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Warming up the Cold War

Why Colin Butler teaches 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Coursework accounts for 30 per cent of the assessment of the Advanced GCE specification in English Literature, so good marks are there to be had. But, in addition, the new examination makes coursework into a real educational plus.

The requirement of just one post-1900 prose text gives teachers acres of choice,and the principal assessment criteria - historical and cultural context; awareness of form, structure and language; and the possibility of different interpretations - are just right to foster attentive reading and a sense of the past.

I chose John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for my classes. I wanted to complement the specification's "great writers" bias with something popular but well crafted, so what better than Le Carre's 1974 bestseller? I am afraid I forgot that 1974 seriouslypre-dated all my incoming upper sixth; for them, the Cold War is as old hat as a set of Cliff Richard LPs. So, initially they did not know a lot, and we shared a few assumptions. But that was all the more reason for tackling the book together.

The Cold War was the longest and potentially the most dangerous war of the 20th century, so it seems straight-forwardly useful explaining golden oldies such as the EastWest power blocs, the Iron Curtain, the Warsaw Pact, Moscow's sinister reputation and the importance of espionage to the politics of mistrust. Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean get dusted off, too. They are not mentioned in Tinker, Tailor, but their shock defections in 1951 showed that well-educated British diplomatists could also be traitors and that British security was penetrated at the top. The 1956 Suez crisis is mentioned, so the declining role of post-war Britain receives a close look, too. Students can easily research all relevant information on the internet.

Literary forms do not exist in a vacuum, and the secretive us-and-them ethos of Le Carre's spy novel shows this very well. Le Carre had also written a detective story (A Murder of Quality, 1962), and that genre, too, influences the structure of Tinker, Tailor: the villain is unmasked by the clever detective, right triumphs, and everything at last makes sense.

The novel's language is interesting for three reasons. First, Le Carre has an ear for institutional jargon - "lamplighters", "scalphunters", "mothers" and "moles" ("mole" is now an accepted part of the language). Second, Le Carre is good at realism: he has a strong sense of milieu, and his descriptions carry conviction. They are also downbeat, in conscious contrast to the James Bond novels; for, unlikeFleming's "candy floss" (Le Carre's word), Tinker, Tailor pretends to authenticity. Third, the characters are differentiated by their speech: the donnish spymaster Smiley, the clapped-out Connie Sachs, the vaguely European Esterhase, and so forth. The novel makes for quality lessons in form, structure and language alike.

As for alternative interpretations, Tinker, Tailor is first and foremost a very British novel. It is Anglocentric throughout, and its characters represent recognisably British types, so the scope is visibly there for other nationalities - Americans, for example - to bring different perspectives to it. And second, Tinker, Tailor is male-dominated, the female characters being few, marginal and inglorious. This clearly invites gender-based differences of interpretation.

Tinker, Tailor has weaknesses - the poor characterising of Hong Kong British secret agent Ricki Tarr, the personalising of the Cold War as Smiley versus Soviet intelligence chief Karla.

But the point is that Advanced GCE coursework allows choices of text beyond the obvious. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent

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