The Secret Agent

For anyone who missed the recent BBC dramatization of Joseph Conrad’s novel, I’d urge you to catch up on it. It’s on DVD. I’ve just finished watching a recording of it that I made when I was away. This is an area of particular interest to me, of course, as a bit of an expert not on Conrad particularly, but on the history of the early London Metropolitan Police Special Branch, which was originally founded to counter anarchist and Irish terrorism in Britain at the end of the 19th century, and which is featured (under another name) here. (See my The Origins of the Vigilant State, 1987.) I’ve also researched the real-life ‘Greenwich Park’ bomb plot (1894), which is the central event of the book.

Conrad may have got that wrong. The original Greenwich bombers, it’s believed now, weren’t intending to target the Observatory, but were on their way to the Greenwich docks, whence they planned to ship the bomb to Russia. Nor is there any evidence that they were set up by the Russian secret police (the Okhrana). Or that they ran a pornographic postcard shop. (I think.)

But in general Conrad, and now the BBC drama series, got it absolutely right. Those shops did exist. The bomber did blow himself up (there’s a contemporary drawing of the horrible scene reproduced in my book). The Okhrana did employ spies and agents provocateurs in Britain, with the purpose – highlighted here – of persuading Britain to tighten her liberal laws on refugees, asylum and ‘political’ policing: in vain, as it happened. It all rings true. As do the superb, atmospheric settings.

And the acting; in particular Toby Jones as Verloc – a masterly performance – and Stephen Graham as Chief Inspector Heat. I recognise the latter from my studies of the Special Branch’s personnel; especially his ultimate decency. This in fact is one of the great virtues of Conrad’s characterisations: that all of them – except perhaps the Russian attaché, a cliché baddy, and the bomb-making ‘Professor’, a stereotypical mad anarchist – are complicated people. So are their relations with one another. The choices Verloc is confronted with are not simple, practically or ethically. Above all, as suggested by the plot line (‘agent-provocateuring’), the relations between the Anarchists, the police, the British government and foreign governments, are subtle and complex. Conrad is good at that. It is what – to my mind – makes him the greatest of English political novelists.

Are there any present-day lessons to be drawn from this? I’ve always been reluctant to make precise and practical comparisons between ‘now’ and ‘then’. In this case, the main comparison is obvious – terrorism – but overshadowed by a huge contrast: between late Victorian innocence, or naivité if you like, though it was not foolishly naive at that time; and Britain’s present-day ‘surveillance state’. I’ve blogged on this before (https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/the-snoopers-charter/). But there are no automatic or easy conclusions that follow from this. We are a very different people from our turn-of-the-20th century forebears, living in different times. We can envy the late Victorians for their liberalism in this regard. But then we need to remember how oppressive those times were in other ways. Perhaps it’s lesson enough to be shown how different things can be.

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Incidentally (and irrelevantly): the current TLS carries a long review of my last two books. Not a rave, but flattering on the whole, and engaging intelligently with my argument, which is better.

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