Spooks stacked on the shelves

Writers with a shady past

We already knew Fay Weldon had a shady past, but nobody realised how shady it was.

Until recently, it was believed that the author of The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil first worked in the insidious world of advertising. But then last week she revealed that she started out in the Government’s secret services.

Directly after leaving St Andrews University in the 1950s, Weldon joined the clandestine Information Research Department financed by M16. ‘I suppose I’m still covered by the Official Secrets Act,’ she said, ‘but I don’t think anyone will take that seriously as far as my role was concerned.’ Not that she reveals much. She says she used to store hats and umbrellas among the secret files, and insists she looked away when spies came in for meetings. ‘There were glass doors,’ she explains. ‘Somebody would come along the corridor and say ‘turn your backs to the wall’, and you would turn so this person could walk down these corridors unseen.’ Weldon wrote critical reports about Polish affairs, which were then fed to the BBC and other media organisations, making her just the latest in a long line of celebrated authors to have turned their skills to intelligence work.

Only this year a new biography of the poet Basil Bunting revealed that he had been employed by MI6 to spy on Iran until he was kicked out of the country in 1951. And countless other writers have operated as spooks, some of them – unlike Weldon – actually putting their lives at risk.

Perhaps the most obvious example, Ian Fleming, was in fact considerably less adventurous than his creation, James Bond. After a spell in the City, Fleming became assistant to the admiral in charge of naval intelligence. In that capacity he once supervised the London end of a failed plan to sabotage certain Romanian installations. Skilful plotting, clearly, was something Fleming could only access when writing.

John Bingham, author of thrillers such as Fragment Of Fear, was one of MI5’s most successful agent handlers. His proteges included David Cornwell, who started writing under the name John le Carre while posted in Hamburg and based his character George Smiley on Bingham. Bingham didn’t approve. He accused le Carre of encouraging a belief that intelligence officers ‘consist of moles, morons, shits and homosexuals’. (Bingham’s daughter Charlotte was another author-spy. Less successful even than Fleming, she once mislaid 29 files of classified documents.) Several authors joined the service when already well known. Graham Greene had published The Power And The Glory by 1940, when he joined Section V in St Albans, where he worked alongside Kim Philby on intercepted wireless messages. In 1914 Erskine Childers was already celebrated for Riddle Of The Sands – about espionage on the German coast – when he undertook naval reconnaissance and ran agents in Turkey. And Somerset Maugham was already a popular author when he conveyed money and messages between the British government and the Mensheviks in Russia.

It’s tended to be established writers who spill the beans about their work. Compton Mackenzie, best known now for Whisky Galore, wrote a book about his first world war service in the Aegean which identified dozens of officers, including several then still active. Charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act, he was fined pounds 100. Intensely annoyed, he later wrote a satire, Water On The Brain, which included the observation that intelligence officers were like surreal creations of the Marx brothers. ‘Duck Soup appealed to me as a film of stark realism,’ he said.

Another spoof was Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Again the government considered prosecution. ‘But what secret had I betrayed?’ Greene mused. ‘Was it the possibility of using birdshit as a secret ink?’ ‘Writers are a subversive crowd,’ le Carre has observed. ‘The better the writer, the greater the betrayal tends to appear, a thing the secret community has learned the hard way.’ Nevertheless, he pointed out, ‘Mackenzie ended his days with a knighthood, Greene will end his with the Order of Merit at least and, if there is any justice, a Nobel prize.’ (He didn’t.) Even medieval authors were employed on intelligence missions. Records show that Geoffrey Chaucer pocketed significant payments in 1376 for carrying out ‘secret business of the king’. This involved travelling to the Continent to investigate military matters and a possible royal marriage. The trips may have been useful to his writing, as on one of them he met Boccaccio and Petrarch.

A couple of hundred years later, Christopher Marlowe was recruited – like many later – while studying at Cambridge. His trips abroad to spy on Catholics earned disapproval from the authorities, who sought to block his MA – until the Privy Council itself wrote to the University explaining that Marlowe’s absences were for ‘the benefit of the country’.

One of Marlowe’s first jobs was spying on his patron, the Earl of Northumberland. His biographer, Charles Nicholl, says we shouldn’t be too hard on the playwright. ‘We find Marlowe in the company of spies and swindlers because he was one himself. But he lived by his wits, and was probably better rewarded for spying than he was for poetry.’ In fact he was just one of many writers employed in what was effectively the first official secret service. Subsidised by Queen Elizabeth 1, Sir Francis Walsingham’s force uncovered the invasion plans of the Spanish Armada and the treason of Mary Queen of Scots. But then – as now – spies could trust nobody. Marlowe was eventually murdered, in a tavern in Deptford, by fellow agents.

Less dangerous work was undertaken by the poets Edmund Spenser, John Milton and Andrew Marvell. Spenser carried despatches from France and wrote propaganda about Ireland, where he was caught up in the insurrection of 1598. Milton and his protege Marvell were both Latin secretaries to Oliver Cromwell’s Privy Council – basically a desk job that involved co-ordinating British relations with foreign powers.

But the greatest British author-spy of all time has to be Daniel Defoe, the creator of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, who served under Queen Anne’s Whig government. He travelled the country compiling a secret dossier on the party affiliations of important men, and was later employed by the Whigs to work undercover as editor of a Tory newspaper. Operating under aliases which included Alexander Goldsmith, he was a master at disguising his handwriting, and devised a numerical code for correspondence (Parliament was 212, the Queen 233 and the Jacobites 161).

He had many ideas for improving the service and once chided his employers for poor security at headquarters: ‘Had I been a French spy, I could have put in my pocket Lord N-’s letters to Sir Geo Rook and to the Duke of Marlborough.’ Like Marlowe under Elizabeth I, Defoe was closely involved in plans to settle the succession after a childless queen. Shortly before his murder, Marlowe had planned a visit to the future James I in Scotland – or so said his fellow playwright, Thomas Kyd, interrogated soon afterwards. Likewise Defoe did a great deal to pave the way for the Act of Union, frequently travelling to Scotland to identify and undermine opponents.

These days, it’s not Scotland that English writer-spies must grapple with: it’s Europe. Who knows, perhaps right now some regular of the books pages is carrying out a top-secret mission in the corridors of the European parliament, armed only with a poison-tipped umbrella. My hunch? Forget Fay Weldon, Our Man in Brussels is Alan Bennett.