Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Writer

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reminded me of a Harry Potter book – in that they’re both about apparently ordinary people living hidden lives. These thoughts of Harry Potter seemed relevant as the book opened, with scenes at a public school, where lonely new boy, Bill Roach, notices the arrival of a mysterious teacher. Children are imaginative. Some picture themselves as wizards or witches in a world of uncomprehending muggles. Others might believe they are secret agents, on a mission which their uninspiring fellow pupils know nothing about.

After the opening school chapter, we launch into a spy story, the central character, George Smiley, described as the sort of man Bill Roach might become as an adult. This description served as another hint that, in this Russian doll of a book, I was reading the boy’s story, where he imagines his future self pursuing a Russian mole working for British intelligence.

The title, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, of course, comes from a nursery rhyme – tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor… This title sums up much of the novel’s subtlety. There’s a suggestion once again of that link with a childhood game, and of the way our roles in life, doled our arbitrarily in the words of the rhyme, are misleading labels for something more complex. After all, the book presents spies as indistinguishable from ordinary people. In fact spies are better at their job if they are indistinguishable from ordinary people. There’s also a nod in the rhyme to the interchangeability of roles between one side and the other, a situation of double agents who seem to be the embodiment of one system, when they also working for the enemy.

The job of writer isn’t in the Tinker Tailor title, but it could come just after Spy. Spies are often referred to as watchers in the book, and what is a writer if he or she is not a watcher, working for their own little agency? In this case the intelligence offered us is not perfect. Point of view flits about which can be confusing. The portrayal of women is hardly progressive. Nevertheless this was a dossier received with much interest at my own agency.

Main Street, A Journey Through America Past And Present

I didn’t know where to start a review of this book, so I decided to start at the beginning. The Puritan settlers are on the Mayflower sailing for the New World. What sort of main streets would they eventually have in their towns? Well, these people are famously seeking freedom, so it is unlikely they would be big fans of someone telling them how to build their town. On the other hand, they are not seeking freedom in the sense of running through meadows with flowers in their hair. Puritans are religious fundamentalists. They are looking for the freedom to be just as fundamental as they want to be.

So come forward a few hundred years and what do we find? We find a book about the odd, contradictory towns that evolved in America, trying to express freedom and fundamentalism at the same time. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, published in 1920, tells the story of Carol Milford, a clever and ambitious young woman, who at college harbours dreams of a career as a town planner. However, she marries a doctor, who persuades her to settle with him in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Gopher Prairie is about as far from town planning as you can imagine. This place has grown up piecemeal, as a centre for surrounding farms, where farmers can sell their produce, access a few basic services, and buy some essentials. The very fact that the town evolved in this unplanned manner, is supposedly an expression of the freedom of the American way. And yet there is also plenty of Puritanism about Gopher Prairie, curtain twitching, moralising and judgement. You can only be individual here in a narrowly accepted manner. If you are really out of the ordinary, a fey young man with artistic ambitions, or a young woman with new social ideas, the town’s idea of freedom will probably not extend to you. Ironically there is a sense of standardisation about this town which supposedly grew up in such a freewheeling rugged, individual, American manner. Carol discovers that ramshackle Gopher Prairie is virtually identical to many other towns in the American Midwest, as though they had all been laid out to some standard scheme.

Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street is a long meditation on this peculiarly American combination of freedom and rigidity. It’s a big, sprawling book with no discernible plot, like a soap opera; but it’s lack of plot seems carefully planned. It’s not the most obviously exciting read, but it finds danger, excitement and drama hidden in the every day. There are a lot of scenes in kitchens, involving gossip, scandal, cooking, and the odd amputation of the injured limbs of farmers.

There were times when I wondered why I was wading through this interminable description of small town life, but I kept on going and was glad I did. Main Street is a good way to understand America and Americans, especially today as the country struggles with leaders of government who display aspects of dictatorship and chaotic incompetence, in lethal combination.