As publishers of John le Carre’s novels, Penguin/Viking may be amused to learn that I have been chosen by the organisers of World Book Night (March 5) as a successful applicant to distribute 48 copies of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. John (David Cornwell) made his first trip to Moscow as a direct result of something I said on a visit to Moscow myself in the late 1980’s.
At the time of the remark which brought about David’s visit, my then (now ex) husband John C Q Roberts was the Director of the Foreign Office-funded Great Britain-USSR Association, charged with making meaningful contacts with individuals and organisations in the Soviet Union on a non-political basis and in opposition to two other, then communist-oriented, British organisations with apparently similar aims in the field.
I myself am a Russianist ie I gained my UK BA Hons degree in Russian, speak Russian etc. We were having lunch at a restaurant in Moscow with one of John’s Russian counterparts, ostensibly discussing forthcoming cultural exchanges, when the Russian suddenly – and presumably for the entertainment of colleagues listening in to our conversation - proposed that the GB-USSR Association should join in a celebration of the life and work of ‘the patriot Kim Philby’. There was a stunned silence , then, inspired perhaps by the vodka, I said: ‘What a brilliant idea!’ The blood drained from John’s face. ‘And we, for our part, could put on a celebration of the life and work of the patriot Colonel Oleg Penkovsky’. John relaxed. The Russian changed the subject.
Later at our customary farewell visit to our then Ambassador at the Embassy, John told the story and our Ambassador said: ‘What an extraordinary coincidence’... That morning, he had received a request from David Cornwell (aka John le Carre) whom the Ambassador said he knew ‘from National Service days in the army’ asking for advice about coming to Moscow for the first time to research a book.
Thus,John and I came to meet David and his wife Jane and John took David to Russia to meet the real life people and places that were later to figure, transformed, in The Russia House – his story of a publisher who becomes embroiled in the world of espionage at the Moscow Book Fair.
We came to meet Fred Schepisi and Michelle Pfeiffer that way too, but that is another story.