Recently there has been a resurgence in interest in the character of George Smiley with the reboot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Although Gary Oldman does a credible George Smiley, for me he’ll always look like Alec Guinness from the BBC Mini-Series that follows the John le Carre novel very closely. I was thrilled to see Michael Jago’s The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham
John le Carre has gone on the record and confirmed what many have speculated for years: John Bingham, the MI5 Agent / Crime fiction writer, was the basis for the quintessential spy George Smiley. Jago takes us inside his life in this classically written biography. He starts with Bingham’s ancestry dating back to the Norman Conquest and their role in the Anglo-Irish nobility and goes right up to his feckless parents who were almost caricatures of down-on-their-luck British nobility. He uses this genealogy to give the reader a sense of the forces that molded Bingham. He is inherently conservative, opposed to extremism in all it’s forms, and a good listener. A plain man, you can definitely see Smiley in Jago’s rendering of Bingham’s life. In the 1930’s Bingham, not being a particularly outstanding student, became a newspaper reporter. A profession he had until the war, at which point he wrangled his way into MI5, the British intelligence department tasked with national security. He was a major participant in interrogations of refugees, playing the agent-provocateur to sift out German agents and turning those agents to provide material for Double Cross, the British operation to feed false information to Germany. After the war (and a hiatus) he turned his skills on the Soviet Union. While detailing Bingham’s work for MI5, Jago doesn’t neglect his writing career. Between jobs at MI5, Bingham managed to become a best-selling crime author, with books that drew on his past and his experience as a journalist and agent. For fans of George Smiley, another important aspect of Bingham’s story is his relationship with fellow MI5 associate David Cornwall aka John le Carre.
Jago’s writing starts out borderline hagiographical, presenting Bingham as a person who can virtually do no wrong. However as the story progress you begin to see him as a much more complex character (especially his relationship with le Carre), which keeps it from getting old. This book is a must read for any le Carre fan and students of the Cold War as well.