In March 1981 Margaret Thatcher went to the hospital bedside of Maurice Oldfield, the former head of the Secret Intelligence Service, who was dying of stomach cancer. She found him surrounded by his brothers and sisters, whom she gently asked to leave as she needed to ‘speak privately with Sir Maurice’. When they trooped back after her departure, they found their brother, hitherto calm and resigned about his illness, distraught and weeping. It was the first time any of them had seen him in tears. In answer to their question what was wrong, he answered: ‘Mrs Thatcher asked if I was homosexual. I had to tell her.’ It was the first time any of his siblings had heard any remark about his sexuality.
One can imagine the combination of stilted sympathy and condescending curiosity with which the Prime Minister had quizzed the old man about his sex life and the recent withdrawal of his positive vetting certificate. He was humiliated by her questions and by his exposure in front of his siblings; his
condition deteriorated and he died a few days later.
Such vivid episodes abound in Martin Pearce’s compelling and authoritative biography of the strange man who served for 40 years in SIS and was for five years its chief. Oldfield was born on a kitchen table in Derbyshire’s Peak District in 1915. He was the eldest of 11 children of a tenant farmer in the remote village of Over Haddon. As a boy he lived in a two-up, two-down cottage, and laboured on the family farm.
He won a scholarship to Manchester University, where he graduated with a first-class degree and was elected to a history fellowship. In Manchester he had a love affair with a fellow student, Jimmy Crompton. Pearce shows that Oldfield was drawn into secret work as early as 1937–38 — probably on the recommendation of the Manchester historian Sir Lewis Namier. He travelled to various European cities as a graduate student, and doubtless remitted reports.
In 1941 Oldfield joined the Intelligence Corps, and served with distinction at the Cairo headquarters of Security Intelligence Middle East. After recruitment as deputy head of counter-intelligence at SIS in 1947, he was one of the earliest to suspect the treachery of Kim Philby. He was posted to Singapore in 1950, with a remit covering South-east Asia and the Far East, and was head of SIS station in Singapore in 1956–58.
In this new age of reliable international air travel, he was the most peripatetic of station chiefs, flying between his outposts: his rumpled, chubby, low-key appearance made it easy for him to ‘go grey’. He had particular success in using unofficial agents, or ‘Friends’, to supply intelligence acquired during their travels. He cultivated ‘Friends’ among airline crews. Some of his ‘Friends’ on the International Olympic Committee are still alive.
In 1959 he was chosen as SIS representative in Washington, charged with restoring good relations with the CIA, which had been shaken by the mishandling of Philby’s duplicity. He achieved many successes in this job: not least by volunteering for a lie-detector test and beating the system by telling undetected lies.
As deputy head of SIS in London during the 1960s, and as head in 1973–78, Oldfield kept the home address and telephone number of his Westminster flat and the Over Haddon farm in reference books. He returned to Over Haddon every weekend that he could. There he helped on the farm, took placid strolls and had boozy family lunches at the Lathkill, a local hostelry where his great-aunts, the Miss Wildgooses, had once been landladies. He installed a MI6 contact to run the pub, where he sometimes held secret conferences. When registering in hotels under an alias, he used the outlandish names of Featherstone Lupton and Dicken Crawley in commemoration of Over Haddon cousins. The importance of his ancestral village in grounding him cannot be overstated: an SIS colleague spoke of his ‘Over Haddon common sense’.
His reputation was besmirched after Thatcher appointed him in 1979 as co-ordinator of security intelligence in Northern Ireland. Various implausible slurs were spread. Oldfield’s positive vetting certificate was withdrawn after interrogation in 1980.
Seven years later the journalist Chapman Pincher published Traitors: The Labyrinths of Treason. He regaled its readers with grubby fantasies of Oldfield having sex with a man in the lavatory of the Highwayman pub in Ulster, of rent-boys and ‘rough trade’ and of a security officer who had seen Oldfield looking duffed up by a ‘young oriental’ visitor to his flat. Pearce identifies the supposedly dodgy youth as a peaceable Singapore-born paediatrician, Michael Chan, then in his late thirties, and afterwards a member of the Press Complaints Commission and life peer. When a SIS man challenged Pincher for blackguarding Oldfield, Pincher replied with a wink: ‘You may have a pension, Tony. I need to look after mine.’ A former deputy head of SIS said of these smears, which thrived in the dung-heap of homophobia aroused in the mid-1980s by Aids: ‘Chapman Pincher has done the KGB’s work for them.’
Martin Pearce is Oldfield’s great-nephew, and knew his subject well. His grandmother Sadie Pearce was the sibling to whom Oldfield was closest. Spymaster, accordingly, is full of perceptive intimacies, heartwarming affection and quiet, endearing charm. It is admirably fair and sane on subjects which make other espionage historians hot-headed. There is plenty of tradecraft, subterfuge, deception and revelation. I cannot think of a better biography of a spy chief.
Richard Davenport-Hines has written books on Keynes, drugs and the Profumo scandal, among other subjects.