My James Bond Years

There’s an interesting report in today’s Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/02/mi6-returns-to-tapping-up-recruit-black-asian-officers-alex-younger-interview – that MI6 are reverting to their old policy of ‘tapping up’ likely recruits, in order to achieve greater ethnic diversity. In this case it’s in order to net more black and Asian agents. They did something like this in the 1960s; but at that time in order to widen their recruitment socially. I was one of their targets. I came clean on this in my LRB review (19 Nov 2009) of Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm, his authorized history of MI5. Here’s an extract from that.

[Before then], to preserve confidentiality and esprit de corps, MI5 only recruited on the basis of personal recommendation, and consequently from its own class and type. This applied even to the female registry clerks, who as a result were far more debby than clerks anywhere else. In the mid-1960s, when Labour MPs started complaining of this, the Secret Services made some effort to broaden their pattern of recruitment. I know, because I was targeted then. A grammar-school oik, with no imperial connections, but hopefully tamed and smoothed by my Cambridge experience, I was ‘talent-spotted’ by one of my college dons, and sent to be interviewed by a Rosa Kleb-like figure in a decaying Carlton House Terrace apartment. She asked me my politics; I said ‘Labour’. ‘Not a communist?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh well, that’s all right then.’ So I passed that interview, and was scheduled for a second sometime later; but then withdrew when my postgraduate research grant came through.

The extraordinary thing about this event, however, is that I had no idea at the time that I was being recruited for one of the Secret Services, until many years later: when I started working in this historical field; the don died and his Obituary for the first time publicly revealed his work for MI5 in the Second World War; and I raised my new suspicion with Christopher Andrew, who had just published his Secret Service (1985: a kind of prequel to this book). ‘Where was the interview?’ he asked. I told him. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘that was MI6’ (or IRD: I forget which). Apparently they would have told me this at the second interview. I could have been unusually naïve (I’m sure the Public School recruits were more worldly-wise), but I wasn’t alone. According to Andrew’s new book, several new recruits to MI5 still didn’t know whom they were working for until several weeks after they started. Now that’s what I call secrecy.

Of course, I might be lying here. It is, after all, what spies do. I could have merely pretended to withdraw, and agreed to work clandestinely for the secret services among all those dodgy radicals in academia. We know how left-wing they are:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/03/02/eight-ten-british-university-lecturers-left-wing-survey-finds/.The East German STASI, as it happens, did have a spy in the Economic History department at Hull, who was only unmasked when the wall fell. I obviously missed that one. So I could have been an incompetent spy. There were plenty of those. But you can never know for sure.

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3 Responses to My James Bond Years

  1. Pingback: Satire and Trump | Porter’s Pensées

  2. Very entertaining post, Bernard, especially the part about the operatives who were employed for weeks without knowing who was employing them: a cross between Kafka and Monty Python. So, what position were you led to believe you were being interviewed for? Just a generic government job?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a very long time ago, Philip. But I remember that I was given the impression that I was being interviewed for a job of some kind at the Foreign Office. Rosa Kleb mentioned ‘South America’, and asked if I’d mind learning Spanish. That, as I recall, was all.
      She didn’t ask me whether I was ‘queer, by any chance?’, which I’ve since learned was a stock question for MI6 (after the ‘Cambridge Four’). Perhaps she could tell.

      Like

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