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 sis.gov.uk/careers 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.