Not since the cold war has the twilight world of espionage aroused so much interest and comment. In the past few weeks, tensions between Downing Street and MI6 have finally broken out into the open over the "sexing up" of the infamous Iraqi intelligence dossier. Meanwhile, barely a day seems to go by at the Bloody Sunday inquiry without yet another retired spook concealing himself behind a screen to testify. And the BBC, only just recovering from the carpeting it took for Cambridge Spies, has just started the second series of Spooks. The spy game never ceases to fascinate us.
It was, in part, this fascination that led me to contact the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) - MI6 to you and me - last November about career opportunities. That's right: I wrote to them. No late-night approach from a Cambridge tutor over cocktails, as Richard Tomlinson experienced; no unsolicited letter asking me to drop in to Whitehall for a chat, as Leanda de Lisle described in the Guardian a couple of years ago; no ad in the Times classified columns, of the sort David Shayler responded to. Just me writing to a PO box number.
In contrast to MI5, which now regularly takes out ads in the Guardian and the Times and has even outsourced its initial selection stages to a firm of headhunters, SIS has no official recruitment procedure. Within a couple of weeks, I was asked to fill in an application form - just like any other job, really. Thus began a six-month recruitment process.
Upon arriving for interview, we candidates were handed two leaflets to read. The first outlined the organisation's code of practice. Like many left-wingers, I had previously harboured my suspicions about the security services, so I read this with interest. These days, however, the boys at Vauxhall are falling over themselves to stress their propriety: the black arts of blackmail and forgery, for example, are expressly forbidden. As for political affiliation, the emphasis is apparently on open-minded impartiality. When I outlined my reddish-tinged background to a vetting officer, I was told: "Don't worry. Some of our very best officers hold left-wing political views."
The other leaflet concerned the Official Secrets Act, which I duly signed - and anyone who tells you that they don't feel a certain frisson of excitement as they cross that threshold into the secret state is a liar.
After 11 September, the SIS was given additional funds to top up its "workforce", with a particular brief to recruit ethnic minorities or, to be precise, people adept at penetrating the societies that are the breeding grounds for today's terrorists. I was a little surprised, then, that all the other candidates I met seemed to be drawn from the same white, middle-class (predominantly male) stock as myself. In fact, as I was leaving one day, I nearly walked straight into a former classmate from public school. To avoid embarrassment on both sides, I dropped my head and exited forthwith.
We were all somewhat reticent about disclosing too much about our "other lives", though one guy I spoke to said he had just come back from Afghanistan. "Oh really?" I asked. "What were you doing there?"
"It's better that I don't tell you," came the enigmatic reply.
In an account of his own encounter with MI6, the historian Andrew Roberts gave a hilarious insight into the tests he was asked to sit: "Some were straightforward: my spirits rose when I was asked to place, in order of precedence, viscount, duke, marquess, earl and baron." Alas, all that mugging up on Debrett's was to prove unnecessary in my case. After undergoing the civil service exams and a series of one-on-one interviews with serving officers, I was invited to attend a two-day assessment.
This consisted predominantly of individual and group exercises relating to the "situation" in the Koreas. The centrepiece involved two staged meetings with an informant, Agent Orange (ho, ho, ho!), in which one had to probe for details about North Korea's nuclear programme. I found it a little disquieting when I opened the newspaper the very next day to read that the people's republic was indeed soon to be a nuclear power.
During the whole recruitment process - which spanned the build-up to, prosecution of and epilogue to the war in Iraq - barely a word was uttered about the threat posed to the UK by Saddam Hussein's regime. In fact, the only reference that I can recall was when one officer contrasted it with the state of
al-Qaeda's thwarted nuclear programme, which "was much more advanced than anything happening in Iraq".
Throughout, I had been nursing a feeling of apprehension. I knew that I would be "screened" at some point and, while I didn't exactly have any skeletons stowed away, there were a couple of things I wanted to get off my chest. I was duly called in for an interview with "Malcolm". Pinstriped, Telegraph-reading, he was an avuncular chap, the type one bumps into at the members' stand at Lord's.
After the standard questions about family and sexuality, we talked drugs. I stated that, like most of my peers, I'd smoked some pot at university, but that was as far as it went (a slight lie, I admit - I'd enjoyed the occasional toke at parties since). I was subsequently tested. The SIS is currently working to the premise that 71 per cent of people reaching the age of 21 will have taken illegal substances. Confining themselves to the other 29 per cent, however, would dramatically drain the potential talent pool.
We then moved on to politics. No, I had never been associated with an organisation that had tried to undermine parliamentary democracy. Yes, I had been a member of a political party - the Labour Party, until 1998.
It was at this point that I explained that I felt it important to mention that I had met and interviewed Colin Wallace. When it comes to dirty tricks and Northern Ireland, Colin is "the gift that keeps on giving", as Ben Bradlee memorably said of the Nixon White House tapes. He helped me with a piece I wrote for Tribune about the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings, an operation for which there is evidence that the Ulster Volunteer Force was assisted by members of the security forces.
Malcolm stated that he was aware of Wallace. However, he cautioned me about being taken in by his tales. I thought this somewhat strange, given that the government's own Calcutt inquiry had upheld the thrust of his assertions.
Malcolm asked me how I would feel about handing over a terrorist suspect to an intelligence organisation that was happy to use force to extract information. Torture, you mean, I said. After squirming and equivocating over the issue, I consented, provided I was convinced that lives could be saved as a consequence.
I have no idea what the combined effect of these admissions was on my candidacy. For the record, the recruiting officer who phoned to inform me that I had not progressed to the final round said that I possessed the requisite intelligence and drive or "ruthlessness" (his word), but was lacking the necessary "soft skills". I thanked him, told him I thought he was wrong and that was that.
So near and yet so far. The next stage would have been an "interrogation session" in which officers fire random questions at the helpless candidate. I was rather looking forward to it - but I think we can safely say that that door is now permanently closed.