BOOK REVIEW / Of moles and grasses: 'The Faber Book of Espionage' - Nigel West: Faber, 17.50

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HALF a century and more ago, my father was a Soviet agent. In the 1930s, he earned his living as a signwriter in the East End of London, and later as the general secretary of a small trade union. Yet, bizarrely, he made no attempt to hide his communist sympathies while travelling the world on missions for the Moscow-based Comintern, which controlled the activities of foreign Communist Parties.

Among the few tasks he was prepared to discuss, years later, were missions to the underground German party, the transmission to Moscow of the minutes of meetings held by the central committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the bearing of instructions from Moscow to Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the British party. After the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, my father ceased his subversive activities, but for some years a misplaced sense of honour made him unwilling to denounce former colleagues. As the Cold War intensified and innocent socialists and communists were arrested and prepared for show trials in eastern Europe, he felt he could no longer remain silent. Late in 1947 he visited Pollitt, in the party's London headquarters in King Street, and warned that he would give the British authorities all the information he possessed if anything untoward happened to people they both knew to be innocent. According to my father, Pollitt replied: 'Don't be silly Johnny. You know we run British intelligence.'

He didn't, actually. But it figured. Either grotesque incompetence or something more sinister had protected my father - just as far fatter fishes were protected. Now the man who at the time was in charge of counter-subversion at MI5 was Sir Roger Hollis, the agency's expert on British communists. In 1956 he became Director- General. If Pollitt was telling the truth, Hollis, who died in 1973, was a traitor.

All this inevitably influenced my approach to The Faber Book of Espionage, Nigel West's history-cum-anthology of the British intelligence services. I turned first to the entries concerning Hollis, and learned that Hollis and his deputy Graham Mitchell had been accused by colleagues and Soviet defectors of betraying secrets to Moscow over an extended period. Hollis was, West says, interrogated several times in the early 1970s in the course of the so-called Fluency Committee investigation, during which the security services probed themselves and - surprise, surprise - pronounced themselves clean of Soviet penetration. (That was after Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.)

Four years later, one of the Fluency Committee's most assiduous members, Stephen de Mowbray, went to the Cabinet Secretary, Lord Trend. He alleged that the investigation had failed to discover the truth about Hollis. Lord Trend conducted his own investigation, which, according to West, concluded that Hollis was innocent - and that there was no compelling evidence that MI5 had suffered hostile penetration. The sheer stupidity of the latter claim must cast doubt on Lord Trend's assessment of Hollis. And, according to West, as a result of the still-secret Trend report, 'When challenged in the Commons, Margaret Thatcher read a statement which, far from ending the speculation, prompted Peter (Spycatcher) Wright to denounce his former Director-General as a traitor.'

It is fashionable to dismiss Wright as an embittered nonentity, and West correctly describes the notorious autobiography as 'mediocre' and 'only of marginal accuracy'. But he points out that the molehunter-general's career at MI5 was an impressive one. And Wright knew, from his 12 years in the counter-espionage branch, that - contrary to the public position of the British government - 'there was evidence of Soviet penetration 18 years after Blunt had left MI5'.

The more general delights of this ill-structured but fascinating anthology lie in the contributions of a wonderful collection of hacks who ended up playing the spying game. As Malcolm Muggeridge said in his memoir The Infernal Grove, 'Writers of thrillers tend to gravitate to the Secret Service as surely as the mentally unstable become psychiatrists, or the impotent, pornographers.' There are more worthy extracts from the works of, say, Sir Hugh Trevor- Roper or Sir John Masterman, as well as Compton Mackenzie, Somerset Maugham, Erskine Childers, Alec Waugh, Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge, John Dickson Carr, John Bingham, his daughter Charlotte, David Cornwell (John le Carre) and more.

What these well-selected pieces have in common is a cynicism about the utter ineptness of the services which employed them. Sometimes this is expressed in jolly terms, sometimes in bitterly satirical style - and sometimes as a brooding suspicion that nothing was as it seemed, and that floundering and bungling were a cover for treachery. My father would have loved this book.

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