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The Secret Pilgrim

A few weeks ago, Jill asked me if I was on some kind of spy obsession based on what I'd been watching. I guess I have been, in the main due to a slow burning fuse lit by reading John le Carré's novel Absolute Friends last May. Le Carré was one of the authors who really made an impression on me at a young age at the start of secondary school. Along with Tolkien, Cherryh and a few others he was a favourite for a long time, but somewhere along the way I lost the passion for his writing. I think it was around the time of 'the Night Manager' or 'Our Game' which really left me cold.

Anyway, I picked up a few of his books at the local Oxfam, when I had gained further enthusiasm from seeing 'The Constant Gardener' on DVD. 'The Secret Pilgrim' is the first of these books. It's fair to say that it has sat around for a while, but that is more due to Nathan's arrival more than anything else. I also had a slight detour in the BBC TV adaptation of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' and 'Smiley's People' and have the somewhat enticing 'A Perfect Spy' to watch sometime in the future.

Anyway, 'The Secret Pilgrim' is a novel, but in a very different style to the norm. It reads more like a selection of short stories than a full novel, but there is an over-arching plot in the form of the reminiscences of the main character, Ned. Ned will be familiar to readers of 'The Russia House', but I have to confess that I haven't read that book in perhaps 20 years. Ned works in the Circus (British Intelligence) and is approaching retirement. The cold war has ended and the winds of change are blowing through the intelligence community. Ned has been sidelined into running the Circus' training facility for new recruits. The story begins, and ends, at a special meal held at the end of an intake's course. Ned has asked George Smiley to come out of his reclusive retirement and give the after dinner speech. As he does, memories of triggered of Ned's life in the Circus from his first assignments to his last ever before retirement. We see the changes that years of duplicity and moral ambiguity impart to Ned, punctuated with gems of wisdom from Smiley. Along the way there are a number of what would best be described as rants, putting forward Smiley's and Ned's world view. The crux seems to be that the world has changed, but it doesn't diminish the need for spies. However, it does change how they need to operate, and who the friends and enemies are.

'The Secret Pigrim' is a quietly compelling book. It isn't le Carré's best, but it's a worthwhile read, and a telling assessment of how the world changes.