Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

‘You’ll take the job, clean the stables? Go backwards, go forwards, do whatever is necessary?’

Lloyd and Tim take on the ‘holy scripture’ of spy novels, John Le Carré’s classic tale of 1970s Cold War intrigue and betrayal; the book that established George Smiley as one of the all-time great fictional characters – ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘.

The adventure starts on home turf: Smiley’s home, to be precise, on Bywater Street in Chelsea.

Bywater Street, London SW3

From there, we cycled off to Sussex Gardens.

The Hotel Islay in Sussex Gardens – where, on the day after his visit to Ascot, George Smiley under the name of Barraclough had set up his operational headquarters – was a very quiet place considering its position, and perfectly suited to his needs. It lay a hundred yards south of Paddington Station, one of a terrace of elderly mansions cut off from the main avenue by a line of plane trees and a parking patch.

We very much liked the look of one particular hotel on this stretch – the Castleton.

From there it was off to Lexham Gardens in search of the safe house where Smiley and Guillam interrogate Toby Esterhase, and following our re-enactment of a simple tracking operation down Marloes Road, it becomes clear to use that this is very likely to be the most curiously specific book we have encountered so far concerning dates and locations.

Following Smiley and Guillam through Lexham Gardens

Having found the off licence where Smiley loses his tail, we discuss Connie Sachs, the redoubtable ‘memory’ of the Circus, and her real life counterpart, the redoubtable Millicent Bagot. Tim also reveals his research into another real life woman of substance, a Suffolk farm owner who may have provided Le Carré with another model.

Over a stop for Eccles cakes in Hyde Park Tim makes the case that even the out-of-London locations in the book – such as the safe house in Suffolk and the prep school in the Quantocks – are perhaps traceable in real life.

Lloyd points out that specific days and dates in the book firmly place the action in 1972 and 1973 – a time of ‘Dark Side of the Moon, ‘Live and Let Die’ – and Jeremy Irons in both ‘Godspell’ and ‘Playaway’ (although Lloyd doubts this last reference supplied by Tim).

MI6’s fictional hq – The Circus – is another easily found location (with the world’s most notorious surveillance operation, Facebook, living next door). Thanks to deep research from Lloyd, the building, known as Trentishoe Mansions is found to have been a famously great place to squat in the 1970s. Instead of being full of spies, the place would have been crawling with hippies.

And if you want to know who owns it now, here’s the deeds.

Trentishoe Mansions, aka The Circus, London
Shaftesbury Avenue and The Circus, 1940s-60s. The Circus is on the corner of Charing Cross Road and New Compton Street
Victor Blake, where Mendel stands on the third floor. From the London Picture Archive

Then it’s off further north to the Regent’s Canal to find another safe house where Smiley finally traps his mole. Time for another reenactment – Guillam’s sprint down the canal towpath and up the metal stairs.

The Canal, with the rear of the safehouse to the left
The stairs up which Guillam runs to snare the mole

Ending south, in Brixton, in search of an ‘old flint-walled school’, the boys – with the help of local experts – have to admit this might be the one location Le Carré has completely made up.

Well, one can’t be a completely perfect spy.

When time and guidelines allow, we road test works of fiction that appear to be curiously specific about dates and locations. We go to the places mentioned and see if descriptions are accurate, journey times credible, dates and days all in order. Along the way, we learn things, about the book, and its author.

Sources & Credits

David Essex – Rock On – https://youtu.be/-XfmHyG8y-g

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) Trailer – https://youtu.be/5h1XZ0LzVg4

Pink Floyd – Speak To Me / Breathe – https://youtu.be/R49d4f5sEs4

John le Carré: An Evening with George Smiley Highlights – https://youtu.be/1uLG3l5zKv4

Genesis – Cinema Show/Selling England By The Pound – https://youtu.be/E-jS4e3zacI

New Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Clip – https://youtu.be/442J1ASPseQ


Live And Let Die – https://youtu.be/NR0UmZcf89E

Colin Firth’s Official ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Interview – https://youtu.be/5r9vE2B2Oj8

B J Arnau Live And Let Die 1973 – https://youtu.be/LWKGfbs8dzo


John Le Carré – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_le_Carr%C3%A9

The Secret Life of John Le Carré – https://archive.vanityfair.com/article/share/32650cf6-3fad-418d-8e33-4a7906ed6d68

Le Carré the spy who betrayed his best friend… – https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3258942/Secrets-lies-le-Carr-love-stellar-spy-novel-success-drove-arms-wife-womanising-best-friend-told-time-sensational-new-biography.html

1973 in the UK – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_in_the_United_Kingdom

Sparrows Farm, Great Henny – https://colnestour.org/magazine_article/story-sparrows-farm-great-henny/

Daphne Machin-Goodall – https://www.janebadgerbooks-oldsite.co.uk/misc/machingoodall.html

The Story of Cedar Falls – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B001BP34N8

Winston Churchill at Watts House – https://sites.google.com/site/jbseatrobe/political-somerset/winston-churchill-in-somerset

Cedar Falls Health Farm – https://www.cedarfalls.co.uk/cedarfalls/

A bench with a view – https://www.123rf.com/photo_117287663_a-bench-with-view-over-the-quantock-hills-landscape-near-west-bagborough-somerset-england-uk.html

Shaftesbury Theatre ceiling collapse (Hair) – https://www.shaftesburytheatre.com/about-us/theatre-history-2/

A house in St Marks Crescent – http://www.englishcubist.co.uk/house.html

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