Above, Gary Oldman as George Smiley, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011).
I was I think rightly and properly fascinated by James Bond movies growing up. (I barely realized that there was a literary James Bond until one quite miserable sophomore year in high school, which I was helped in getting through by reading the battered paperback versions of the story in the local library next to the school. The school had a grey, institutional look more appropriate to a federal penitentiary than a temple of learning, but that is another story.) In any case, while Bond may have provided a diversion, there was another fictional super-spy – if you can call him that – who is part of stories which, to a prematurely cynical adolescent, acted as confirmation that, indeed, the world is at best a shabby place in which heroes with feet of clay tilt pointlessly at each other in a shadow-realm of ethical uncertainty and moral decay. I speak, of course, of none other than Mr. George Smiley, OBE, one of the “funnies” as honest policeman call them, onetime head of the organization known informally as MI6, officially as the Secret Intelligence Service, and dubbed with a fine sense of irony by Smiley’s creator, John Le Carré, “The Circus.” This is explained in Le Carré’s books as having to do with the HQ building being in Cambridge Circus, but one thing you should expect from the gent who wrote The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, is double meanings at least.
It occurred to me to wonder what sort of wristwatch Smiley would have worn as a result of an exchange of emails with the watch community’s own closest approximation to Bond, Jason Heaton (I hasten to add, only in the sense that both are well-traveled gentlemen with a taste for adventure; Jason does not share Bond’s alcoholism, addiction to cigarettes, or contemptuous disregard for the value of human life and the inherent dignity of man. Mr. Heaton is also not a spy. As far as we know.) This was prompted by the advent of James Bond Day, which we here at HODINKEE celebrated with a roundup of our favorite Q-Branch gadget watches, and good clean fun it was all around, but it made us both wonder what sort of watch would be worn by Smiley. Bond, of course, has, as a rule, affected watches which project the cold, ruthless lethality and practicality of the character (in Casino Royale, Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd describes MI6 agents as, “You know … former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches,”), but I think it is reasonable to assume that such a thing would have been anathema to Smiley.
Mr. George Smiley, in fact, has through the course of the novels been depicted as having a deep distaste for anything remotely resembling attention-seeking behavior, which is perfectly natural for someone in the espionage business – one can easily imagine Smiley murmuring, “Well, Bond – he serves a certain purpose, doesn’t he, but those flashy watches and expensive cars and immediate recourse to violence at every opportunity – it’s not really operationally secure, now, is it?”
To wonder what sort of watch Smiley might own, it is worth briefly reviewing his fictional biography. Smiley was born in about 1915, in obscurity, and made of it both a virtue and a profession; he was a student of modern languages at Oxford who specialized in Baroque German lit, and at some point, with little to look forward to professionally than laboring in academia, he was recruited into the Circus by his tutor, Jebedee.
Smiley then goes on to have a career remarkable for its longevity and ruthlessness. He surfaces in several early Le Carré novels, but most notably, though in a minor role, in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, in which, finding that one of his agents, Leamas, has blown his own cover to his girlfriend, simply incorporates her into what Leamas calls a “filthy, lousy operation,” which ends – well, no spoilers, but if you haven’t read the book (and you should), you can probably still guess how filthy, lousy intelligence operations generally ended in 1960s East Berlin. Smiley wanders across Cold War Europe, appearing and vanishing like Tyrone Slothrop in the Zone in Gravity’s Rainbow, but his archetype is most firmly solidified in the books known as The Karla Trilogy, and particularly in his exposure of the “mole,” or double agent, inside the Circus, run for decades by the Soviet master-spy known only as Karla in the 1974 novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Smiley is surrounded by people for whom the game of espionage is an exercise in some of the least lovely of human traits, including vanity, greed, and insecurity; patriotism is very far down on the list of what motivates them (though Smiley is, in his own way, deeply patriotic, or at least profoundly committed to the ideal of democracy).
Smiley is, in a word, a man for whom secrecy and discretion are not only a personal preference but a professional obligation, and he appears to live on mixed terms at best with physical objects. He is competent in technical matters which are ancillary to tradecraft – in the last Karla Trilogy novel, for instance, he goes to the trouble of making his own prints from stolen negatives; at the climax of Tinker, Tailor, he is shown to be competent in handling firearms. In general, however, he gives an impression of, if not physical clumsiness, at least a certain abstraction which precludes anything like a real fascination with technical matters and mechanisms. (Automobiles hold little interest for him; in the middle of a very dangerous set-piece rescue operation, in Smiley’s People, Guinness’ Smiley has to flee in a colleague’s Porsche; when he gets in, he exclaims, with real contempt, “What a perfectly dreadful little car.”) Nor would he be inclined to own a watch as part of a larger statement of personal style. Where Bond is notable for his slightly brutish good looks and hypermasculine charm, Smiley seems to be remarkably unappealing in that regard (his beautiful wife is serially unfaithful to him). He is vain in small things, refusing to wear hats (in the novel anyway) because they make him look ridiculous; his clothes are very expensive, but they fit him badly, which he appears not to notice (this is owing, according to the books, to his tailor wanting to rob him by charging more for the additional fabric). He seems, in short, like a person for whom such things as pens, cameras, and watches ought to be of good quality, but he would be, I think, riddled by self-doubt in evaluating them, and therefore inclined to spend probably too much money on a conservative watch, of good reputation, in the expectation that it will deliver the time accurately over many years, without giving any trouble.
And here he is, in a nutshell, as described by Le Carré, bumbling through a late-night London downpour at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor: “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.”
What watch, then, would Smiley wear? I think one likely scenario is that, during his student years, he affected a pocket watch, which is perfectly probable for a scholar of Baroque German at Oxford in the 1930s. It might have been something of English make but a good hand-made English pocket watch would have been expensive and given his disinclination for athletics and probably, by then, already retiring and regular habits, something like an Omega in a steel case would have suited him very well. Once recruited, however, he might well have wanted something a little less cumbersome than a pocket watch. I like to think he would have stuck with it, nonetheless, as long as possible – misguided loyalty is something of a Smiley trademark – but his serious, independent work in the field, which began in Germany in 1935, would probably have made him want something a little easier to use. Sometime just before the beginning of the war, I can easily imagine him happening to pass through Zurich (he was a frequent visitor to Switzerland, a mecca for spies since time immemorial) and wandering into Beyer Chronometrie on Zürich’s Bahnhofstrasse. He would have found its aura of history and solidity reassuring, I think.
Probably, he had a bit of money to spend; with no dependents (he did not marry until after the war, and never had children) and abstemious habits, his salary would not have had much to do but pile up. Of a mind to settle the question of a wristwatch once and for all, I think it is very probable he would have chosen a Patek Philippe. He might even have heard of the company itself and would have been seduced by its reputation for very high quality. My guess is that he would have walked out with a ref. 96 Calatrava, in yellow gold, ticking away on his wrist – the perfect watch, in its diffidence, discretion, and ability to appear when needed and vanish when not, for the perfect spy.
And I think it highly probable that he would scarcely give it a thought in the decades to come, as he reflexively wound it every morning, except to wonder occasionally if he had let himself be cheated on the price.
Photo credits: Alec Guinness, BBC/Paramount Pictures/Ronald Grant/Archives/Alamy Stock Photos. Gary Oldman, Movie Store Collection, Alamy Stock Photos, and Entertainment Pictures, Alamy Stock Photos.