When I came to set a spy novel, Legacy, in London in the mid-1970s, I struggled with some of the detail. I had the hero, Charles Thoroughgood, popping out for a pizza, but how likely was that? When did pizza places become commonplace; were they distinctly 70s, or later? I didn’t recall them from the 60s and my memory of the Pizza Express I used in Kensington in 1975 is that it was a bit of a novelty. (In fact, the first Pizza Express opened in Soho in 1965.)
It was easier to see elements of the wider public and political context as distinctively 1970s. Domestically, it was a decade of industrial decline, economic mismanagement, union bullying, strikes, power blackouts, a 50mph speed limit, decrepit public services, IRA bombs and troop casualties in Northern Ireland worse than those in present-day Afghanistan. Britain felt and looked like a downwardly mobile second- world country.
Internationally, it was still the Cold War, that prolonged – sometimes quite warm – confrontation whose shadow was so pervasive that it is almost impossible for later generations to appreciate how deeply it shaded everything. We trained for – and half-expected – a Russian-led incursion into Europe. So did they. And for both sides nuclear armageddon was more than a theoretical possibility.
The world of spies and counter-spies was much more under wraps then than now, visible only when a scandal broke or when the government took decisive action, such as in 1971 when prime minister Edward Heath expelled 105 Russian intelligence officers working in London. Beneath the ice, however, the cold-water piranhas of the Cold War were ceaselessly active: penetrating the unions, cultivating sympathetic politicians for insider gossip and information about their colleagues, secreting arms caches throughout Europe for sabotage operations in the countdown to revolution and seeking to manipulate bodies such as student unions and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Anthony Blunt, the fourth man of the 1930s/40s Cambridge spies, had yet to be publicly unmasked, while John Cairncross, the fifth man, had yet to be conclusively identified. In fact, the 1970s were much closer to the time of their treachery than we are to that decade.
Politically, the atmosphere was febrile, with Heath having been narrowly defeated on the question of who should govern Britain, the elected government or the unions, and Wilson’s Labour administration bankrupt and ducking all the hard questions. Wilson himself was paranoiac, seeing plots everywhere, in what was perhaps the early stage of dementia. His fantasies were reinforced by the MI5 pensioner, Peter Wright, who claimed there was a conspiracy within MI5 to bring him down. Wright subsequently conceded that it was a conspiracy of one – himself – but the atmosphere of the time was such that many normally skeptical people were willing to be persuaded.
Now that Legacy has been translated into a film for BBC2, I had to revisit the period and the book. The story is that of a young Oxford graduate and former Army officer, Charles Thoroughgood, who joins M16 and while still on his training course finds himself involved in a real Russian spy case with unexpected personal dimensions. I had written about Thoroughgood before in A Breed of Heroes, a novel (also filmed by the BBC in 1994) about the Army in Northern Ireland, and in Legacy I sought to use him to show a small part of the reality of Cold War espionage. I wanted to get away from what we have come to expect of spy fiction – tales of Bondian derring-do or Le Carré-esque shades of grey and shifting moral sands.
I wanted to show that spying involves talking to people rather than killing them, that intelligence organisations are characterised far more by loyalty than betrayal, that humour is more common than back-stabbing but that nevertheless the work can have personal costs. In short, that Spies R Us.
My contributions to Paula Milne’s excellent script were microdot-sized but for me they provoked questions beyond the film itself: what is the relation between the reality of spying and its fictional representation, why are we so apparently obsessed by it, what is the difference between spying in the 1970s and spying now?
Spy writing is a predominantly British phenomenon dating from the turn of the 20th century. Although Kipling’s Kim and Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands are still read and well regarded, the really influential writers were E Phillips Oppenheim and the massively popular William Le Queux, who could produce six novels a year and was so bad he’s enjoyable. His stories are very much early Bondian, square-jawed heroes with faithful revolvers, and their theme is the growing German threat. They provoked an early interpenetration of fiction and reality: there really were German spies, though nothing like as many as Le Queux believed, and the spy fever he helped create contributed to the setting up of MI5 and MI6 in 1909.
Two interlinked strands of spy writing emerged from the First World War: the heroic adventure story (Buchan, Compton Mackenzie, Dornford Yates and others) and the internal drama of conscience and moral equivocation that began with Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories. Transmitted via later writers such as Greene, Ambler and Deighton, these two strands culminated in Flemming and Le Carré.
How we see spies – their motivation and predicament – owes as much to these novelists as to the realities of two world wars and the Cold War. There are various possible reasons for our obsession with spying – escapism, the lure of secrecy, the attraction of things not being what they seem, a liking for myths and myth-making – but the fact that the civilian British intelligence services recruited more writers than their foreign counterparts is probably part of it. It’s an area where life has clearly influenced art – most directly, perhaps, in Maugham – and art life, in that M16 is a global brand and knows its calling card will always get a response, partly because of Mr Bond.
Has spying changed between the Cold War 70s and now? Yes and no. No, in the sense that people turn to the second oldest profession for the same mixture of motives, good and ill. Yes, in that there’s more technology involved in contemporary espionage and that the causes espoused may vary, but fundamentally it’s the same.
One possible difference, however, is that so-called whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden now have the worldwide web as the outlet for their disaffection, whereas in the Seventies it would have been much more difficult to reach a wide audience.
Although there were precedents, such as the CIA’s Phillip Agee, some- one like Snowden might in those days have gone to the Russians in the first instance rather than accepting Mr Putin’s hospitality as the bolthole of last resort. Whatever his motives and whatever he will say about them – not necessarily the same thing – there’ll be a price to be paid. If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, then a free year – in the world he’s stepped into – could be really quite expensive. Like the story of the Cambridge spies of 70 years ago, this one could run and run.
Former diplomat Alan Judd is the authorised biographer of the founder of MI6; his latest spy novel, Uncommon Enemy, is published by Simon & Schuster
See Legacy tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2