D J Taylor: Real spies - shaken not stirred

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The Independent Online

The recent news that the Foreign Office has issued warnings to Britons holidaymaking abroad on the likelihood of their being propositioned by foreign intelligence services will come as no surprise to anyone who takes a serious interest in espionage. The demythologisation of the spy is one of the great features of early 21st-century life. Only the other day, for example, casting my eye over an official communication from my youngest son's school, I discovered that Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, had somehow metamorphosed on to its governing body. In these circumstances, the idea of, let us say, some venal photocopier salesman from Macclesfield skulking home from a week in the Baltic with a brief to investigate the nuclear installations of the north-west is simply par for the course.

It was not always so. Until at least a quarter of a century ago, a spy was a spy: instantly identifiable from appearance, speech and demeanour. Holed up in a Barcelona hotel during the Spanish Civil War, as the street fighting raged around him, George Orwell came across an immensely sinister character whom the other guests had nicknamed "Charlie Chan": in case there should be any doubt as to his professional calling, Mr Chan had a miniature bomb attached to his waistband. Fictional spies might not have quite so openly advertised their services, but faced with the irruption of a Hannay, a Bond or a George Smiley into a book or a film, the onlooker knew instantly what to expect. Enigmatic, resourceful, affairé, the spy carried with him (and it nearly always was a him) an aura that was the spiritual equivalent of a gust of aniseed.

And then, mysteriously, a democratising process set in. Previously esteemed for his detachment from the rest of scurrying humanity, the spy now had to look exactly like everyone else. In the past he had been required to stand out; now he had to blend in. I can remember my astonishment, back in the mid-1980s, on being asked to ghost-write the memoirs of an ex-SAS man who claimed, among other exploits, to have faced down Carlos the Jackal in a Mediterranean swimming pool and to have been one of Anwar Sadat's bodyguards. Instead of the tall, raven-haired lady-killer with the smouldering eye there marched into the restaurant a stocky, ruminative Yorkshireman who looked as if he might easily have played a subsidiary role in some northern sitcom.

All this, though - spy marshals prowling the foreign beaches, Stella Rimington on the governing body of Town Close House - is symptomatic of a much wider tendency in our national life: the inability of anybody to match up to public expectations of their likely professional appearance. Seventy years ago, abetted by newspapers and music hall sketches, a High Court judge really did look like a High Court judge. The young Anthony Powell, returning from the Continent in the 1930s with the word "author" filed on his passport, was mildly upbraided by the customs official on the grounds that authors always smoked pipes. Sadly this quite reasonable hankering for identification marks has been savagely undercut by time. Even as late as the last decade, pundits used to maintain that a key reason for the popularity of the late John Smith with Labour Party members was that he looked like a bank manager. But there are no more plump, reassuring bank officials affably waving their clients through the doorway: their jobs have all been filled by 28-year-olds with MBAs and a mission to crack down on unsustainable personal debt. No wonder all those people were taken in by a con man posing as an MI5 agent. We no longer know what to expect a spook to look like.

In fact, only a single branch of the modern professional environment seems to harbour workers who, in however stylised a way, act up to the roles conceived for them by the public imagination. Not long ago I discovered that the children of a friend of mine attend the same school as those of a fairly well-known Premiership forward. What was he like, I wondered. "Well," the friend volunteered, "he looks like a professional footballer. And his wife looks like a professional footballer's wife." However outwardly non-committal the description, I knew exactly what he meant. Meanwhile, the fact that spies no longer look like, well, themselves is a matter of deep regret. Thirty years ago my father used quite seriously to maintain (on grounds of extensive foreign travel and Third World connections) that my uncle was an MI6 agent. Last week's realisation that he really was a quantity surveyor is horribly disillusioning.