Behind the veil of secrecy: GCHQ emerges from the shadows

Is it ever possible to truly see inside the heart of another? To divine hidden intentions and the darkest of thoughts? For a long time — before we all became sourly aware of our own computers spying on us like HAL 9000, and flashing ads for haemorrhoid ointments — this godlike omniscience was ascribed to the secret listeners at GCHQ. Above all other intelligence agencies it held a special place in the imaginations of urban paranoiacs. The organisation itself nurtured this sinister reputation by its insistence upon remaining deep in the shadows, even as its siblings MI5 and MI6 boldly came out. Not all that many years ago, simply publishing

The pram in the hall was one spy’s best friend

‘If you had visited the quaint English village of Great Rollright in 1945, you might have spotted a thin, dark-haired and unusually elegant woman… climbing on to her bicycle,’ Ben Macintyre opens his latest book, like the start of a gentle Ealing comedy. It will come as no surprise to his fans that the elegant Mrs Burton, Cotswolds housewife, baker of excellent cakes, mother of three and wife of a chap called Len who works in the local aluminium factory, is in fact Colonel Ursula Kuczynski of the Red Army, aka Agent Sonya, whose clandestine mission is to help the Soviets build the atomic bomb. Agent Sonya was allocated her

The great betrayer

When Klaus Fuchs started passing atomic secrets to the KGB, he changed the course of world events. Forget about Philby and the Cambridge Five, that preening group of loudmouths that still dominate our national history of Soviet treachery. In his own quiet, devastating way, Fuchs proved more significant than all of them put together. A brilliant but unassuming German refugee who found sanctuary in Britain, Fuchs rose to become one of the leading theoretical physicists of the Allied nuclear bomb project. As Frank Close, himself an Oxford nuclear physicist, writes: ‘By 1946, Fuchs knew more about the construction of the atomic bomb and the conception of the hydrogen bomb than

Sun, sea and spooks

Cuba meant a lot to Graham Greene. Behind his writing desk in his flat in Antibes he had a painting by the Cuban artist René Portocarrero, presented to him by Fidel Castro, who had signed his name on the back, so that Greene didn’t know which way to hang it. Another prize possession was a tatty Penguin copy of Our Man in Havana, kept together by Sellotape, which the Russian cosmonaut Georgy Grechko had read in outer space, and in which, while circumnavigating our planet, Grechko had underlined the places in Havana that he had visited. ‘I’ve been reading it all my life, both on earth and in space,’ he

The man who disappeared | 11 October 2018

A novel by Javier Marías, as his millions of readers know, is never what it purports to be. Spain’s most eminent novelist, Nobel laureate in waiting, translated into more than 40 languages, Marías likes to play with existential ideas. The Infatuations was ostensibly a murder mystery; Thus Bad Begins chronicled a loss of innocence. But the stories are always interwoven with deliberations on truth, morality, deceit and the impossibility of knowing one another, with side trips through literature and history. Marías’s closeness to Cervantes, Proust and, above all, Sterne is no secret. Shandyesque digressions are among the incidental pleasures faithful readers have come to expect. Berta Isla is set largely

A comedy of violence

The well-written spy novel is not a hotly contested field. Le Carré, Fleming, Deighton, a few Greenes, and that’s largely it. However, we now have a new contender: Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series. It was a brief but intriguing review in the TLS that first alerted me to the books, with their sidelined spooks, contemptuously nicknamed ‘slow horses’, sent to an oubliette next to the Barbican on having screwed up, and their appalling boss, the veteran Jackson Lamb, a monster of flatulence, astonishing drinking habits and withering put-downs (on requesting ‘an educated guess’, he says, on hearing what’s offered: ‘I said educated. That guess left school at 15 for a

A blast from the past

If you had to choose one book that both typified spy fiction and celebrated what the genre was capable of doing, then John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is probably the one to go for. Published in 1963, and set within the comfortably binary framework of the Cold War, it combined moral ambiguity and an air of grim authenticity with a steady narrative pull. It also had an unforced literary distinction that made it impossible to dismiss as ‘mere’ genre fiction. Now, over half a century later, le Carré’s latest novel returns to this murky episode and proceeds to make it even more complicated and

Perfect, gentle Knight

I once asked Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, what she did to relax. Nailing me to the wall with her no-nonsense look, she said: ‘I keep sheep.’ A similar association with the animal kingdom resounds through Henry Hemming’s excellent new life of Maxwell Knight, the famous spymaster and possible archetype for Ian Fleming’s ‘M’. Knight’s family and friends observed that, at an early age, he had a particular way with animals that allowed him to bring them under his spell. As a young man he kept a menagerie in his small London flat consisting of a bulldog, a bear and a baboon. Following his retirement, he dedicated himself

Fighting talk, but little action

On 11 May 1937, at the Gare St-Lazare in Paris, Ernest Hemingway said goodbye to a friend who was leaving Europe. Like Hemingway, John Dos Passos had been in Spain to support the Republic in its civil war against the fascist Franco. But he became disillusioned when the Soviets (also fighting against Franco) murdered someone he knew. As the train was about to leave, Hemingway asked Dos Passos not to report the event. Dos Passos refused: what was the point of fighting a war for civil liberties if you destroyed those liberties in the process? ‘Civil liberties, shit,’ replied Hemingway. ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’ The

Agents of enterprise

A teenager in the second decade of the Cold War, my father was taught to play snooker by a KGB agent. His own father was the principal of a theological college in London that had been allowed to accept two foreign students from Russia only if, said the Moscow authorities, a third ‘student’ (notably less ardent in his desire to become a clergyman) was allowed to accompany them. And this is the problem of the world of international espionage: you think it’s going to be all poisoned-tip umbrellas and canasta parties but can wind up in South Norwood studying early church history while making sure Sergey and Dmitry aren’t getting

Trump ♥ Putin

Spy novels and James Bond movies; post-war Vienna and East Berlin; Manchurian candidates and Third Men. The pop culture of the Cold War era created a set of stereotypes about hostile foreign intelligence services, especially Russian intelligence services, and they still exist. We still imagine undercover agents, dead drops, messages left under park benches, microphones inside fountain pens. It’s time to forget all of that, because the signature Russian intelligence operation of the future, and indeed of the present, is not going to unfold in secret, but rather in public. It’s not going to involve stolen documents, but rather disinformation operations designed to influence democratic elections. It’s not going to

The child is father of the man

Are writers born or made? The answer, by the end of Love from Boy — a selection of Roald Dahl’s letters to his mother drawn from the 40 years of correspondence they kept up, lovingly edited and deftly commented upon by his biographer Donald Sturrock — is surely that they are both. Even as a 12-year-old, regaling her with tales of derring-do at Repton, the economy and vivid turn of phrase are evident that would characterise both his grand guignol short stories for adults and the children’s books for which he eventually became both loved and lauded. Out ice-skating, ‘I had eight chaps pulling me with a long rope at

The prying game

One of the marks of a good Home Secretary is a healthy wariness of those in authority who come begging for ever-greater powers. The former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke failed on that score. Just over a decade ago, the police persuaded him that they needed the freedom to lock up terror suspects for 90 days without trial. The rebels who defeated the Labour plan were right: ten years later no one has presented a case of a suspect who committed an act of terror because they had to be released before the 90 days were up. Theresa May, who has confronted the police unions with such admirable fortitude, is

Escaping the Slough of despond

Most spy novels have a comfortable air of familiarity. We readers can take moles in our stride. We have grown up with cut-outs and dead letter boxes. There’s little we don’t know about angst-ridden, morally fallible spooks in raincoats and sharp-suited, gun-toting agents in casinos. Mick Herron, however, takes a different approach from most other espionage writers. Real Tigers is the third novel in his ‘Slow Horses’ series. Its predecessor, Dead Lions, won the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger as the best crime novel of the year. The Slow Horses are a department made up of MI5 rejects — officers who have committed gross errors of judgment or made enemies of

A choice of crime novels | 7 January 2016

It’s often the case that present-day crimes have their roots in the past. Ian Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild (Orion, £19.99, Spectator Bookshop, £16.99) uncovers abuse and ill-treatment in a care home in the 1980s, and the murder of a teenage boy. That terrible act echoes through the years. When three people receive threatening notes, and two of them end up being murdered, the Edinburgh police fear that more will become victims. Enter John Rebus in his 20th outing. Retired now, but as canny as ever, he picks at the connections between the present and the past with a sure, unblinking eye. The search for justice gives him life.

James Klugmann and Guy Burgess: the wasted lives of spies

Geoff Andrews’s ‘Shadow Man’, James Klugmann, was the talent-spotter, recruiter and mentor of the Cambridge spy ring. From 1962, aged 21, I stayed frequently at the large north London house where Klugmann (1912–1977) stored the overflow of his vast library. My hosts, who treated me almost as family, were members of the Communist party, as were lots of their friends whom I met. They included a good many of the dramatis personae of Geoff Andrews’s life of Klugmann (as well as several of the Hollywood Ten in exile from McCarthyism; curiously, none of them features in this biography). Klugmann was a party functionary, loved and revered by my hosts and

Through the eyes of spies

Spying is a branch of philosophy, although you would never guess it from that expression on Daniel Craig’s face. Its adepts interrogate the surface of reality — people, landscapes, texts — knowing that they will discover extraordinary hermetic meanings. They study fragments of documents, whispers of messages, and from these, they summon entire worlds. Possibly one of the reasons Max Hastings cannot pretend to be hugely impressed by the boasts of wartime spies is the philosophical nebulousness of what constitutes ‘results’ in secret-agent speak. Soldiers fight, shoulder to shoulder; battles are clearly lost and won. But those who work in the shadows — and in The Secret War, Hastings turns

Lost horizon

Sikkim was a Himalayan kingdom a third of the size of Wales squeezed between China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. I was there once in April, when the sky was cornflower blue. When Britain withdrew from India the last ‘Chogyal’, or king, battled for his country’s independence, but Mrs Ghandi won the war, and Sikkim is an Indian state now. It’s a sad story, as Andrew Duff’s subtitle suggests, but one representative of 20th-century geopolitics. This dense book — Duff’s first — places Chogyal Thondup Namgyal at the centre of the story and focuses exclusively on the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. Sikkim’s strategic position is crucial, particularly as

The end of secrecy

Gordon Corera, best known as the security correspondent for BBC News, somehow finds time to write authoritative, well-researched and readable books on intelligence. Here he explores the evolution of computers from what used to be called signals intelligence to their transforming role in today’s intelligence world. The result is an informative, balanced and revealing survey of the field in which, I suspect, most experts will find something new. He starts with an event that took place 101 years ago next month, when the British dredger Alert set off from Dover in the early hours to cut the German undersea telegraph cables. This inconspicuous act meant that throughout the first world

Turing’s long shadow

As a young student, the atheist Alan Turing — disorientated with grief over the death of his first love Christopher Morcom — wrote to Morcom’s mother with an atomic theory of how one’s spirit might transmigrate. Years later, he brought the modern computer age into being by positing machines imbued with consciousness. You can’t help wondering what Turing’s shade — whether ethereal or perhaps digital — makes of his posthumous fame. Plays; books; postage stamps. Now, following Benedict Cumberbatch’s doomy big-screen portrayal of the Bletchley Park codebreaking genius in The Imitation Game, David Lagercrantz fictionalises the murky aftermath of Turing’s death. In doing so, he explores questions not only of