John le Carre’s 1977 novel The Honourable Schoolboy opens with a motley group of reporters carousing in an Indochina watering hole, passing time between writing and filing stories. All hold credentials as journalists, but one inconspicuously adds the role of spy to his list of occupations. This character will reappear later in the book, but his true purpose is as harbinger of Jerry Westerby, the “schoolboy” of the novel’s title and sportswriter protagonist engaged by MI6 to infiltrate a Hong Kong operation with Soviet connections.
It’s possible to perceive Westerby as the Everyman of the reporter/spy persona, a tradition exploited during the Cold War. While the employment of well-known writers by intelligence agencies is given an imaginative, if not credible, history by the suggestion that playwright Christopher Marlowe was a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s spy network, the practice has a more verifiable legacy dating to the early 1900s.
In her 2022 New Yorker profile of Slough House series author Mick Herron, Jill Lepore notes that the writer Somerset Maugham had worked as a British spy during World War I. “Writers make good joes [agents],” Lepore comments, explaining, “they’re keen observers, and they tend to know languages. (Maugham had French and German).”
In Spies, Spin and the Fourth Estate: British Intelligence and the Media, journalist Peter Lashmar writes, “That intelligence officers sometimes become journalists and writers will be no surprise to readers as they are likely to know authors like Grahame Greene, Ian Fleming and John le Carré, who were all in British Intelligence before their successful writing careers, while others, like Frederick Forsyth, assisted MI6 while working as journalists…After the Second World War there were many former intelligence officers demobbed [demobilized] and finding or returning to work in Fleet Street.”
But Lashmar offers a personal account about some of his colleagues at The Observer newspaper in the 1980s, revealing that “I know now that quite a lot had worked for the intelligence agencies.”
Why is there such a strong connection between spies and reporters? In the 1990s, Major General Yuri Kobaldze of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Intelligence Service offered what might be the most compelling argument: “There is no essential difference between the work of a spy and a journalist; both collect information in the same way—just the end consumers are different. Journalists make the best spies; they have more freedom of access than diplomats.”
When we first encounter Westerby in The Honourable Schoolboy, he is no longer collecting information for an agency or the press. Residing in the Italian countryside and armed with a manual typewriter, he is following the familiar route of certain ex-agents by writing a book, content undisclosed, much as his creator penned his own works in the quiet of Cornwall, England. But unlike le Carre, Westerby would rather be back in the field and, when summoned because of his connections with and expertise in Asia’s culture, he readily resumes his role as spy in the guise of reporter.
In his essay “Bumping into Jerry Westerby,” le Carre describes how he sketched the character in his brief appearance in Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, basing him on memories of an acquaintance named Gordon, only to meet his fictional creation face-to-face in Peter Simms, a real-life reporter/spy, while visiting Singapore. Simms was a British foreign correspondent who doubled as British secret agent and he fit the description of the fictional Westerby “right down to the huge cushioned hands and ‘enormous’ shoulders…six foot three with sandy hair and a schoolboy grin…”
What le Carre saw in Simms is what any intelligence organization would recognize: someone who “so identified with Asian culture that if he wasn’t already working for British Intelligence, it was sheer carelessness on their part.”
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