The Legacy of Archives

Perhaps one should not confess to ‘guilty pleasures’ on-line for all to access, but mine is not particularly startling. Since the ‘60s I have happily enjoyed the pleasures of spy fiction, most especially the work of John Le Carré, whom I first encountered through the book and film, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963 and 1965 respectively). Maybe it sat rather oddly against my involvement in the YCL and CPGB and other left-wing movements at the time. I remember entertaining a sneaking admiration for the character of Fiedler, the deputy head of the Stasi, who at least had strong political beliefs, albeit ruthlessly expressed. The only other person in the novel/film to match that was the naïve and romantic Liz Gold. Both came to a sticky end.

What has reminded me of all this has been the publication of JLC’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, (Viking, 2017). And this explains why I am having this little fictional digression on a blog devoted to history, and family history in particular. Fast forward 50 or so years from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the ‘case’ rears its ugly head again. Descendants of Liz Gold and the spy Alec Leamas have combined to sue the British State for what happened to their forebears when they were shot trying to climb over the Berlin Wall. One at least is determined to have her day in court and not be bought off. It is reminiscent of the cases against extraordinary rendition in that regard.

Reading A Legacy of Spies, I gradually became a bit uncomfortable with what was going on. Those who read Le Carré will be familiar with the characters of George Smiley and Peter Guillam, ‘heroes’, if that is the right word, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when they exposed the mole inside the British espionage system. One starts, therefore, with a predilection of sympathy towards Guillam, dragged out of retirement to be interrogated for his part in dispatching Leamas and Gold. One has a similar respect for Smiley, who remains off-stage until the very end of the novel. It seems as if the new breed working in the monstrosity on the South Bank are determined to hang someone out to dry and Guillam is to be the sacrificial goat. For the greater good, of course. It rings bells.

It was not this that made me have doubts about the ‘truth’ of what was being written and how characters were being portrayed, but it was the use of a mysterious paper trail of archive material the interrogators seem to have come across, despite their seemingly having been a clear out of the original papers. Is the reader being drawn in to the idea that these surviving archives are the truth, or are they a fiendishly well-constructed false trail of evidence? Do the ‘real’ archives exist somewhere else and are they any more likely to be credible? There was, of course, only one way for the reader to get a better handle on this – to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, in my case for the umpteenth time. And I won’t say any more than that about the intricacies of Le Carré’s cunning novel, other than that my enjoyment of both novels was greatly enhanced.

The point we all have to remember as historians, in whatever genre, is to remember that the archives are not necessarily some treasure-trove of neutral and ultimate truth. Somebody in the past put them there for a purpose and we often have to guess what purpose. Archives also get weeded and destroyed, neglected and decayed. They also get deliberately hidden (e.g. some archives from the British Empire covering its many least attractive aspects). Archives lie. Even some of our ancestors slip out of our view, either by avoiding (or simply not having) contact with the authorities that compile records, or by providing false information about names, marital status. My ‘guilty pleasure’ has a benefit – it provides you with a bullshit detector that you should always keep switched on. Things are not always what they superficially seem.