Spies like us
To understand Britain, read its spy novels.
Few countries have dominated any industry as Britain has dominated the industry of producing fictional spies.
Britain invented the spy novel with Rudyard Kipling's dissection of the Great Game in “Kim” and John Buchan's adventure stories.
英国以鲁德亚德·吉卜林在《吉姆》中对大国游戏 （Great Game）的剖析和约翰·巴肯的冒险故事开创了间谍小说。
It consolidated its lead with Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories and Graham Greene's invention of “Greeneland”.
It then produced the world's two most famous spooks: James Bond, the dashing womaniser, and George Smiley, the cerebral cuckold, who reappears this week in a new book.
What accounts for this success?
One reason is the revolving door between the secret establishment and the literary establishment.
Some of the lions of British literature worked as spies.
Maugham was sent to Switzerland to spy for Britain under cover of pursuing his career as a writer.
Greene worked for the intelligence services.
Both Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond, and John le Carré, the creator of Smiley, earned their living as spies.
Dame Stella Rimington, head of MI5 in 1992-96, has taken to writing spy novels in retirement.
It is as if the secret services are not so much arms of the state as creative-writing schools.
Another reason is that British reality has often been stranger than fiction.
The story of the “Cambridge spies” —Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and the rest—is as far-fetched as it gets.
One Soviet mole at the top of MI6 (Philby, who also worked for The Economist in Beirut) ; another even looking after the queen's pictures (Blunt) ; a cover-up; a dash to the safety of the Soviet Union; larger-than-life characters such as the compulsively promiscuous and permanently sozzled Burgess.
There is also a more profound reason for Britain's success.
The spy novel is the quintessential British fictional form in the same way that the Western is quintessentially American.
Britain's best spy novelists are so good precisely because they use the genre to explore what it is that makes Britain British: the obsession with secrecy, the nature of the establishment, the agonies of imperial decline and the complicated tug of patriotism.
Britain is honeycombed with secretive institutions, particularly public schools and Oxbridge colleges, which have their own private languages.
At Eton, for example, where Fleming was educated and Mr le Carre taught for a while, boys dress in tailcoats and call their teachers “beaks” and their terms “halves”.
Walter Bagehot argued (approvingly) that Britain weaves duplicity into its statecraft.
The constitution rests on a distinction between an “efficient” branch which governs behind the scenes, and a “dignified” branch which puts on a show for the people.
The British habitually wear masks to conceal their true selves.
They put on different costumes for different roles in Bagehot's theatre of state, and keep stiff upper lips to conceal their emotions.
Mr le Carre (whose real name is David Cornwell) learned to put on a brave face at school because he was so embarrassed by his father, who was a professional confidence trickster.
Greene learned the spymaster's art when, as a pupil at Berkhamsted School, he acted as an informer for his father, the headmaster.