To most people, history is what happened to them and their families and friends as far back as they can remember. Everything else is a gradually fading backdrop to their lives, recalled only if it was either entertaining or dramatic.
I was thinking of this when I read mid-December about the death of John Le Carré. Of those queuing up to pay tribute to the novelist, most were at pains to praise his later work, especially The Night Manager, which just happens to have been made into a successful tv mini-series, starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie.
But there is little doubt that Le Carré’s place in the literary pantheon will depend on the sequence of novels set during the Cold War in which a demoralised and underfunded MI6 is held together by the ageing, world-weary George Smiley.
When the books came out in the 1960s and ’70s, East-West tensions were at their height. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was published just two years after the building of the Berlin Wall, which has now been down for two years longer than it was ever up. The Soviet Union has vanished, as has East Germany, home to Smiley’s arch-foe, Karla.
The sword of annihilation no longer hangs over our heads – unless, of course, Kim Jong-Un wakes up with a brain tumour one morning and sends missiles in the general direction of Japan. In terms of East vs West, the role of Russia has largely been taken over by Communist China, which has no interest in the insanity of mutual destruction but would much rather be acclaimed as number one in trade.