It seems as if John le Carré almost joined the Soviet Unionback in the old days when he was still a spy and before he started writing. It reminded me of the time I almost “met” John le Carré when I was still working at Oxfamand he was working on a little movie he was making – The Constant Gardener. If only I wasn’t asleep at the wheel…
Things got crazy at Oxfam. We were always running from one place to another. From one issue to another. From one campaign to another. I hardly had time to come up for air. Just too many campaigns to juggle. I was heading up the Coffee Campaign, representing Oxfam at Publish What You Pay dealing with the extractive industry, negotiating with the European Commission on corporate responsibility and getting my soul drained by the bureaucrats over there, and I still had to try and keep the ship running on Access To Medicine. And I was continuing my fight against Oxfam for my salary! Too much to handle for a lazy guy from Africa who only joined Oxfam a year earlier – and saw his new boss leave two weeks after he joined. So I really didn’t have time to hang out with anyone to do interviews for an upcoming movie.
So I was really pissed when I was told that I had to do this interview with some guy doing “research” for a movie he is involved in. Like I had time to hang out with movie researchers. But I didn’t have a choice. It was apparently pretty important that I speak to him. The Big Boss said so – and I must obey. What bloody movie was this in any case?
It was a movie that was going to be based on a story written by John le Carré – The Constant Gardener. Now really, I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy and The Tailor Of Panama. Good stories even though I wasn’t really into spy novels. But I liked his spy writing more than others. So why couldn’t they send him over? At least I could get him to sign one of my books or something. I knew that I still had one of his books somewhere in the basement or in a box in the garage. Why did they have to send some lackey in his place? And why the hell do I have to talk to this lackey in any case?
But well, the movie was about HIV/Aids in Africa and corruption by Big Pharma and I was heading up the “private sector” angle of the Access To Medicine campaign. So I guess it made sense for me to be interviewed. But still. It was going to waste my time. Who was going to watch it in any case? People hardly cared. Right?
“Mr Cornwell is here to see you.” I wish I was in Cornwall. Then I would meet the “real deal” John le Carré and not some lacky doing the dirty work for John Le Carré. But I was friendly. Picked the guy up at the front desk and was surprised that they send such an old dude. He must have been in his 60’s or 70’s. Maybe he is an old varsity professor that retired and does some research and consulting on the side. You know, to keep the mind ticking over and wallet from drying. I got us a good cup of Fairtrade coffee each and jumped into one of the meeting rooms.
(Actually, the coffee was pretty crap at Oxfam. We were committed to Fairtrade not because of their great coffee, but more because of their commitment to the social cause we supported.)
David had an hour booked with me. He asked so many questions. Probing this way and that way. I gave him all the answers he wanted. Didn’t hold back on anything. Gave him my view unfiltered- as always. But I was a bit short with him. Didn’t want to waste time. Gave him the standard smile. I might even have been a little bit full of myself while I spoke to him. Educating the guy. Him learning from the “master”. But I peeked at my watch every now and again. Just making sure that I didn’t give him more than the allocated hour. Had loads to do. Had to move on to the next thing. Really.
David was very pleasant though. A very nice old man. I liked him. He spoke with a soft voice. Took slow notes. Thought of his questions. Probed to get more detail. Didn’t really give any of his own opinions. Just nodded his head and took in all the info. But then. He was just the researcher and it wasn’t his job to have an opinion in any case.
But in all honesty, I could hardly remember what we spoke about. I knew I gave him all the info he wanted but never really took any notice of the old man. Couldn’t even remember what he looked like. Grey hair and… hum… old. My mind was everywhere else during that interview. Planning what I needed to do for the rest of the day and week. Checked my watch and ended the conversation when the hour was up. I remember he was friendly and never waivered or seemed rattled with my behaviour. I wasn’t rude or anything, but just didn’t really give him the attention he deserved. But he was obviously pleased and happy that I gave him some time in my busy schedule.
Time to go. I walked him to the front door, shook his hand, gave him a warm smile and a nod, and waved good bye. A “Thank you Mr Cornwell and have a nice day” was the last words he heard from me. Turned around and walked back to my office. Ready to face the rest of the day and get some real work done.
I got to the office and a colleague asked me all excitedly, “So, how was it to meet John le Carré?” I laughed at her and said, “John le Carré? I wish! I met some lackey called David Cornwell. I don’t think John le Carré would hang out with me!” My colleague stopped and stared at me. “Are you being serious?” she asked. “Of course! You really think he would come over for an interview with me? In any case, John le Carré lives in Cornwall somewhere. No way he would come all the way to Oxford just for an hour long interview with me.”
“You know that John le Carré isn’t his real name. Right? You know that John le Carré is the pseudonym of David Cornwell, right? You DO know that David Cornwell IS John le Carré?”
I am an ass.
I learnt a big lesson that day. Never assume you know anything of the other person. Find out as much as what you can about them. Always be nicer than what you really have to be. You never know when you might want their autograph. And, you don’t get a personal thank you in the movie if you treat famous people like a lackey or like sh*t. And I learnt that David Cornwell used the name John leCarré to publish his books whilehe was still a real spy. I guess the book he wrote after our little meeting was not inspired by me – Absolute Friends. Thank God I never told him to say hi to John or that I liked John le Carré’s books. Or rather, that I am not big into spy novels! Yeah. I am an ass.