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.


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