Spying for a living

Perhaps it is because I was brought up during the intensity of the Cold War, but I always fancied being a Spy. I wasn’t lucky enough to ever have a career where secrets could be exchanged, or where my position as a potential traitor could be exploited. I doubt that the Soviet government in 1970 wanted to know about gramophone records, and it is equally unlikely that Kosygin or Brezhnev wanted the lowdown on Ambulance Training, in 1980. By the time I actually had a job where I might have something of value to betray, in 2004, there was nobody left to offer a deal.

My idea of being a spy owes nothing to James Bond, and his imitators. Despite Ian Fleming’s own association with the Secret Services, this playboy fiction was just that. I preferred the grittier, raincoat-clad spies, or the pillars of the establishment, who surprised everybody with their defection, like Philby, Burgess, and Maclean. I never imagined myself as a spy hunter, like Harry Palmer in the novels of  Len Deighton. I would have been the spy, passing secrets to the Soviet Bloc, pressurising weak civil servants; arranging honey traps, and delivering brown envelopes, containing compromising photographs. Perhaps I would have been dormant for years, apparently loyal and beyond reproach. Suddenly activated, I would wreak havoc in one mission, before fleeing to Leningrad, and obscurity in a tiny flat.

The paraphernalia of spying is attractive. Tiny cameras, microfilm, poisons, and occasional use of complex explosives. Add those to carrying a concealed handgun, after extensive covert training, and excitement would surely have been guaranteed. The constant fear of discovery, perhaps torture and imprisonment, a life lived without trust, and one eye over a shoulder. I can only imagine the adrenaline rush, and sense of being alive, that this must inspire. That life would also have to be abandoned in a moment. Every connection, the closest family, the lifelong friend; wife, children, lover, all gone in a heartbeat. To be so focused, so determined, and so committed, so as to be strong enough to do all this, that is a wonderful thing.

Of course, my examples naturally follow the traditional path of spying for the Russians, against The West. That is what I understood, and that would have been my spying career of choice. But it could apply just as well in any direction. The rules are pretty much the same, whatever presumed loyalty you are set on betraying. During time of war, it is all very different. Our own spies are seen as heroes, and those of the enemy are reviled, and executed without pity. Once the war is over, it takes on the sense of a surreal game, where points are scored, and a ‘some you win, some you lose’ attitude prevails. Some enemy spies are even given reluctant admiration, for their spying skills, or ability to escape detection. Their victims are ridiculed as buffoons and dupes, who were no good anyway.

If all else fails, you can opt to become a double agent. Then neither side ever really knows who you are spying for, and they feed you with reams of false information, until they begin to confuse themselves with their own complexities. If the outcome is good, you get to choose where you end up, and whatever side you settle on, sees you as a hero. Along the way, there is an element of foreign travel, reasonable expenses, and decent hotels. You gain language skills, even Knighthoods are not unknown, and you have influence far beyond your capabilities. Whichever side you end up on, you have a Civil Service pension, a reasonable standard of living in retirement, the odd medal, and the thanks of a grateful nation.

I always knew I should have gone to university.

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