Spymaster who knew the secret of silence: Alex Renton attends the memorial service for Sir Dick White, secret service chief

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The Independent Online
'I REMEMBER the green ink,' an old spy said. 'Only the chief was allowed to use green ink.'

'Yes, yes,' her friend said. 'When I left the service, and I could, I loved to use green ink.'

In a service at the Guards Chapel in London yesterday, they remembered the ink - and the life of Sir Dick White, former head of MI5 and then MI6, who died in February aged 86. The chapel was filled by 350 people but there were ghosts, too, from Sir Dick's 36 years in intelligence: Burgess, Philby, Maclean and Blunt; Buster Crabbe and Sir Roger Hollis.

The trouble with memorial services is that the people you really want to see aren't there. But Sir Ted Heath turned up, with Sir David Muirhead, Douglas Hurd's 'Special Representative'. Sir Dick had the honour, perhaps unique, of having the lessons read by both the current heads of the Security Service.

Sir Colin McColl, director-general of MI6, read slowly, weighing the words of Psalm 32: 'I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle while the wicked is before me.'

Stella Rimington, director-general of MI5, in deep blue suit and hat, read from Corinthians: 'Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.' The texts might have come straight from the Spymaster's Prayerbook.

Otherwise, it was all most British: Psalm 23, 'The Lord's my shepherd', to the Crimond tune; Jerusalem; Purcell and some songs of Strauss. Sir Dick's children read two of his poems: one dealing with his distrust of dogmatic ideology, the other meditating on his 20 years of happy retirement on the South Downs.

A picture emerged of a man more pen and trowel than cloak and dagger. Sir Dick, we were told, read Rilke, Auden, Spender and Jung when not planting his garden. A favourite text was from the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset: 'If one wishes to do something serious, the first injunction is to keep quiet. True knowledge is silence and reserve.'

Silent he was - never commanding more than four lines in Who's Who, as his friend Lord Greenhill of Harrow told us. But he was charming. 'How do you get,' an American intelligence man once asked Lord Greenhill, 'a man of such culture, sophistication and gallantry to serve so effectively in this profession?' How effective? 'Serious mistakes,' Lord Greenhill stated, 'were made and suspicions, sometimes unfounded, diminished effectiveness and mutual confidence.' But it was Sir Dick who brought British intelligence through the nightmare period of cleansing after high-level Soviet infiltration, to restore internal self-confidence and international credibility. And, by all accounts, he was a lovely man to work with. Peter Wright, who did not attend, wrote in Spycatcher of a brilliant, popular and humane man with 'something of David Niven about him, the same perfect English manners, easy charm and immaculate dress sense'. Sir Dick called Wright's book 'third-rate'.

(Photograph omitted)