Gary Oldman as George Smiley in the spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Gary Oldman as George Smiley in the spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Single agent: John Bingham, the real-life inspiration for John le Carré's George Smiley

"Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London's meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet."

Not someone who would leave an impression if you passed him on the street. But then that's the point: to fade into the shadows. The character, of course, is George Smiley, the inimitable creation of spy novelist John le Carré. Le Carré's Smiley novels, saturated in ambiguity and treacherous dealings, perfectly captured the unease of the Cold War years in the West. Smiley may not have been the perfect spy, but he was the man for the hour.

Over the years, le Carré (born David Cornwell) has unveiled the real-life models for his fictional creation. One was the Reverend Vivian Green, whom the young Cornwell met at public school in Dorset. (Green was also later Cornwell's tutor at Lincoln College, Oxford.) The other inspiration, John Bingham, had a direct connection to the world of secret intelligence. Bingham was an operative at MI5, and worked with le Carré briefly in the late 1950s. He mentored him, but their relationship was put to the test once le Carré's literary career took flight.

Bingham's life is an inviting subject for a biographer. The son of an Anglo-Irish baron - his father was the 6th Baron Clanmorris - Bingham (1908-1988) joined the Security Service in 1940 after a spell on Fleet Street. An almost comically strait-laced figure - Cornwell dubbed him "le Carré", the square, the coinage then becoming part of the famous pen name - Bingham proved masterful at his craft, handling his agents with skill. He was a keen listener and stringent interrogator, possessed of both empathy and objectivity. He could coolly appraise a situation and manoeuvre himself out of a tight spot. Bingham also had a second career as a writer of crime thrillers, several of which have been republished. And he knew how to compartmentalise: so secretive was Bingham about his work that for many years his own literary agent did not know he worked for MI5.

It's a surprise, then, that Michael Jago's biography of Bingham falls so flat. Jago is a diligent researcher, but a tepid writer. This is an account that's as strait-laced, traditional, and conventional as its subject. Separating the fact from fiction when writing about the clandestine services is a difficult task; but there is precious little texture or drama in what otherwise might have been an exciting life story.

Bingham was highly capable and beloved by his agents. In his work for MI5, he played cat and mouse games with the Abwehr during the Second World War, as well as travelling throughout Britain to investigate allegations of activity by enemy agents. He kept tabs on Britain's communists during the Cold War. He tracked subversive elements in the arts world. In the early 1970s, he looked into right-wing plots against the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. A conservative, Bingham saw in extremes of left and right threats to the established order.

The chapters on Bingham's relationship with le Carré - whose 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth, will be published next month - are the book's most successful, and will surely be of interest to fans for the light they shed on evolution of Smiley

Bingham, observes Jago, "was a resolute, self-confident defender of Britain's character". He was also "an avuncular figure, a man who took great pleasure in encouraging men younger than himself". These two dispositions were put to the test over the decades he knew le Carré.

It would prove a fraught, though friendly, relationship. Bingham introduced le Carré, then a budding writer, to his agent and publisher. Le Carré, however, vastly eclipsed Bingham in the literary field, becoming a writer of the very first rank, whose spy thrillers transcend the narrow confines of the genre. Le Carré's views troubled his mentor. Bingham was an ardent defender of the Security Service, whereas Le Carré took a much darker view: he suggests a rough moral equivalence between the West and the other side. There is really no just cause. Bingham believed in loyalty to the Security Service; le Carré thought otherwise, and criticised the intelligence professions in print and elsewhere.

It also got personal. Bingham's wife Madeleine took fierce exception to a comment le Carré made in the late 1970s, when he described Smiley as "forgettable", and launched a campaign of vituperation against her husband's perceived antagonist. Yet, as Jago points outs, being forgettable is a most valuable, if not essential, trait for an operative. Le Carré insisted he meant it as a compliment - as he saw it, his Smiley was an affectionate reflection of Bingham.

For his part, Bingham reached out to le Carré in a letter flecked with humility, whimsy, and poignant loyalty to the Security Service. "Smiley has never minded being called a Forgettable Man," Bingham wrote, "and has even regarded it as a mild professional compliment to a man who can merge into the general background. He thinks that that and keeping a low profile are quite useful traits.

"On the other hand, to be perfectly frank - always difficult for Smiley - he has often been puzzled as to why you have so frequently and harshly attacked his mob, directly in interviews or obliquely in books. (Troops don't normally improve by, in effect, being called a lousy lot of bums, and inefficient or ineffective to boot.)

"You are far from being pro-Soviet Russia or pro-Communist, but I would think the attacks gave comfort and even pleasure and glee in some places. Puzzling to simple souls like Smiley - perhaps his only really unsolved mystery."

Jago's take on such proceedings is measured and fair. Le Carré was from a different generation, and his views contrasted sharply with those of Bingham. But the author imagines that le Carré must have had something like a eureka moment when he joined MI5 in 1958 and met Bingham. Here was the very model for Smiley: "The son of a baron, bemused by the changing society around him, dedicated to his job, supremely confident of the rightness of his cause, yet analytical enough to have reached his ethical posture logically."

He notes that Bingham's children were amazed by the resemblance between their father and Alec Guinness's Smiley in the BBC production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. "From the simple foibles, such as polishing his spectacles on the fat end of his tie, to his gait, facial mannerisms, deep, mellifluous voice and his ability to withdraw, to vanish into a crowd, this George Smiley was remarkably close to their perception of the original."

Of all the protagonists in this little drama, it was Madeleine who proved the most ferocious. Jago writes: "Bingham was able to depersonalise the rift, unlike Madeleine, whose fulminations against le Carré became increasingly personal." Bingham detested "everything he has done and said against the intelligence services", but, as Jago nicely observes, he was able to view le Carré with the kind of humane detachment that was the hallmark of George Smiley.

Literary creations emerge from a complex welter of emotion, instinct, imagination and subconscious reflection. In Bingham, le Carré found the perfect model for his fiction, whatever the real-life fallout.

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.


Round 1: Beat Leolia Jeanjean 6-1, 6-2
Round 2: Beat Naomi Osaka 7-6, 1-6, 7-5
Round 3: Beat Marie Bouzkova 6-4, 6-2
Round 4: Beat Anastasia Potapova 6-0, 6-0
Quarter-final: Beat Marketa Vondrousova 6-0, 6-2
Semi-final: Beat Coco Gauff 6-2, 6-4
Final: Beat Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 6-2

Company profile

Name: Tratok Portal

Founded: 2017

Based: UAE

Sector: Travel & tourism

Size: 36 employees

Funding: Privately funded

Blue Beetle

Director: Angel Manuel Soto
Stars: Xolo Mariduena, Adriana Barraza, Damian Alcazar, Raoul Max Trujillo, Susan Sarandon, George Lopez
Rating: 4/5 

Living in...

This article is part of a guide on where to live in the UAE. Our reporters will profile some of the country’s most desirable districts, provide an estimate of rental prices and introduce you to some of the residents who call each area home.

How to join and use Abu Dhabi’s public libraries

• There are six libraries in Abu Dhabi emirate run by the Department of Culture and Tourism, including one in Al Ain and Al Dhafra.

• Libraries are free to visit and visitors can consult books, use online resources and study there. Most are open from 8am to 8pm on weekdays, closed on Fridays and have variable hours on Saturdays, except for Qasr Al Watan which is open from 10am to 8pm every day.

• In order to borrow books, visitors must join the service by providing a passport photograph, Emirates ID and a refundable deposit of Dh400. Members can borrow five books for three weeks, all of which are renewable up to two times online.

• If users do not wish to pay the fee, they can still use the library’s electronic resources for free by simply registering on the website. Once registered, a username and password is provided, allowing remote access.

• For more information visit the library network's website.

Tips for SMEs to cope
  • Adapt your business model. Make changes that are future-proof to the new normal
  • Make sure you have an online presence
  • Open communication with suppliers, especially if they are international. Look for local suppliers to avoid delivery delays
  • Open communication with customers to see how they are coping and be flexible about extending terms, etc
    Courtesy: Craig Moore, founder and CEO of Beehive, which provides term finance and working capital finance to SMEs. Only SMEs that have been trading for two years are eligible for funding from Beehive.

Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)


Google wasn't new to busting out April Fool's jokes: before the Gmail "prank", it tricked users with mind-reading MentalPlex responses and said well-fed pigeons were running its search engine operations .

In subsequent years, they announced home internet services through your toilet with its "patented GFlush system", made us believe the Moon's surface was made of cheese and unveiled a dating service in which they called founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page "Stanford PhD wannabes ".

But Gmail was all too real, purportedly inspired by one – a single – Google user complaining about the "poor quality of existing email services" and born "millions of M&Ms later".


Name: Envision
Started: 2017
Founders: Karthik Mahadevan and Karthik Kannan
Based: The Netherlands
Sector: Technology/Assistive Technology
Initial investment: $1.5 million
Current number of staff: 20
Investment stage: Seed
Investors: 4impact, ABN Amro, Impact Ventures and group of angels

Company Profile

Company name: Yeepeey

Started: Soft launch in November, 2020

Founders: Sagar Chandiramani, Jatin Sharma and Monish Chandiramani

Based: Dubai

Industry: E-grocery

Initial investment: $150,000

Future plan: Raise $1.5m and enter Saudi Arabia next year

Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”


Men's wheelchair 800m T34: 1. Walid Ktila (TUN) 1.44.79; 2. Mohammed Al Hammadi (UAE) 1.45.88; 3. Isaac Towers (GBR) 1.46.46.


Power train: 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 and synchronous electric motor
Max power: 800hp
Max torque: 950Nm
Transmission: Eight-speed auto
Battery: 25.7kWh lithium-ion
0-100km/h: 3.4sec
0-200km/h: 11.4sec
Top speed: 312km/h
Max electric-only range: 60km (claimed)
On sale: Q3
Price: From Dh1.2m (estimate)

Why it pays to compare

A comparison of sending Dh20,000 from the UAE using two different routes at the same time - the first direct from a UAE bank to a bank in Germany, and the second from the same UAE bank via an online platform to Germany - found key differences in cost and speed. The transfers were both initiated on January 30.

Route 1: bank transfer

The UAE bank charged Dh152.25 for the Dh20,000 transfer. On top of that, their exchange rate margin added a difference of around Dh415, compared with the mid-market rate.

Total cost: Dh567.25 - around 2.9 per cent of the total amount

Total received: €4,670.30 

Route 2: online platform

The UAE bank’s charge for sending Dh20,000 to a UK dirham-denominated account was Dh2.10. The exchange rate margin cost was Dh60, plus a Dh12 fee.

Total cost: Dh74.10, around 0.4 per cent of the transaction

Total received: €4,756

The UAE bank transfer was far quicker – around two to three working days, while the online platform took around four to five days, but was considerably cheaper. In the online platform transfer, the funds were also exposed to currency risk during the period it took for them to arrive.

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