Reading John le Carré’s 1993 novel The Night Manager, I was struck by the odd sensation that I had actually met the villain of the story. Richard Onslow Roper is one of le Carré’s typical English upper-class shits. He is suave, handsome, well-connected in high circles, and utterly unscrupulous. His vast profits come from selling arms, illegally, to warlords in poor non-Western countries, and he is aided in his criminal enterprise by a variety of amoral smoothies in the British government.
Roper is, of course, a fictional character. But it didn’t take long to figure out whom he reminded me of: Alan Clark, right-wing politician, notorious skirt-chaser, classic-car buff, scandalous diarist, member of Margaret Thatcher’s government, and tireless promoter of more or less shady arms deals with countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and General Suharto’s Indonesia. In Iraq, Clark helped a British company evade the official arms embargo. Indonesia used British weapons to massacre civilians in East Timor. Asked by a journalist whether this had ever bothered him, Clark drawled: “No, not in the slightest. It never entered my head.”
Back in the 1990s, I interviewed Clark in his elegant flat in London. He couldn’t have been more charming. He also told me how much he admired aspects of Hitler’s Third Reich, which he said would have been perfectly fine were it not for all that “horsing around” by the SS.
I don’t know whether le Carré—or David Cornwell, his real name—had Clark in mind when he wrote The Night Manager. But I was fascinated to read in Adam Sisman’s riveting new biography of the novelist that the two men once knew each other well. They had met by chance in a small hotel near the East German border in the 1960s, when le Carré’s literary career was taking off and Clark was still trying to establish himself as more than the rich-playboy son of Kenneth Clark, the eminent art historian.
Le Carré and Clark drove through Europe in Clark’s Mercedes 600. They exchanged letters with endearments like “lover boy” and “golden boy.” Even though Clark was married to a much younger woman, he would often use his friend’s London flat for secret sexual encounters. Le Carré was sometimes appalled, but also intrigued, by Clark’s extreme views and disreputable friends. The two finally fell out after one of Clark’s trysts; le Carré’s housekeeper had found blood on the walls; very young girls had allegedly been involved. Le Carré decided that his friend was “too rich for my blood.”
Sisman writes judiciously about this odd friendship. Le Carré, he observes, “detected in [Clark] an unusual capacity for evil. For him, Clark was a kind of Mephistopheles, whose wicked example he found both fascinating and repellent.” This combination of attraction and repulsion, in particular toward British elites, runs like a current through much of le Carré’s life and often electrified his literary work.