The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: In my day at MI5 we simply had a better class of spy

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The Independent Online
THINGS are coming to a pretty pass when the best Great Britain can come up with in the way of Russian spies is Mr Michael Bettaney, late of Her Majesty's Prison. To my mind, he looks a very odd fellow indeed, like something one might chance upon lying all alone tummy-down on a fishmonger's slab at the end of a busy day.

Reports confirm he didn't attend one of our older public schools. This at least goes some way towards explaining why he made such a bosh-shot of his brief career as a double-agent. Imagine sticking one's country's top secrets to the cistern of a public lavatory in an Oxford Street picture- house! In my day, it was the Curzon or nothing.

But then in my days at MI5, those who chose to spy against their country were an altogether better class of people. Whatever one might have thought of their actions - and I for one urged on-the-spot fines of up to pounds 25 for a first offence for those caught betraying major secrets in office time - they at least had a certain sense of style, a certain sense of pluck and bravado. Kim Philby, for instance, was exceptionally well-read and had the most perfect manners. I well remember one day when I popped my head around his office door to ask him it he could spare a couple of spoons of sugar. I found he was entertaining three heavily-built gentlemen, all dressed in the distinctive full-dress uniform of the Russian Army, their chests, shoulders and stomachs all festooned with every ribbon and medal under the sun.

"So sorry" I said, not wishing to interrupt his little party, and determined to make the swiftest of exits.

"No, no, my dear chap" he immediately replied, "Do join us! May I introduce my old chums Mr Brown, Mr Smith and Mr Jones? They've just popped by to say hello."

"Ah!" I exclaimed in their direction, "Three good strong British names! For a moment I thought you must be generals in the KGB, dressed like that! Ha ha ha!"

The three men joined in my laughter. "Not at all, Wallace!" said the exquisitely-mannered Kim, holding the door open and kindly directing me to the corridor with a graceful sweep of his impeccably manicured fingernail, "Mr Brown is a-a-a butcher, and Mr Smith, yes, Mr Smith, well, Mr Smith is a baker, that's right, a baker, and finally Mr Jones is a - yes! - Mr Jones is a candlestick-maker.

"Excellent!" I said, taking my leave of the merry company, "Marvellous to welcome decent, honest, ordinary British folk among us! Good afternoon to you all!"

It was only five or six years later that MI5 first began to wonder whether Kim might just possibly have been a Soviet spy: I believe it was the Daily Express headline, "Philby Unmasked as Soviet Spy" that set off their alarm bells. But I'm delighted to say that no-one who had been with him in the Service at that time ever called his manners into question. Quite simply, he was a thoroughgoing gentleman, and would no more have held his knife and fork in an ungainly manner than he would have embarked upon a ribald story in the presence of a member of the fairer sex. And at least he was discreet about his dealings with the Soviet high-command. In all the time I worked alongside Kim in MI5, I never once heard him breathe a word of praise for Comrade Stalin or rattle on at endless length about the benefits of a planned economy. Indeed, even though, as it later emerged, those of us who were his colleagues turned out to be, as luck would have it, his ideological enemies, he never wavered in his politeness towards us. I once heard tell he even wrote regular letters of apology to the widows of those he betrayed. Such exquisite command of etiquette is testament to the benefits of a private education.

Frankly, Bettaney, with his squinty little eyes and his endless splashing about in Oxford Street cisterns, had not earned the right, either intellectually or socially, to pass secrets to the enemy. Did he wash his hands after these lavatorial operations? Any halfway-respectable bookmaker would give you odds of ten-to-one against. Small wonder the powers-that-be should have kept him in solitary confinement during the 14 years he was detained at Her Majesty Pleasure!

Burgess, Maclean, Blunt ... their very names ooze distinction. Many of our greatest novelists have found their stories irresistible. I concede they had what the psychobabblers term "personality disorders" (dread phrase!). I would agree, for example, that it was most tiresome and uncongenial of them to betray their country. But at least they could hold their own at a cocktail party, had firm handshakes and looked one straight in the eye. As for Bettaney, he came from entirely the wrong background. What on earth would HE know about treachery?