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The Russian language front

22 February 2003

12:00 AM

22 February 2003

12:00 AM


St Ermin's Press, pp.246, 18.99

During the war against Hitler, secret services recruited on the old boy net: there was no other way of being sure that recruits were not duds, and even on the old boy net bad mistakes could be made – Philby and Maclean were only the most notable examples. All that was supposed to vanish with Ernest Bevin’s arrival at the Foreign Office and the Attlee government’s clearing away of old boy values for ever.

Not a bit of it. Here is a vivacious account of how in the 1950s, under Eden and Lloyd at the Foreign Office, some 5,000 young men doing national service were quietly siphoned off from their units, secluded in Cornwall and Fifeshire, or, more boldly, next door to the Guards depot at Coulsdon in Surrey, and put through crash courses in Russian till they could speak it fluently. The luckiest of them were up at Cambridge or London universities, but again kept a sort of purdah. The kursanty, as they called themselves – those who were on the Russian course, officially known as the Joint Services School of Linguists (JSSL) – formed a caste apart, exactly as Etonians and Wykehamists had done in the 1920s and 1930s. Either they had been there together and therefore joined in the intense peer pressure to do well; or they had common instructors, and had picked up common turns of phrase, common ways of holding a cigarette, common anecdotes, a common outlook on life.

Of those of them who were promoted into the really secret parts of the state, Elliott and Shukman can of course say nothing; though we are told that the JSSL trained at least one unnamed head of GCHQ, as well as a bishop, numerous professors and a governor of the Bank of England. There are enough references to smoke-filled, windowless rooms full of intercept equipment to give one some idea of where many of the students went. The rest were allowed out into the wider, normal world, where many of them became famous. Their files all bore – the survivors still bear – a tag: ‘this one can do Russian’, and so they provided an invaluable latent resource for the armed forces, if the Cold War ever turned hot and we needed interrogators and radio interceptors in quantity. Elliott himself, having made his pile as an investment banker, retired to Bermuda, where the local police once picked up his tag, and called him in to help some monoglot policemen from Russia try to unravel a crime.

Most of the kursanty found that JSSL was both intensely hard work and a liberating experience; because, once they were launched, the intricacies of the Russian language and the splendours of Russian literature opened up parts of their minds that they had never known about, and gave them wider horizons than they had dreamed of. The contrast between army (or navy or air force) basic training and classroom slog was sharp; Elliott and Shukman, like the rest of kursanty, have not much use for the rigidities of regular service life and thinking, and they keep up a steady run of digs against officers and NCOs – especially NCOs – who seem to them to have had ivory solid from ear to ear. Over every JSSL pupil’s head there hung a sword like Damocles’: if they failed an exam, they would be RTU – returned to unit: back to the starting horrors that they trusted they had escaped.

No one interested in late 20th-century theatre or literature can afford to ignore this book; Sir Peter Hall, Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Sir Martin Gilbert and many of their friends are among its contributors. D. M. Thomas writes an affectionate foreword; Christine Thomas was an invaluable help to the authors while they wrote. Patrick Proctor’s drawings, in colour, add grace to it; and the way with words that JSSL inculcated makes sure that there is no sentence anyone needs to read twice to understand. It is also a highly entertaining read; suitably for a body that has so much sustained the entertainment industry.

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