John le Carré is spell-binding. He speaks with the slow, deliberate heaviness; the bleak, stark honesty; and the anecdotal light-heartedness of a man who has lived. And, perhaps, of a man who flits from the very pages of his books. Talking at The Blake Society event at Downing College, the 81-year-old ex-spy and espionage novelist commanded the intimate theatre space, captivating the attention of the packed audience which spanned all age groups – a testament to his popularity.The reason I’m here, he began,is I wish to be useful... [to inspire] those who want to live a creative life...those who want to live by his pen”. ‘To inspire’ would be too light a term, for David Cornwell, the real name beneath the mysterious pseudonym, transported us to a world of spies, exploration and moral ambiguity; documenting the events of his life that served as inspiration for such classics as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Constant Gardner,

An unintimidating character, softly spoken and emphatic, le Carré spoke unashamedly about his childhood which forced him to rely on inventive imagination from an early age. His “bookless household”, devoid of a mother from five years old; his conman father who was a “magical, Gatsby figure” but whose exploits led to home becoming “a dangerous place”; and his hatred of authority that meant his time at public school made him feel like a “spy in the middle-class” were discussed with the same signature clarity of his prose. Frequently quoting Greene, le Carré stated that “the credit balance of a writer is his childhood”; and indeed, it is clear that le Carré’s position as an outsider inside the heart of the British establishment, whether at public school or the Secret Intelligence in the 1960s, provided the inspiration for his work.

Most captivating of all, however, is le Carré’s philosophical pessimism. For him, every book begins with the same questions: “how much collateral damage can we tolerate in protection of our society before it no longer becomes one worth defending?” “Why do we do to others what we wouldn’t do to our neighbours?” “What becomes of us when we are servants to the institution?” He does not look at the world through rose-tinted glasses; his life experiences, and the necessary realism that comes from working in that ‘secret world’, prevents him from doing so. This is perhaps what makes him so popular: that his works are not overtly moralising, but they are written by a connoisseur of human emotion. In the current climate – with Alexander Litvinenko, Gareth Williams and Neil Heywood’s deaths – our fascination with the spy-world is greater than ever.

Obsessed with the realities of the bureaucracy and secret intelligence forces, le Carré criticised the “public lies of men of state” and the size of the American services, proving his chameleon-like adaptability of moving with the times. A skill which has brought his pessimistic realism to bear on such matters as post-Soviet capitalism, the wrongdoings of multinationals in the developing world and the lawlessness of the ‘war on terror’. And, with the imminent release of his 23rd book, A Delicate Truth, and the filming of Our Kind of Traitor underway, le Carré’s masterly understanding of moral complexity is still as enchanting as 40 years ago.

“We all live in secret worlds”, he stated with sobering quietness, “[even] in our most intimate friendships we are in secret worlds”. Le Carré, for all his stark honesty, remains an enigma. As a novelist, he shuns the literary scene, meaning his works occupy an odd, secret status. As a speaker, and as a man, his imitation of accents, his melting into other languages and diving into anecdotes meant it was sometimes difficult to separate the man from his work, fiction from reality. As to how much of himself he puts into the characters is uncertain, but he certainly spoke with the bewitching ability of a story-teller. An hour seemed to fly by, and was certainly not enough. For one who gives so much away, he left me wanting more: the trait of a true spy.