Book talk: Historian unearths human story of Britain’s spies

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Book talk: Historian unearths human story of Britain’s spies

LONDON - Writing authoritatively about a spy service is hard for an outsider, but Britain’s is a particularly tough case.

Fact must be sifted from a big body of popular fiction, much by novelists with an intelligence background including James Bond author Ian Fleming and the current Hollywood version of John le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” starring Gary Oldman as spymaster George Smiley.

Gordon Corera, author of a history of the Secret Intelligence Service from the cold war to the present day, set out to solve this conundrum by persuading several former U.K. intelligence officers to tell him some of their best stories.

These personal recollections are blended with anecdotes culled from more narrowly focused histories and memoirs written by men and women of various nationalities who dealt with the SIS, also known as MI6, while toiling in diplomacy or the armed services over the decades.

The result is “The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service” published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. He spoke to Reuters about the book.

Q. MI6 is one of the most written about organizations. It’s a crowded field. What made you want to tell your version?

A. I wanted to tell the human story, in large part, as that goes to the heart of what lies behind MI6’s work in recruiting agents. I didn’t want to write a history of committees, saying there were 13 desks looking at the Soviet Union on such and such a date and then x desks a few years later. I was looking for personal stories and motivations behind people like Oleg Penkovsky.

That’s what the service’s work is about, what actually lies behind the act of spying. There’s quite a lot in the public domain if you know where to look.

So part of what I was trying to do was to bring together all that material but also add what I could from some particularly strong access to people like the late [SIS officer] Daphne Park. I had done a radio series where I had been into MI6 and interviewed the then chief John Scarlett.

So I could tell an overarching story through to the present in a way that no one had done before.

To what extent did you want to pick apart the magical reality that MI6 occupies in the public mind?

Fiction defines what we understand about British intelligence although many of the great fiction writers, whether it’s le Carre, Ian Fleming or Graham Greene, had backgrounds in real intelligence work. I think that’s a sign of how fact and fiction have become intertwined in a way which has become quite hard to separate, even for some of those within the organization.

What I was trying to do was to say here was the fictional understanding of MI6, let’s see what it’s really like - James Bond, John le Carre. The answer is that at certain times it is a bit like that. There are periods of bravado or aggression that have not ended very well. There have been periods of le Carre-like introspection which have also been quite difficult.

Fiction offers an interesting way of understanding some of the cultures within the organization, but equally I did want to say it isn’t like the fiction. The truth is it’s not about a license to kill or some of the other myths.

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