One of the most anticipated events of the entire Hay Festival was the double-length interview with acclaimed author of espionage novels and former officer in the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, John Le Carré. He was making his very first visit to the festival to talk about his life work to Philippe Sands and discuss his new novel A Delicate Truth published in April.
The queue was immense and described by one Hay-goer as “more terrifying than London traffic. A literary stampede.” From the outset Le Carré is a captivating speaker. He informs us that this is a one off, both his first and his last appearance at Hay and indeed his last appearance in public.
Long before he became an author and before he joined the intelligence services the writer was exposed to the darker side of human nature; “I had two experiences of criminality, one was my con man father, the other was teaching at Eton”. “The attraction of someone with a semi-criminal background to the secret service” he adds ” is irresistible.” Perhaps his experience of criminality framed his attitude to the legal profession. He looks to Philippe Sands QC, and says “I distrust your profession.” Sands replies, “I do, too.”
Le Carré remains steadfastly anti-authoritarian “I want to stay outside of the tent” he says, with perhaps with knowing irony given the location. He is cautious about the dangers of storytelling, and cites the power of fiction over fact and its contribution to war and islamophobia. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world”.
Acclaimed by many as the best of this year’s festival, the standing ovation at the end is a given. Let’s hope he can be persuaded to make one last final appearance.