A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson (2013)

An entertaining and eye-opening survey of the role of the spy since 1945.

The sub-title is Modern Spying from the Cold War to the War on Terror, but in fact the book reads as if it is in two distinct parts: 1. The Cold War. 2. The War on Terror, each of which has completely different rules and atmosphere.

Also it is a history of the spy, not of spying as a whole. As it progresses you begin to realise that a full and complete history of spying would itself be huge, and also just part of a wider history of ‘intelligence’ gathering in the broadest sense. This would be a vast, maybe an impossibly huge task, bringing in all kinds of electronic, remote and automatic surveillance and communications monitoring.

Simpson describes some of the most vivid instances of this kind of wire tapping and phone cable intercepting, but the focus of the book is on the stories of individual spies. He very usefully sets the stories against the main geopolitical events of the past seventy years, which are briefly described, but always to revert to the book’s core content, which is a set of 100 or so potted biographies of notable spies and summaries of their activities.

Sample spy stories

  • Igor Gouzenko, a lieutenant in Russian intelligence, defected in 1945 and implicated 21 Canadians as Russian agents, including Fred Rose, the only communist ever elected to the Canadian parliament.
  • Elizabeth Bentley, ‘the red Spy Queen’, who’d been working for the KGB since 1933, confessed to the FBI in 1945 and named 150 Americans working as Russian agents, and wrote a 107-page document detailing all aspects of Soviet spycraft and organisation in the US.
  • Georges Pâques, a key advisor to various French ministers through to the early 1960s, was a KGB agent with access to the entire NATO defence plan for Western Europe.
  • Gunvor Galtung Haavik worked at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1955 to 1977, and was a KGB agent the whole time, passing secrets to the Russians.
  • From 1953 GRU officer Pyotr Popov supplied the CIA with details of the organisation of Soviet military command, the structure of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the USSR armed forces) and with names and operations of Soviet agents in Europe, before being caught and executed by the Russians.
  • Army sergeant and part-time pimp Robert Lee Johnson tried to sell his services to the KGB several times before getting lucky and getting assigned to the Armed Forces Courier Service at Orly airport. He was able to break into the top secret vault there, photograph and send the Soviets information about cypher systems and defence plans for the US and NATO.
  • Canadian economist Hugh Hambleton worked for the Russians from inside NATO between 1957 and 1961 and provided so much material that the KGB had to provide a black van equipped with a photographic library so that it could be speedily copied and returned. He spied for over 20 years.
  • British naval clerk John Vassall worked in the Admiralty and sent the Russians thousands of classified documents covering naval policy and weapons development. He did this for five years.
  • By 1960 the KGB had three agents working in the newly-founded US National Security Agency (NSA). Two cryptologists, William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell defected to Moscow and gave a press conference in which they revealed the NSA was spying on all sorts of countries ‘friendly’ to the USA.
  • Staff sergeant John Dunlap was chauffeur to the chief of staff of the NSA and from 1960 onwards supplied the Soviets with instruction books, manuals, and designs for the Americans’ cipher machines, up till 1963.
  • Head of the East German HVA (the intelligence wing of the dreaded Stasi) Markus Wolff, was said to have up to three thousand agents working for him at every level of the West German state. He became well known for the honey trap whereby handsome young men seduced older female secretaries working in West German government positions. Thus Irmgard Römer who worked at the Bonn Foreign Office, was persuaded by her handsome lover, a KGB agent, to give him copies of all the top secret telegrams she handled. Leonore Sütterlein, another secretary in the Foreign Ministry, was eventually convicted of passing over 3,000 classified documents to her husband who was in fact a KGB officer. When she realised he had only married her in order to access the documents, she killed herself.

And so on and so on, the book selecting some hundred – from what it suggests could easily be thousands – of similar stories.

1. The Cold War

Three or four big themes emerge fro this litany of betrayal:

Russia versus America

Simpson’s book overwhelmingly focuses on the conflict between communist Russia and capitalist America. The text proceeds decade by decade, setting the scene of major geopolitical events – the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and so on – to explain the pressure of events which often motivated individual defectors and agents. For example, the KGB operatives who were disillusioned by the way the Russians crushed the ‘Prague Spring’. But the axis of battle is always between East and West.

There are sub-sections on other countries: Britain recurs, presumably because this is a British book by a British author, maybe also because we are so closely tied to the Americans thus there is a substantial section about the ‘Magnificent Five’ Cambridge spies in Britain, and brief references to the reorganisations over the period of MI5 and MI6. But of other security services with hefty histories of their own – BOSS in South Africa or Mossad in Israel – there are only fleeting references. Mostly – as with the East German Stasi or the Czech StB – they are only referenced insofar as they connect with the book’s main CIA-KGB axis.

A treachery of spies

Maybe the biggest revelation of the book is simply how many spies there have been. And how often their betrayals were on an epic scale: lots of the individuals mentioned here didn’t hand over bits and bobs to the other side, a file here or there – but spent years and years systematically copying, photographing and handing over the most sensitive, top secret material imaginable. Some needed sets of filing cabinets or even lorries to cart away the huge amounts of documents they betrayed. Others sent so much to the enemy their material was still being sifted and analysed five years later.

The sheer scale of the material these agents sold, passed on and betrayed raises two thoughts:

a) An impressive number of the traitors described here were obvious security risks: known alcoholics, unreliable, erratic, greedy or amoral materialists. As the list of traitors grows steadily longer through the post-war decades, it makes you seriously wonder about the ‘vetting’ techniques of all these so-called ‘security’ bodies. When you consider that the British traitor Kim Philby, a committed agent for the KGB, almost became head of MI6, you wonder whether the word ‘security’ actually means anything.

b) There was so much to betray. In movies the McGuffin or thing being stolen is always small and portable, nowadays just a disk or flash drive. But in reality, it consisted of hundreds, if not thousands, if not truckloads – of documents. The sheer weight of information betrayed and sold by both sides is staggering. And how can the security apparatuses on either side have survived having so much stolen and given away?

For example, the Manhattan Project which produced America’s atom bomb appears to have been riddled with Russian spies. So much so, that the Russians themselves detonated an A bomb just four years after the Americans (1949), based entirely on stolen US technology.

Looking back, did it matter that security around the bomb was so tight, when it appears to have been so comprehensively broken? As you read page after page of shocking revelations about how much has been betrayed, you begin to wonder whether anything can be kept secure.

Bureaucracy

Spying is about finding out information someone wants to keep secret. The modern industrial state generates information on a colossal scale, itself increased by many orders of magnitude by the advent of digital technology.

But even between 1945 and 1991, reading this book makes you realise that the spying, information and counter-espionage agencies were just part of vastly bigger military and political bureaucracies and organisations, themselves just part of vast nations with tens of millions of people, engaged in the enormous, multivarious tasks of creating and running the modern world. An indication of this is the six page glossary of organisation acronyms at the end of the book – ASIO, ASIS, AHV, BND, CSIS, CTC, DCI, FAPSI, FSB, GRU, HVA – and so on and so on.

The book gives the sense that there seems to be no end of projects and initiatives and reorganisations going on at any one time, and no end of alcoholics, gamblers, sex addicts or ideological fanatics ready to betray everything they know for money, love or political conviction.

2. The War on Terror

Al-Qaeda was set up at the end of Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1988. It pledged itself to destroy America, kill Jews and restore Islamic purity. It funded and organised a string of attacks against US military and civilian targets throughout the 1990s, and ushered in a completely new era.

Looking back, various CIA etc experts make the point that the Cold War had rules and was played by ‘gentlemen’. Prisoners were interrogated, sent for trial and imprisoned. Periodically there would be prisoner exchanges, their spy for our spy. Both sides knew the rules and kept things more or less under control. (The Sovs routinely executed their traitors but then, so, in the 1950s, did America, for example the atom bomb spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.)

There is none of that with Islamic terrorism. They are not ‘gentlemen’. They want to die and take as many people as possible with them. It is almost impossible to infiltrate their small, loosely-organised cells. It presents an altogether different challenge.

The two most notable events in the ongoing Century of Islamic Terror were 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Simpson briskly retells the stories as colossal failures of intelligence:

9/11 There were lots of intelligence leads suggesting some kind of spectacular was about to take place against America, and even suggestions it might be done with planes acting as bombs. Some of the hijackers had been marked by intelligence services. There was just a complete failure to pull this intelligence together and to realise what it meant. Personally, I think hindsight is a great thing, everything is obvious once it’s happened. If the previous 200 pages had shown anything, it is the challenge presented by the sheer volume of intelligence information, the challenge of making sense of it all.

And there are some obvious historical parallels for the complete failure to anticipate major attacks which, in retrospect, seem obvious. For example, nobody at all expected the Great War. A lot of people were alarmed at the arms race with Germany, especially the naval arms race, but nobody expected the war to become quite the epic catastrophic it turned out.

And whereas the Second World War was a lot more expected, it still contained several stunning intelligence failures. The failure of America to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour is something historians still debate. More intriguing is the decisive event of the war, and of the 20th century, Hitler’s decision to attack Russia. If he hadn’t, Nazi Germany might have enjoyed prolonged hegemony over occupied Europe, but even though (this book says) over 80 separate reports reached Stalin about an imminent Nazi attack, he rejected them all as Western propaganda and so the red Army was completely unprepared for Operation Barbarossa when it kicked off on 22 June 1941.

Iraq Ironically, the opposite case: there was a dearth of solid intelligence but that didn’t stop politicians, specifically George Bush encouraged by Donald Rumsfeld, from twisting what intelligence there was into ‘evidence’ that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction he was prepared to use against the West at any point.

This is such a vast subject, and such an ongoing nightmare for the Middle East, all recently raked up again by the Chilcot Report, that there’s no point trying to summarise it. Suffice to say this book gives a useful historical perspective to recent events by briskly describing previous Western invasions or attempts at regime change, including the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956 (the Suez Crisis) and the American attempt to foment an armed uprising against Castro in Cuba (1961), or the successful Anglo-American overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953, or the CIA-assisted overthrow of Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973.

The debacle in Iraq didn’t stop NATO from intervening in the Libyan civil war to bomb Qaddafi’s forces in 2011, and the British Parliament from voting to approve UK involvement in air strikes on Syria in 2015.

What is a spy?

In movies and fiction a ‘spy’ is a special agent who goes on a ‘mission’ often into enemy territory, to capture a gizmo or rescue a person or – in the more grandiose fictions – to foil a plot for world domination. The real life cases given here suggest that secret service work involves either:

  • being based in your home country
    • managing networks of agents overseas
    • analysing the ‘product’ ie trying to make sense of the reams of information they send back
    • doing counter-espionage ie trying to spot and control enemy spying going on in your home country
  • being posted overseas, generally working from an embassy, or being funded by your home government
    • engaging in propaganda work of some sort or another, providing money and materiel to political parties or activists
    • actively recruiting and running agents in sensitive positions who could supply ‘us’ with useful information

John le Carré is probably the novelist most associated with emphasising the humdrum, desk-bound, essentially administrative nature of most intelligent work, with only the occasional flash of violence out in the real world.


Credit

A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson was published by Robinson in 2013.

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The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth (1991)

‘Don’t worry, old boy,’ he said to Dobbs. ‘If one of them moves I’ll just blow his nuts off.’ (p.464)

Intriguingly, this novel which Forsyth published at the end of the Cold War and as the USSR collapsed is, like John le Carré’s novel of the same era, The Secret Pilgrim, not really a novel but a collection of linked but self-contained stories, four in this case. For both writers the linked short story format gives them an opportunity to review the Cold War years through different episodes. Or to use up old plots before they become irrelevant…

The frame story is set in 1990 as senior civil servants in Whitehall set about reforming the intelligence services. Convinced the world will now be a safer place they want to save money by offering older intelligence officers alternative, lower paid positions, or compelling them to retire. They decide to kick off the process with a high-profile example and so offer a selection of accounting or admin jobs to the legendary Sam McCready, the so-called ‘Deceiver’, a rumpled, unclubbable man (shades of George Smiley) who was unexpectedly appointed head of the SIS in 1983 and surprised everyone by running it efficiently for the past seven years.

When McCready turns down the jobs he’s offered, and refuses retirement, it triggers a tribunal into his case. Here his number two, Denis Gaunt, presents evidence of The Deceiver’s sterling work for the nation, and makes the case for keeping him on as a senior intelligence officer, via the four long tales which make up the body of the text.

1. Pride and Extreme Prejudice McCready sends a German agent, Bruno Morenz, over to the East to rendezvous with a Russian General and collect a book containing Russian Army deployments. But Morenz is already unbalanced by a crime of passion – murdering the prostitute he thought loved him, when she taunts him. And so his trip across the border, and then to the arranged rendezvous, is fraught. Serioulsy on edge, Morenze collects the book as arranged, but is in no position to handle the fairly minor road accident which happens ten minutes later. Panicking, he flees the scene by nicking the police car which had come to attend the accident, sparking a giant man-hunt led by East German security. Meanwhile, a scarily efficient and cold-hearted woman KGB Colonel has been tracking the movements of the General who handed over the book, suspecting him of being a traitor and now becomes involved in the hunt for Morenz. Thus it is with multiple enemies that McCready has himself smuggled across the border and sets out to find Morenz. By good investigative skills, he interviews Morenz’s old schoolteacher and so deduces the childhood hideout where he might have gone to ground. Sure enough, he is there but a complete nervous wreck, incapable of moving and so, with the Stasi closing in, McCready is forced to put the distraught agent out of his misery, before returning successfully through the wire with the vital book. Surprisingly entertaining.

2. The Price of the Bride A KGB officer, Colonel Pyotr Alexandrovitch Orlov, with the usual secrets, does a bunk from a British Army exercise where he and post-Soviet comrades are being shown British troops on manoeuvre. He insists on going straight to the Americans and the next 100 pages develop a very tangled web whereby it is slowly wormed out of him that there is a high-level Russian mole in the CIA. The lead American character, Joe Roth, handles his initial defection, then is tasked with his prolonged debriefing, and then gets caught up in the investigation into Orlov’s accusations. Forsyth has total mastery of the organisational structure and processes, the rivalries and tensions, within MI5, MI6, the CIA, the FBI, and their overlaps into the British Army, police, the Met and Special Branch. He shows us American investigators meticulously gathering the circumstantial evidence which points the finger at senior CIA man, Calvin Bailey. Unfortunately, it is a frame-up, laboriously created over many years by senior KGB officials, to create dissension and demoralise the CIA. We know this because McCready has himself been running a senior KGB mole in the Russian embassy – codename Keepsake – who explains it all to the Brits. Keepsake is himself at high risk of being captured-tortured-shot by his own side, until rescued from Moscow by McCready in a complex, high-stakes heist. But too late to save Bailey, bumped off by his own side. War is hell, kids.

The story is fairly thrilling, and bubbles over with Forsyth’s trademark factual accuracy, the big chunks of journalistic background, about names, the addresses and organisational structures, processes and procedures of the KGB, CIA and SIS. And at moments the story is almost believable – but ends up too pat, too symmetrical, too easily cynical, like one of those War Commando comics.

3. Casualty of War Tom Rowse is a disillusioned SAS man who quit after service in Northern Ireland and publicly criticised the British operation there. He’s got a nice new life, writing thrillers and living in Gloucestershire with his new young wife, who makes rugs. All the bigger surprise when Sam McCready turns up and says MI6 have information about a major arms shipment for the IRA. Involved is one particular IRA man who Tom has reason to hate which is enough to pull him out of retirement and send him on travels to Hamburg, Malta, Libya, then on to Cyprus, as he investigates the connections between the IRA and a major shipment of arms despatched by Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya.

The details of police operations, the world of mercenaries and arms dealing, the atmosphere of Hamburg and Valletta and Tripoli, the co-operation between MI6 and the CIA, the description of airports and remote monasteries and luxury hotels and a fishing boat in the Atlantic, are all fluent and persuasive. Only when Forsyth describes people do the shallow psychology, the paper-thin characters and the trite moralising let down the otherwise ripping yarns.

The exotic locations and the smooth-talking baddies (cold-eyed IRA man Kevin Mahoney and suave, gambling, threatening Head of Libyan Intelligence, Hakim al-Mansour, who both enjoy watching Rowse get beaten up while filing their nails or sipping a brandy), the way the gorgeous blonde, Monica Browne, first tends Rowse’s wounds and then unzips her dress and slips off her bra to have sex with him and then, inevitably, turns out to be a gun-toting member of the gang herself – all this is strongly reminiscent of James Bond.

4. A Little Bit of Sunshine Sunshine is a fictional island in the Bahamas. An American cop is on holiday fishing, when he catches sight of a drugs cartel contract killer he and his buddy interrogated years before. He trails the baddie to his remote villa but, unfortunately, is seen and identified. Afraid, he makes his way to the tiny airfield where he blags a seat aboard a flight out but the killer has a man tailing him who slips a bomb aboard the little charter plane and it blows up high above the Caribbean. In a separate storyline the Foreign Office are compelling the islanders to leave the Commonwealth, become independent and hold an election. Two wealthy candidates return from abroad, each presenting themselves as the island’s saviour. But a sizeable part of the population wants neither independence or election, they want to stay British. They go to petition the British Governor, the lofty Sir Marston Moberley, who refuses their requests and, a few days later, is shot dead in what looks like a professional ‘hit’. The stage is set for the murdered American cop’s partner to fly in from Miami, for British detectives to fly in from London and – guess who was taking a few days’ holiday in the region, after a boring conference in the States? Yes, Sam McCready, the Deceiver himself.

Despite the killings, this story is played for laughs, for example the way old pro Detective Chief Superintendent Desmond Hannah is lumbered with a deputy who’s never been on a murder case before ‘but loves reading about criminology in his spare time’. He is further exasperated by the inexperienced local authorities in Sunshine, and harassed at every turn by the Press who’ve flown in to cover the ‘murder in Paradise’ story. At many places it was laugh-out-loud funny – interesting to see how funny Forsyth can be when he puts his years of experience as a high end journalist to comic ends.

The climax is like an Ealing Comedy when McCready finds an investiture form in the dead governor’s desk and appoints himself Governor for a day, using his power to deputise various locals and – with a helping hand from Forsyth’s beloved SAS – they run the two crooked political candidates out of town.

Facts and fictions

Interwoven into the stories are countless chunks of recent history as Forsyth does his trademark thing of interweaving recent events with fictional characters and plots. Unsurprisingly, the story about the fake Soviet defector is littered with references to other famed double agents including the British Cambridge spies and US double agents from the 1960s onwards. The story makes repeated reference to various Soviet defectors – eg Anatoly Golitsyn who defected in 1960 and fuelled the paranoia of CIA chief James Jesus Angleton for years (p.164). Also stories about defectors who made the catastrophic mistake of returning to the Soviet side – only to be interrogated and executed. And there is the particularly gruesome fate of the CIA’s Beirut chief, William Buckley.

The third story, about Libyan arms bound for the IRA, is dense with references to the IRA’s terrorist campaigns, to its ways of meeting and procedures. I’d forgotten about the Hyde Park Barracks bombing (1982: 11 soldiers dead, 52 soldiers and civilians injured), and the Harrods bombing (1983: three police and three civilians killed). Forsyth actually takes us into the presence of Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi, and explains his twitchiness and need to move between safe locations, following the US-led air raid on his palace 15 April 1986. It references the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight 181 on 13 October 1977 – a factual event – and spuriously claims that the hero of the story, Tom Rowse, was one of the SAS stormers of the plane.

It is this interweaving of completely true events (the various double agents, spies and defectors, the IRA campaigns or Arab hijackings) and real contemporary figures (Ronald Reagan is name-checked, we are taken into Chequers to observe Mrs Thatcher at close quarters, reading the paper, having lunch and intervening in the Sunshine case) with completely fictional characters and storylines, which gives Forsyth’s fiction its particular factual density and verisimilitude.

The four qualities of a successful terrorist organisation

In a typically factual aside, Forsyth spends several pages early in The Casualties of War section (pp.273-274), describing in brisk, authoritative fashion the four qualities required by a terrorist organisation if it is going to last:

  1. a pool of keen young recruits
  2. safe havens or bolt holes to retreat to
  3. ‘the ruthlessness to stop at no threshold of atrocity’
  4. money

Interesting to apply these criteria to the terrorist organisations currently dominating our headlines some thirty years later.

Swearing

It is a relief to come from other, more literary authors, to the clarity of Forysth’s brisk, virile, no-nonsense, upper-class tones. Part of the enjoyment is the way he not only details the organisational structures and procedures of the spy organisations, police and army which he appears to know inside out, but also lets us in on their foibles, nicknames, shortcomings and rivalries: the Americans this, the Russians that, MI5 the other.

Forsyth is unreservedly on the side of the authorities – the police, Special Branch, the SAS, can do no wrong – but it is typically Forysthian that in the fourth story, where he details the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the satellite technology the Yanks use to monitor every flight and ship movement in the Caribbean, as well as the satellites which monitor all phone traffic, that in fact one radio ham hearing gossip in the island bar radios it to a pal in Washington so that

About a billion dollars’ worth of technology worked it out three hours after a radio ham with a home-made set in a shack on the side of Spyglass Hill had told a pal in Chevy Chase. (p.387)

In fact he makes this point in several places: technology is no replacement for men on the ground, for human contacts. Which is why – as le Carré has Smiley emphasise in The Secret Pilgrim – spying will always be with us.

But apart from Forsyth’s usual sardonic attitude, it was a surprise in this book to come across some uncharacteristically vulgar language. On page 254 McCready describes the number two in SIS who pompously claims that the fall of the USSR will be followed by a new era of peace and harmony, as a ‘dick brain’. On page 272 McCready describes the same man, Timothy Edwards, as an ‘arsehole’ for his sneaky, conniving ways. And on page 358:

You really are a prize arsehole, Timothy, he thought.

I had already been surprised when Forsyth tells us on page 153 that MI5 sometimes refer to MI6 as TSAR, standing for ‘Those Shits Across the River’, but I wasn’t prepared for the Author’s Message on the ante-penultimate page. Gaunt realises McCready is resigned to resigning, and so asks him why he bothered going through the farce of the tribunal:

‘Because I care about this fucking service and they’re getting it wrong. Because there’s a bloody dangerous world out there and it’s not getting less dangerous but more so. And because dick-heads like Edwards are going to be left looking after the security of the old country, which I happen to love, and that frightens the shit out of me.’ (p.475)

The characters’ swearing presumably reflects Forsyth’s own genuine concerns about misconceptions surrounding the end of the Cold War (concerns which are exactly the same as Smiley’s in The Secret Pilgrim). But, on the level of language, it’s also connected to the greater humour in these stories, as if Forsyth feels more relaxed not having to create one 500-page blockbusting thriller and is happier, shoutier, swearier in the shorter format. It feels like these stories were more enjoyable to write and they are certainly more enjoyable to read, than his last couple of novels.

Credit

The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth, published by Bantam Press in 1991. All quotes from the 1992 paperback Corgi edition.


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Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984)

My feeling that the characters and institutions in this novel are almost surreally perfect, that all the soldiers, police, Special Branch, secret agents, intelligence operatives, forensic scientists, nuclear advisers, Customs & Excise officials perform their duty with exemplary efficiency, like the Photoshopped figures in a government recruitment poster – was crystallised when our hero catches the 9.25 train from St Pancras to Sheffield and it not only leaves on time but stops at each station stop along the way bang on time. Not in the real world, not in the Britain I live in, and not in the Britain of the 1980s, it wouldn’t have.

As I noted in my review of The Devil’s Alternative, Forsyth’s novels are supremely confident in tackling high-level, diplomatic and geopolitical subjects and stuffed full of a high-end journalist’s obsession with organisational and administrative detail. But the way all the officials behave impeccably, the police, army, agents are all epitomes, exemplars and models of their type, gives the whole story a plastic, unreal feel. So many of the humans mentioned in the plot are wafer-thin, Action Man figurines who perform their function in the clockwork plot like automata.

Short plot summary

Set in what was then the future – 1987 – the Russians hatch a plan, Operation Aurora, to discredit the current Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher and secure the election of a Labour government. The plan is based on the premise – described in great detail (pp.60-74 and pp.94-104) – that the Labour Party has been penetrated at all levels by hard-core Marxist-Leninists who, once the Party is elected, will promptly overthrow the Labour leader and institute a communist government. This government will immediately withdraw from NATO, the EEC, expel all American troops along with their Cruise missiles, and declare unilateral nuclear disarmament. And this will weaken the Western world so that the Russians can, er, will be able to, er… well, that much isn’t defined. It is just stated that the above policies will ‘fatally weaken’ the West and so are devoutly to be wished for by Moscow.

As to the specifics of the plan, the KGB send their best man, Valeri Petrofsky, to adopt the ‘legend’ (ie clean identity) of James Ross and rent an inconspicuous house in Ipswich. 10 couriers will be sent via different routes to meet him at various locations around England. Each will deliver (unknown to themselves) the components of a ‘small’ nuclear bomb. The eleventh man, Vassiliev, will be a weapons expert who assembles the device. Then Petrofsky will detonate it at a US air base in Suffolk, devastating the base and local area. Moscow will publish warnings it has sent the US about the recklessness of using small and unstable nukes, along with technical information designed to blame the Americans’ recklessness for the ‘accident’.

It is this disastrous ‘accident’ which will prompt revulsion against the pro-American, pro-nuke Mrs Thatcher and cause a last-minute swing in the electorate in favour of Labour with its strong anti-nuclear policy, leading to the election of a Labour government and to the communist coup described above. When Mrs Thatcher (for she is named in the novel) announces a snap election for June 1987, the plan kicks into action and the clock starts ticking…

1. Kim Philby Rather amazingly, the real-life character of Kim Philby plays a large part in the first half of the book. We meet him miserable and disillusioned in his Moscow flat, married with young kids but still a respected member of the KGB establishment. To his surprise he is called to a meeting with the old and sick General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who requests a detailed summary of the political situation in Britain. Philby’s report is included in the text, all 25 pages of it, which gives a thorough and fantastical account of the extent to which the British Labour Party and the Trades Unions have been infiltrated at every level by hard-core revolutionary communists. This is the seed of the daring plan which the novel describes.

2. The burglary The first hundred pages or so interweave elements of this plot with the straightforward narrative of a south London burglar, Jim Rawlings, who breaks into the home of upper-class George Berenson to steal his wife’s legendary diamonds. He also nicks an attache case to put his swag in but is surprised to discover it contains a cache of Top Secret documents. Being an honest crook, guvnor, he posts the documents back to the police, who pass them on to MI5.

3. Special agent John Preston Enter four-square, ex-Paratrooper, now the upright and thorough MI5 agent, John Preston. He and the authorities only have the documents posted to them, showing there’s been a leak but with no evidence who stole them. Preston undertakes a meticulous, and meticulously described by Forsyth, investigation which eventually narrows it down to Berenson. The process by which this is done is fascinating, a master class in Forsyth’s astonishing grasp of bureaucratic and administrative detail.

4. South Africa Preston then tails Berenson and discovers his ‘control’ is an agent in the South African embassy, one Jan Marais. In a long, immensely detailed and extraordinary tour de force of investigation, Preston flies to South Africa, where he is loaned a senior officer to help him out and take him round. This officer, Viljoen, is at first sceptical but Preston demonstrates the superiority of the British secret services by piecing together the extraordinary story of Jan Marais’s life and his career during the second world war to prove that he is in fact a Soviet spy. The South Africans are appalled, grateful and impressed. Back in Britain Berenson is horrified at his own stupidity and treachery; contrary to his intentions he has been passing key documents to the very Soviets he purports to despise. Forsyth has several pungent passages on the narcissism and stupidity of such imbeciles who set themselves against the wisdom of the authorities.

5. Agency rivalries All this ‘action’ – ie Preston’s adventures – is cleverly interwoven not only with developments in Moscow, as Philby’s plan is assessed and adopted, but with detailed descriptions of a power struggle at the top of British security where MI5’s sickly boss Sir Bernard Hemmings is being manouevred out the door by his number two, Brian Harcourt-Smith. Harcourt-Smith hates Preston and suppresses a report he presented right at the start of the book about the left-wing penetration of the Labour Party. The way he did this made me think, for most of the book, that he, Harcourt-Smith, must be a deeper ‘mole’ or agent for the Soviets… Meanwhile, as the evidence mounts that the Sovs are mounting some kind of major operation, the head of MI6, Sir Nigel Irvine, poaches Preston from MI5 where he’s been sidelined, and gives him authority to pursue the investigation as he sees fit.

6. Thrill of the chase The last 150 pages of the novel are structurally similar to Day of The Jackal in the way it becomes a chase: with Honest John slowly piecing together the horrific plan and desperately trying to track down the Russian agent while, in alternating scenes, we follow in detail the preparations, travel, rendezvous of each courier with Evil Valeri. Thus the tension is very effectively ratcheted up and up…

Implausibility

BUT – The plot is fundamentally laughable. The more you think about it, it seems ludicrously paranoid. Sure the Militant Tendency had infiltrated many local Labour parties during the early 1980s, but Neil Kinnock effectively faced them down, and then the year-long Miners’ Strike (1984-85), which began about the time this novel was published, highlighted the superficial power but ultimate weakness of the entire British Trade Union movement, ending in complete defeat and helping Mrs Thatcher to her record third election victory in 1987.

In the scenario of this book, the nuclear ‘accident’ was to swing the electorate at the last moment against Mrs Thatcher and in favour of Labour; and within days of being elected Neil Kinnock would be overthrown in a Party coup and replaced by – …. who exactly? Tony Benn? Really? A few moments’ reflection suggest that, in the light of a nuclear explosion, the electorate would probably be scared and afraid and flee to the party of Law and Order. In fact, such an event would have played to all Mrs Thatcher’s strengths, the resolution she showed during the Falklands War (April-June 1982), her bravery after the Brighton Bombing (12 October 1984).

Even as a political fantasy, the plot doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Elements

The Wikipedia article on ‘airport novels’ doesn’t specify exactly when they were invented or when it evolved into a distinct genre, but it does mention that an airport novel must be:

  • long
  • absorbing
  • exciting and thrilling
  • superficial, containing no depth of characterisation, no profound meaning, no message
  • since the airplane passenger has no works of reference about, it must include its own background information
  • and be forgettable

Long

The Fourth Protocol is the longest novel I’ve read in a while, at 526 pages in the Corgi paperback edition. In fact it feels like several novels crammed into one: a first half which starts with the burglary, segues into identifying the ‘mole’ in the service, before taking John Preston to South Africa to perform his brilliant detective work. This takes hundreds of pages but, fascinating and rewardingly complex though it is, the first half feels only tangentially related to the nuclear plot in the second half.

Absorbing / providing its own background information

Forsyth was a high end journalist before he was a novelist and good gracious it shows. Nothing is mentioned without at least half a page of explanation and description. Every gun, piece of equipment – cameras, microphones, burglar alarms and so on – are lovingly described, along with their complete spec and functionality. How to create a small nuclear weapon is described in minute detail over seven pages, a description which became so intricate I could have done with a diagram (pp.440-447).

But it’s the administrative functions of bureaucracies which really fire Forsyth. We are told at great length about MI5:

The British Security Service, better known as MI5, does not live in one single building. Discreetly, but inconveniently, it is split up into four office blocks. The Headquarters are in Charles Street, and no longer at the old HQ, Leconfield House, so habitually mentioned in the newspapers.

The next biggest block is in Gordon Street, known simply as ‘Gordon’, and nothing else just as the head office is known as ‘Charles’. the other two premises are in Cork Street (known as ‘Cork’) and a humble annexe in Marlborough Street, again known simply by the street name.

The department is divided into six branches scattered throughout the buildings. Again, discreetly but confusingly, some of the branches have sections in different buildings. In order to avoid an inordinate use of shoe leather, all are linked by extremely secure telephone lines, with a flawless system for identification of the credentials of the caller.

‘A’ branch handles in its various sections Policy, Technical Support, Property Establishment, Registry, Data Processing, the office of the Legal Adviser and the Watcher Service. The last named is the home of that idiosyncratic group of men and (some) women, of all ages and types, street wise and ingenious, who can mount the finest personal surveillance teams in the world. Even ‘hostiles’ have had to concede that on their own ground MI5’s watchers are just about unbeatable… (p.42)

And so on for another three highly detailed, flag-waving pages. Want to know about the Joint Intelligence Committee?

The full JIC is a rather large committee. Apart from half a dozen ministries and several agencies, the three armed forces and the two intelligence services, it would also include the London-based representatives of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America’s CIA… (pp.112-113)

The KGB? Specifically, the KGB’s operations in Japan? Yes, we have that in stock:

The First Chief Directorate of the KGB, responsible for all overseas activities, is divided into Directorates, Special Departments and Ordinary Departments. Ordinary KGB agents under diplomatic cover come from one of the ‘territorial’ departments – the Seventh Department happens to cover Japan. These staffers are called PR Line when on posting abroad and they do the run-of-the-mill trawling for information, making of useful contacts, reading of technical publications, etc. (pp.151-152)

In the exciting finale the SAS are called in to storm the house where Petrofsky is hiding out with the bomb. Since I know that no nuclear device went off in 1987, and that Mrs Thatcher won that year’s election and – more importantly – that Brave John Preston never loses a case – I was never in doubt that Bad Russian Petrofsky would be foiled. Nor is Forsyth.

Instead, strangely coldly, factually, there is page after page about the SAS’s structure and organisation, all the things which make it unique etc.

The fighting arm of the SAS is based on a module of four. Four men make up a patrol, four patrols a troop and four troops a squadron. They rotate through the various SAS commitments: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Jungle Training and Special projects, apart from the continuing NATO tasks and the maintenance of one squadron on standby at Hereford. (p.484)

More, far more time, effort and text is spent on this encyclopedia-style content about the SAS and its thorough and careful preparations than on the storming of the house which is over in a brisk, no-nonsense two pages (pp.505-507): one chap shot but not wounded thanks to latest Kevlar body armour; wicked Russkie eliminated; nuke recovered intact, Suh!

Buildings

The text follows the different characters as they travel round quite a bit, to Moscow and various parts of the USSR, all over South Africa to uncover the Jan Marais plotline, back and forth across London and the Home Counties, then journeys up to Derbyshire and, finally, car and motorbike trips criss-crossing East Anglia.

In every place the characters visit we are told not just the building they go to, but the exact layout of that building, sometimes (as with the KGB or MI6 headquarters) pages and pages linking the administrative structure of the organisation with the buildings, annexes, wings occupied by each section. I kept thinking the text was crying out for those Sunday Times, Insight article-type illustrations and schematic diagrams of buildings’ layout, with those little human figures added to give scale.

That’s often how the novel feels – a fascinating tour through the key organisations and buildings involved in Cold War espionage and security, with small black silhouettes, the merest human outline possible, to tie them together.

High level plot

There’s a meta-plot, a higher-level narrative which underpins or overarches the on-the-ground pursuit of the agents. Operation Aurora is top secret and being carried out on the sole order of the ailing General Secretary of the USSR but there is rivalry between Generals in the highest ranks of the KGB. And in Britain, the rivalry between MI6 and its boss Sir Nigel Irvine and MI5 with its ailing leader Sir Bernard Hemmings and its ambitious number two Brian Harcourt-Smith, are the background to Irvine poaching the omnicapable Preston to solve the case.

But at the very end of the book Irvine informs Preston that the whole Operation was deliberately ‘blown’ by a senior figure on the Russian side (one General Karpov). Part of Preston’s investigation had been to follow an agent flagged up by passport control at Heathrow. Preston and his team of ‘watchers’ trailed him to a house in Chesterfield, which the watchers stake out for over a week, on a hunch it contains important information or equipment and Preston’s gamble pays off when key baddy, Petrofsky, eventually arrives. It is this slender thread which allows Preston to tail Petrofsky back to his house in Ipswich and foil the entire plot.

But now Irvine informs him that the sending of the agent, Winkler, was a deliberate gesture by KGB supremo Karpov to ensure that the plot failed, that an atomic bomb was not detonated in Britain, that the Labour Party did not win the election.

The quid pro quo was that our side – Sir Nigel – ordered Petrofsky to be not just captured, but liquidated. And indeed, in the climax of the SAS raid, he was only badly wounded when, to Preston’s horror, the SAS captain steps forward and shoots him in the head. Now Preston discovers that was part of the ‘deal’. KGB scupper their own plot; we ensure their best agent isn’t interrogated, ‘blown’, and spread all over the newspapers.

In the final pages we see Irvine meet Karpov at a safe house in Geneva and exchange documents, Irvine satisfied that the plot was aborted, Karpov with the documentary proof of the Operation’s existence which he will take back to the USSR and use to undermine his rivals, maybe even topple the General Secretary himself, certainly gain promotion, and win debts and favours from the British.

It is almost as if espionage is a dirty, cynical business.

Forgettable and out of date

But as with all the immense detail of organisational structure, the buildings and their layouts, you close the book and instantly forget it. Like any airport novel it is totally absorbing as you read and instantly erased once you arrive at your destination.

Added to which, every element of the story is 30 years out of date. There is no longer a KGB, are MI5 and MI6 still based at the same locations and structured into the same Departments? More to the point, there is no longer a USSR nor a Cold War. And real history turned out to be much more fascinating than this fiction. The Miners Strike was a more concrete demonstration of class war than anything Forsyth could cook up, much deeper, much longer, much more bitter and harrowing – and the arrival of Mikhael Gorbachev in the USSR much more complex and tragic than any fiction.

Forsyth’s novel, like most others of the time, is based on the frozen timelessness of a Cold War it was assumed would go on for generations. Instead, five short years later it was over, the Berlin Wall was coming down and a few years later the USSR passed into history.

The appeal of Forsyth’s novels must largely rest on their documentary thoroughness (it certainly doesn’t depend on their psychological insight or depth of character, of which there is next to none). Which means they are as vulnerable as the newspapers where he learned his trade. Who wants yesterday’s papers? Let alone newspapers from 30 years ago, written in (what now seems like) crippling ignorance of what was about to happen.

Like John Buchan or Eric Ambler’s novels, Forsyth’s speak of a world which has fast receded into the past, which will soon be of historical and antiquarian interest only.

Upper class

Forsyth is incredibly posh. You can almost hear his plummy tones as you read. All the British characters went to public school ie the heads of MI5, MI6, Special Branch etc. I laughed out loud when, in the first half, the head of MI6 reveals that he not only knows the suspected mole, he went to the same school as him! The mole was his fag and cleaned his shoes. Of course he was.

These are the people, this narrow clique of privately educated, inter-married and inter-related, upper class toffs, who claimed then – as now – to speak for ‘the nation’ of 60 million extremely diverse people, the 95% of the population which didn’t go to private school, are not part of the many overlapping sets and cliques and groups which comprise the Ruling Class, the Establishment. In fact there’s a paragraph describing just this:

Brian Harcourt-Smith was the product of a very minor private school and carried on his shoulder a sizeable and quite unnecessary chip. Beneath his polished veneer he had a considerable capacity for resentment. All his life he had resented the seemingly effortless ease which the men around him could bring to the business of life. He resented their endless and interwoven network of contacts and friendships, often forged long ago in schools, universities or fighting regiments, on which they could draw when they wished. It was called the ‘old boy network’ or the ‘magic circle’, and he resented most of all that he was not a member of it. (p.126)

Even the hero, Honest John Preston, the tough, professional Army man turned agent, of course went to private school and is now sending his son to exactly the same kind of school, where he will learn the same values: cricket, philistinism, bad food, snobbery.

In this context, the very early sections of the book are unconsciously funny. Forsyth chooses to have the mole in MI6 revealed via the accident of a break-in to his posh apartment in Belgravia. These opening 30 or so pages describe in customary detail the professional burglar casing the joint and then carrying out the job, complete with minute descriptions of how he neutralises the alarm system, picks the lock, and exactly how he blows the safe. Slick, technically informed professionalism is what we expect of absolutely every character in a Forsyth novel. But as this one is a south London crook Forsyth feels he has to explain to his readers a number of facts about south London and its criminal classes. I particularly enjoyed him explaining what a ‘manor’ is, ie the territory in which a crook operates, what a ‘face’ is, ie a criminal known to the authorities, and so on. I laughed when he daintily explained that a ‘slag’ is the term of art for a hard man, a ‘heavy’.

He expects his audience to know all about Whites and Brooks and the Army and Navy (exclusive clubs for the upper classes) but to have to be carefully informed about criminal argot or south London landmarks.

[Walking to the dining room at Brooks] they passed the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Martin Flannery, coming the other way. Although they knew each other, Sir Martin saw at once that his colleague was ‘in conference’. The mandarins acknowledged each other’s presence with an imperceptible inclination of the head, sufficient for two scholars of Oxford. Backslapping is best left to foreigners. (p.510)

In fact Forsyth’s novels read as if written for the Sunday Times-reading classes, in between the Style and the Arts sections, the parts which advise you which Caribbean island to holiday on or which opera to go to. Sometimes I feel a bit too common to be reading them. Sometimes I’m surprised that anyone without an old school tie is allowed to buy them.

Benefits of the old boy network

That said, Forsyth makes a point I don’t think I’ve seen expressed quite so clearly before, which is that the old boy network works and it works precisely because its network of contacts covers the entire political, security, police and Whitehall machine. Because Nigel was at school with Jeremy, it means that now they’re the heads of MI6 and the SAS, respectively, they can talk quickly, informally, and get things done:

That the procedure can work within minutes is due in part to the fact that it has been rehearsed and honed to a fine art over and over again; and partly to the fact that the British establishment, when required to move fast, contains enough interpersonal relationships to permit a great deal of procedure to be kept at verbal level, with the inevitable paperwork left to catch up later. British bureaucracy may appear slow and cumbersome to the British but it is greased lightning compared with its European and American counterparts. (p.483)

He then goes on into characteristically Forsythian detail, explaining how: the Chief Constable of Suffolk, informed of the terrorist threat, contacts Sir Hubert Villiers in Whitehall, who briefs  his Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, who informs the Prime Minister, who gives approval to deploy the SAS, which is relayed to Sire Peregrine Jones at Defence, who knew about it anyway because he’s already had a little chat with Sir Martin, so that within sixty minutes of the first contact between the head of Suffolk constabulary and Home Office, the Director of Military Operations is talking on a scrambled line to the commanding officer of the SAS at Hereford. Phew. There is no doubting the depth of Forsyth’s research and knowledge. But it is possible to question the way he deploys it.

Condescending attitude

Given the profile of the author implied by his text with its worship of the British police and intelligence services, its rabid suspicion of the Labour Party, its smooth familiarity with the clubs and banter of Britain’s elite, it is no great surprise to read the witheringly condescending opinions of anyone left-wing which sprinkle the text. The anti-nuclear protesters and marchers who play a minor role in the novel (they hold up the Baddy as he drives back to his safe house with the nuke in his boot) prompt a few snooty put-downs.

The Tornadoes had gone back to Scotland but in their place the peace of the rustic neighbourhood had been shattered by protestors, mainly female and possessed of the strangest personal habits, who had infested the fields and set up shanty camps on patches of common ground…. [Behind the leaders of the march] came the column of pacifists, pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninists, anti-Soviet Trotskyites, lecturers and Labour activists, with an admixture of unemployed, punks, gays and bearded ecologists… Up the two sides of the road were scattered the resident female protestors, most sporting placards and banners, some in anoraks and crewcuts, who held hands with their younger lady friends or clapped the approaching marchers… (pp.462-463)

Bet none of them went to a decent school, eh?

The title

The Fourth Protocol is one of the (fictional) secret appendices to a 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by the USSR and USA. It specifies that neither side may deliver nuclear devices by sneaky underhand methods eg in suitcases. They have to be dropped from planes and on the end of inter-continental ballistic missiles. Thus, the plot consists of Preston and his MI6 boss slowly realising the Russians are breaking the Fourth Protocol. Which is just not cricket, is it?


The movie

It was swiftly made into a movie, directed by John Mackenzie, starring Michael Caine and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan. It’s much better shot than the film adaptation of Gorky Park, much nicer to look at.

There are no women in the book (except for John Preston’s ex-wife, who has run off with a millionaire and we never meet, and the scared wife of the innocent middle-aged neighbour whose house the authorities commandeer to keep a watch on what they suspect is a Soviet ‘drop’ house in Chesterfield. She’s good at making tea, exactly as a middle-aged, non-public school Englishwoman ought to be.)

But a Hollywood movie must have sex in it, so they first invent a neighbour, who works at the air base and has a horny wife who makes a pass at Petrofsky/Brosnan. And then the bomb maker, Vassiliev, turns out not to be the cold, calculating agent of the novel but the gorgeous Joanna Cassidy. They assemble the bomb together and then the camera closes up on the sweat dripping down her cleavage. When Pierce moves in to snog her she says, ‘I thought you’d get to that,’ and so must every single person who’s ever seen the film have felt the same heavy clang of inevitability. There is a vivid sequence of them having sex before – just as inevitably – he kills her. What a thankless role for this beautiful actress.

Indeed, there is a lot of callous killing in the movie, much more than in the book. The tone is set in the opening scene where, after a long car journey to a remote dacha in the snowy Russian countryside, Philby, who has come all this way to meet the General, is instead shot in the face by his subordinate. It is crude and shocking and doesn’t happen, couldn’t happen, in the original, for we need Philby to write the very long analysis of the Labour Party which is the premise of the whole thing.

Here, his being shot in the face lacks any of the intelligence or subtlety and, of course, none of the amazing wealth of background information, which is the dominant characteristic of the book. In the final scenes of the novel, when he learns about the Russian double-cross which underpins the plot, Preston mulls over the complexity of his trade and in the postscript is seen happily leaving intelligence to go and work for a commercial security firm.

The movie, typically for this and so many other film adaptations of novels, ditches all the subtlety, reducing pages of thoughtfulness to the absolute minimum number of words, to have Michael Caine’s Preston confront Irvine and Karpov, and yell, ‘It’s about time they put you in a fucking museum’ – a trite and immature outburst nicely suited to the petulant teenagers most films are aimed at.

Glad it only cost me £1 in a charity shop.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Vintage Stuff by Tom Sharpe (1982)

Either I’ve changed or Sharpe’s novels have changed, but I haven’t enjoyed the last few as much as the earlier ones. The farce seems forced.

The setting

For authors who went to public school, public schools hold an infinite fascination, hence the number of novels about them from a profession dominated by former public school-educated pupils. Funny how many of them are comedies or gruesome memoirs of cold showers, buggery, incompetent masters and compulsory games. Funny how many authors of these diatribes then send their own children to the same schools.

Sharpe went to Lancing College then Pembroke College, Cambridge. The Oxbridge part of his education is satirised in Porterhouse Blue; it took till his ninth novel to get round to sticking the boot into public schools.

The plot

According to Wikipedia, Groxbourne, the very minor public school where the novel is set, is based on Bloxham school which Sharpe attended before progressing to Lancing. The masters are a bunch of freaks, the headmaster is only bothered about money and the school’s reputation, there is compulsory games and lots of buggery among the boys. Matron gets caught shagging Major Featherstone. And so on…

One particular master, Slymne, hates another one, the slightly freakish one-eyed Glodstone (he has a glass eye and is fond of wearing a monocle over the other one). Glodstone is a besotted fan of boys adventure stories – Rider Haggard, Henty, Buchan, Bulldog Drummond – which Slymne uses to cook up a witty prank. He forges letters from one of the posher mothers, a certain Comtesse de Montcon, resident at the chateau Carmagnac, addressed to Glodstone, claiming she is in great danger, that her son has told her how brave and bold he is, that only he can rescue her.

Inspired with chivalrous thoughts, obsessed with re-enacting the derring-do of his heroes, Glodstone determines to rescue her. Term has just ended, almost everyone has gone home except for one odd pupil, Peregrine Clyde-Browne, an unusually dim, literal-minded boy who was meant to go on an outward bound course which has been cancelled. A pupil in Glodstone’s form, Peregrine had taken to borrowing from Glodstone’s large library of boys stories, had been infected by these tales of derring-do, and now asks to be taken along.

The result is mayhem. Slymne had gone to great trouble to drive across France a few weeks earlier leaving clues and letters at hotels on the way, and now arranges for Glodstone and Peregrine to find them. Abruptly he has second thoughts and tries to cut them off and the middle of the novel is a quite frankly confusing list of small towns in central France which the two characters race between, writing faked letters and finding them, and re-arranging their plans.

But eventually Glodstone – who has been getting colder and colder feet – and Peregrine – who in a teenager way has become more and more over-excited by the mission – arrive at the chateau Carmagnac. By a series of farcical accidents Glodstone falls into the nearby river and is saved and taken into the chateau to be tended. Peregrine thinks he has been captured by the baddies who are holding the beautiful Comtesse prisoner and so breaks into the chateau, creeping along corridors and terrifying at gunpoint the innocent guests he meets.

For the chateau has these days become a conference centre where a cross section of international intellectuals have gathered to discuss world peace. [This gives Sharpe an opportunity to satirise the attitudes of a whole range of national sterotypes circa 1982 – the oil-rich Arab, the Israeli, the ex-Nazi German, the over-intellectual Frenchman, the suave Brit, and especially the Soviet spokesman and the gung-ho American. It is useful to be reminded that clever people were wringing their hands about international terrorism and third world poverty 35 years ago…] After scaring the guests witless Peregrine escapes out of the chateau via the roof and considers his next move.

The delegates call the police who arrive and set up guard with a police van on the only bridge across the river to the chateau. Next night, determined to rescue his master (and the beautiful Comtesse) Peregrine slips under the van and lights the calor gas stove he and Glodstone had been using to cook with, placing it under the petrol tank. BOOM! Several of the French cops are set alight and the van flies into the river gorge.

The international intellectuals pause mid-argument at the moment when a masked assassin bursts in, starts shooting and all hell breaks loose. In that excess which differentiates farce from comedy, the disguised school boy, fired up on 1930s fiction, shoots the American professor dead and nips the penis of the Russian attendee. Delegates run everywhere screaming, Peregrine eventually finds Glodstone and the terrified Comtesse and hustles them down the road to ‘freedom’.

The Comtesse

Except she isn’t a Comtesse. She is a con artist, born Constance Sugg in Croydon, who was a beauty queen, then hussled her way to America, landed in Las Vegas where she got involved hustling marks for the Mafia, until she hussled and blackmailed the Conte de Montcon and ended up marrying him and moving to his chateau, where a little later he died leaving her penniless. Nowadays she works in the kitchen alongside the staff, as well as organising the conferences which are her only source of income.

Their high-falutin’ romantic dreams pretty crushed, Glodstone and Peregrine find themselves taken under the control of this bossy, manipulative woman. Once back at their car she takes charge. While the French police are activated and begin a nationwide search, Constance navigates the boys in their vintage Bentley back to England.

Not a minute too soon because the French police – convinced they have an international assassin at large – find their own security services trumped once the CIA arrive to sort out the murder of their delegate at the conference. Unfortunately, something of the truth of Peregine and Glodstone’s absence had come out ie Mrs and Mrs Clyde-Browne arrived home from holiday to find a letter saying Peregrine’s outward bound course was cancelled but no Peregrine in sight. When they motor to the school and confront the headmaster, he calls in Slymne and Major Fetherington (who runs the school’s Officer Training Corp and manages the school’s armoury) and the shocking truth emerges that Glodstone has gone on a hare-brained mission to France and taken the psychotic simpleton Peregrine with him.

Slymne’s fate

The headmaster instantly orders Slymne – the master who originated this jolly prank – and the Major to motor non-stop down to the chateau to stop Glodstone and Peregrine causing any trouble. They are, of course, far too late to do that but arrive just in time to be caught and questioned by the French police. Then French security. Then the CIA. The cocktail of drugs these three Forces use on Slymne means he never again fully recovers his sanity.

Glodstone’s fate

Back in England, the Comtesse takes the terrified Glodstone to a plastic surgeon on Harley Street who makes him completely unrecognisable – then marries him, thus ensuring an alibi and she can keep her eye on him.

Clyde-Browne’s fate

Constance/the Comtesse confronts Peregrine’s parents (he is a solicitor who loathes his son) with the fact their son is a murderer and terrifies them with the threat of blackmail, until Mr Clyde-Brown agrees to call in his brother, something in Whitehall. This gives rise to a particularly incomprehensible conference involving the British police, Foreign Office, MI5 and Prime Minister on how to defuse the international incident which is brewing…

And the net result is that MI5 show the visiting American CIA officers a man they claim is Peregrine and a top secret SAS operative. For reasons I didn’t quite follow, this appears to placate them and to close the incident for the Yanks and the French.

Peregrine’s fate

The novel ends rather forcefully, I thought, with a last few pages describing Peregrine’s new job as an undercover agent in the British Army in Northern Ireland. Living wild off the land, killing, gutting and cooking his own livestock from his base in a disused well, he is living the Buchan-Rogue Male-Bulldog dream, and has already assassinated five IRA men, two poachers and an off-duty RUC officer, such that the entire neighbourhood lives in fear.

Parting thought

Although a lot of the plot doesn’t make any sense at all, although people behave like imbeciles and shout and swear at the slightest provocation, although the violence seems forced and excessive and the central part of this novel – Slymne chasing Glodstone round central France – was confused and boring — still, there are moments with a kind of Swiftian intensity which leap out and clutch your throat, and which make this book just about worth reading.

But if I was recommending a Sharpe novel for a newbie to read, this one, along with The Wilt Alternative and Ancestral Vices, would be bottom of the list.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Vintage stuff with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Vintage Stuff with illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story.

The cover above shows the one-eyed schoolmaster Glodstone at the wheel of his vintage Bentley with psychotic schoolboy Peregrine Clyde-Browne next to him. Top right is the French chateau, scene of so much violence, including an American professor being thrown from the battlements into the river, the French police van being blown up on the bridge to the chateau, and the English holidaymakers’ car flipping over.

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

My Silent War by Kim Philby (1968)

The old Turkey hands, of course, were aghast. But it is a good working rule, wherever you are, to ignore the old hands; their mentalities grow inwards like toenails. (p.191)

Strong sense of déjà vu about the story of Kim Philby, the greatest betrayer in British espionage history, because I’ve heard of the Cambridge spies all my life – attended the Alan Bennett play about Blunt, saw the TV play starring Alan Bates, read the sections of Graham Greene’s biography which describe GG working for him during the war – they’re as much a part of English 20th century folk lore as England winning the World Cup in 1966 or the Great Train Robbery.

And then, just in this volume, the outline of his story is told in the blurb on the back of the book, in a thorough summary on the inside page, then again in the introduction by spy historian Philip Knightley, alluded to in the brief memoir by his friend and colleague Graham Greene, and then repeated again in the author’s detailed foreward. The reader has read five summaries of his life before even getting to the main text. So what is the story?

Philby’s story

Talented young man from the core of the British professional upper middle classes, Harold Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby went to prep school, Westminster school and up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he joined the Socialist society and then, in light of the collapse of the 1931 Labour government, the Communist Party. (His father was a noted Arabist, who converted to Islam; the nickname Kim comes directly from Rudyard Kipling’s novel, 1901, about a boy spy during the ‘Great Game’.)

Philby was recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1933 and spent the next 30 years feeding his Soviet controllers as much information as they wanted and he could provide. Initially this was from his activities as a Times journalist in Nazi Germany, then in Spain during the Civil War (1936-39) and then, when World War Two broke out, during the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk.

It was only once he was back in London during the early part of the war that Philby was approached and offered a job in the Secret Intelligence Services (what became known as MI6) – so he was a Soviet spy well before he joined British Intelligence.

There followed 15 years or so of a brilliant career in Intelligence. Philby impressed everyone he met with his easy charm, command of the facts and ability to work hard and take firm decisions. Graham Greene worked for him during the war, when Philby was head of section V of MI6, managing Britain’s agents in the Spanish peninsula, and attests to his effectiveness and popularity.

After the war his obvious competence was rewarded with promotions within the service and he also deployed several schemes to bypass and eliminate rivals, with the ultimate aim of becoming head of MI6. All the time he was passing everything that crossed his desk back to his Soviet handlers, betraying all MI6’s agents in the field, all operational procedures and all information shared with us by sister services, especially the CIA.

However, several incidents intervened which prevented Philby’s rise to the very top.

His fellow Soviet spies, Burgess and MacLean, fled Britain May 1951. Philby had been a friend of the loud drunk Burgess, and had invited him to stay in the Philby household when he was posted to Washington. After the pair’s flight Philby was interrogated by MI5 and, although no hard evidence found against him, dismissed from MI6. He struggled to find work as a freelance journalist, while a slow-moving government enquiry found him, if not exactly innocent, then with no evidence to show his guilt. In 1955 an accusation was made against him in the House of Commons, forcing the Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, to make a formal declaration of his innocence. In 1956 he went to Beirut to work as a journalist for The Observer and The Economist, and lost all touch with Soviet intelligence, though he probably continued to file reports for MI6 on a contractor basis.

Then, in 1961, a Soviet defector confirmed Philby as the ‘third man’. Suspicion mounted during 1962, a period – according to some biographies – when he was afflicted with depression and heavy drinking. He was formally confronted at the end of 1962 by an MI6 agent he had once worked with and finally confessed to being a Soviet spy. A formal hearing was set for a few weeks later, in January 1963, but he bolted.

On the evening 23 January 1963 Philby disappeared from the office in Beirut where he had been working as a journalist. Some months later he surfaced in Moscow, where the authorities made a formal announcement that he was a Soviet spy. The recriminations and investigations started, among his friends and colleagues in the services, their ministerial masters, in the FBI and CIA, and among innumerable historians, which continue to this day.

In Moscow Philby discovered he was not a KGB General, as promised. He was given a nice flat but not allowed much movement – civilised but watched and monitored. He received guests from the West and answered letters, requests for interviews and so on with the charm and breeding of an English gentleman. Depending on which account you read he was either terribly depressed by the reality of Soviet life and drank heavily, or lived happily with his fourth wife – a Russian he met in Moscow – reading The Times for the cricket and helping the KGB with analysis work.

Tinker, Tailor…

Apart from all his other achievements, and all the debate which has swirled around his name ever since, he gave rise to a literary classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré, which is about the hunt to find a high-ranking mole inside British Intelligence, the overall storyline generally taken to be based on KP’s long and eminent career. The difference being, of course, that owlish anti-hero George Smiley succeeds in unmasking the mole before he can flee – the opposite of real life.

My Secret War

Philby tells us he worked on his own version of events intermittently after arriving in Moscow in 1963 and had completed it by 1967 – coincidentally when the boom of preposterously glamorous spy fiction was at its peak back home. He even mentions James Bond, as every spy writer is obliged to.

I was surprised that the book contains almost nothing about his actual spying activities, about his relationship with his Soviet minders, how he communicated with them and so on; there are only a few passing references to checking decisions with them, and only one bit of exciting ‘spy action’, when, after Burgess’s defection, he packs the camera he used to photograph top secret files into his car, drives out to an isolated stretch of road, walks some way into the woods, and buries it.

Instead the book is a detailed account of his career in the Secret Intelligence Service from 1940 to his abrupt departure, describing his part in the birth and early development of the SIS, and the years of bureaucracy, politicking, infighting, meetings and memos which followed.

Unpromising though that sounds, My Secret War is in fact very readable, funny, informative and thought-provoking.

Funny

In its descriptions of the upper class amateurishness abounding in the military in the early days of the war, it echoes Evelyn Waugh’s comic masterpiece, Men At Arms (1952), with umpteen public school twits coralled into uniform and running round like headless chickens.

Philby recounts various ripping yarns with boyish humour. He tells us Section D listed each of its members with a further letter, thus DA, DB, DC and that their secretaries or assistants were DA-1, DB-1 and so on. Burgess was DU and Philby, technically his assistant, should have been DU-1, but Burgess charmingly refused to give him this label, insisting on alloting him another letter, D. And the punchline to this anecdote: ‘Thus Guy launched me on my secret service career branded with the symbol DUD.’ (p.45)

As Adam Diment’s stoned spy hero would say, Funneee!

Similarly, ‘Guy, indulging his schoolboyish sense of fun’, has the wizard wheeze of setting up an establishment to train potential agents before dropping them into enemy territory – and, after running through a serious prospectus of its subjects and courses, he capped the plan by suggesting it be named Guy Fawkes College, as it would be teaching the arts of blowing things up and overthrowing foreign governments. Boom boom.

Philby quickly distinguishes army officers into ‘the sensible military type, as opposed to the no-nonsense military, the mystical military and the plain-silly military.’ (p.66) He paints a hilarious portrait of the staff at the training camp in Beaulieu: ‘There was a Buchmanite who unhappily marked me down for conversion. The end came when he gave me his views on sexual intercourse and I remarked that I felt sorry for his wife. After that, our contacts were limited to table tennis.’ (p.67) He takes the same drily witty tone throughout. Charming and entertaining.

The headquarters of the Turkish Security Inspectorate were at Ankara, presided over at that time by a bulging, toad-like bureaucrat whom we referred to as Uncle Ned. It was my misfortune to visit him on duty about once a month. (p.194)

The book abounds in brisk pen portraits of the numerous people he encountered, famous or not so famous, all treated with the confident urbanity which is the main gift of an expensive English public school education, and the tone of his class and age – a permanent attitude of indulgent superiority.

My first house in Washington was off Connecticut Avenue, almost directly opposite that of Johnny Boyd, the Assistant Director of the FBI in charge of security… Boyd was one of Hoover’s original gunmen in Chicago – ‘the guy who always went in first’ when there was shooting to be done – and he looked the part. He was short and immensely stocky, and must have been hard as nails before he developed a paunch, jowls and the complexion that suggests a stroke in the offing. He had no intellectual interests whatsoever. His favourite amusement was to play filthy records to women visiting his house for the first time. He had other childish streaks, including the tough, direct ruthlessness of a child. By any objective standard, he was a dreadful man, but I could not help growing very fond of him. (p.229)

This passage admirably conveys the lofty superiority of the English public school man, which is emphasised by his charming ability to condescend to make friends with even the most beastly native – though not before giving him a patronising nursery nickname, such as Uncle Ned.

It also epitomises the anti-Americanism of the Cambridge spies. In the final sections of the book, posted to Washington, Philby is awed by the resources and manpower available to the FBI and CIA, and appalled at the unfocused pointless overwork to which they’re put. In the Foreword he says his motives for betrayal were really very simple: ‘The simple truth, of course, crumbling Establishment and its Translatlantic friends’ (p.21). He repeats his dislike of the monster J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, who he met, and emphasises that, for all his vast resources and epic paranoia, Hoover never actually caught any spies (p.227). Elsewhere he is cordially contemptuous of the post-war American tendency to take over everything (in Turkey) and make a hash of it – the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam. If he were alive today, he’d be saying ‘I told you so’ about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya.

Informative

Philby really goes into detail about the early days of MI5 and MI6, tracing its roots back to the Great War, covering the inter-war years, and then describing the shambles he encountered when he joined. There is a lot of detail about how the intelligence services grew, how they were organised and about the key personnel. And a great deal about setting up and running networks, about payments to agents, about how intelligence was gathered from radio interceptions, from purloining diplomatic bags, from threatening opposition agents, and so on. Fascinating stuff.

It also has detailed insight into the office politics and inter-departmental sniping and conspiring which dog the intelligence services as much as any other large organisation, and Philby gives fascinating accounts of the personalities and power plays, the scheming and politicking which dominated the highly bureaucratic world of ‘intelligence’.

And the Old Boy Network. Philby mentions it dismissively a couple of times as if he himself hadn’t breezed from Cambridge into a job with The Times and then had a very casual ‘interview’ which led him into a twenty-year career in British intelligence, as if approximately 5% of the British population hadn’t arranged for themselves and their chums to share out all positions of responsibility in the government, civil service, armed forces, BBC, universities and anything else which needed running. Whenever things are a bit dull, old Banjo from school was bound to turn up and save the day – the rest of the population, the other 95% of the hoi polloi, fading into the background.

So, on the transatlantic voyage to take up his post in Washington in 1951, ‘The first thing I saw on the foggy platform at Waterloo was an enormous pair of moustaches and behind them the head of Osbert Lancaster, an apparition which assured me of good company on the voyage… Finally, a case of champagne was delivered to my cabin with the card of a disgustingly rich friend.’ (p.211) Tough job, this spying.

The middle section of the book is cluttered with the names of the chaps who began taking over various sections of MI6 and MI5 as they expanded through the war years, and the names alone are like the ringing of the Old School bell across an ivy-wreathed quad: Colonel Valentine Patrick Terell Vivian CMG CBE (vice-chief of SIS in the 1920s and 30s), Major General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, KCB KCMG DSO MC (Head of SIS 1939-53), Sir David Petrie, KCMG, CIE, CVO, CBE, KPM (Director General of MI5 1941 to 46), Sir Percy Joseph Sillitoe KBE (DG of MI5 1946 to 1953), Sir Roger Hollis KBE CB (Director General of MI5 1955-65) and so on.

Thought-provoking

Setting Europe aflame There’s an interesting passage early on where he says the biggest problem the early SOE faced throughout the war was trying to promote British Foreign Office strategy when there wasn’t one. Basically, the Foreign Office wanted Europe to return to the status quo ante Hitler ie a lot of weak right-wing monarchies propped up by Britain and France. But there was just no way the populations of the countries SOE operated in (Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece etc) – particularly the politically aware, highly motivated fighters who made it all the way to Britain to receive SOE training – would accept that. They wanted to kick the Nazis out of their countries and then have a revolution. This insight, again, throws light on Philby’s Choice: he rejected not only Britain’s ‘crumbling establishment’ but also its rotten Foreign policy. He wanted the nations he was helping to be truly liberated and not to fall back into the British-backed clutches of corrupt monarchies.

Russian saviours It is always chastening to be reminded of the USSR’s key role in winning the Second World War and the scale of the losses she suffered (an estimated 20 million dead). For all its wickedness before, during and after the war, Russia bore the brunt and took the lead in defeating Hitler. And Philby’s enduring loyalty to communist Russia assumes a slightly different colour when seen from this perspective. He was consistently on the side of the most important anti-Fascist power, even when many in the British Establishment wanted to make peace with the Nazis. It’s certainly how Philby saw it:

It is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito. It is a matter of great pride to me that I was invited, at so early an age, to play my infinitesimal part in building up that power. (p.28)


Apparently, according to the ‘experts’, the book is evasive and incomplete in key areas. Surprise. Any autobiography is a highly selective and censored document – take Eric Ambler’s amiably misinformative autobiography, Here Lies. And what would you expect from a high-ranking spy?

There are umpteen books about Philby and the other Cambridge spies which the enthusiast can consult to cross-check and identify the shortcomings of his version of events – although the problem seems to be that they all disagree with each other, as do the numerous people Philby met and worked with or had affairs with, lots of whom have published their own conflicting accounts and memoirs.

In fact, books about the Cambridge spies comprise a genre of their own, a very English cottage industry, like a racier version of the Bloomsbury Set, with the same mix of high-minded ideals and disappointingly low behaviour. Which is oddly paradoxical, because all we can really be sure about is that we, as a nation, do not come out very well from any version of this story.

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