Monday, 20 February 2012

Here endeth my chance of a job in MI6

WHAT do you call James Bond in the bath? Bubble-O-Seven.
I was probably about seven myself when I first laughed at that one. But I reckon it’s good to start early to appreciate the funny side – the sheer inane hilariousness – of spies and the world of secret intelligence. Or perhaps that should be “intelligence”.
I got a good chuckle almost immediately on opening up the website of SIS – the Secret Intelligence Service, formerly known as MI6. What did it was the line: “With the exception of Sir John Sawers and Prof Keith Jeffery, all people featured on this website are actors.”
Bet RADA’s cast-offs are scrabbling for those jobs. Pretend to be a spy for a day or two while we train our (no doubt secret) cameras on you. But why bother paying actors? I’m sure they’ve got all of us on camera anyway.
Who are these people who take themselves so seriously and who can’t be identified? Well, obviously, I don’t know. But there’s a page on the website helpfully headed Who We Are, so that should help.
But it doesn’t really. Apart from an artfully angled photo of a bit of a building, which should at least help to identify where they are, there’s not much clue there to anyone’s identity.
It does, in typically po-faced manner, state: “The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) was established in 1909 as the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau. The Foreign Section’s responsibility for overseas intelligence collection has been retained ever since by SIS under a variety of names and acronyms. The Foreign Section’s responsibility was placed on a statutory basis in the Intelligence Services Act 1994.” And so on.
There’s a mildly amusing tale to be uncovered under those names and acronyms.
About the time Sexton Blake was mutating from a Sherlock Holmes clone into a prototype Bond, in 1909, the Secret Service Bureau was established by the Committee of Imperial Defence. The bureau was soon abbreviated to Secret Service, SS bureau, or even just plain SS.
Which would obviously have had an unfortunate resonance later, had it not in the meantime already mutated into the rather unglamorous-sounding MI1(c) under the leadership of a naval officer called Mansfield Cumming – who obviously, being a Navy type, didn’t like “appearing under the auspices of the War Office”.
Well, who would, eh? But it is at this point in the official story that I begin to wonder whether those chaps at the MI6 (sorry, SIS) website don’t have a bit of a sense of humour after all.
Official Whitehall designations after this include Foreign Intelligence Service, Special Intelligence Service, and the charmingly enigmatic, oddly personalised, “C’s organisation”.
All of which conveys beautifully the gentleman’s club, boys-in-the-dorm, role-playing, jolly-good-game spirit of the whole thing. The distinction becomes a little blurred, in fact, between the passing around of Sexton Blake comics in the dorm and the passing of files stamped “Top Secret” across smoky tables.
“C”, of course, was Cumming, a man probably with no discernible sense of humour – certainly about himself. A man whose pompous single initial is still used, hilariously, by the present incumbent of the role, the non-secret Sawers, or The Chief, “the only serving member of the Service who is officially named in public”.
All the other roles, when not taken by actors, are played by people who live their lives pretending to be other people. A bit like actors, in fact.
People whose real lives are probably somewhat less exciting than those of George Smiley, Richard Hannay, Bond, or any of their countless other fictional versions, but who no doubt enjoy the element of subterfuge all the same.
The job ads stress it: “Where else could you watch history in the making and pretend you had a boring day at the office?”
Job ads? For C’s organisation? My, how times have changed.
In my day, one went to the right school, the right college, and waited for the discreet tap on the wrist, the quiet invitation to sherry.
I was always a little disappointed not to get the tap. Unless I got it and didn’t notice. Or unless I’m double-bluffing now, which of course you wouldn’t know and I wouldn’t admit.
Now you just go to and click “Who we’re looking for”. (The disappointingly banal answer is “people with a host of different skills, backgrounds and experiences” – though that does include “operational officers” as well as administrators, IT technicians, drivers and telephonists. It sounds like any other job ad when you drill down to the detail.)
They must, as ever, be looking for people who can use terms like “the national interest” with no sense of irony or amusement. And who enjoy keeping secrets, even from best friends and closest family.
No doubt the time I’ve spent on the website researching this column has been duly logged. The very act of writing it, though, has clearly ruled me out of a job with the organisation – even if I weren’t already disqualified for several other reasons.
I couldn’t help it, though. The sheer fact of SIS having a public website, and taking out ads in the press to promote it, both tickled my funnybone and piqued my interest.
Especially at a time when, as they admit, “there are fewer vacancies than usual on the site due to public sector cutbacks”.
Even the spooks are in hard times, it seems.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

It's not just your genes, but how you wear them

IT’S one of the oldest, and most intractable, debates going: nature v nurture. Are you the way you are because of your genes, or the way you were brought up?
Pop science of the downmarket, fancy-that variety seems obsessed these days with the nature side of the argument. It is, I suppose, a step on from the idea that your character is formed by the star sign you were born under. But only just.
Talk of a “crime gene”, a “gayness gene”, a “warrior gene”, is so simplistic as to be not just misleading but – to all intents and purposes – wrong.
Crime, for example, cannot be innate because the very concept of “crime” can only apply within a developed society. It can only have arisen after societies did. Which, in evolutionary terms, may not be that many ages ago.
A gene for liking high heels? Oh, do me a favour. It’s hard to imagine greater poppycock. Yet I read a supposedly serious discussion of it in one of our popular prints.
It may seem like harmless rubbish, but there’s a dangerous agenda lurking just below the surface.
“It’s in my genes” could be the most arrant excuse for evading responsibility for one’s own actions.
Conversely, “it’s in their genes” could be a vicious way of branding a whole section of society – a racial group, say – with some supposed defect.
That, in fact, is precisely the gobbet of pseudo-science the Nazis used to justify the mass murder of Romanies, Jews and the mentally ill. Which is about as far from harmless as it’s possible to be.
Sure, we’re the product of our genes. They make us the colours, heights and shapes we are; they make us more or less intelligent; they influence our character. But (I really want to shout this bit in big loud capital letters) only in reaction with our environment. Which includes the people around us – our society at large as well as our families.
People in relatively rich countries, such as ours, are not only fatter than they used to be, they’re taller too. It’s not our genes that have changed, but our diet.
Americans aren’t more religious than us, less keen on public health provision, or more inclined to carry guns because of their genes. It’s cultural.
And here’s a fascinating thing I didn’t know. The Japanese have blue apples.
It’s not their fruit that’s different – or their eyes. It’s just that the same Japanese word covers both green and blue. They literally can’t “tell” the difference.
Which sounds odd until you realise that English only got the word “orange” in the 16th century. Until then, carrots were yellow. It’s not the carrots, our eyes or our genes that have changed. Just the language.
I got that fascinating fact (about Japanese apples) from a new book by a New York professor, Jesse J Prinz – Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape Our Lives.
It ought to be required reading for every Daily Mail reader – except that their upbringing and culture may not have prepared them for it.

The partially sighted leading the blind

THE internet is a wonderful research tool. It’s been readily available for less than half my career as a journalist yet I can’t really remember how we used to manage without it.
Of course one has to remember the usual warnings. That Wikipedia, brilliant as it is, is not totally reliable. That it’s always worth cross-checking, and looking up its sources. Not to mention applying that too-often-forgotten tool, your brain.
It’s worth bearing in mind that online, just like in the real world, there’s usually someone trying to sell you something.
Then there’s the net’s prodigious capacity to distract, to lead you off at tangents.
All human life (and much else) may be there, but I’d like to see the Google or Bing that can find a literal needle in a real haystack. And I’d like to find the grim nugget of history that I set out in search of just a few paragraphs ago.
In 1209 Simon de Montfort (father of the man often credited with calling the first English parliament) did a nasty thing in southern France. After capturing one Cathar castle, he had the eyes of 100 men gouged out. He left one man with one eye to lead them to the next, stronger, castle as a gory warning to its defenders.
This I remember (and have checked). What I can’t recall is which Roman, Greek, or other earlier macho-man is said to have done the same thing – and presumably gave Simon the idea.
I’ve looked. Indeed, I’ve wasted some time looking. But all I’ve come up with is some stuff about classical beggars, some arcane details of the Catholic mass (?), a page about a Danish jazz-player (!) – and lots of people trying to sell me Roman blinds. Whatever they are.
Oh, and also, I suppose, this little disquisition, which has ended up having nothing to do with the subject I sat down to write about (see main piece above). Well, almost nothing.