Their Man In London

What do we really want from our security services?

I Spy: Hands-on espionage in the new film version of “The Man From Uncle” (Warner Bros Pictures)

We are conflicted about what we want from our intelligence and security services. On screen we apparently want to see heroic — and generally young — intelligence officers saving the world more or less on their own, with an attitude to the law, bureaucratic process and political risk that makes the Cavaliers look like Swiss bus conductors. But in our national political dialogue we throw up our hands and ask for public inquiries and police investigations into actions by the agencies which spy films would consider trivial, such as basic decisions about what intelligence to share with which foreign services.

The spy novel as a genre is more nuanced, but there is a formula: a cynical anti-hero, flawed bosses, moral ambivalence, betrayal, the threat of exposure or violence, ambitious sex, alcohol. The range is still limited. We don’t want to read about process, about Ripa interception warrants and written operational submissions to Secretaries of State about technical operations which don’t work, about the teamwork, long-term planning and inter-agency cooperation which are behind almost every successful intelligence or security operation.  Equally, at the highbrow end, we don’t want too much random violence: as readers we imagine ourselves capable of shooting someone in extreme circumstances, but not of regular fisticuffs. 

The Oligarch (Gibson Square, £8.99) by Joseph Clyde — nom de plume of George Walden, former diplomat and politician — neatly sidesteps many of the traps by being set not in a spy agency but among Russian émigrés in London. His anti-hero Tony Underwood is a compulsorily retired non-graduate former MI5 surveillance officer rather than the usual self-doubting Oxbridge type. A Russian oligarch employs Tony as insurance against threats from the Kremlin. Having worked to win the Cold War, Tony now sees London as a different country, one in which vast foreign wealth, however acquired, buys into the highest levels of the British establishment — lawyers, bankers, former diplomats and politicians. Is he now part of this? If so, where should his loyalties lie?

At the personal level, deformation professionnelle means it is second nature for Tony to lie and conceal in his official duties, but that he draws a clear distinction between this and his personal relationships. Once outside MI5 the official and the personal become blurred, and the integrity which characterised his career is challenged.

Clyde also avoids most of the technology traps — the super lightweight miracle gadgets that fit in every spy’s pocket. There is the occasional anachronism but he deals well with innovative and real modern technology, and how this could change what the securocrats would call the threat environment. 

Above all, Clyde asks the questions “Is this the London we really want?” and “How did we get here?” It is time for a national debate on immigration by the mega- rich as well as by the impoverished of the world.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"