Spies! Why I write what I write
January 1982. Vaalimaa. Crossing the wide, snowy no-man’s land dividing neutral Finland from Soviet Russia, a 19-year old prototype of me is the only non-Finn on a bus packed with committed ‘vodka tourists’. After clearing border-controls, complete with dead-eyed KGB guards and a freshly groomed trace-control strip, first stop is the Beryozka foreign currency booze shop in Vyborg. Fully loaded up with ridiculously cheap Stolichnaya, Leningrad awaits: budget Intourist hotel , unspeakable Soviet food, glowering babushki on every landing, wonderful art and monuments…it doesn’t take long to give our mandatory ‘guide’ the slip and embark on my first adventure behind the Iron Curtain.
September 1983. I’m being debriefed, alongside two British Army friends, in a barracks near Cambridge. We’d recently mingled in with three hundred thousand other young backpackers who zigzagged across Europe with Interrail passes that summer. The Intelligence Corps officer makes it clear that he’s only concerned with our train travels through Hungary and Romania: what we’d seen of interest, who we’d met. Doubtless of little real use, we were happy to describe the sleeve markings of Warsaw Pact troops who we’d spotted in Budapest, the tank transporters trundling down the highway, the unexpected overnight diversion through the oilfields of Moldavia. Judiciously, and by common consent, the only thing we spared the bored-looking soldier was our encounter with a group of friendly East German women at a campsite disco next to Lake Balaton.
September 1984. On final approach to a British airbase in West Germany. Dressed in an approximation of the uniform of a Soviet airforce major, I´ve been given a ride in an RAF jet and I hear the crew identify me as a defecting MiG 23 pilot. The RAF Regiment welcoming committee waiting by the runway don´t look happy. Guard dogs straining at the leash, an instruction board in block capital Russian, German and English held aloft. Tense-looking RAF policemen readying a black hood for me, as steps are brought up to the plane. I‘m pushed down onto the apron, roughly searched, then bundled away in the back of a Landrover. It’s the height of Exercise Lionheart, Britain’s largest post-war exercise, and my instructions are vague: ‘make a bloody nuisance of yourself, demand to see the base commander to hand over your secrets, generally tie them up in knots….’.
November 1984. The Public Records Office, Kew, London. I chance on an obscure British Foreign Office CX file from 1938 and can’t believe my beginner´s luck. I’m working on my history dissertation on pre-war British intelligence under the supervision of Professor Christopher Andrew, already a rising star in the history faculty of Cambridge University, later to become the legendary, foremost chronicler of the secret world. The document I happen upon proves beyond doubt that the British government had advanced warning of Germany´s intention to occupy Austria in the Anschluss, based on covert intercepts in Cairo. A result.
January 1985. Carlton Gardens, London. A series of interviews with a series of men, all called Mr Halliday. Following a discussion with one of my tutors over a glass of dry sherry (no kidding, the world of espionage seems full of lived cliches), one of the Mr Hallidays had written a vaguely-worded, formal invitation to meet. The Mr Hallidays were of varying ages, but universally intense and evidently humourless. My final interview felt like torture. I’d made the mistake of exaggerating my German language capabilities and so was subject to an unrelenting, quickfire interrogation in the language. My elderly interlocutor seemed decidedly unimpressed, drumming his fingers on the desk as I floundered. It took three decades for me learn who my tormentor really was: the most successful MI6 field officer since the Second World War, and the man who finally broke the notorious Soviet mole, George Blake. So I’d been in good company.
So that´s it, my personal story, how it all started. Forty years later, the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain are long gone, as is my hair. As I write, Finland has closed the Vaalimaa and other border crossings due to the deteriorating security situation with Russia. Battle lines are drawn differently now, new spying technologies are everywhere, but the Old Game is played as energetically as ever. My interest had been whetted at the height of the Cold War and has continued unabated. I’ve known a good number of practitioners over the years, professional intelligence officers and their agents, British, American, French, Russian and Chinese. I’ve written my debut spy novel, SHOCK THERAPY, based on my experiences. I’m currently writing a travel guide, SPY CITIES, with my friend and collaborator, David Ludlow. Twelve world cities to explore from an espionage buff’s point of view.
I’m often asked why I’m so fascinated by the secret world. And my answer is pretty simple: like many others, I’m drawn to the amazing array of colourful characters who inhabit it: often eccentric, psychologally flawed, damaged or even deranged, sometimes brave and brilliant, occasionally dangerous. But all with their own compelling stories that need to be told.