Miles Kington: If you go down to the woods today, you'll find it a bit dull

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There was an elderly man sitting opposite me in the train yesterday who looked so respectable that I got quite a shock when, halfway through a newspaper article, he said something rude under his breath. He looked up, caught my eye and apologised.

"Sorry about that. I was just a bit upset by this business of the lady teacher from the Sudan and the teddy bear called Mohammed."

"Upset? How?"

I did not know whether to expect him to attack Islam, or the Sudan, or defend British primary school-teaching or the sacrosanct nature of teddy bears or what. I certainly did not foresee what he actually did say.

"I am appalled by how boring Mrs Gibbons turned out to be. The press were longing for her to provide a bit of colour, a bit of suffering, a bit of complaining, even a bit of torture and starvation. Nothing like that at all. She was just... so nice." (This last word spat out distastefully.) "It wasn't like that in my day in the Foreign Office."

I thought this sounded worth pursuing.

"What happened in your day in the Foreign Office?"

"Oh, it's all ages ago now, but I was in charge of a small section which handled all this sort of thing. Released prisoners. Hostages coming home. Spies being exchanged. Innocent tourists being arrested and then deported remember all those British aircraft spotters?"

Yes, I had forgotten about them.

"Well, it was always a heaven-sent propaganda opportunity for the FO, but only if the people coming back hostages, plane-spotters, etc were good material and said the right things. We couldn't really take a risk on that. So we used to train our own people and substitute them at the last moment."

"I'm not quite sure..."

"Well, in those days if we'd have had a British lady arrested for teddy bear abuse in Khartoum, we would have immediately trained a stand-in, back here at home, waiting to take over. Teacher is arrested. Goes on trial. Is condemned. Is released after merciful intervention by head of state. Is flown home and then, before she can get up at a press conference and bore everyone silly about how nice the Sudanese really are, we swap her with our highly trained person. Nobody knows what she really looks like. She says all the right, colourful, slightly provocative things, and then vanishes. We were doing that all the time in the Cold War. It was full-time drama department I ran. Went wrong occasionally, of course."

"How did that happen?"

"Oh, I remember one fellow who had been in a Soviet prison for a year on charges of espionage, mostly true, and he was suddenly released. When we got him back here, we spirited him away and gave a press conference starring his trained substitute. Only trouble was, the fake spy kept going on about how much Turkish he had learnt in prison, and how he came to dislike Oriental food. Turned out we'd put up the wrong chap by mistake he was the man we were training to masquerade as a high-level prisoner in Istanbul! Nobody tumbled, thank God. The British press never sniffed a rat. Good old Fleet Street."

"Are you really trying to tell me," I said, "that the Foreign Office was deceiving Fleet Street, TV, the British public, our government and the Russians with a parade of hand-trained fake deportees?"

"Yes," he said. "Oh, not the Russians, of course. They knew exactly what we were up to. Still, they were doing the same thing themselves. I remember once they sent us back a so-called spy of ours who turned out to be one of their best actors! We had to send him back, of course. Ah, they were the days..."

"Is there a word of truth in any of this?" I said sternly.

He looked at me.

"You want to believe me, don't you?" he said.


"Then that's what you should do."

What do you think?