Or was it really like that? Donald MacLean, holed up in some housing estate on the edge of Moscow having fled Britain to escape imprisonment for espionage in 1951 might have a few contradictory words to say on the subject. He wouldn't be able to contribute much now though, passing away on this very day in 1983.
A classical education He came from a Cambridge in the 1930s where spying against your own country wasn't actually taught, but where you wouldn't be called stupid for thinking as much. One of many enticed by the chance to demonstrate initiative in an exciting environment. For a career in the city which meant quiet alleyways and coffee shops rather than management consultancy or Lloyd's.
Nice work MacLean was accompanied in his work, as well as in his fleeing, by another star player, Guy Burgess, while old boy Anthony Blunt combined his posts as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures with that of KGB agent, before establishment contacts helped keep him in the country in the Sixties after he'd admitted to spying. Others - blunderers and plunderers for the KGB Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were simply executed.
The end, my friend The end of communism has meant less work for the CIA and MI5, and fewer novels from Le Carre. And the end of the Cold War. The IRA have provided an entertaining little sideline, but have recently gone soft, a huge bomb last September prevented from going off by a pounds 100,000 bribe. And this week another CIA agent admitted to working for the Russians. Still, there's ground for hope in other parts of the world. A mad despot running a major Middle Eastern power (Iraq) and a series of countries - Chechnya for example - that you wouldn't exactly describe as stable present the possibility of good times again for our secret service.