Friday, 26 October 2012

Jobs for the kids on Her Majesty's Secret Service

WHEN considered closely, it was not the worst idea the present government has ever had, but on first hearing it seemed possibly the most surreal.
Apprenticeships in spying?
One immediately pictures spotty school-leavers tagging along behind James Bond to look after his X-ray specs, hand him the explosive toothpaste or lug around a suitcase full of various technologically-enhanced wristwatches.
Or maybe typing up tedious reports on Russian grain shipments for George Smiley.  Perhaps, on the more exciting days, popping out to pick up a brown-paper packet of secret statistics from a dead-letter drop in a rubbish-bin in Hyde Park.
Then again, the JobCentre might dispatch a young employment-seeker off to a diplomatic post in Beirut. Which would of course be cover for a role snooping on Middle-East public opinion.
Back in my day, recruitment to MI5 or 6 wasn’t like this at all.
For starters, you had to go to the right university, and preferably the right college – which I did.
Then you had to get the discreet tap on the shoulder – which I didn’t.
And that despite the fact that the man widely assumed to be the recruiting agent in my era was one of my most frequent companions at the time.
A good 20-odd years older than most of his fellow students, he had fought in the Korean War, was apparently expert in un-armed combat and had a sophisticated, knowing air that extended to encyclopaedic knowledge of foreign countries. His day-to-day vocabulary was liberally sprinkled with words I had to look up discreetly later.
Come to think of it, he was probably too much the archetypal spy to be the real thing – or was that double-bluff?
And why, if he was indeed a recruiter, would he waste time on someone so obviously not spy material as me? Cover, perhaps? Or just light relief?
Or had he, in fact, been instructed to keep an eye on me?
Russian background, obscure family connection with various middle-ranking Soviet officials, parents who had been Labour councillors. And then an unexpected place at the very college where Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt had all studied – though nearly 50 years too late to meet any of those famous defectors.
It could be made to sound almost plausibly suspicious in the hands of an imaginative novelist.
In the real world, the tap on the shoulder never came. I suppose I wouldn’t tell you if it had – but then, would I be writing this at all?
Would I be sitting at my desk in Suffolk reminiscing about things that never happened?
Or would I be enjoying a more exciting journalistic career? Reporting from exotic places to the readers of some national broadsheet (and more privately to my handlers in Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
It’s what Philby did in Beirut after being kicked out of the diplomatic corps in Washington.
Strange cove, Philby. Born in very-British India, same old school as Nick Clegg (Westminster – infinitely posher than my Durham comprehensive) and ended up on a Soviet postage stamp.
Not, I think, a very nice man. Deception and treachery were the stock-in-trade of his private life as well as his career.
In Beirut in the late 1950s as correspondent for The Economist, he became involved with the wife of his journalistic mentor. After securing her divorce from his friend, he married her, lived with her for four years – then walked out on her when fleeing to Russia in 1963 to escape arrest by the British as a spy.
After some time of not knowing which side had him – or indeed if he was still alive – she succumbed to his repeated pleas to leave her children and join him in Moscow. Where she soon discovered he was having an affair with the wife of Donald Maclean, another of the Cambridge spy ring.
Charming. As spies no doubt tend to be.
Hardly the kind of career you expect to have apprenticeships in, though.
And, as it turns out, not at all the kind of spying William Hague had in mind when announcing his intention to recruit teenagers to the undercover cause.
His idea is rather to employ the skills gained on the X-Box and PlayStation at GCHQ, the not-so-secret “listening station” in Cheltenham. An establishment best known for snooping, not on dodgy foreigners with funny accents and false moustaches, but on ordinary British citizens.
People, for example, like comprehensive schoolkids who somehow wind up at Trinity College.


I’M not sure I have ever agreed with anything Norman Tebbit has said, and I’m not about to change that now.
Tebbit was the attack dog of the Thatcher government and at 81 he is still displaying a full set of gnashers.
Now, though, instead of baring them in the service of a Conservative administration he is sinking them into one.
“This dog of a coalition government has let itself be given a bad name and now anybody can beat it,” he said at the weekend.
With friends like that…
But: Dog of a government?
As a great lover and admirer of dogs, I take severe exception to that offensive metaphor.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Armstrong leaves a nasty stain

ONE week Jimmy Savile, the next Lance Armstrong. Which popular icon, I wonder, will be next to be revealed as a mere human, and a nasty, sordid human at that?
The two cases are, of course, different in many ways.
Armstrong’s headstone is unlikely ever to be crushed and sent to landfill as it hasn’t been erected yet – though his reputation has suffered something similar.
While Savile isn’t around to defend himself, Armstrong has simply given up doing so. Which, as the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency has pointed out, is pretty much an admission that the 1,000-page dossier published by the US agency contains at least some damning truths.
Both may have been liars and bullies with egos the size of small planets but no one, as far as I know, has ever accused Armstrong of sexual impropriety.
And if Savile did drugs, well, frankly, who cares? As long as he didn’t administer them to anyone else.
Which is, effectively, what several of Armstrong’s former US Postal cycling team-mates have accused him of.
The man who dominated the peloton for a record seven straight years of victories in the Tour de France is said to have dominated his colleagues by sheer force of personality. And then some.
As the USADA report puts it: “His goal led him to depend on EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions but also, more ruthlessly, to expect and to require that his team-mates would likewise use drugs to support his goals if not their own.”
The way team masseuse Emma O’Reilly has described being used as the team’s drug mule, carrying packages across borders, is sickening. As is her claim that Armstrong borrowed her make-up to disguise needle marks.
The testimony of Tyler Hamilton – who might himself have been team leader if Armstrong hadn’t been around – about keeping bottles of blood and drugs in hotel fridges “with the milk” is jaw-dropping.
But not exactly eye-opening, as so many people knew all the time – or at least very strongly suspected – that such things were going on.
It’s an interesting fact that Armstrong’s first Tour triumph came in 1999 – the year after the infamous Festina Affair supposedly cleared all the drug-users out of the big race.
Or, as we might see it now, took away the other main users, leaving the field free for the team that did it most effectively.
In some ways the most interesting person in this whole sorry story – certainly the one to have most sympathy with – is Christophe Bassons.
Roll back to a couple of years before Armstrong’s long reign began and put yourself in Bassons’s cycling shoes.
Here is a young man with a string of amateur titles to his name, recently crowned time-trial champion of France.
Turning pro with the Festina team, he is offered two alternative contracts. One is worth 4,500 euros a month, the other ten times as much.
The difference is never spelled out, but he knows what it means. He signs the 4,500-euro deal.
In such a situation, how many of us would be that strong?
In 1998, when Festina became the first team to be thrown out of the Tour for organised drug-use, Bassons was the only team-member not to be arrested or charged.
He went on to ride three more Tours for other teams but found himself shunned by most of the other riders.
His 1999 team, Francaise des Jeux, pooled their winnings but excluded him from the share-out.
Armstrong confronted him, telling him he should “go home” after he mentioned drugs in a newspaper column.
Even without such antagonism, it must have been hard to go on, knowing you had no chance ever of winning, and why.
Today all the indications are that top-class cycling is as clean as it’s been for several decades.
It is just two years since Alberto Contador was stripped of his third Tour title over a doping violation. His technical infringement, though, was not of the same nature or scale as the allegations levelled against Armstrong and co.
And there is a plausible argument that such action over one doubtful test shows how far the sport has come in cleaning up its act.
It was also in 2010 that Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour title. Not because he was caught but because he owned up. A former US Postal team-mate, he also provided some of the crucial evidence now stacked up against Armstrong.
I well remember Landis’s procession to his “victory”, which was stunning – and suspicious – because he seemed to come from nowhere.
Six years on I sincerely believe Bradley Wiggins’s claim that his own brilliant success this summer proves it’s possible to win the Tour riding “clean”.
But cynics will remain, as they are bound to. For what can you do to cleanse a stain like the one left by the Armstrong generation? 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Savile scandal reminded me of my missed scoop

IT might have been the scoop of my life. Journalists, you know, are supposed to live for scoops.
No doubt some do. Most of us, though, have rather more mundane lives than that. And when the potential exclusive came my way I really didn’t know what to do with it.
It was the proverbial hot potato. A story that would have made national front pages and, along the way, wrecked one or two successful careers.
Careers that – if the story turned out to be true – thoroughly deserved to be wrecked.
But as a sports sub-editor whose most glamorous task was writing headlines, I didn’t have the skills, the contacts or, frankly, the nerve to undertake the necessary investigation.
So I decided the right thing to do was to hand my potential scoop over to an expert.
I didn’t have all the details, but what I had been told was a pretty sordid and unpleasant tale.
It concerned two former sportsmen, one of whom had allegedly “procured” – nasty word, but we know what it means – a 15-year-old girl for the other.
I knew where this was supposed to have taken place, but not when. Neither did I know the identity of the girl. I’d been told, though – a particularly sordid touch – that her father had been involved in “selling” her virginity.
The man whose apparently perverted and illegal tastes were said to have been catered for in this way has been largely forgotten since, but he was well enough known at the time. It should have been a great story for the News of the World, for whom I was working.
I took my tip-off to Clive Goodman, the reporter who later became the first to be sacked and jailed over the phone-hacking scandal.
“Oh yeah,” he told me. “We know all about that. We’ve been trying to stand it up for months but we can’t prove anything.”
So that was that.
Either a sleazeball had got away with his squalid and nasty behaviour or I had been saved from the legal nightmare of making a false accusation. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for certain which.
Now it seems similar doubts and dilemmas must have for years been afflicting a number of people in possession of allegations, rumours – and vile memories – about Jimmy Savile.
When Savile’s sexual preying on young girls hit the news, my first thought was: “Why now?”
If he couldn’t be prosecuted when he was alive, what was the point in bringing his behaviour to light now he was dead? Why tarnish an icon?
There are several good answers to this question, and the first is the opportunity it gives his victims – of whom it now seems there were many – to get it off their chest.
Having such a secret must have been a serious burden to some, perhaps for much of their lives. Especially in the light of Sir Jimmy’s hitherto almost sainted image as a national treasure.
On a wider scale, bringing the sordid culture Savile was part of it into the light of scrutiny might help to end it. Which can only be a good thing.
It’s so obvious it hardly needs mentioning that fame is a powerful magnet and aphrodisiac. Rock stars and footballers are not the only ones with their groupies.
I’ve known a few girls who were happy to have – and talk about – sexual encounters with passing musicians. And one or two boys too.
But when the age bar is lowered, and when coercion is involved, the whole issue becomes must messier, much nastier.
One of the most unpleasant revelations about Savile since last week’s airing of ITV’s documentary came from his former fellow DJ Paul Gambaccini. And it concerns one of the reasons why Savile’s proclivities were never splashed across the press while he was alive.
Gambaccini told the Daybreak programme: “On one occasion – and this cuts to the chase of the whole matter – he was called and he said, ‘Well you could run that story, but if you do there goes the funds that come in to Stoke Mandeville. Do you want to be responsible for the drying up of the charity donations?’ And they backed down.”
I’m guessing the paper on the other end of the line wasn’t the fearless News of the World. But maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe they had their suspicions and tip-offs all along but – for whatever reason – couldn’t “stand them up”.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

In a ritual landscape

Like so many people in what we might call the Late Time-Team Era, I’ve become over the years something of an armchair archaeologist. So I know a good Ritual Landscape when I see one.
Classic examples are in Orkney, Brittany, County Meath in Ireland and around Stonehenge. I’ve visited them all.
There aren’t any obvious examples in Suffolk, probably because we don’t have big stones capable of standing around in circles for very long.
The definitive thing about a good Ritual Landscape is that several outstanding archaeological sites are all found within a short distance of one another – often in sight of one another.
Another thing (the clue is in that word “ritual”) is that archaeologists confidently ascribe a religious meaning to them. When, for all we really know, their original significance might have been something completely different.
What, some future archaeologist might speculate, was the religious significance of all those very tall buildings that the global culture of the early 21st century erected in all its big cities? They were obviously great temples – to the glory of the great god Mammon, perhaps? Mammon was certainly very highly revered in that period.
And what of all those ribbon-like concrete-and-asphalt structures connecting one temple complex with another?
Surely they had some great ritual importance? (Yes, indeed – worship of the internal combustion engine.)
Back in our own time, I’ve just returned from a highly enjoyable weekend in what I can only describe as a ritual landscape of the early industrial age.
In fact, Ironbridge in Shropshire is proud to call itself “the Birthplace of Industry” (though this does rather beg the question of what went on in the extensive copper mines of the Bronze Age and how the Iron Age got its name).
It may be fair to say that the Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century and had its full flowering in the 19th had its genesis at what became Ironbridge – though parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham and Cornwall also played crucial early roles.
What is certain, though, is that outcroppings of coal, iron ore and limestone along the sides of the same narrow valley made a perfect place for iron-smelting to be developed in industrial quality and quantity. And that the river Severn, whose erosive effect had brought the minerals conveniently to the surface, also proved convenient for shipping out the finished product.

Model of 18th-century industry in the Ironbridge Gorge at the Museum of the Gorge. All pictures are mine
The ritual-landscape quality of the Ironbridge Gorge is now marked by the profusion of brown signs pointing to a multiplicity of museums all within easy walking distance of one another.There are ten of them in all, from the Coalport Tar Tunnel to the horribly named Enginuity, Blists Hill Victorian Town to the rather disappointing Museum of the Gorge.
And that’s not counting the Iron Bridge itself, the famous and picturesque structure thrown across the Severn in 1779 by Abraham Darby III, grandson and namesake of the man generally credited with revolutionising iron.
What must in its heyday have been a very busy, smoky, smelly and rather dangerous valley is now a delight to stroll round. A little over-touristy perhaps – unsurprisingly, given its World Heritage Site status – but clean, charming and slightly other-worldly.
And it’s not too hard to escape the crowds on a walk that takes in the Quaker burial plot of the founding Darbies, a 19th-century railway bridge that curves attractively over the mill-pond of an earlier works, and passes Georgian and Victorian houses from the grand to the humble.
Even the Youth Hostel, where we stayed, is a perfect example of grand Victorian paternalism, having started out as the Literary and Scientific Institute. (If there is any institute I’d rather be a member of, I can’t think of it right now.) It stands splendidly on the valley side on a thoroughfare known, perhaps a trifle optimistically, as Paradise.
Even the distinctly 20th-century power-station cooling towers that loom over the western edge of town are somehow neither inappropriate nor unattractive in this setting.
The Ironbridge Gorge, in fact, was very much a ritual landscape throughout the era when industrial process was the ritual.
And after falling into decay in the middle part of the last century, it’s come back into its own in this era of ritual tourism.
Like Orkney’s stone circles and Brittany’s monolithic alignments, Weardale’s old lead workings and Cornwall’s tin mines, the valley was once full of people hard at work. Now its population is largely transitory – visitors intent on reviving the lives of those long-ago folk in imagination.
The ancestor-worship of our times.