Magazine article The Spectator

In Darkest Hertfordshire

Magazine article The Spectator

In Darkest Hertfordshire

Article excerpt


by John le Carre and others Orders to Village Books, Little Sarratt Hall, Sarratt, WD3 BS, L9.75(include L1.20 for postage and packing).

Cheques payable to 'The Friends of Holy Cross Church'. Fax 01923 270 935

When John le Carre started to write his Cold War espionage thrillers in the Sixties he invented a fictional spy training school, the Nursery, and set it in a real village in Hertfordshire called Sarratt.

He chose Sarratt because it was a beautiful, very English backwater of brick and flint houses, tidy lawns, pretty village green, three pubs (the Cricketers, the Boot and the Cock), 12th-century church, water meadows and a stream called the Chess. In novel after novel le Carre's spies - Smiley, Alleline, Guillam, Lacon - refer repeatedly to their early days in the Nursery, a brick mansion with barred windows, surprisingly decent furniture, a swimming pool, trees stricken with Dutch elm disease, and a Nissen hut at the bottom of the garden. And it was here in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that the traitor Bill Haydon, wearing striped pyjamas and an overcoat, was found late at night sitting on a bench by the moonlit cricket pitch with his eyes open and his neck expertly broken. He had told a guard that he was going out to examine the state of the wicket.

Le Carre discovered Sarratt in 1949 when he was 18 and working briefly nearby as a sales assistant flogging towels and carpets in Clements draper's shop in Watford High Street, 'the Harrods of Hertfordshire'. He chose Sarratt for the Nursery, he says, because it seemed a 'secret haven, a forgotten piece of real England just around the corner from subtopia... at the edge of the real world but safe from it'. He saw it as the heart 'of an English mystery of which I was some kind of undefined inheritor' and because 'in the world of George Smiley and his people, after all, there is no place more dangerous than home'.

Today the villagers of Sarratt, like those of every other English hamlet, are trying to raise funds to repair the church roof and enlarge the village hall, but uniquely they have had the splendid idea of doing so by publishing an illustrated little 64-page collection of four short stories that are centred on the fictional spy school, together with an article by le Carr6 explaining somewhat archly and long-windedly why he chose Sarratt as its site. There is even a nice cloak-and-dagger samizdat whiff about the book in that it carries the name of neither its printer nor its publisher, as it should by law.

Le Carre is of course the book's star turn, but in fact he is quite upstaged in it by Kim Philby's amusing Russian KGB friend Colonel Mikhail Lyubimov, on whom le Carr6 is said to have based his fictional Soviet super-agent Karla, George Smiley's lifelong rival. …

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