February 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi


If April is planning on being the cruelest month this year it has some catching up to do, because January and the first half of February have just about convinced me to move to the tropics, and I loathe even the concept of the tropics. Horrid places, full of sweat and bugs, sweaty, biting bugs, bugs building nests in your ears, spiders the size of poodles….  Anyway, I remember standing in our north field on a very cold winter day right after we moved out here from Manhattan, icy wind spitting freezing rain in my face, looking at the horizon across several hundred desolate acres of frozen corn stubble, and thinking, “Y’know, if I didn’t have that nice warm house to go back to, I would die rather rapidly out here.” (Yes, I can be hired for parties.)

So when I innocently clicked on my weather widget the other afternoon and discovered that it was 20 degrees below zero out there (actual temperature, not “wind chill”), I started to freak. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and lived in New York City for more than 20 years. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times the electricity went out. That’s fewer than the number of times it’s gone out here, often for days, in the past year. In warm weather, it’s merely a colossal drag. But if the power goes out in this kind of weather, we’ll be in serious trouble within about 1/2 hour. A few years ago, we had to squeeze five cats and two dogs into a tiny flea-bag motel room (on Christmas Eve, no less), and I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t work. Not an option.

Meanwhile, in the world of popular culture, we finally caught up with the third season of Homeland last month after dodging spoilers for weeks and, boy howdy, the Nattering Nabobs of Negativity were absolutely right. Utterly moronic, the entire season. It started stupid and went downhill from there. Don’t get me started. It probably didn’t help that they killed all the interesting people and left us with the most relentlessly unpleasant troubled teen in TV history. Whatever. I hadn’t paid any attention to Mandy Patinkin since The Princess Bride, but now he’s the only conceivable reason to watch the show, which probably means he hasn’t long to live.

Anyway, in an attempt to reboot my mind, I decided to re-read John le Carré’s so-called Karla Trilogy, consisting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People (Karla being the pseudonym of the head of Soviet Intelligence). Unlike the idiots who cook up nonsense like Homeland, le Carré was an actual intelligence officer, running field agents for MI6 until his cover was blown (and his career thus ruined) by Kim Philby, a Soviet “mole” (le Carré popularized the term) who spent decades in the highest precincts of British intelligence. Tinker, Tailor, not coincidentally, centers on the detection and capture of a Philby-esque Soviet mole in MI6.

Midway through revisiting Tinker, Tailor, I remembered that the BBC had made a highly-praised seven-part TV mini-series of the book back in 1979 starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, so, after I finished the book, I found and watched that again (all the bits are on YouTube, if a bit low-res for my taste). It’s an amazingly good rendition of a very good book; Alec Guinness is the perfect Smiley, and the rest of the cast are exactly as you’d picture them. I haven’t seen the more recent Hollywood film of Tinker, Tailor, primarily because I don’t want the original diluted for me; Guinness is Smiley, period. Here is a wonderful interview with le Carré, done in 2002, in which he recounts working with Guinness on the film, his own path to MI6, spies and the culture of intelligence work during the Cold War, and the switch from the painstaking cultivation of human intelligence to “vacuum it all up” signals intelligence, which he considers, with good reason, a serious mistake (“I believe there’s such a thing as too much information.”).

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