Say it like a spy: The world of John le Carré – art and culture


John le Carré’s novels made espionage terms — lamplighters and cousins, moles and scalp hunters — so popular that it is said that British agents began to use them too. But these words did more than add to the already highly codified lexicon of the intelligence apparatus; they served to lift the veil, ever so slightly, on the inscrutable world of spy networks and diplomatic fronts for a post War World 2 reader, who knew that the war may have ended but maintaining peace was still a full time job. Le Carré, who was employed by the British Foreign Service in the 1950s as an intelligence officer to look after spies behind the Iron Curtain, drew from his own rich experience. The Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) would vet le Carré’s manuscripts while he worked with them, which means that the plots were certainly fictional. The vocabulary, on the other hand, is a different matter:

Circus: The in-house name for the British Intelligence agency modeled on MI 6, where le Carré (born David Cornwell) bases several of his characters, including the most famous, George Smiley

The Competition: The MI-5 or Security Service, which was Britain’s internal counter-espionage and counter-terrorism service

Control: The head of the Circus; he dies in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy after launching an ill-fated attempt to smoke out the Soviet mole in the Circus. The operation goes south, Control is sacked, an inglorious end to his career; later, it is suggested that he didn’t, in fact, die

 

Scalp hunters: The British agents who do the dirty work: assassination, burglary, bugging and blackmail (also referred to as a burn)

Joe: British agents were called Joes, they could be stationed anywhere in the world, often with a front in another country, but swore their allegiance to the Queen

Hood: An agent gone bad, participating in criminal activities, also used by British agents to refer to Soviet spies

Mole: An enemy agent who buries deep into Western democratic set ups and/or intelligence networks, gathering and relaying information back to the Soviets

Double agent: A mole who is playing the agency he’s ostensibly working for. Le Carré’s novels often involved double-crossing double agents, such as in the Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where a triple cross left everyone cross-eyed

Coat-trailing: An agent acting as though he is a likely defector — as Alec Leamas does in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, in the hope that he would be recruited by the enemy, and would then serve as a double agent

Honey pot/ honey trap: A trap which involves seduction, and quite possibly blackmail

Pavement artist: Agents who inconspicuously follow people around, carry out surveillance work

Cousins: The American intelligence agents, specifically the CIA, with whom the British agents often collaborate on some international cases



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