Tinker, tailor, Marxist academic… how Le Carré angered Historian Eric HobsbawmHistorians in the News
tags: Cold War, fiction
Their names stand high among the roll call of British men of letters of the modern age: both revered authors with an international following, but publishing in very different corners of the literary world. One, John le Carré, is the creator of a succession of brilliant spy thrillers, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl, the other, the late Eric Hobsbawm, was a leading exponent of leftwing historical thought, a man who was also the subject of state surveillance for many years.
Now the first biography of Hobsbawm, A Life in History, due out early next month, is to reveal an unlikely correspondence between the two men that centred on the name of a character in one Le Carré novel. In the 1986 book A Perfect Spy, later made into a BBC television series, Le Carré makes reference to a character called “Hobsbawn” who was under the control of the British security services. The real man, Professor Hobsbawm, was not pleased.
Speaking this weekend, Le Carré told the Observer he imagines that back in the early 1980s he had simply reached for a name that would have the right political associations for those familiar with leftwing theory.
“I can’t imagine from this distance that I was unaware of Hobsbawm’s distinction or his politics,” Le Carré said. “I suspect that what I did in midstream was picture a Marxist intellectual under MI5 control, and then give him an analogous name that would resonate with the knowing.”
The written exchange between the two in the mid-1980s was cordial, but there were glimpses of steel underneath. The Marxist historian requested the name be changed in all subsequent editions of the thriller. No such change was made.