September Spooks – A Trip back to the UK (2013)

I paid a visit to the UK in September, enjoying a spell of blessedly balmy weather – not altogether a surprise, but not predictable, either. I was there primarily to give a talk at a seminar at the University of Buckingham, but was able to include some intense days of research as well as a few encounters with old friends and family.

Having flown into Heathrow on the Thursday (my customary flight into Gatwick having been retired with the impending merger of US Airways and American Airlines), I drove over to Croydon to stay with my old friends David Earl and his wife, Mieke, who were to become grand-parents again that weekend. I was able to play golf with David, and also visit the sparkling new Archive Room at Whitgift School, before attending a thrillingly spooky performance of Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ in Kingston-upon-Thames, translated and directed by Stephen Unwin, and since strongly endorsed in theTimes Literary Supplement. I then stayed a night in Battersea with my brother, Michael, and his wife Susanna, with whom I celebrated their first wedding anniversary with a very pleasant dinner in Barnes. They drove off the next day to France, on a tour that would conclude with a visit to Chamonix to see Michael’s new grandson, Oliver, recently born to Pippa and Jonathan.

I was thus house-sitter for the following week, in a location suitable for my two days of research at the National Archive at Kew, investigating a different brand of spooks, and a conference at Lancaster House for which my supervisor had organized an invitation. Monday I spent mostly reading and note-taking (the National Archive being closed), taking advantage of some books that Michael either owned or had borrowed from the London Library for me. My days at Kew were spent primarily poring through the (electronic) Krivitsky folders, learning more about how MI5 treated, and responded to, the nervous Soviet defector whom they had managed to bring over from the USA early in 1940. The National Archive is an extraordinary institution, accessible without charge to anybody, and I could have spent many more days there. It was astounding to me that the Archive makes available over 1300 paper files on suspected communists (including Messrs. Stalin, Trotsky and Kerensky), while the weeders still refuse to release files on people like Jenifer Hart, Burgess and Blunt (assuming such files exist, of course). I had time to inspect only one or two folders. It is calamitous that so much time and effort was spent tracing the activities of outspoken but inherently harmless wraiths like Auden and Spender, and who their contacts might be, while the more insidious characters had less attention spent on them, as they had discarded their Communist apparel.

The two-day conference was one ostensibly hosted by the Foreign Office, but in fact put on by MI6, on the subject of the Secret Services of Governments in Exile in World War II, at which representatives from Czechoslovakia (as it was then), Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway, interspersed with presentations and panel discussions from British Intelligence officers and noted historians, outlined the dilemmas and challenges of running subversion and sabotage from abroad, while dealing with possibly hostile elements at home, and the politics of the British government in London. All very fascinating: I was disappointed that Yugoslavia was not represented, as I have a particular interest in Bill Deakin and Fitzroy Maclean, who both went behind the lines, and swayed British support behind Tito, but maybe the post-Tito fragmentation made proper representation just too contentious and problematic. The foreign representatives did a marvellous job in their English-language addresses, although the very smooth Polish representative stood out. He had an accent straight from Cheltenham, and had clearly lived in Britain all his life. An excellent couple of days, and I was also able to make the acquaintance of the prominent writer on espionage, Nigel West, otherwise known as Rupert Allason, sometime Member of Parliament. He told me that he had been ghost-writer for John Cairncross’s autobiography, The Enigma Spy, which I had recently read. Another ghost.

That weekend I spent in Stow-on-the-Wold at the delightful and certainly non-spooky house of my old Christ Church pal (in fact the only Christ Church pal I have regularly stayed in touch with) Derek Taylor, and his wife, Maggie. It is always great to see this charming couple, as they are so warm with their hospitality, and we always have some lively – and occasionally contrarian – discussions about the great issues of the day. Derek had a very amusing book published last year, titled ‘A Horse in the Bathroom’ (, and is writing another. I was able to spend some valuable time in the only remaining second-hand bookshop in Stow, acquiring some essential titles for my espionage collection. Then on to Oxford, where I spent two days at the Bodleian Library, having a meeting with the Chief Archivist of the Special Collections, Chris Fletcher (whose father I had sat next to on a transatlantic flight a few years ago – eerie!), and then spending many hours poring over Isaiah Berlin’s correspondence in the Special Collections. I am a ‘Friend’ of the Bodleian, so they are naturally very amiable towards me, but it is always a pleasure dealing with their very dedicated and engaging staff. On the Wednesday, I had prepared myself to spend all day at the Balliol College archive in St. Cross Church, which a few years ago was converted into a library, now haunted by the spirits of old Balliol men. There I wanted to inspect portions of the full, unpublished diaries of Sir Harold Nicolson, as well as cast an eye over Bickham Sweet-Escott’s ‘Baker Street Irregular’, a very rare volume which gives an account of the author’s time in the Special Operations Executive. When I got there, however, I found out that I was not expected until two o’clock. So I traipsed back to Blackwell’s Book Shop, had a coffee, and then looked at the second-hand section. One of the first items I saw there was the Sweet-Escott book. At thirty pounds, a steal. (Not literarily, I hasten to add, Mr. Blackwell.) There are historians in Oxford who have been looking for this book for decades, and it had to be some tramp from across the pond who happened to spot it first. Very spooky. It made the abbreviated spell at St. Cross a lot brighter.

Next morning, I drove on to Buckingham, at whose university I am studying for my post-graduate degree under Professor Glees’s supervision. My seminar was in the afternoon, and, after attending Professor Glees’s first graduate class of the term, I was pleased to see a full room of his students, a few of my friends (including Michael and Susanna, freshly back from France, and my unofficial historical advisors, Nigel and Anne Platts), as well as the current editors of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s works, Henry Hardy (who travelled down from Lancashire), and Mark Pottle. Also there were Nigel West, who had gratifyingly accepted my invitation after I met him at the conference, and a few other dignitaries, including one real spook who probably wished to remain anonymous because of his or her past employment with Britain’s security services. I believe the talk, titled ‘The Undercover Egghead’, on Berlin’s various forays into intelligence work, went well, and we had an enjoyable dinner at the Villiers Hotel that evening.

Before I left Oxford that day, I had driven to the BBC Oxford studio, as they wanted to interview me on my talk. ‘Famous philosopher engaged in intelligence work’ would not normally be a newsworthy story (after all, St Antony’s College was riddled with spooks who had been MI5 and MI6 agents during the war, just before the college was founded), had Sir Isaiah not persistently denied that he ever undertook such activity. Unfortunately, the BBC left their approach a bit late, and we had to make scrambled arrangements for me to be interviewed – remotely – from the BBC Cambridge studio the following day. For that was where I was destined to go next. I had made an appointment at Churchill College Library, to inspect the Alexander Cadogan diaries, some parts of which had also not been published ‘for security reasons’. (For example, any mention of the Chief Spook, Vernon Kell, the head of MI5, visiting Cadogan was purged from the printed edition.) After driving through Milton Keynes, and getting lost several times, I arrived at Churchill at about 9:30, in time for a couple of hours’ research. I then made my way to the studio, where I undertook a ten-minute interview, broadcast the following Tuesday. Another couple of hours’ research, and I was ready to make my way to my hotel, before having a most enjoyable dinner with an old school-friend, John Rawlings, who, like me, read German and Russian (but at Trinity College, Cambridge – not a bad choice, I suppose). We have seen each other only three times in the past forty-five years, but picked up the common threads of our lives very quickly. After university, John took up a career in the Diplomatic Service (say no more…), before switching careers and becoming a successful merchant banker. He told me far more than I was entitled to know, and, indeed, should probably have had me eliminated when he was done. As I walked back to my hotel, I had an uneasy feeling I was being followed by spectral figures.….

And the next morning, back to Battersea, to spend a relaxing weekend with Michael and Susanna. On the Monday, I had to go back to Croydon for a meeting with my bank manager, then lunch with David Earl again, a visit to Whitgift School to look at some books that my friend Bill Wood, the archivist, had ready for me, tea in Oxted with a couple more very old friends, Peter Skeen (best man at our wedding), and his wife, Pia, before making my way back. It is always a hilarious time with Peter. I had almost given up on him, thinking I had fallen out of favour, as he had not responded to the email messages I had sent him before leaving the USA. I had called him the day before, on the off chance, and discovered that his electronic address book had been hacked, and he had thus been incommunicado. (The spooks are after you, Peter.) A likely story, old chum! Couldn’t you do better than that? But it is an inherent characteristic of old school friendships that you are expected to insult each other on meeting up again – indeed such behavior is obligatory – and we had a riotous hour, apart from the dreary passages when Peter regaled me with the details of his home remodelling, and how they had to get rid of poltergeists….. It was thus a relief and pleasure to get home to North Carolina the next day, and find, after a long voyage, that the apparitions of my wife and daughter waiting to pick me up at Wilmington airport were definitely embodied. Still a subversive at heart, I think I managed to smuggle in most of the books unnoticed.  And when I recounted to her my experiences in England, Sylvia is now even more confident that I am a spy.                                                                                                                                         (October 31, 2013)

P.S. Since I posted this yesterday, Sylvia has advised me to go and inspect the damage that moles have done to our front lawn, and then fix the problem. This I have just done. I don’t know when this infiltration occurred, but it must have been before I instituted positive vetting…..  (November 1, 2013)

2 Responses to September Spooks – A Trip back to the UK (2013)

  1. A fascinating essay Tony. John Rawlings said in his biog that he had served in Bonn, “A small town in Germany”. That, as you will know, was the title of a novel by John Le Carre. I drew it to John’s attention, but of course to my email he replied not………..

    • coldspur

      Thanks, Ian. It was dangerous for John R. to talk to me. (The restaurant in Cambridge was probably bugged.) As for writing anything down . . . After all, it all happened only forty years ago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *