The spy who loved me: how Dad came in from the cold
I was 25 when my father first told me he was a spy.
It was 1977, and I was in New York as a tourist, on my first visit to the United States, and Dad was living in Washington.
I had not seen him since 1971, when I had spent two months with him and my stepmother travelling around Mongolia, where he was then Britain’s Ambassador. We were not estranged: we had just been living or working in different parts of the globe throughout that time.
But now I was going to stay with him for two weeks in his house in Maryland, and I suppose he must have decided that the moment could not be put off any longer; I would be meeting people, and hearing things, which would raise questions if I weren’t let in on at least a little of his secret world.
He arranged to meet me in a discreet gentlemen’s club, all leather armchairs and oak panelling, of the sort you usually associate with the British upper classes.
There, looking out over Central Park, he told me that I was never to speak of what he was about to reveal; that he was a senior officer of the British Secret Intelligence Service.
“You mean MI6”? I asked.
“We never call it that. It’s the SIS, or ‘The Firm’”
Memories of that lunch came back to me when I came across this article by Charlotte Philby, grand-daughter of Kim Philby, who many in the intelligence trade still categorise as the Traitor Of The Century.
For my father and his colleagues, Kim Philby was a figure of intense loathing.
For readers of Ian Fleming, spying looks like a glamorous game; for Le Carre addicts, it appears as a murky world of moral ambiguiity.
But for the colleagues he worked alongside, Philby was purely and simply the man who had caused the murders of many of their friends and agents. He could never be forgiven, in particular, for his sabotaging of an operation to insert agents into Albania: a joint effort between the SIS and the CIA.
Because Kim Philby was the British Service’s man in Washington, he was in the unique position of knowing everything about the Albania operation, and he leaked the whole thing to Moscow. Hundreds were arrested and went to their death.
It’s hard to reconcile the man who did that, and who was so effective as a double agent that he was tipped to become the head of SIS, with the charming old gentleman portrayed by his grandaughter.
But every spy has a private life, the factor that espionage novelists mostly forget, and even for those who only work on one side of the fence, the spying game is difficult to reconcile with being a good spouse or a good parent .
There are too many secrets, and where there are secrets there have to be lies. I said at the beginning that I was 25 when my father “told me” he was a spy. My sister and I had half-guessed a while before.
The doubts started for me about a decade before, when my father was supposedly working in London at the Foreign Office.
One day, wanting to ask him a question, I rang the F.O., whose number, of course, was in the phone book, and asked for John Colvin. The operator, after about half a minute, told me there was no-one of that name working at the Foreign Office. I asked her to check again, but there was still no result.
It left me, a teenager, in a state of complete puzzlement, and when I next saw him I told him the story.
It was one of the few times I ever saw him shocked, and many years later he told me that that had been because it was, potentially, a major breach of security.
His ‘cover’ was as a diplomat. If I had found out he wasn’t on the official Foreign Office phone list, then so could the KGB.
The error was speedily fixed, and next time I rang the operator put me straight through, presumably to Century House, then headquarters of the SIS in Lambeth.
That story, incidentally, seems positively paltry beside the news of last month that the wife of the new head of the SIS has plastered the family’s details, right down to pictures of Sir John Sawers in his bathers, on Facebook.
I have been able to speak more freely about Dad’s career since 1993, when, several years after he retired, an extract from his memoirs appeared in The Faber Book of Espionage by Nigel West.
There’s absolutely nothing in what he himself wrote that indicates that he was an intelligence officer, but West’s preface ‘outed’ him, and the publication itself seemed to loosen things up a little.
In the years that followed, he would drop occasional tidbits; walking around London, for instance, he showed me the building where he was taught to use a pistol and the spy’s favourite silent weapon, a garotte.
But a great deal about his life was and probably always will be blocked from sight, and that’s a source of regret to me.
I envy the BBC’s Security Correspondent Gordon Corera, who was granted extraordinary access by SIS to make a series about the organisation’s history. Last week, in an episode no longer available, he took listeners to an undisclosed location “somewhere outside London” where he was shown a virtual museum of historical espionage artefacts.
This week, in a superb episode about the Cold War which you can hear here, I was able to infer more about what my father might have been doing when I was a toddler in Austria in the early 1950s than I ever found out while he was still alive.
Do I resent that? A little. Do I understand it? To a certain extent.
Of course you can’t run espionage services without secrecy, but we should also remember that it carries with it a cost, in distrust and familial misunderstanding, which is never really accounted for.
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