The last three books I’ve read have had the word spy in the title. The first was Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor – a thrilling non-fiction account of the life of Oleg Gordievsky, the senior KGB officer who spied for MI6. It’s a real heart-in-the-mouth book, not least for its revelation that in the early 1980s – those years when I was busy being a student and forming a band – the world came very close indeed to nuclear war.
The threat was always there in the background, and we marched and wore our badges and thought we knew, but I don’t remember being as properly scared as I would have had every right to be.
Gordievsky’s intelligence showed that the Soviets seriously believed the US was about to launch a pre-emptive strike, and felt their only chance of survival was to launch one first. Unbeknown to us, the world was on the brink – but his information, passed on to Thatcher and Reagan, changed the tone of their dealings, and helped cool things down.
Yet it was then that time ran out for Gordievsky – he was rumbled, and had only one option – to try to get away. Thus the most daring escape plan British secret services have ever formulated went into action, and Operation Pimlico attempted to extricate a spy from inside the Soviet Union.
And at that exact same moment – a year out of university, in the middle of our first proper tour – Ben and I were offered the chance to go and play in Moscow as part of an international youth festival. Which is how Everything but the Girl come to feature in this spy story. As the desperate KGB man tries to flee through a Moscow station, he is momentarily thwarted by crowds of young people on their way to a pop concert, and thus I was almost responsible for the end of the world. Possibly.
I never expected to be in the index of the greatest espionage story of the Cold War, but there we are. I enjoyed the book so much, it made me wonder – maybe I’d love spy fiction? I asked Twitter where to start. John le Carré perhaps? The response was overwhelming. Turns out everyone loves spy novels, and has strong opinions about them.
I started with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which is glorious (I know, you all know already). Spare, clean writing, it is plot-driven yet infused with melancholy, a regretful yearning that the world isn’t other than it is. The character of Leamas is unquestionably modern in his cynicism, his refusal to see honour or nobility in either side, his half-hearted attempt at love.
And the writing is beautiful: “The airport reminded Leamas of the war: machines, half hidden in the fog, waiting patiently for their masters; the resonant voices and their echoes, the sudden shout and the incongruous clip of a girl’s heels on a stone floor; the roar of an engine that might have been at your elbow. Everywhere that air of conspiracy which generates among people who have been up since dawn.”
I moved on to A Perfect Spy, which is more of a complex psychological character study – what makes a spy? Magnus Pym, the perfect spy of the title, is always playing a part – “As best he could, he gave you what he thought you were looking for” – but he has become lost inside the disguise, and no longer has any idea who he is. “He’s a shell” – someone says of him – “All you have to do is find the hermit crab that climbed into him.”
There’s something in this that rings a bell with me now, and maybe explains why these books are still so popular. We all long for authenticity, and can feel that we live increasingly artificial lives, that online especially we all construct different personas. It’s not just spies or celebrities who put on disguises.
And spy stories of course revolve around secrets, as does so much other fiction. The pleasure lies in the uncovering of the hidden, both in terms of plot, and the discovery of selves unknown to us. There is the satisfaction of riddles that are solved, and the equal satisfaction of exploring mysteries and dilemmas that can never be solved – am I good or bad? What’s the right thing to do? Who am I?
This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state