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In an age of mass surveillance,
spies may be a little easier to spot.
But how about a spy novelist,
and in one of their traditional clubby haunts?
In this series, we're looking at the conventions of popular fiction,
and now I'm going to investigate one genre that is both
a British invention and has mirrored much of our recent history.
The espionage novel, despite its often complex
atmosphere of deceit
and intrigue, relies upon clear rules.
These rules have offered the British spy novelist a template
from which to plot the perfect spy novel.
In this programme, I'm going to slip off to the covert world
of the British spy to try to crack the codes behind these books.
Spy fiction, more than any other kind of fiction,
actually reflects the political and social conditions of the time,
and therefore the rules are constantly being rewritten.
Unlike other fiction genres,
tales of spooks are often written by people with an insider's knowledge.
Real experiences have fundamentally shaped the spy story's development.
Were you, in fact, the third man?
No, I was not.
Philby himself didn't think very much of your novel,
Spy Who Came In From The Cold, did he?
No, indeed, quite rightly.
I haven't yet found a communist who did.
But despite gripping us with their ripping yarns
for more than a century now, espionage novels also
have a strange allure because at their heart
are rich, dark ideas about betrayal, deception, identity
Who amongst us has not lied
or felt betrayed?
Who has not altered aspects of their identity -
their voice, their appearance -
to blend into different surroundings?
The espionage novel isn't simply a cloak-and-dagger affair.
At its best, it throws a harsh light on the human condition.
Berlin was, and remains in our imaginations,
synonymous with espionage.
And it was here that much of the rule book of the modern spy novel
was laid down.
In late 1961, at the height of the Cold War,
a young man, just turned 30, came and stood here and looked on,
as he said, "In a mute frenzy, in disgust and terror"
as the foundations of the Berlin Wall were hammered into place.
The young man was working at the British embassy in Bonn,
but that was a cover for his real job as an MI6 operative.
His name was David Cornwell,
but he would soon become much better known by his pseudonym -
John le Carre.
For the first and perhaps the only time in my life,
I really felt extremely, virulently anti-communist about Berlin.
Watching the wall being built,
that was like seeing one's first dead body,
that was an absolutely appalling sight of monstrous cruelty.
Le Carre already had two novels under his belt in which
he'd introduced his enigmatic little Buddha, George Smiley,
but the shock of seeing, as he put it,
"this symbol of ideology run mad" produced an anger which
triggered a new book - The Spy Who Came In From The Cold -
which would in effect redefine spy fiction.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold tells the story of Alec Leamas,
head of British intelligence in West Berlin, who swaps sides
in order to expose a double agent but, in the process, gets caught up
in a deadly triple-bluff that is well beyond his control.
This story with its "atmosphere of chilly hell",
as the dust jacket says, asks deep questions such as,
who is the real enemy?
Is it the other superpower with its weapons trained against you?
Or is it the cynical, well-dressed men at home,
calmly prepared to send you to your death because, dear boy,
the ends justify the rather grubby means?
Berlin itself bookends the novel
and the fog of suspicion that Le Carre found in this city
cloaks every incident.
Le Carre slowly heaps betrayal upon betrayal until we are
overwhelmed by a sense of creeping paranoia -
the very essence of spy fiction.
But Le Carre wasn't just incorporating his own experiences,
he was exploiting the founding rule on which the genre was based,
a rule forged during an earlier era also marked by paranoia and
a threat, again from the East.
In the years leading up to the First World War,
a stout, genial man named William Le Queux hit upon the staple ingredient
for creating a popular spy novel.
Le Queux had already established a huge following for his plucky agent
Duckworth Drew of the Secret Service,
who carried around drugged cigars to dispose of his enemies,
but his new novel would cause a sensation.
What Le Queux understood was that to create a classic espionage novel
you first have to convey a compelling atmosphere of fear.
And it was the ominous threat from Germany that informed
Le Queux's The Invasion Of 1910,
which describes in graphic detail
a large-scale assault on England by Kaiser Bill.
Germans land in England. Germans land in England.
Read all about it.
The novel appeared in serialised form from March 1906 in
the Daily Mail, a paper that was no stranger to scare stories.
The newspaper's proprietor, Lord Northcliffe,
whose rampant Germanophobia
easily convinced you of Le Queux's warnings, knew that out there,
there was a vast expectant, anxious audience,
and he knew exactly how to hit them with the coming horror.
Read all about it in Mr Le Queux's new story.
Thank you, squire. Germans land in England.
Northcliffe kitted out his news vendors in Prussian greatcoats
and spiked helmets, and every day's edition carried a detailed itinerary
of the parts of the country at imminent risk of invasion.
"London, the proud capital of the world, the home of the Englishman,
"was at last ground beneath the iron heel of Germany."
Northcliffe even altered Le Queux's route,
so that the places about to be marched through by the German army
happened to be the same towns with the highest Daily Mail readerships,
thus increasing the paper's circulation by 80,000 copies a day.
The government endeavoured to suppress the book's publication,
with Le Queux denounced in Parliament
as "a pernicious scaremonger".
But such was the mania
that The Invasion Of 1910
went on to sell a million copies.
Le Queux's scaremongering reached new heights with the publication of
his 1909 novel, Spies Of The Kaiser, which claimed
that England was being overrun by 5,000 German agents.
Correspondence flooded in from alarmed readers,
who claimed to have seen agents
inspecting almost every aspect of English life,
from gas and water supplies to measuring bridges,
to even counting the number of cows in fields.
Le Queux stirred the anxieties of the nation to such an extent
that in March 1909, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith,
responded by appointing a special
Sub-committee of the Imperial Defence
"to consider the nature and extent of the foreign espionage
"that is at present taking place in this country."
'I'm meeting a former head of the Security Service and bestselling
'spy novelist herself,
'who knows just how potent this spy mania was
'and how it led to the formation of the very first
'Secret Intelligence Service.'
To what extent does Le Queux's scaremongering
and those fantasies about unreal spies actually trigger the creation
of something real,
our own counter-espionage effort in this country?
Oh, it led directly to it, because so much scaremongering
had been going on. Many people in the country
were getting really anxious about it, not surprisingly,
and were writing in to the Daily Mail, the government etc,
saying, you know, "I'm worried about this, what's going on?"
We had no organised counter-espionage structures
in place at all to deal with this.
The Committee Of Imperial Defence,
which was chaired by the Secretary Of State For War, got together
and they eventually decided that they better form
some kind of counter-espionage structure.
So, two officers were told to go away
and create the Secret Service Bureau.
One was Commander Cumming - he had a gold-rimmed monocle -
and they say that he had this wooden leg in place,
and that when, you know, conducting meetings or something,
he had a habit of stabbing his wooden leg with a paper knife
in order to make a point
and scare all the people that he was having the meeting with, obviously.
-So that was Commander Cumming...
-And he was C, he was the first C?
He became C, and the other thing,
apart from having the gold-rimmed monocle and the wooden leg,
he wrote in green ink, only in green ink.
And that custom still goes on today.
Then there was Vernon Kell - Director K -
who was the military officer.
He was a very different cup of tea. Kell was quite a small man
and he was asthmatic, and he was not a great sort of
flamboyant personality at all. So, eventually, I mean, this was
a very difficult situation for these two chaps
because they had very few staff.
I think they decided that, in order to do anything with this,
they were going to have to divide the job in half.
So out of that came MI6 - secret intelligence service, works abroad -
and MI5 - basically in charge of defending us at home.
For all his so-called "pernicious scaremongering",
Le Queux's warnings turned out to be all too real.
Le Queux was certainly not alone in writing spy novels, but his huge
popularity and proficiency, churning our four or five books every year,
showed there was a ready market for this new genre.
And within these innovative novels
an archetypal spy was taking shape.
The British heroes of this new fiction were typically young, male,
athletic and, above all, gentlemen, so it was important,
given that spying was a dirty business, that they were amateurs,
either brought into it by a sense of adventure or entangled by accident
in this murky underworld.
And the gentleman spy who encapsulated all of these qualities
was Richard Hannay, the hero of John Buchan's shilling shocker,
The 39 Steps.
Hannay, a Scot who'd been living for some time in South Africa,
arrives in London on the brink of the First World War.
There he meets one Franklin P Scudder, a private investigator
who has been tracking a German spy ring.
But when Scudder is murdered in Hannay's rooms,
pinned to the floor with a knife, Hannay is sickened
by the unsporting behaviour of foreigners
and he has to cover the corpse with a tablecloth.
"I had seen men die violently before,
"indeed I had killed a few myself in the Matabele War,
"but this cold-blooded indoor business was different."
The brisk, action-packed pace of Buchan's spy shocker, with Hannay's
patriotic pursuit, captivated a huge British readership
in the throes of The Great War, and it spawned several sequels.
Early spy fiction maintained a clear distinction between "them" and "us".
Spying was what other countries did -
foreigners were quite good at dishonesty and subterfuge
but, in the end, they would be defeated
by good old-fashioned British pluck.
# I've gone around the world in a plane... #
One such plucky English gent was the writer Somerset Maugham,
who, in 1915, was recruited by British military intelligence,
given the codename Somerville, and dispatched to Geneva
to relay messages to and from a network of agents
behind German lines.
After two years of adventures, holed up in the
Grand Hotel D'Angleterre, itself a hotbed of international intrigue
seething with agents and agitators, Maugham began
to write his own spy stories, based on his alter ego, Ashenden.
From now, exploiting your own experiences undercover,
out in the field, became a staple for the British spy novelist.
Somerset Maugham was the first in a long line of great writers,
including Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John le Carre,
whose exploits as real spies were to lend spy fiction
much of its credibility.
To tell you the honest truth,
fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work
that now, looking back, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.
Like Maugham himself, his spy, Ashenden, is a debonair playwright
recruited by British military intelligence and,
though he allows himself the odd flight of fantasy,
his official existence is as ordinary and monotonous
as a city clerk's.
# You're the cream of my coffee
# You're the salt in my stew
# You will always be my necessity
# I'd be lost without you. #
This de-glamorising of the agent was something new in spy fiction.
Maugham describes Ashenden as
"a tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine".
So he makes him a bit banal, but he then deals with
that by surrounding him with a cast of strange and vivid characters.
There are the shady anarchists plotting revolution.
The sullen and seductive former dancer, Madame Lazzari,
forced to betray her Indian lover.
And most startling of all,
the sinister presence of a man known as "The Hairless Mexican".
Ashenden was to prove an amusing and cynical antidote to
the derring-do of Buchan and Le Queux.
This was the first popular spy novel to be written by someone who had
actually been there and done that.
However, by merging fact and fiction, Maugham, as a former agent,
was treading the limits of what was and was not permissible.
Maugham danced elegantly enough around the facts to
evade the MI6 censor, but even so
the then Secretary of State for War, one Winston Churchill,
who'd read the manuscript, insisted that
Maugham removed almost half of the stories because he thought they
breached the Official Secrets Act.
Embargoed by the Foreign Office,
it would take nearly ten years until Maugham's novel was published.
But we shouldn't get too carried away with the
idea that only ex-spies write good spy fiction.
In the years following Ashenden, a ground-breaking exception to that
convention would emerge.
One new novelist, the former copywriter Eric Ambler,
began to question the real human cost of espionage
and its strange moral greyness.
More radically still, he realised that, in a spy novel,
the hero doesn't have to be a spy.
And in fact, to portray the sinister forces of espionage, you might be
better off by looking at its effect on Mr Normal, the ordinary man.
Even sainted John Buchan I thought
were out of touch,
certainly with the world of the early '30s.
They were out of touch with Europe,
they were out of touch with the next war
which we were all waiting...
And I thought
that there should be a thriller that was in closer touch with reality,
and I set out to do it.
Between 1935 and 1940, Ambler wrote six spy novels which made his name.
In Journey Into Fear, later filmed by Orson Welles,
the central character is an engineer who has stumbled upon secret plans
and is being pursued by a sinister Romanian agent.
"He sat down on the bunk and tried to pull himself together.
"He told himself, 'There's no need to get worried.
" 'There's a way out of this. You've got to think.'
"Thanking his stars that he had not refused to take it,
"he got the gun out and weighed it in his hand.
"He had never handled a revolver in his life before."
For Aly Monroe, author of a recent series of spy novels
set during the same period, Eric Ambler's books still hold
a special resonance.
If we're talking about the development of the genre,
Eric Ambler is the revolution. What's remarkable
when you read him today is that his voice speaks to you -
he speaks like a real person speaking to you.
'All these stories that I write have really one essential theme and it's
'loss of innocence, not of sexual innocence, but usually a political
'innocence, and the person losing innocence is the reader.'
We'd already seen a degree of realism creeping in
with Somerset Maugham's Ashenden tales,
but the realism that he was giving us was from
a very privileged perspective.
With Eric Ambler, all that changed.
He gave us a much more grubby realism and they also introduced
an element of moral dilemmas.
The books that he wrote I always think of as the
Chekhov of spy fiction,
because he writes clearly,
simply, in a detached manner,
and that is what's refreshing about him.
I've sometimes thought of the thriller as a form of allegory.
It's telling a moral story in other terms.
Ambler gave us the spy not as hero but as a victim,
and he flipped other conventions, too.
As a convinced anti-fascist, in Ambler's books
it's the Russian agents who are sympathetic and
the really bad guys are the shadowy agents of international capitalism.
Eric Ambler's protagonists are not crack-shots, they're not heroes,
they're not British imperialists.
What they are is ordinary individuals
caught up in the Europe of the '30s and they're trying to survive.
They're not trying to be heroes.
They're trying to avoid being casualties.
Reading Ambler today,
it's impossible to avoid an unsettling sense of familiarity.
The wheel of history has turned and given us a Europe not so very
different from Eric Ambler's.
Full again of stateless individuals desperately seeking asylum
and a pervasive sense that, in the end, nobody is really in charge.
For many writers, Eric Ambler remains the spy novelist of choice.
But one contemporary of his realised
that in the austere, bleak post-war years,
the reading public needed little reminder
of the harsh realities of wartime espionage.
Ian Fleming was determined to rewrite the rules.
How long do these books take you to write?
Six weeks to two months the actual writing,
but I never correct as I go along,
I try and get pace into the narrative by sitting straight down
at the typewriter.
You've got to have a basic plot,
people have got to want to know what's going to happen by
the end of it. I think you've got to have a certain amount of sex,
and I think you've got to have violence.
But there was one golden rule Fleming didn't throw out
and rather made his own, and with which he launched every mission.
"The eyes of Miss Moneypenny, M's private secretary,
"had that old look of excitement and secret knowledge
"as she smiled up at him and pressed the switch on the intercom.
" '007's here, sir.'
" 'Send him in,' said the metallic voice,
"and the red light of privacy went on above the door.
"Bond sat down and looked across into the tranquil
"lined sailor's face that he loved, honoured and obeyed."
William Boyd, or B as I suppose I have to call you now,
we find ourselves here in a typical briefing encounter at the
beginning of a Bond novel.
Tell me why the briefing is so important in so many Bond novels.
Of course it's part of any spy's job that he's given a
mission or given instructions,
but it doesn't necessarily have to be sort of formal
with two people across a desk, coming into the office, being told
what to do, but it's absolutely intrinsic to the Bond myth anyway.
Tell me about M, then.
Well, I think this may be part of the answer to it,
because I see a kind of paternal relationship there, even if it's
only perceived from Bond's side,
because M is always rather brusque with him and unsentimental,
but Bond says, "I loved M."
Now, who loves their boss?
So it's a much more complex and deep relationship,
therefore the briefing, maybe for Fleming,
was absolutely central to the story he was going to tell.
-The son being sent out into the world.
So we've talked about the briefing, what are the
other crucial elements or rules of a good Bond novel?
There's got to be at least two love affairs, and there has to be,
of course, a particularly nasty villain.
And there's got to be a lot of food and drink
and attention to detail,
like a specific cigarette, a specific type of vodka.
There's pure escapism in the Bond novel.
Imagine picking up Casino Royale in the 1950s -
London still full of bombsites, grey austerity everywhere,
and reading about people eating caviar
and ordering a carafe of vodka,
you know, unheard of, I would imagine, to...
You've written your own Bond novel - Solo.
To what extent were you asked to follow the idioms
of Ian Fleming's writing?
You're given a free hand to do what you want to do.
I realised that he'd only been to Africa briefly
at the end of Diamonds Are Forever.
I was born and raised in Africa,
and I was very affected by the Nigerian Civil War
of the late 1960s, early '70s.
And that fitted in to Bond's chronology perfectly.
So I could then have a middle-aged Bond at the end of the '60s,
in a nasty African civil war.
Because Bond is Fleming's creation,
even when he's alone in the African jungle and he stumbles across a
pawpaw and rips it open and devours it, he's savouring it like
a gourmet as Bond would do, and even when he hasn't got
the ingredients for a perfect dry martini,
he invents an African dry martini.
And when he can't smoke, he craves a cigarette.
He's that kind of a man, and I think to have a kind
of clean-living vegan Bond is just not on.
Bond's global appeal sold 30 million books during Fleming's lifetime,
a number that doubled following his death in 1964,
by which time the Bond phenomenon, with all its conventions,
had leapt off the page and into the cinema.
But Bond's arrival on the big screen was so explosive
it came to overshadow, overwhelm the books themselves,
and Bond came to be seen more as a cinematic hero
than a literary one - he still is.
In the novels and the films, James Bond promoted the idea
that our secret service was the best in the world.
Just how wrong could you be?
By the early 1960s, the revelations that MI6
had been riddled with double agents like Burgess and Maclean,
George Blake and Kim Philby, shook Britain to its core.
But it was a godsend for the British spy novelist.
The double agent offered a complex new psychological mind-set
for the espionage novel to explore, and no-one was to
exploit this more than John le Carre.
His central character, Alec Leamas,
in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,
is, just like the notorious George Blake,
a spy master running agents in Berlin,
many of whom are caught and incarcerated in communist prisons,
of which the most notorious was Hohenschonhausen in East Berlin.
Many of the more than 100 men and women betrayed by, for instance,
George Blake, ended up right here.
Which is as near as I have ever been to hell.
Think, if you will, of the spurious glamour of the gentlemen spies -
those perfect accents, perfectly cut suits -
this is where it ends, in ghastly, tiny little concrete and steel cells
with two inches of water on the floor,
no natural light, no day, no night.
Torture - physical and psychological.
In Le Carre's story, when Leamas loses his last double agent,
he agrees to infiltrate East German intelligence
by posing as a potential defector.
John le Carre slowly builds towards a tense interrogation scene
which he uses to meditate on the complexity of living a lie.
"In itself the practice of deception is not particularly exacting,
"it's a matter of experience.
"It is a facility most of us can acquire.
"But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler
"can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers,
"the secret agent enjoys no such relief."
Le Carre shows that the double agent must be something of a novelist.
He creates a fiction and then must maintain it constantly.
Leamas is able to keep up his practised deception completely,
except for one moment when he briefly lets the mask slip.
It seems trivial at the time, but as the novel progresses
we discover that this momentary slip has tragic consequences.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was a runaway success.
Within a year it had reached its 20th impression.
But how did the real spooks rate the novel?
Philby himself didn't think very much of your novel,
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, did he?
No, indeed, quite rightly.
I haven't yet found a communist who did.
But it's anathema to every communist I've ever met.
I haven't succeeded in selling the book to any Iron Curtain country.
The book has been poisonously reviewed over six pages in
The Soviet Literary Gazette,
although Russians aren't allowed to read it.
And I'm not surprised that Philby has added his own little line.
However, although spy novels were censored or even banned in the East,
Le Carre's novel still managed to land on the desk of the Stasi -
the East German Ministry for State Security.
And for a long time it was the only book I read.
And I'm not sure whether I gave an order to bring me this book
or one of my spies brought it as a present.
I was astonished because...
And I would like to ask John le Carre now,
had he at that time some information about the situation inside of our
Ministry of State Security?
The spooks were now not only keeping an eye on each other,
but also on how they were being written about.
And there's a sense that the spy novel was now at least
as interesting as many genuinely stolen documents,
that spy fiction had become an open window
into the real world of espionage.
If we had given the Stasi the firm impression of the Western spy as a
polished gentleman, they must have been perplexed by a new novel which
now landed on their desk that would overturn
one of spy fiction's chief conventions.
Showing up the old boys' network for the nest of arch dissemblers
they were was a new writer called Len Deighton.
He was to approach the spy novel from a very different perspective.
For an untainted hero, you now had to look elsewhere entirely.
Deighton's unnamed spy - he only becomes Harry Palmer in the films -
was a different class altogether.
He hails from Burnley, he's the son of a railway worker,
and he hasn't much time for the upper classes
with their weedy accent.
"Think you can handle a tricky little special assignment?"
asks his boss in The Ipcress File.
"If it doesn't require a classical education," he replies,
"I think I might grope my way around it."
Insubordinate and without privilege,
Palmer rails against the establishment in what is both
an obvious reaction to the gentleman spy and the glamour of James Bond.
Another one of my friends came up to me and they said,
"Yes, you've been very lucky, Len, because you're a blunt instrument
"that the critics have used to smash Ian Fleming over the head."
And this is really, I think, true.
There are a lot of people who didn't
like the sort of success the film was having
were over-generous to me when I came along with something
which was a substantially different thing to the James Bond books.
Len Deighton's novels transferred very well to the big screen,
with his hero immortalised by Michael Caine as Harry Palmer -
a bespectacled offbeat spy
with the same weary cynicism that permeates the books.
Harry Palmer's third appearance is in the novel Funeral In Berlin,
which centres around the supposed defection of a senior Soviet,
Colonel Stok, and the novel makes much use of chess as the overarching
metaphor for the complicated business of spying,
with each side having to think at least three moves ahead.
-Do you play chess?
But I prefer a game with a better chance of cheating.
"Stok picked up a knight.
" 'But the pattern of chess is the pattern of your capitalist world.
" 'The world of bishops and castles and kings and knights.'
" 'Don't look at me,' I said. 'I'm just a pawn.
" 'I'm here in the front rank.'
"Stok grinned and looked down at the board."
Surrounding the main players in his novels, Deighton uses a myriad of
detail to revel in the mechanics and the jargon of espionage,
something known as tradecraft.
Tradecraft is fantastic for writers
because it gets you into the nitty-gritty
day-to-day business of spying, and it propels the plot along.
It can give you a moment of action
or the latest little jigsaw piece in the wider structure of the plot.
But the coup for any spy novelist is to reveal a new technique
that others haven't picked up on,
and one writer and former MI6 operative pulled it off superbly.
Freddie, we have here the declassified tradecraft manual
of the Metropolitan Police,
and it's actually very, very funny because most of it is black,
but on one page here it does say,
"The Frederick Forsyth novel Day Of The Jackal explained how to acquire
"documents in the name of a dead person.
-Well, I don't know why they black it out,
it's all in the book.
You just simply had to go to Somerset House in those days
and find the death certificate of a child who never applied
for a passport so that there was no duplication,
then go to the birth certificate section, ask for it.
Morning. Birth certificate, please.
Paul Oliver Duggan, born in the parish of Sambourne Fishley,
3rd April 1929.
With a birth certificate, you fill out the form,
put in a couple of pictures,
a forged reference from some pastor up in North Wales or somewhere.
Bung it into the passport office
and back eventually would come a brand-new passport.
It was false in the sense that it wasn't the right name,
but it was your picture staring out the page.
So is tradecraft an important dramatic tool for the novel?
Yes, it is, because it happens to be also true.
People are curious about the hidden world because they don't live in it
and to lift the curtain now and again intrigues them, so...
The spy would use a Minox camera to photograph secret documents
and then he'd have a roll of film
that somehow had to be got from there to London.
He wasn't going to endanger himself by meeting a British agent,
it was agreed he'd put it in a hole in a tree and someone else,
hours later, would retrieve it from that hole in the tree.
If you're sending an agent into a rather dangerous place abroad,
then clearly he has to have every protection possible,
and the first of is a damn good cover story.
For example, secret police who arrest him.
"What are you doing here?" "I'm attending the trade fair."
"What are you promoting?" "My company. We sell paperclips."
"Where are you staying?"
"Well, I'm staying in the hotel I was allocated by your government."
And it's all provably true.
With a bit of luck, he'll get away with it.
Later on, you were back in East Germany doing some work
for our secret service.
What did the East German Stasi do to keep an eye on you?
Were you aware of being followed and so forth?
Oh, yes, everything was bugged.
The flat was bugged, the bedroom was bugged, the office was bugged.
They were about the size of your thumb and they could be in the
lighting or in the telephone. I discovered that my clunky
old East German television set had got five valves instead of four.
And presumably, during the Cold War in particular, it's their tradecraft
against our tradecraft, and a constant sort of war
to be slightly trickier than the other side.
Yes, exactly. And when it goes bad, agents are caught.
They may also be caught by betrayal, that's the
big nightmare, that despite all your skill and all your luck and
everything else, some bastard has betrayed you.
It's curious how the spy novel always comes back to betrayal,
and it was this theme that obsessed
one of the 20th century's greatest novelists.
Graham Greene would use the spy novel to explore just what it takes
for someone to betray their country before their friends.
In the early 1960s, Greene was working on a novel
he later described as the hardest he'd ever tried to write.
It's a rather bleak spy story focusing
on the inner agonies of a double agent.
But as soon as Kim Philby was exposed as a traitor,
Greene shelved the book and stopped writing.
He was worried the public would see it less as a novel
and more as an account of his now notorious friend.
Greene had worked under Philby at MI6 during the 1940s,
and the latter's defection was to prey heavily on Greene's mind.
I'm a bit surprised in a way, you know,
that you should be pleased that Philby's used some of your ideas to
justify his own behaviour.
It seems to me that he was behaving well,
from his point of view.
He was running great risks for a cause he believed in.
But you don't think, do you,
that the end can ever justify the most wicked means?
No, I don't think it can at all. But I can sympathise all the same.
It wasn't until 1978, some 15 years after Philby's defection,
that Greene finally dusted off his manuscript and decided to tackle
this question of a spy's loyalty.
And I'm very pleased he did because, for me, this book, The Human Factor,
is the spy novel at its very finest.
Greene wasn't really interested in the business of spying,
the assignation, the tradecraft, all of that,
but in the human effect of betrayal,
"the human factor", as he called it.
His antihero, Maurice Castle, is slowly exposed as a double agent,
but there's no great sense of outrage. In a way, it doesn't matter
because Greene is trying to make us sympathise,
as he did with Philby,
with his character's sense of conviction and his loyalty to
something, an idea that's even bigger than Britain.
Castle's love for his wife and his adopted child is much deeper
than any love for his country.
He might be a traitor, but Greene brilliantly uses the spy novel
not to focus on the political
but on the personal.
"Who amongst us," he later asked, "has not betrayed
"something or someone more important than our country?"
In Graham Greene's hands, espionage became an existential nightmare.
And this was something John le Carre would pick up on
in reimagining the showdown which traditionally ends a spy novel.
For the spy novel to work, we need the paranoia.
We love that dark miasma of suspicion and betrayal
hanging in the air. But by the end, it can't simply be
one system against another or two ideologies clashing,
it has to come down to individuals -
the spy and his nemesis.
Not two systems, but two lonely human beings face to face.
And it's this personal confrontation
between George Smiley and his counterpart,
the notorious spy master Karla, on a Berlin Bridge
that provides the compelling finale to Le Carre's Karla trilogy.
In bringing Karla over to the West, persuading him to defect,
Smiley has finally won,
but he's only able to do that by blackmailing him.
He finds Karla's hidden weakness, his Achilles heel,
which is the man's love for his daughter.
Karla has been siphoning off funds to pay for his daughter's medical
treatment in Switzerland, and Smiley uses this against him,
uses this piece of attractive human frailty to destroy him.
"He looked across into the darkness again, and an unholy vertigo seized
"him as the very evil he had fought against seemed to reach out
"and possess him and claim him.
"On Karla has descended the curse of Smiley's compassion.
"On Smiley, the curse of Karla's fanaticism. 'I have destroyed him
" 'with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his.
" 'We have crossed each other's frontiers.
" 'We are the no men of this no-man's-land.' "
Smiley and Karla's intimate and personal war brings the two of
them very close together. They become much more
like each other than either of them would have cared to admit,
and that is because they have
betrayed their own innermost principles.
They have undermined the people they both wanted to be.
And as a result, they are both, in a sense,
cast out from the rest of humanity.
And Le Carre's bigger point seems to be that this is how we all behave -
we all make compromises, we all have failures and petty betrayals
and, as a result, none of us, frankly,
are the people we ought to be.
George, you won.
Yes, I suppose I did.
To this day, John le Carre's Smiley novels epitomise Cold War espionage,
but as the East-West conflicts receded and new threats began
to emerge much closer to home,
the spy novel would be forced to revise the rule book yet again.
One of the core rules of espionage fiction is that the writers must
change and adapt their characters and their plots
to the fast-changing world around them.
Spy novels, more than any other genre, must reflect and absorb
the big political changes, the economic changes
and the changes in national identity, however painful they are.
Late in the Cold War, the secret state widened its remit to tackle
terrorist organisations, and nowhere felt more volatile
than the streets of Northern Ireland.
This was a war on our own doorsteps of unimaginable ferocity.
The enemies spoke the same language, they walked the same streets,
they often lived just a few doors apart, and that produced violence
whose intimacy was shattering.
The journalist-turned-novelist Gerald Seymour,
who covered the Troubles for more than five years, chose this war zone
for his novel Harry's Game.
In his story, the British Army Captain Harry Brown
is sent into Belfast undercover to track down an IRA assassin,
but he soon comes to realise just how expendable he is.
Seymour explained how human lives were distorted or destroyed forever
by the machinations of the secret state.
I can't think of any novel that lays bare the existential awfulness of
the Troubles like Harry's Game.
" 'There had to be something odd about you, obvious. No family.
" 'But you come right back into the centre of Belfast,
" 'but you've no friends, no-one who knows you.
" 'The voice worried me.
" 'It's good now, very polished, you're quite Belfast,
" 'but you didn't used to be.
" 'So I don't reckon your chances, Harry.
" 'Not when Provos get a hold of you. Not unless you run.
" 'They don't take well to spies here, Harry.' "
It was a brutally real place for an infiltrator,
someone at that time early in the Troubles,
trying to get inside the world of the Provos,
a very frightening place to be and beyond help, beyond reach,
a place where no mercy would be shown
and no quarter would be asked for and certainly would not be given.
When I started out, I wasn't thinking,
"I want to join the big club that are doing Cold War spy stories."
The spy novel had become rather cliched.
I wanted to write about the place that I knew best, the place that
I thought was most under-explained.
I thought the stories that emanated from the place
and that I came across
pretty much every day of walking the streets there -
the stories of courage and betrayal -
and the astounding pressures that were being put on ordinary people -
people driven into a situation from
which they basically couldn't escape.
There was an extraordinary compulsion in that idea of the kid
from the housing estates of Belfast, Derry,
and the symbol of the Kalashnikov rifle, and what drives on the...
HE CLEARS THROAT
..the urban fighter, what sort of people they were,
I found that so interesting.
So much more interesting, I repeat, than Checkpoint Charlie.
The escalation of terrorist attacks and their shift to the British
mainland since the 1970s, and particularly since 9/11,
has forced the security services
to develop highly sophisticated new forms of spying.
After Edward Snowden, we all know that we live
in an age of mass electronic surveillance.
Satellites can cover virtually every inch of the planet,
drones can go anywhere,
and the smartphones most of us carry know more about us
than our closest friends or our family.
All of this internet data is harvested.
It's sifted by an army of intelligence officers
hidden behind walls of computer screens.
From there, they can access remotely
whoever happens to be the enemy that week
and home in on what they're up to,
or even destroy them with a drone strike.
So here's the question.
In the 21st century, are brilliantly clever
eavesdropping machines making merely human spies history?
And if so, what would that mean for the espionage novel?
Because they absolutely depend upon real live three-dimensional blobby
human beings with their flaws,
their drinking habits and their sexuality
and their strange faces to drag us through those stories.
No spies, no spy fiction.
But to keep its relevance and its popularity,
spy fiction needs to maintain its human factor.
I'm going to meet Charles Cumming,
one of a new generation of spy novelists,
who are still finding human stories in amongst the data.
Charles, I guess in real life we wouldn't be meeting in 2016
on a bench if we were spooks.
I don't think anyone's met on a park bench since about 1935.
It's very bad tradecraft.
So, in the new world
of metadata and the new forms of intelligence gathering,
how do you find the human stories that make spy novels work?
They're still out there. Nothing really has changed.
Fundamentally, spying is about relationships between two people,
finding out their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, exploiting them.
So, yes, we're all carrying mobile phones
and there's Google and retinal scanners at airports, but the human
business, which is what novelists are interested in, has not changed.
But also the post-9/11 environment has given you a whole element of
counter-terrorism and jihadism which is very interesting to explore,
to get into. The difference is that the villain of the piece now
is a less sophisticated, less intriguing figure ie -
the brainwashed jihadi who wants to blow himself up on the bus.
Whereas in the old days, the kind of Smiley-Karla dynamic
was more interesting to explore because they were
sort of two sides of the same coin.
In the old days, we were quite
interested in how sophisticated communists saw the world and saw us,
and in a sense we're less interested in how ISIS sees us,
because that's more obvious. We know what they think about us -
they want to destroy us and so forth.
Yes, I mean, the ideological underpinnings of jihadism
is to re-establish a caliphate in Marbella or something,
it's nuts, whereas the conflict between capitalism and communism in
the '30s was very relevant to millions of people in Western Europe
and the United States, we had McCarthyism and so forth.
So you could say that spying
is probably not as much fun as it used to be.
-You know, the existential threat to us is horrific.
Charles Cumming isn't alone in having to face these new threats
in the pages of spy fiction.
Other writers and spies of old have also had to address
the shifting world of the spook.
A new climate of fear needs new characters.
So who is the new Alec Leamas or the new George Smiley?
With Mike Martin in your Afghan novels
you have a British soldier who has a rather dark skin,
is able to speak Pashto.
I'm just wondering, in the new world of Islamist terrorism
and so forth, it must look and sound different from Smiley and his lot.
Martin was unusual because he had an Indian grandmother, but he'd been
born and raised the son of an oil executive in Iraq, so he could pass
for an Arab among Arabs. That's very rare. That is seriously rare.
Very, very hard to penetrate a society you weren't born into,
because there are too many checks to be made,
particularly in an Arabic society,
so the man on the ground is still very valuable.
It's always been our speciality.
And it's not just in other cultures
that today's writers are finding these new characters.
Some are differently shaped
and at the very heart of British intelligence.
Liz Carlyle, who is my female character, is a product of now,
you know, she's a modern MI5 officer, and she joined MI5.
Unlike my experience of being tapped on the shoulder in India,
she joined through a website and an advertisement,
and joined to a service where men and women are equal,
there is no career separation
and they're doing all the same work as each other.
If you're a novelist, what you do is you look at what you read in the
newspaper and you imagine what could be going on to deal with it,
you know, what's the story behind the story?
And that's the way I do it.
I keep a really sharp eye on what's changing in the world,
where the threats to our national security come from,
and then I imagine how the people
who are currently working in the intelligence services deal with it.
Spy novels have now been around for more than 100 years,
and of course the things we're encouraged to feel scared about now,
from Islamist terrorism, through drones, dirty bombs,
are a million miles away from the activities of Kaiser Bill's agents.
But the fact that it's today's demons that animate
the pages of the books rather than
the state-sponsored violence of the early years of the genre,
it's one of the reasons that spy fiction -
that dark form of entertainment - remains so jumpingly alive today.
And yet, for all their popularity,
these books are still regarded as more worthy of the beach
than the library.
Let us talk now about snobbery.
Traditionally, genre novels
have been the poor cousins of literary novels -
they've been the dim, drooling, slightly embarrassing relatives
pushed to the back of the bookshop or alternative library shelves
away from the proper books.
I hope, if this series has taught you nothing else,
it is that this is ludicrous and offensive.
At their best, these books are rich and deep.
They help us imagine more vividly, think more clearly,
feel more deeply.
They tell us what it is to be alive today,
what it is to be that extraordinary thing -
the reading biped, the human being.
And that's what I call good writing.
So what do you think makes the perfect spy?
Try creating your own secret agent
or even try your hand at writing fiction.
Just go to the BBC website on the screen
and follow the links to the Open University.