NOEL COWARD WAS A SPY, TOO
John Simpson investigates the rich literary tradition of the British Secret Service, and makes some interesting discoveries
NOWADAYS, the Secret Intelligence Ser- vice keeps its files on computer, not always, as the Independent revealed recent- ly, a sage thing to do. But the older files are safe enough, just as they always haQ_ been: rows and rows of loose cardboard jackets, each neatly named and carrying a list of people who have consulted them, and when. Inside, among the yellowing pages, held in place by a metal clip, are every scrap of paper, every memo and recorded personal detail of SIS's officers and agents: how and when they were recruited, the assessments of their case officers or superiors, letters of reprimand and praise, notes about expenses, accounts of their retirement or expulsion or death. The margins are marked with questions, comments, jokes, criticisms, some in the green ink which by tradition each succes- sive head of the service alone uses.
One day, perhaps, the more interesting files will be placed on microfiche; after that they may eventually be sent to the Public Record Office, where scholars (and presumably other spies) can consult them. Once it would have been unthinkable; now that SIS has been officially acknowledged by the Government, it is gradually becom- ing a little more open.
Among the files are those of a surprising number of well-known writers. The secret services have always attracted novelists and playwrights, starting with Christopher Marlowe and Daniel Defoe, and SIS prides itself on cultivating people with aca- demic, literary or antiquarian accomplish- ments. As for the fictional heroes of British espionage, from Duckworth Drew of William Le Queux's snobbish and ludi- crous Secrets of the Foreign Office, pub- lished in 1903, to the no less snobbish and ludicrous James Bond of the 1950s, SIS believes that, regardless of their literary quality, they all build up the myth of the British secret service. And that makes it easier to recruit agents abroad.
The list of writers associated with the secret services this century is a familiar one: Somerset Maugham, Compton Mackenzie, A.E.W. Mason, Geoffrey Household, John Dickson Carr, Dennis Wheatley, Graham Greene, Malcolm
Muggeridge, Iris Murdoch, Ian Fleming, John le Cane. Another, less likely name crops up in the SIS records as well: that of Noel Coward, who appears never to have been associated publicly with espionage before. Nowadays Coward's brand of wit seems overly camp and remarkably dated — though his variations on Cole Porter's `Let's Do It'
Each tiny clam you consume does it, Even Liberate (we assume) does it . . .
still have genuine freshness. As he said, Somerset and all the Maughams did it. Now we can be told that Coward did it as well — spy, that is.
Shortly before the second world war, he seems to have been associated with the 'Z' organisation, a semi-private agency run by the deplorable, brutal but effective Col. Claude Dansey, who had been seduced at school by Oscar Wilde's first lover. Under the pretence that he had been sacked from SIS for fiddling his expenses, Dansey set up and, financed by the wealthy South African brothers, Solly and Jack Joel, and helped by people like Sir Alexander Korda, set about gathering information on NO Germany. In the late 1930s it looks as
though Coward went to Paris for possi- bly to make contact with an agent.
When war came, Coward decided, as he wrote self-mockingly in the notes to his col- lected lyrics in 1965,
to renounce all creative impulse for the dura- tion and devote myself hook, line and sinker to the service of my country. This gesture, admirable as it appeared to me at the time, turned out on more mature consideration to be a rather silly one. Like many others involved in secret work, he avoids any mention of SIS in his mem- oirs. Still, it is clear that he was invited to Bletchley Park, where SIS had been evacu- ated and where the work on breaking the Enigma code was going on. After a terse meeting with Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, SIS's boss and the owner of Bletchley, Coward was put into 'D' section; Guy Burgess was already there, and Kim Philby was soon to join. `D' was the dirty tricks department, and its results were distill-60y mixed; at one point it planned to destroy the Siegfried, Line's communications with the help 0' two Germans, one partly blind and the other entirely deaf. It wasn't Coward's cup of tea, and he moved to the Political War- fare Executive to work on black propagan- da. Finally it was decided that he was too well known to work on secret projects, and he left for more suitable war-work: making In Which We Serve, and entertaining the troops everywhere from Burma to Africa and the Middle East. He would sing them `Mad Dogs and Englishmen' and The Stately Homes of England'; but what his audiences enjoyed most were his variations on `Let's Do It', which became raunchier and raunchier.
The literary tradition of SIS dates fro°, the period of the Great Game in India and Central Asia. These very real adventures filtered through into the novel, most notably in Kipling's Kim but also in the books of lesser authors like Talbot MOO' a thriller writer who thought he was writing., literature; not the last time in the history 131 the genre that this mistake has been made' It is noticeable that writers who deal enthu- siastically and uncritically with the SPY motif have rarely had much to do with sPY- ing themselves. Ian Fleming might seem .11 genre was yeent tihrieslywodreksk-abto uNnadv,a a nindtehl:s books are admiring wish-fulfilment. contrast, former spies who write about thhe business often seem to want to get thrrr own back: Compton Mackenzie, A,1°6) instance, whose Water on the Brain (1"-' is a very funny and utterly savage or take-f of the service, had been prosecuted 1_, revealing too much about it in his Greel` Memories, four years earlier. of his Somerset Maugham, who put some spying experiences into the 'Ashenden',,aot sto- ries almost unchanged, was deeply um' tering about the service. He wrote several other stories about Ashenden, his alter ego, in which so little was changed that Winston Churchill, who read them, advised him to destroy them. Maugham took the advice, which is a great pity. Nei- ther of Graham Greene's two main books about espionage is complimentary to SIS. Our Man in Havana is a charming satire, which owes its main plot idea to Greene's wartime experiences. SIS broke the code of the German Abwehr station in Lisbon and found that an agent was giving the Germans highly detailed intelligence, all of it imaginary, from a string of wholly invented agents. As for The Human Factor, it was based on Greene's memories of SIS as it had been during the second world war: stuffy, inefficient and occasionally given to murdering people. Greene's SIS file is, by all accounts, a delight to read. During his time in Sierra Leone it contains frequent requests for more equipment and money, and various insights into the sources of his novels. There is a series of character sketches of local British officials in Freetown, includ- ing one who was clearly the model for Sco- bie in The Heart of the Matter. Elsewhere Greene gave details of an attempt to blackmail a leading African intellectual, and suggested that a madame in a particu- lar whorehouse could become a useful agent. He described her as talented, versa- tile, willing and presentable; and when an SIS officer who was travelling to Freetown asked Greene if there was anything he needed, he answered, 'More condoms.' Greene's post-war contacts with SIS have, it seems, been rather overplayed. He would sometimes get in touch with his sur- viving contacts to say that he was planning to travel to some communist country, Poland, perhaps, or North Vietnam, and would succeed in getting SIS to pay his expenses there; yet little useful intelligence resulted. In 1968 Greene offended his for- mer associates greatly by contributing an uncritical introduction to Kim Philby's memoirs, My Silent War. It was not simply that Greene was assisting Philby in his last big onslaught against SIS; there was no mention of the assistance Philby had given Moscow during Stalin's bloodiest period, no hint of the KGB's role in suppressing freedom of expression. The contrast between the two men was total. Philby was completely loyal to his masters; Greene played the role of anti-imperialist around the world while persuading SIS to pay his travelling expenses. Nowadays SIS has forgiven Greene, and rather enjoys the kudos it gains from his association with it. Not so with John le Carre, the pen-name of David Cornwell, who is still regarded with a certain annoy- ance• Le Carre started his brief career in the secret services with MI5 in 1958, then switched to SIS two years later. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, an excellent, unpretentious thriller, is his best book;
after its success in 1963 he made enough money to leave the service. What SIS dis- likes, of course, is the atmosphere of gloom, betrayal and failure which hangs over most of le Carre's work. It is said within SIS that during his three years, which he spent mostly in Germany, noth- ing much happened and he was never involved in any successful operations.
That may betray a certain professional spite, but other SIS officers have specific criticisms of his books. The famous 'trade- craft', which seems to us outsiders so real and credible — the moles, the lamp- lighters and so on — are not, it is said, either realistic or accurate. This may be missing the point. He is trying to create his own world, not simply echoing the real world of espionage. He doesn't want his `tradecraft' to imitate that of SIS. When, in a recent Spectator, I repeated the famil- iar suggestion that his East German spy- master and perhaps even Karla were based on Markus Wolf, who was formerly the head of foreign intelligence in East Ger- many, le Cure wrote to me, denying it irritably; though Wolf himself is proud of the similarities.
One SIS man I talked to believes that le Carre fails to understand the basis of this kind of espionage: the relationship between case-officer and agent. 'None of le Carre's officers would run a good spy,' he says. 'They're nasty to each other, and they're always burning their agents. They couldn't possibly survive like that. What really characterises spying is loyalty, not betrayal. It requires absolute trust. Le Cane doesn't understand that at all.'
It's a very masculine business, this spy-
ing, and mostly involves gentlemen-adven- turers coping with appalling odds. You don't often find women writing spy novels. Nowadays, men still predominate at SIS, while more than half the counter-espionage people at MI5 are women, under their boss Mrs Stella Rimington. Recruiting agents and keeping them has a great deal to do with male bonding and notions of deep personal commitment: you have to replace someone's instinctive loyalty to their coun- try and colleagues with loyalty to a single person in a foreign organisation. And to an ideal: when Colonel Penkovsky, one of the most important British agents ever, was asked what reward he wanted, he said he would like to meet the Queen; though in the end he had to make do with Mountbat- ten and President Kennedy.
No wonder Noel Coward gravitated to SIS. For the lower-middle-class boy, an outsider in so many ways, it was a means of expressing his desire to belong, to do some- thing to help, to join, for a moment or two, the gentleman-adventurer tradition. It was the service equivalent of the absurdly man- nered, totally phony, rather endearing accent which he had assumed: his particu- lar kind of admiring snobbishness, briefly dressed in uniform:
But still we won't be beaten, We'll scrimp and scrape and save, The playing fields of Eton Have made us frightfully brave - And though the Van Dycks have to go And we pawn the Bechstein grand, We'll stand by the Stately Homes of England.
John Simpson is the BBC's foreign affairs editor.
`Who's waiting for the seasickness medication?'