European Times: Bonn - A small town in Germany shrinks to its proper size

THE TIME is seven o'clock on one of those sultry Bonn evenings. The highway dissecting the government district is already lifeless. The residents are at home, watering the geraniums and waiting for daylight to fade so they can drop the shutters. In a tent in front of the British embassy, a jazz band strikes up "It's a long way to Tipperary", a couple of removal trucks rumble past and the selected guests queue for autographs, clutching yellowed volumes of A Small Town in Germany.

The author, John le Carre, has come back like a prodigal son, to his "literary kindergarten", to make a bitter-sweet farewell. The embassy where he had worked in the early Sixties and hatched his sinister plots is closing, as is the rest of Bonn. Politicians, civil servants, diplomats, spies and their retinue of lobbyists and scribblers are heading for the big town on the River Spree.

Soon there will be nothing to remind Bonners of their unexpected golden age other than a string of empty concrete buildings along the "diplomats' race track", and Le Carre`s famous book. The latter, depicting Bonn as a town forever shrouded in mist and steaming with intrigue, is regarded by the natives as something of a mixed blessing.

Le Carre apologises for any offence caused, and tries to make amends by treating his audience to anecdotes from the time when he was still earning an honest living in Her Majesty's Service. There was the story of the kiss, for instance. Much geopolitical significance was ascribed to the manner in which the pursed lip of Konrad Adenauer, the former German chancellor, made contact with the flushed cheek of Charles de Gaulle. And did Britain fail to get into what began as the Common Market at the first attempt because of Harold Macmillan's excessive fondness for kirsch? Ask the author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - a book written in Bonn - who had the honour of hauling the prime minister out of his crucial meeting on that memorable night.

Perhaps he will talk now as the cupboards in Bonn are finally cleared. There are so many secrets. During the Cold War, every intelligence service of the world was crammed into this busy town, all operating in a climate of peaceful coexistence. The Romeos of the East German Stasi, cruising for female employees of Western embassies, plied their trade side by side with the agents of the free world.

There were rules of engagement and neutral ground. The restaurant Klein Petersberg, for instance, overlooking the Rhine, was known to everyone as the Central Intelligence Agency's staff canteen. Jurgen Gietler, Saddam Hussein's most successful spy in the Gulf War, told me he had met his Iraqi controller here. It was the one place guaranteed not to be under surveillance.

The domestic antagonists of this overcrowded hothouse also observed a pact of non- aggression. The political parties all had their assigned watering holes, protected by a peculiarly Rhenish conspiracy of silence. Whatever politicians did in the twilight hours, Bonn's code of conduct dictated that no colleague or member of the press could reveal their exploits to the public.

Thus, the world learnt nothing of the late nights the former chancellor Willy Brandt spent at the Norwegian embassy in the company of a whisky bottle, or his serial liaisons with female members of the press corps. He was forced to resign, historians tell us, because an East German spy was unmasked in his office. What the Stasi had on him is best left unsaid. As are the peccadilloes of politicians who followed in his wake. So very cosy.

Oh, the magic of Bonn, a town cocooned in its historic mission. An incestuous colonial outpost inhabited by bureaucrats of plodding decency and competence dedicated to the task of creating a plodding but competent democracy. There were to be no pretentions of grandeur here. "Bonn has always been a small city," declared deputy mayor Buarbel Reindl as she drew a curtain on a half-century of British presence. "It never wanted to be anything else."

Most residents never came to terms with the growing status of a capital aspiring for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The shops refused to accommodate foreign tongues, insisted to the end on closing at ridiculously early hours and shunned credit cards. Bonn is half a million strong now, but still clings to its small-town identity.

To which it will soon revert, marking German democracy's coming of age. The British embassy has been sold to Deutsche Telekom, but some of the capital's paraphernalia, such as the glass-walled debating chamber of the Bundestag, remain up for grabs. With so many professions leaving town, perhaps the abandoned home of parliament will be claimed by the oldest. One possible use being touted is as a brothel. Too late: the clientele have moved 600 kilometres east.