, you meet him, emerging from the study, all fruity-voiced, eye-contact-y welcome. Tall and handsome - rather more handsome now, at 62, than in his younger, gingery-complexioned days - he has great, fluffy eyebrows that sit on his forehead like apostrophes and he is wearing a baggy, cotton work jacket. He looks the embodiment of arty, Hampstead living. 
… In the drawing-room, full of books and Liberty prints and comfortable antiques, you are urged to choose a seat, have a cigarette, drink some of his champagne. Le Carre's second wife, Jane - also tall and handsome in a flat- heeled, unprinked, Hampstead way - is called in to meet the guest. 
… Mostly he lives in Cornwall, away from London's tawdry social whirl - 'You don't write books,' he says, 'by being relaxed and beautiful' - and when he is not working, he walks the Cornish bluffs or travels …
Scraping the Google barrel, we get: John Connolly interviewing him in 2000 “In a very lovely, very private house in the north London district of Hampstead, …” , the Rotary Club of Hampstead who include le Carré under “Famous past inhabitants” and after that, The Knowhere Guide’s Cringing Cult of Celebrity in Hampstead, which is based on contributions like “John Le Carré the author, aka Hugh [sic] Cornwell, lives off Well Walk.”   And, Google being Google, already there is the Sands article, and references to it.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that le Carré divides most of his time between London and Cornwall in proportions unknown, and that he reckons that the impression of mostly being inaccessible at Land’s End will discourage unwanted encounters with fans. So, I'm not sure that Cornwall and the South West of England should be too ready to claim him as one of their own. Perhaps I ought to say that I’m not a fan. I liked le Carré’s early novels, particularly A Small Town in Germany, but over 30 years ago, after reading a deprecating depiction of “boring techies” (my words not his) in (probably) The Honourable Schoolboy, I lost interest. I doubt if recent events in the now highly technological world of intelligence collection will have done anything to mellow his views.

* There isn't much point in giving links to the Financial Times because its paywall is one of the most forbidding, which hasn't stopped the paper's falling in circulation by 16% in the last year.

** Or, as the French might say, sans crumble, the French for crumble being crumble. It’s one of the relatively few British dishes which is admired in France (see the comments here), though they seem to prefer less crumble, more fruit, especially apples, and are not too struck on rhubarb.


  1. John le Carré's place in Cornwall isn't by any means remote and inaccessible - the cliff path from Lamorna Cove (which any member of the public is free to walk along) passes quite literally within yards of his cottage. It's the next cottage along from Minack. I have personally seen it.

    As for le Carré's talk about living on a Cornish cliff...well...the place may in truth be more of a holiday home for him? That being said, I suppose a super-wealthy author could divide his time in any way he pleases: 3 weeks in Cornwall, 2 weeks in London, then another 3 weeks in Cornwall, etc. If it seems odd to most people, that is only because we aren't blessed with an occupation and lifestyle which would make this kind of routine feasible. One would get used to it quickly enough, probably :-)

  2. It's nice to get a comment at all, let alone one four years after he original post, so thank you for this. Perhaps we shouldn't be at all surprised that what le Carré on his website says he does and what Cornwell actually does are inconsistent!