Opening the books on espionage 10 May 2012
Auckland Writers and Readers Festival
This week is the annual Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. It’s been going for over ten years and always brings together an exciting mix of writers, readers, publishers and “thinkers” [you and me]. Over the period, apart from celebrating local writers, they have also brought over 200 wordsmiths from round the world.
This year, one of the special guests is the 76-year-old Stella Rimington [Actually, she only turned 76 on Sunday, so you’d have to call her a young 76]. If she wasn’t a novelist of note, she would have a good world profile due to her work for national security. She was once the Director General of MI5. More than that, she was the first woman to fill the role. There was always something about her that created a bridge with the public. For example, she was the very first DG whose identity was published at the time she was appointed. A year after that, she was the first DG to front the media about what MI5 actually does.
Stella Rimington now writes spy novels. Given her previous job, you’d have to say she’s got a bit of a head start on the rest of the pack. It’s a bit like the Pope retiring and writing Vatican thrillers. When I first heard about her, I thought: “What say she spills the beans and hangs up all the dirty washing in public...” I bet lonely spies all over the world sit in their motel rooms reading her books, trying to pick up ideas. By the same token, it’s probably true that millions of readers escape their mundane existences and don ‘trench coats and dark glasses’ and fantasize about being a spy [Liz Carlyle] for a few hours. Liz is such a true-to-life woman of today that Rimington probably humanises and dignifies the public appreciation of espionage.
Ex-All Black Chris Laidlaw now hosts a radio programme called “Sunday Morning” where he does one-on-one interviews and documentaries. On Sunday last, he interviewed Dame Stella Rimington. She was excellent to listen to and has the happy knack of responding really well to whatever she’s being asked. She said that due to her obligations re security and confidentiality, she is required to submit her novels to Whitehall for clearance before she publishes them. I hope they’ve got someone in there who appreciates fine writing.
I liked some of her overviews. She drew a contrast between the secrecy that surrounded the Cold War and the terror threats of today that somehow involve us all. One of the prices we pay for security today is all the surveillance, something many people find a bit frightening.
What makes a good spy?
Although a distant cousin of mine once played James Bond in the movies, I am profoundly un-up-to-date when it comes to espionage. However, like everyone else, you sort of wonder what does go on in the world of spying and who actually does it. Stella Rimington gave a wonderfully clear, succinct rundown of the qualities required of “intelligence officers”: in essence, you need brains to be able to sift and analyse intelligence gathered; plus, you have to be the personality type who can go out on the street and recruit and run “human sources”. Not many people combine these two skills. Never mind, you’ve still got your council job...
Body in the bath tub
Real life is sometimes weirder, usually sadder, than any book. I can’t remember his name, but our media sometimes play British TV reports about the London intelligence officer who was found dead inside a bag inside his bath inside his sterile little apartment. No one knows if it was just an accident or a case of murder. Now that’s what I call a mystery. The TV focused on how he would have needed the contortionist skills of Harry Houdini to have folded himself into the bag and then closed it. His huge cache of women’s underwear just stretches another layer of intrigue over the whole thing. Somehow, I don’t think the police will ever get on the inside of this one. All the same, when you live on the other side of the world, what sticks out is the way Scotland Yard keeps quietly plugging away. Just when you’ve completely forgotten about it, they suddenly unzip the latest development.
Roll on the Olympics.
Martin Doyle is an artist and writer who lives in Wellington, New Zealand. He composes a weekly quiz and regularly publishes political cartoons. He says these pursuits have fired his interest in the ever-unfolding circus that is human life.
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