The real-life spies of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Neal Ascherson, the Observer's correspondent in eastern Europe in the 1960s, on the furtive world of the cold war spies

When I pull up memories of the cold war, the first thing I remember is a silence. The big steam-hauled train would come to a halt at Griebnitzsee, the last station before the frontier of West Berlin. Then a profound, infinite silence would fall, broken only by the soft, regular gasp of the locomotive's compressor, and sometimes by the crunch of jackboots pacing along the snowy platform. Even the passengers would speak only in whispers. They were forbidden to leave their compartments and look out of the corridor windows. The world seemed to have stopped turning.

I say "station", but nobody except uniformed frontier guards boarded the train at Griebnitzsee. No passenger left the train here – voluntarily. Very occasionally, the pacing of jackboots would change to the hustling of several feet, the scraping of civilian shoes. Then the silence again, until at last the Saxon voices of the guards could be heard working their way down the carriage to inspect passports, search luggage. Finally, a little lurch and the train would begin to move, creeping past the mazes of barbed wire and watchtowers into the pallid dawn of West Berlin.

Silence was at the heart of the cold war, when I was the Observer correspondent in Berlin and Warsaw during the 1960s. That strange time was about things not happening. It was about what you could not say, buy or read, or where not to go. Both sides soon developed a code of rules designed to prevent things happening.

Of course there were times when the rules and the silence broke, when the shout of a banned book suddenly rang out across the world, or when tanks growled towards protesting crowds, or when iron curtain nights exploded into flares, shots, screams. But they were rare. After Stalin's death in 1953, east and west learned to impose a hush.

John le Carré served in MI6 in Germany; he knows what he is writing about. And MI6 (aka SIS or the Special Intelligence Service) in his time was tortured by the search for "moles". The "diplomats" Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had already fled to Moscow. But the full depth of Soviet penetration into British intelligence – the identities of the Cambridge Five (the other three were Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross), recruited as double agents before the war, and the damage they had done – was only beginning to become clear in the early 1960s.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le Carré's masterpiece, is about the hunt for a double agent "at the very top" of SIS. Tomas Alfredson's film of the book, visually beautiful and often marvellously acted, allows for that cold war element of silence. Stuff has to happen in movies, and Alfredson includes memorable flashes of gunplay, torment and flight. But he respects the main texture of the story, a search pursued by slow, silent elimination. The method is negative, not positive. This journey by a suspect on a crucial day can't be a coincidence. That senior figure cannot have learned certain facts in the way he reported, which leaves only one possibility.

George Smiley, a closed, unhappy man, works through the secret files until, by elimination, he faces the awful conclusion he had hoped to avoid. The TV series of Tinker Tailor …, with Alec Guinness as Smiley, allowed itself all the space and time required to let bureaucratic logic swell slowly into unbearable, unmissable suspense. To achieve at least part of that suspense in a single feature film is a triumph.

But was the secret war really like that? In some ways, yes. It's often said that spying is a force for peace; the more you know about your adversary and his plans, the less likely he is to take you by surprise and – usually – the less reason you have to fear him. This was certainly true in the cold war. (And if American intelligence had not been so ignorant about Iraq in 2003, would the disastrous Bush-Blair invasion have happened?) In counter-espionage, it was smarter to let hostile agents go about their work, to watch their contacts and seek opportunities to "turn" them, than to seize and jail them in a blaze of publicity.

Sometimes arrests became inevitable. In the 1970s, KGB operations in London grew so bumptious that Sir Alec Douglas-Home, then foreign secretary, sanctioned a mass expulsion of Soviet "diplomats". But nobody except politicians liked doing that. If you rolled up their network, you could be damned sure that they would roll up yours. It was a very sound cold war assumption that each side knew who most of the other's spies were, even if they did not act on the knowledge.

As a journalist in Berlin and Warsaw, that assumption helped me to ward off approaches from spooks of both camps. It wasn't just knowing that the other lot would be aware of my recruitment – in leak-riddled Berlin, within days. It was also my guess that a mere hack informant was dispensable. If I did get into trouble "over there" and wind up in a cell at Bautzen prison, it seemed unlikely that a British spymaster would rock boats to get me out.

Le Carré has always been wise about this mission of secret intelligence: to stop things happening rather than to provoke them. British intelligence had better reasons to follow that precept than most foreign rivals. Part of its mission was to stop, or at least hinder, the decay of British influence after the second world war.

As an ambassador once put it to me: "Our job at the Foreign Office has been to act as a rearguard: to prevent Britain's retreat from world power turning into a rout." Much the same could be said about MI6.

Tinker Tailor was originally published in 1974. Both novel and film are firmly placed against that "decline" background, which came to a climax of national pessimism in the late 1970s and which Margaret Thatcher attempted to reverse. The Circus, the fictional MI6, has become a shrunken outfit looking back to glorious wartime achievements and feeling that it has lost its moral compass. Its men and women are approaching old age, and weary cynicism has damped their ideological fire.

The power of the novel is that le Carré transfigured espionage – its techniques, failures and deceptions – into a rich metaphor combining national decay, the disintegration of certainties with advancing age, the impossibility of knowing another human being's mind, the fragility of all trust and loyalty.

And out of this metaphor comes the suggestion that has gripped the imagination of his readers ever since: that in the end spies have more in common with one another than with their masters. East or west, they are all professionals. They can understand and respect their adversaries. But they have lost respect both for the politicians who exploit and abuse their "product" and for the ideologies they are suppose to be serving, whether Soviet communism or capitalist consumerism.

The climax comes when Smiley comes face to face with Karla, his infamous KGB opponent, and tries to tempt him to defect. The film makes a brilliant scene out of this. In the book, Smiley decides not to talk about freedom, "whatever that means". Instead, he says: "Look, we're both getting to be old men … Don't you think it's time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?"

Ten years later, as the cold war entered its last decade, there was martial law in Poland and Soviet armies were fighting in Afghanistan. Protest in communist Europe was louder than it had ever been.

Voices such as that of Timothy Garton Ash warned angrily against what he called "equilateralism": the assumption that the two superpowers were as worthless as each other, that American subversion in Nicaragua or Chile was no better than communist repression in Europe or the Soviet Union.

Was Smiley talking "equilateralism" to Karla? He was, but nobody else in the story does so. In the rest of the novel, Karla's Moscow Centre shoots its defectors. The Circus, in contrast, discreetly exports its own traitors to Moscow in exchange for western "assets" in communist prisons. No moral equilateralism there.

But this idea that spies were unpolitical cynics who longed to play football with one another in no man's land – that's one of two cold war myths prompted by fiction. The other, inspired by Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, suggests that the confessions at communist show trials were not extracted by torture but freely given as a last service to the party. Neither myth has much basis in truth.

Like most journalists in cold war Europe, I met a lot of spies. One had the next-door office in Bonn: a Czech journalist with twinkly shoes and a whiff of aftershave, he turned out to be targeting lonely ministry secretaries who told him office secrets in bed. A nasty little Pole tried to blackmail me. An American in the CIA used to take me to lunch at all the East Berlin borough town halls in turn (I never grasped what he was up to). But British spooks were very hard to read.

The old Observer had many such illegible figures. I felt sorry for Kim Philby, who seemed so kindly and frail and had such a paralysing stammer, and I used to carry his heavy typewriter about the office to save his back. Other colleagues had done covert operations against Albania (betrayed by Kim, though they didn't know that then), spied in Russia or gone boozing with Donald Maclean in Cairo.

Through those years, I had spasmodic encounters with the SIS. All were baffling. An attempt to recruit me ended almost instantly when the recruiter tried to seize me by the penis. On another occasion, a top MI6 officer described to me in detail how he had tortured Jewish suspects in Palestine. In Germany, a drunk British diplomat suddenly disclosed to me his true profession and several names in his West Berlin network, one of whom was a colleague. What was I supposed to make of all this? Was I merely being tested to see where I drew the line? Or was this an outfit whose wheels were coming off?

Histories of the service say that it was going through "a bad patch" around then. The escape of Burgess and Maclean had taken place in 1951. Five years later, Commander "Buster" Crabb was caught and killed by the Russians in Portsmouth harbour, trying to fix some device to a Soviet cruiser; the SIS director, "Sinbad" Sinclair, lost his job. George Blake was unmasked as a double agent in 1961; he betrayed some 400 British agents in eastern Europe. The service's prize source, Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky, was arrested in 1962 and shot. Philby defected to the Soviet Union a few months later. The bad patch was a long one.

But a sense of independence, a disdain for mere politicians, survived into the Tinker Tailor… moment of the 1970s. In the film, we see Smiley telling an appalled cabinet minister that the service's wondrous Russian source, the intelligence treasure that the minister is using to regain CIA respect and co-operation, is a phoney, a Karla plant. He's telling unwelcome truth to power.

But that is just what, in the world after the Berlin Wall came down, the service failed to do in 2003. If Sir John Scarlett, the SIS veteran who was Tony Blair's intelligence adviser, had not suppressed the service's doubts about weapons of mass destruction he might have stopped something happening – the tragedy of Iraq.

The trouble with politicians is that they like bangs and flashes, shock and awe. In the decades of confrontation, the spies were able to keep bangs and flashes to a minimum. The nuclear stakes were so high that politicians respected the spook ethos: that to know can make it unnecessary to act. So the cold war was a long, indecent silence, but at least the world survived. Who can stop stuff happening now?


Neal Ascherson

The GuardianTramp

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