The John Le Carre Memorial Lecture


Mick Herron at the John Le Carré Memorial Lecture

Award-winning novelist Mick Herron was in Penzance to give the first John le Carré Memorial Lecture at the Acorn Theatre. The event was organised by The Morrab Library to honour the memory of David Cornwell, better known as spy writer John le Carré, who lived at St Buryan and was a great supporter of the Morrab.

In his lecture, Herron detailed how le Carré’s books influenced his own approach to writing about the murky world of espionage. It was never the black-and-white world of goodies versus baddies, as portrayed by Ian Fleming’s character James Bond, Herron said.

The lecture, which sold out within days of being announced, was introduced by The Morrab Library’s current president, West End theatre and film producer Michael Grandage, who grew up in Penzance. The event received wholehearted support from David Cornwell’s family; his sons, Simon and Nick, and their families came to Penzance for the occasion. Nick Cornwell, who writes as Nick Harkaway, and whose new novel will feature his father’s most memorable creation, George Smiley, prefaced Herron’s lecture by speaking movingly about his father, paying tribute to how much the family’s life in Cornwall contributed to le Carré’s success. 

Liz Woods at the John Le Carré Memorial Lecture

Nick Cornwell at the John Le Carré Memorial Lecture

Herron, who has often been described as le Carré’s successor and is best known for his Slough House thrillers, which have been adapted into the critically acclaimed TV series Slow Horses, starring Oscar-winning actor Gary Oldman, delivered his lecture to an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. He combined a deep analysis of the Smiley novels, also known as the “Karla Trilogy,” with insights into his own creative process. 

The lecture was the centrepiece of a series of events organised by the Morrab to celebrate le Carré’s life in West Cornwall. The programme included the unveiling of a portrait of le Carré by Gary Long, a well-known local artist and tutor at the St Ives School of Painting.

Gary Long and Florian Schweizer at the portrait unveiling at The Morrab Library

The portrait, which will hang in the Morrab, was commissioned by The Arts Society West Cornwall, a major sponsor of the event along with The Arts Society nationally. Fittingly, the portrait sets le Carré in the Library, with a member of Library staff, shelving books in the background, while a pigeon painted in flight gives a nod to le Carré’s first memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life.

Vicki Phillips, who was le Carré’s secretary for seventeen years, says of the portrait “Gary Long has captured him so well, with the glint in the eye and the wry smile.”  High praise from some one who would know.

Penlee House Gallery & Museum simultaneously presented an exhibition of John le Carré memorabilia that included photographs, magazine covers, cartoons and an invitation to lunch from the late Queen.

Le Carré’s notes on “Agent Running in the Field”

Penlee House exhibition

As a writer, Mick Herron loves to interact with his readers. A meeting hosted by Penzance Mayor Cllr Stephen Reynolds allowed a number of people who had attended the lecture to question Herron across a wide canvas – his books, his characters, the television adaptations of Slow Horses – where it was revealed that the filthy coat worn by Gary Oldman, as the repellent spook Jackson Lamb, is never washed. Since Oldman is also renowned for his performance as Smiley in the 2011 feature film adaptation of le Carré’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, the actor represents a fitting link between works of le Carré and Herron. And both authors also have made cameo appearances in their adaptations, as Alfred Hitchcock famously did in each of his films.

Mick Herron at St Johns Hall

Herron also visited Penwith College, where he lunched in the Senara Restaurant and gave a writing workshop to students on A-Level English courses. He described how his voracious reading at the same age “filled a well” from which he still draws inspiration.

Finally, as a great supporter of independent bookshops, Herron attended a sold-out Q&A session with devoted readers at The Edge of The World bookshop in Market Jew Street.

Mick Herron at Penwith College 

Senara at Penwith College

Senara at Penwith College

John le Carré became president of the Morrab Library in 1997 and established the Morrab Fellowship, which provided a bursary to local sixth formers to purchase books for their studies. He will be remembered for his vision for the library’s future, and his aim of encouraging young people to join and be inspired by this special place.

“Whether you’re an impassioned bibliophile or just someone who loves a good read,” he once said, “the Morrab is for you: a Cornish treasure house, a meeting place for like-minded souls, and a vibrant forum for contemporary writing.”

John le Carré at the Morrab Library 1975