As part of my ongoing trawl into the literature and culture of the Cold War, I came across this classic description from John Le Carré (nom de plume of David Cornwell) of his 2 years’ teaching at Eton. It is from a collection of transcribed interviews spanning 40 years – which is itself fascinating, because of the sense of development it reveals. You can see how often answers to different interviewers don’t tally, which seems part of a deliberately cultivated air of mystery. Everything he says (no doubt with a perfectly straight face, and undetectable to any unsuspecting interviewer) needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
So it is significant to see both the many years of constant denial and then, at last, his admission in 1983 to having been a spy (to Melvin Bragg no less). When he gave this interview, though, he was still insisting that he was merely working in Germany for the Foreign Office. But his description of the school (if he can be believed!) suggests that he was even better prepared for the work he actually ended up doing.
Q: Why did you become a teacher?
A: I think in the first place because the job was there. I had two spells of teaching; the first was as a prep schoolmaster before I took my degree. I went down from Oxford for a year and taught at a prep school, Evelyn Waugh-style, and just as i was finishing at Oxford, it became news that Eton wanted someone to teach modern languages. Somebody sidled up and offered me the job, which so often happens in that establishment world.
In some ways, those who knock the upper classes have no idea how awful they are. Eton, at its worst, is unbelievably frightful. It is intolerant, chauvinistic, bigoted, ignorant. At its best, it is enlightened, adaptable, fluent and curiously democratic.
Q: Was it a natural progression from Eton to diplomacy?
A: Yes, in a way. Eton gave me familiarity with crime, as well as an instinct for hypocrisy and both of them, in different ways, are not absolutely unknown in diplomacy.
From an interview with Michael Dean in The Listener (Sept 1974)