Spying can be fun

By David E P Dennis

Indeed, espionage can be fun – but you can also get yourself killed. State secrets are secret for a reason!


So how can you have fun whilst immersing yourself in a world of spies?

Easy – use the luxury of armchair spying, mix yourself a martini shaken not stirred, sit back and read about their activities.  Not necessarily the James Bond fantasies but the cold and deeply scary reality of pretending to be someone you are not whilst sticking your nose into someone else’s business.

If you read, then you can safely nose about in central Beirut, mixing with Hezbollah and Mossad agents battling each other, whereas if you actually went nosing about in downtown Beirut and asked the wrong people the wrong questions you could end up floating in the sea off the Corniche with your legs tied to a concrete block. Having been to the Lebanon several times on photographic ‘missions’, including…

  • into areas controlled by Hezbollah in the deep south to the Israeli border
  • the Al Khiam torture centre (bombed by the Israelis after I left – it must have been something I said on Wikipedia!)
  • overnighting in the Bekaa
  • and having seen the dreadful damage to the St George Hotel during the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri

…I’m able to write a little about the area from first-hand experience, but it is not advisable for you to do so! Frankly I loved Lebanon and it’s a great shame that they are having so many problems in such beautiful surroundings.

So writing first-hand stuff has a certain literary elitism and a definite ‘frisson’ but you could get chopped off at the knees if you aren’t very careful during your on-site research activities. No harm in going on a holiday to Moscow though just to get the feel of the place. China is another fascinating place for espionage writing.  I found the border guards to be very kind, polite and helpful as they took my passport away to photograph it!

The Chinese people were great and so was the food. There’s not enough fiction yet about adventures with the Chinese Intelligence Services, although I have written a short story about an SAS officer who was night-dropped from a B2 Spirit Stealth Bomber out of Whiteman Air Force Base, using a wing-suit into Xinjiang Province to cut into the government fibre optic cables – all good fun. We are now friends with the Chinese and they are going to build some of our nuclear power stations (as you can read here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34329617  )  – so a bit of espionage writing will be taken in good part I’m sure.

But this article takes you on an ‘under book cover’ journey through the pages of some of the best adventures – or some of the most relevant technical writing on espionage.

In the UK we have the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), popularly known in the current Le Carré TV drama, The Night Manager, as the ‘River House’ at Vauxhall Cross; the Secret Service (MI5); Government Communications HQ (GCHQ) and the Defence Intelligence & Security Centre (DISC) at Chicksands. However, there are hundreds of other classified locations under the Official Secrets Act – so you can have a field day as a writer thinking up all sorts of scenarios – likely and unlikely. For example, I wrote a short story several years ago in which someone had mapped the underground water drainage system at Aldermaston in order to obtain nuclear weapon parts including krytron triggers ‘under the wire’.

Remember when you write a book or novella, that the real spies will probably laugh at your stories because only they know what it is like – so later in this article I will refer you to the words of a real spy.

But let’s get down to business. To get a view of the overall history of MI6, MI5 and GCHQ, you would do well to read ‘The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949’ by Keith Jeffery, then there’s Christopher Andrew’s technical description of the Secret Service ‘The Defence of the Realm – The Authorized History of MI5’. Notice how this very English book has the US spelling for ‘Authorised’. Our language has been infiltrated.

In this book the panoply of popular espionage events is laid bare: the Double-Cross system of the Second World War, Zionist terrorism, atom spies, the Cambridge ‘gang of five’ – on it goes. An alternative history of MI5 is set out in ‘Spooks’ – which covers Agent Zigzag to D-Day Deception.  MI5 and MI6 operating personnel are called ‘officers’ – they are not agents but they are sometimes agent runners. So James Bond is not a secret agent. You can watch some MI5 cases and adventures in the History Channel DVD – ‘The Spying Game – MI5. It is purported that the book ‘How 2 Become an MI5 Intelligence Officer – the Ultimate Guide to a Career in the UK Secret Service’ is written with ‘expert insider tips’. This book operates out of Churchill Square Business Centre, Kings Hill in Kent but don’t tell anyone I told you.

To get an idea about GCHQ’s early history you can read about the intellectual hero Alan Turing in Andrew Hodges’ superb biography – ‘Alan Turing – The Persecuted Genius of Wartime Codebreaking and the Computer Revolution’. The great story of ‘Enigma’ and code-breaking is set out in expert fashion by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. Further massive amounts of secret information are given in ‘Between Silk and Cyanide’ by Leo Marks.

To get the feel for why spying in the last 100 years has been so important to the preservation of our democracy, you can read Piers Brendon’s book – ‘The Dark Valley – a panorama of the 1930s’. This book describes the appalling threat to national security from Hitler and Mussolini. Also it would be good to read ‘Hitler, Chamberlain and Appeasement’ by Frank McDonough and ‘The Meaning of Hitler’ by Sebastian Haffner. Our excellent intelligence organisations could see what was coming and warned about it but were brushed aside by politicians – nothing new there.  Max Hastings weighs in with ‘The Secret War – Spies, Codes and Guerillas 1939-45’. One ‘delicious’ book by John Weitz is ‘Hitler’s Diplomat – The Life and Times of Joachim von Ribbentrop‘ in which Emerald Cunard saw him as a ‘delicious real-life Nazi’ and the activities of Wallis Simpson, wife of the abdicated King Edward VIII are hinted at but the ‘seventeen pink carnations’ are relegated to mere roses. Another book that lays out the horror of the period between the World Wars is Ronald Blythe’s excellent book ‘The Age of Illusion – England in the 20s and 30s.’

Almost everyone who enjoys a spy book seems hypnotised by the Cambridge Spies and Philip Knightley’s book ‘Philby KGB Masterspy’.  This gives you a good start in understanding total duplicity and how to do it. A cracking read is the coverage of the multi-faceted drunken ‘lives’ of Guy Burgess, the secretly regretful but appalling traitor with an immaculate Cambridge and Eton background. He was spying for Russia even when he worked for the BBC. If you are revolted by how easy it is to dupe the public then why not read Owen Jones’ book ‘The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It’.

Le Carre himself has a lot to answer for in generating the genre and what he has been up to is described in the giant biography of John, the man himself, by Adam Sisman. Le Carré is very good at weaving carefully researched real locations into his novels. Lots of help is available for authors of this genre – for example, Peter Sager’s ‘Oxford & Cambridge – An Uncommon History’ helps with university spy background material and Ronald Gray and Derek Stubbings book – ‘Cambridge Street-Names – Their Origins & Associations’ helps to give further flavour. Another book I have found very useful is Dennis Howitt’s ‘Introduction to Forensic and Criminal Psychology’, which takes you through ‘false confession’, ‘profiling’, ‘lie detecting’ and ‘statement validity analysis’.

Finally we come to Stephen Grey’s new book – ‘The New Spymasters – Inside Espionage – From the Cold War to Global Terror’ which has been praised by no less a person than Frederick Forsythe. Although this book contains much of interest it also contains what seems to me to be a glaring and repeated error. The alleged deep cover operator inside the IRA is said to be Freddie Scappaticci and his cover name is endlessly written in a culinary fashion as ‘Steak Knife’, whereas I think you will find that it was ‘Stakeknife’ as shown here (allegedly of course!):


and here:


Maybe Stephen wanted to throw us all off the scent – or maybe the typesetter made a mess of it – who knows! The truth is out there but is hidden by dark forces – or so writers love to suggest. Ha! In a world of duplicity it may even be that Wikipedia wants to throw us off the scent!

So reading about spying can be great fun – but writing about it is even more fun – so long as you are careful. Remember also that those really involved in spying use truth and falsehood as tools and do not have rigid ethics. I remember being told by a special forces person who worked in Northern Ireland that a person had ‘lain in the Belfast gutter in the banana position rigid for 15 long minutes pistol in hand and found that when they tried to get up and run they could not move because their back was too stiff’.  Personally I think from my two-and-a half years in Downpatrick back in the bad old days that if PIRA operatives were bearing down on you, you’d get up pretty sharpish, backache or not!

Have some fun reading – and of course writing!

Oh and by the way – I promised you a real spy to chat to – and here they are:



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