Stanley Johnson: Crikey, I’m a spy
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Sunday Times, Sunday 8th March 2009
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In a hilarious memoir, Stanley Johnson, the father of Boris, reveals his early career as a bumbling trainee spook
There are some moments in your life that you remember with total clarity. Falling over during the Gay Gordons at the Morebath Manor pony club dance, for example. Another such moment was being shown into an elegant room in Carlton House Terrace, St James’s, to be interviewed by a tall man in a pinstriped suit. I could see his bowler hat and umbrella in a stand by the door. I also remember his name: Sir Ian Murray, Bt.
"You realise,” Sir Ian said, as I sat down, "that we will offer you the most intensive training in clandestine techniques known to man.”
I am not on the whole a man who says "no”. In this particular case I found the formula irresistible: the most intensive training in clandestine techniques known to man. As a recruiting line in 1964, in the middle of the cold war, it was up there with "Your country needs you”.
This invitation to become a spy was, as you might expect, the result of a mysterious conversation. In 1963, during my final weeks at Oxford, I had attended a dinner in a candlelit college hall and found myself sitting next to one of the directors of Guest, Keen and Nettle-folds, now known as GKN. When I told him I was heading for America on a fellowship, he paused and tapped the side of his nose meaning-fully: "Just give me a call when you get back. With your background, I’m sure they would be interested.”
I wasn’t sure exactly who "they” were and it didn’t seem to be the moment to inquire. However, almost a year and a half later I was back in Oxford with Charlotte, my wife, and Alexander Boris, our newborn son. Aged 24, with a wife and child to keep, I realised that the time had come for me to get a job.
I telephoned GKN. The nose-tapper wasn’t there but I left a message. A few days later he rang me back suggesting it might be a good idea if I "popped round” to a certain house in Carlton House Terrace for a chat with Sir Ian Murray.
"You may have to do things in the course of duty,” Sir Ian told me when we met, "that you wouldn’t normally do. You may, for example, have to break the law, for the greater good, of course. How would you feel about that?”
I said I felt fine about that, as long as a greater good was indeed involved. I had to go to Gieves in Savile Row to have a suit made with room for a shoulder holster. There was a bad Continued on page 2 Continued from page 1 moment when the old boy hovering with the measuring tape asked me which side I would be carrying my gun.
I hesitated, but he asked patiently (he had seen it all before): "Are you right-handed or left-handed, sir? If you’re right-handed, you’ll want to wear the gun on the left.”
"Of course,” I said. WHEN I got back to Oxford, Charlotte asked me where I had been.
"I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” I replied.
"Who did you see?” "I can’t tell you that either.” Nor could I tell her where I was going. At the crack of dawn every Monday for the next nine months I got into our old Ford Prefect and tootled off into the unknown.
"Hope your tutorial goes well,” I would shout as I pulled out into the Banbury Road. (Charlotte was studying English.)
"Yours too,” she would call back, "wherever and whatever it is.”
New recruits to an officially nonexistent organisation, we not only couldn’t tell our spouses where we had been or where we were going. We couldn’t even ring them up or receive calls.
There were 10 new boys (no girls) in my group. They sat us down in a classroom (I can’t say where) on our first day for our first training session. I hadn’t, up till then, given a great deal of thought to the subject of blackmail. That was to change.
The lecturer on that occasion was a gentleman of soldierly bearing who, we learnt, was generally known as "the colonel”. He fixed us with a steely eye.
The very first words he uttered that morning – indeed, the very first words I heard on this, the first morning of my new life – were: "Never try to blackmail an Egyptian. It’s totally pointless. If you’ve got some photographs of him in a compromising situation, he’ll be delighted. He’ll probably ask you for some copies so that he can send them to his friends.”
We were all issued with notebooks to record any pearls of wisdom, so that morning I wrote on the first blank page: "Never try to blackmail an Egyptian.”
When I returned to Oxford at the end of the first week, Charlotte said: "I know I can’t ask where you’ve been or where you’re going. But can I ask you what you’ve been doing?”
We’d already been taught how to answer that one: "Oh, you know, bits and pieces, odds and ends, one thing or another.”
"Sounds fascinating.” Actually, Charlotte was right. It was fascinating. "The most intensive training in clandestine techniques known to man” lived up to its billing. Most of these techniques remain, even today, so secret that I would risk running foul of the Official Secrets Act were I to reveal them.
However, there was one tried and trusted method of gathering information that we learnt which I do feel able to talk about without being sent to the Tower.
The official topic that morning was "information gathering”. The lecturer was a sandy-haired gentleman, about 50 years old, with a distinctly Slavic accent.
"You don’t always need to be ultra-sophisticated ven you’re gathering intelligence,” he told us. "Of course, the keyhole or directional microphone may be useful. Or the telephone tap. Or digging a tunnel under enemy headquarters . . . But sometimes simpler methods may be effective.
"Imagine you have a reason to be in someone’s office. You take a copy of The Times vith you. You sit opposite your target and you have conversation. Meantime, you’ve put The Times down casually on the chap’s desk. When it’s time to leave, you stand up, pick up your newspaper, making sure you’ve gathered up any top-secret memos which may be on the desktop at the same time. Get it? Any questions?”
We moved to a military establishment on the south coast, where we learnt how to attach high explosives to railway lines to derail trains.
"Ideally,” our instructor said as we gathered under a disused viaduct, "you’ll blow the line just as the train comes over. Lay the explosives on one side of the track, not both. You want the train to topple over and all the carriages to come crashing down. If you blow both sides of the track, the train may just settle down on its haunches, as it were, without toppling over.”
Nowadays we call that "terrorism”, at least when the other side is doing it. That’s not how it seemed to us then. Blowing up trains seemed to be not only morally right but good clean fun as well. IT was at this military establishment on the south coast that I met Patrick Fairweather for the first time. Patrick had joined the Foreign Office at more or less the same time I joined the officially nonexistent organisation, which I believe I may still not be allowed to name.
Patrick, who had been designated by the Foreign Office as a kind of liaison officer to our training group, participated in one of our more complicated training exercises.
The exercise was to be held in the north of England. The colonel had given us a final briefing. "Remember, you’ll be under cover. Deep cover. If you meet someone you know, for Christ’s sake don’t give any sign that you recognise him.”
I bought a long plastic mackintosh before boarding the train since I knew it would probably be raining wherever we were going. I walked through the train, wearing the mac and trying to look inconspicuous. As I did so, I spotted two or three fellow trainees. We studiously ignored each other.
Patrick had entered into the spirit of the exercise by disguising himself as a merchant banker. He was sitting in a first-class compartment, puffing on a cigar. There were a couple of other people in the compartment with him.
I slid the door open. "I’m terri-bly sorry to interrupt, but can anyone tell me if this train is going to Darlington?”
Patrick told me later that it was all he could do to keep a straight face.
We all had different assignments that day. Mine was to blow up the power station in Blyth, on the Northumberland coast.
The "blowing-up” part of the mission went fine. I found my way into the power station at dead of night, climbed up the metal service ladder and rammed the plastic explosive (pretend, not real, of course) into the spot where the rotating shaft exits from the turbine.
"Shove it up the elephant’s backside as far as you can,” the instructor had told us.
Back in town I bought a souvenir-from-Blyth teaspoon to crush the secret ink crystals, found envelope and paper and wrote my report. I then wrote a cover letter at right angles to the secret ink letter.
"Dear Mummy and Daddy, I don’t think my marks are very good this week, but at least I am having a good time. You will be pleased to hear we beat Marlborough 18–6.” After I had posted the letter, I read the second part of my mission orders: "After blowing up Blyth power station, head for Hexham across moor.”
To avoid carrying any incriminating evidence, I swallowed my orders and filled a salt cellar in a cafe with the remaining secret ink crystals. I was, however, reluctant to jettison the souvenir spoon because I thought I would give it to Charlotte. A modest gift, admittedly. Still, I said to myself, it’s the thought that counts.
I was about five miles from Hexham, marching along the highway, when I came across a red Austin-Healey sports car on the shoulder of the road. A young woman with blonde hair and a short skirt had the bonnet open.
"Can’t seem to get it started,” she said. I turned the key in the ignition and the engine gave a healthy roar.
"Oh! It seems to have started now!” she exclaimed. "Thank you so much. Can I give you a lift somewhere?”
There was nothing in my mission orders which said I had to actually walk to Hexham. So I said: "That’s great. My name’s Stanley. No, it isn’t actually, it’s Bunwell. Jeremy Bunwell . . . I mean Buncroft . . .”
We were only a mile or so from Hexham when we ran into a roadblock. Blue lights flashed everywhere.
I won’t pretend the next 10 hours were pleasant. My guess is the police had simply been told to pick me up and give me a hard time. I have no doubt that the young lady in the Austin-Healey had also had her instructions, though how much she knew wasn’t clear. At least the police sprang their trap on the open road. They didn’t wait for the Austin-Healey woman to inveigle me into her hotel room somewhere.
What really let me down was the Blyth souvenir teaspoon. During the first two or three hours of interrogation in the Hexham police station, I thought I stuck to my cover story quite well. I made it clear that I had a good reason for being in Blyth and a good reason for heading to Hexham. But the man who was interviewing me kept harping on about the teaspoon. Why on earth would I be carrying such an item unless for a nefarious purpose?
"Might you have needed it for crushing crystals to make secret ink?”
If they hadn’t taken my trousers away, I might have toughed it out. But, frankly, when you’ve been hours in a police cell in the north of England in just underpants, shirt and socks and it’s perfectly clear that the interrogators are quite soon going to move up to the next level, you look for a way out. It might not be Abu Ghraib but it was certainly alarming.
In his briefing the colonel had told us: "One last thing, chaps. I’m going to give you all an emergency number. But let me make one thing absolutely plain. It is an emergency number. I don’t expect you to use it except in an emergency.”
After one of the breaks, my interrogator came back with a scrap of paper.
"Found this in the pocket of your trousers. Does it mean anything to you?”
"Why don’t you just ring it,” I said wearily. I’d had enough by then.
A few days later I gave Charlotte the teaspoon. "Oh, Blyth. How interesting,” she said. "Have you been there? Or am I not allowed to ask?”
"Yes, I mean no. Well, sort of.” The Blyth business worried me. Was I cut out for the career I had chosen?
One Sunday Charlotte and I went to tea at Patrick and Maria Fairweather’s house in Richmond, Surrey.
"One of the things I find difficult,” I told Patrick as we walked in the garden, "is this question of cover. People ask me what I’m doing. We’re meant to mumble, turn the question, be evasive or whatever. But I don’t think it’s very convincing, do you?”
"Why don’t you say you work in the Foreign Office?”
"Fine, but what if they ask what my job is there?”
"I’ll get back to you on that.” A few days later I received a three-word message from him. Happily, I didn’t need a one-time pad to decipher it. It said simply: "Sudan desk officer.”
Before we graduated from the course, we were taken on a familiarisation visit to the Foreign Office. I didn’t see Patrick but I did see Hugh Stephenson, known as "Tiggy” to more intimate friends, who had been at Oxford a couple of years before me.
I bumped into him as I was walking down one of the Foreign Office’s long marble corridors.
"Good heavens, Stanley, what are you doing here?” Hugh asked.
I remembered Patrick’s advice. "I’ve joined the Foreign Office, actually, Hugh.”
"That’s good news. What are you doing?” "I’m the Sudan desk officer.” He looked puzzled and a little irritated: "No, you’re not. I am.” BEFORE undergoing the most intensive training in clandestine techniques known to man, I’d started a kind of "internship” at the Oxford University Research Institute for Agricultural Economics. It was a dogsbody job checking proofs of the institute’s quarterly bulletin, for which I was paid a small allowance. I also signed up as a graduate student with a view to sitting the examination for the diploma in agricultural economics (Dip Ag Econ).
For six months I had done absolutely no studying. I hadn’t even been in Oxford. I had been gadding around the country learning how to be totally inconspicuous and acquiring the rudiments of "tradecraft”, as John le Carré would have called it.
In the circumstances I hadn’t expected to take the diploma at all. However, one Saturday morning early in June 1965, a letter from the examiners arrived informing me that since I had "pernoctated satisfactorily” I was entitled to sit the exam. Which is what I did.
I had to miss three days of my secret training but it turned out to be worth it. Apart from the statistics paper, which was horribly hard for someone who had barely achieved a pass in O-level mathematics, I did well enough to qualify for the diploma.
"If it hadn’t been for the statistics you might have got a distinction,” Peggy Haswell, senior tutor at the institute, told me. "You did particularly well in the development economics paper. I’m not sure what you’re doing at the moment, but why don’t you apply to the World Bank?”
She gave me a brochure. That night Charlotte and I pored over it. The World Bank, it seemed, was recruiting so-called Young Professionals from all over the world, bringing them to Washington and training them on the job ("the most intensive training in development economics known to man”?) before integrating them into the bank’s operating departments.
"So what does the World Bank actually do?” Charlotte asked.
I read from the brochure: "Based in Washington DC, the bank is the largest and oldest organisation providing development finance. It began operations in 1946 and so far has made almost 500 loans amounting to $10,000m in about 80 countries.”
"What are the loans for?” "Basically, I suppose, to make life better for people. That’s the theory, anyway.”
Charlotte studied the brochure. "It says a postgraduate degree achieved with distinction in a substantial discipline is highly desirable. Do you think your diploma in agricultural economics will qualify?”
"Let’s see.” It was a long shot but I sent off for the application forms anyway.
I was invited to an interview at the World Bank’s office in Paris. It must have gone well because I later received a telegram: "Committee decision favourable; letter follows offering appointment . . .”
Can I begin to explain how momentously important that telegram was to me?
Deep down I’m a horribly serious person. I may not be a leftwinger. I’ve certainly never voted Labour in my life and can’t imagine doing so now. I doubt if I was any more radical 40 years ago than I am today. But the idea of working for an organisation like the World Bank really gripped me.
With billions of dollars at its disposal, this was an institution that could change the face of the planet. I had been lucky enough to see by then a good deal of the Third World. I had followed Marco Polo’s route through Asia by motorbike with friends and I’d hitch-hiked across South America. I reckoned I knew something about the poverty in which so many people lived. Here was a heavensent opportunity to set out on a new course.
But what would I tell the people who ran the officially nonexistent organisation that I may still not be allowed to name? They had put a lot of time, money and effort into training me to be a spy. In trepidation I drove from London to Ascot, where "Sandy” lived. I wanted to tell him that I was about to resign from an organisation to which he had given much of his working life before I had given it a proper try. I wasn’t sure how he was going to take it.
In the event, Sandy was superb. He was more than superb. He made me feel right about it when I wasn’t really feeling right about it at all. "Stanley,” he said in his unmistakable accent, "if I vas in your shoes, I vould do the same thing.”
There are certain times in your life when you feel you have been granted a last-minute reprieve. This was one of them. I don’t know if I would have been any good as a spy – probably not, I thought, and my incompetence might have cost people their lives – but now I didn’t even have to find out.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to Sir Ian Murray. One day, a year or two later, I saw a small advertisement in The Times: "Would the gentleman who inadvertently removed my umbrella from the Reform Club last Saturday kindly return it? Sir Ian Murray, Bt.”
I wondered whether Sir Ian Murray, Bt was his real name. As for the advertisement about the umbrella, it could have been a coded message. Or again, it could have been genuine. These were murky waters.
© Stanley Johnson 2009
Extracted from Stanley I Presume, by Stanley Johnson, to be published by Fourth Estate on March 19 at £18.99. Copies can be ordered for £17.09 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0845 271 2135
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