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? This was a dossier received with much interest at my own agency.