REVIEW: Spycatcher, by Peter Wright

A few weeks ago, I found a copy of Spycatcher in a charity shop, and decided I should have a read.

Spycatcher, “The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer”, is one of those things that I remember from my youth as a cultural event. I was young at the time. It was the mid-Eighties, the Cold War still in full swing, my parents were active in the Peace Campaign and CND, I had yet to discover rock music (and 80s pop was abhorrent to me). Spycatcher was a thing that was on the news for what seemed like a very long time as the UK Government tried to ban its publication and sale in this country. I don’t recall whether it was the people or the technical information that was supposedly the problem (I was too young and not paying much attention).

[As an aside: I always love when a second-hand book has a dedication or note indicating it was a gift: my copy says “J__, Hope you find this interesting! A__.” (J being a ‘boy’ name and A being a ‘girl’ name, at least as commonly assigned.) I’ve no idea who these people were, or why J would find it interesting, or in what context, but it conjures stories in my mind.]

Anyway, to the actual book. The author is Peter Wright (sub-caption, “Former Assistant Director of MI5”) and the big deal is that he identifies whom he believes to have been the “Fifth Man” inside the British intelligence agencies along with Burgess, McClean, Philby and Blunt.

Wright’s background was in electronics and technology, and he discusses early on a whole bunch of the innovations in surveillance that he and his colleagues started using in the 1950s especially (he was recruited in the aftermath of World War 2 through family connections as MI5 sought to expand its in-house technical expertise). As seems to be a common factor with ex-military/espionage authors, the writer focusses on a message of, “If they’d only listened to me, everything would have worked out MUCH better, but nobody took any notice until it went wrong/they appointed my friend/they appointed the wrong person and sidelined me further.”

The meat of the book, however, is the suspicion of a mole inside MI5, and the intelligence and detective work that leads to his conclusion about that person’s identity. The book is not well written, and could easily have done with better work from an editor. That said, there is the makings of a pretty decent spy thriller novel here, had the book been written that way. It isn’t – it’s written as non-fiction, and an autobiography. As a storyteller, this frustrates me because I can clearly see how to make a much better book out of this. None of it needs to be fictionalised, but some of the fat could be trimmed, the language tightened, details irrelevant to the main narrative or subplots left out, and so on.

The worst part, though, is that to sell the book, the blurb gives away the identity of the mole (or rather, the person whom Wright concludes must be the enemy spy). As soon as you’ve got that, there’s no tension, no mystery and no excitement to the narrative. I spent the whole book thinking, “Get to the showdown already! we know who the culprit is!” Some stories can get away with showing the murder at the beginning (the Columbo TV series, for instance, generally shows who and how, and then introduces the eponymous detective and we watch him scrabble about trying to figure it out) but this story needs the mystery element. It needs the dawning realisation of how big the opposition is, until the reader, with the hero, is forced to the right conclusion. Given such a treatment, Spycatcher would have had a classic story arc, as outlined in various “how to write” books going back to Aristotle.

I hate spoilers. When the spoiler is in the blurb, it’s even more disappointing.

That’s Spycatcher as literature.

~ * ~

The other aspect of the book is the political and technical context and content. Two things leapt out at me from Wright’s discussion of his work and the changes he saw in the British intelligence agencies. The first is that the modern IT-based surveillance society is not a new thing. Even in the early 1970s the use of computers to track and plunder people’s personal data was being discussed:

I soon realized that the main interest F Branch had in the Computer Working Party was to establish widespread computer links, principally with the National Insurance computer in Newcastle. In the past, of course, we had always been able to get material from the National Insurance records if we really wanted. We had a couple of undercover officers posted up there who could be contacted for our files. But establishing a direct computer link was something different.”

The move into the computer generation signalled the relegation of the individual officer. From now on we were to be data processors, scanning tens of thousands of names at the press of a button.

(It’s interesting to note that, given the recent revelations of Special Branch infiltration of left-wing/campaign groups, and how officers would have sex with members to gain trust, that Wright states in the context of the above passage, “Agent running was no longer viable as the principal means of coverage. For a start, he could not infiltrate his officers into these left-wing groups since many of them lived promiscuous lives, and there were some sacrifices even an MI5 officer would not make for his country.”)

The other point is that Wright pretty much confirms that Harold Wilson was right to suspect a conspiracy against him in the mid-1970s. He describes how, as he approached retirement from MI5, a group of businessmen approached him and wished to employ his inside knowledge:

He said they were interested in working to prevent the return of a Labour government to power.

“It could spell the end of all the freedoms we know and cherish,” he said.

The others nodded.

“And how do you suppose I can help?” I asked.

“Information,” he replied, “we want information, and I am assured you have it.”

“What precisely are you after?” I inquired.

“Anything on Wilson would be helpful. There are many people who would pay handsomely for material of that sort.”

Wright says he objected to this on the basis of his being a serving member of the Security Service. Later, as he reviews the Wilson information, he describes that younger colleagues inside MI5 also approached him:

“Wilson’s a bloody menace,” said one of the younger officers, “and it’s about time the public knew the truth.”

But the approach in 1974 was altogether more serious. The plan was simple. In the run-up to the election which, given the level of instability in Parliament, must be due within a matter of months, MI5 would arrange for sensitive details of the intelligence about leading Labour Party figures, but especially Wilson, to be leaked to sympathetic pressmen. Using our contacts in the press and among union officials, word of the material contained in MI5 files and the fact that Wilson was considered a security risk would be passed around.

~ * ~

Both the computer surveillance and the anti-Wilson plots seem strongly relevant in today’s political climate. In particular with the wild hatred directed at Jeremy Corbyn by the right-wing bastions of the establishment, and his anti-militarist policies, we might anticipate that similar machinations would be a part of the run-up to a 2020 election with Corbyn at the helm of a newly radicalised and revitalised Labour Party. Reading the fictional “A Very British Coup” (or watching the TV version on Channel 4’s “on demand” website, though they don’t call it that any more) is a warning. Does this mean we should shy away from supporting Corbyn? Of course not. But we do need to be aware that there will be more sinister forces than Liz Kendall arrayed against him and his programme if he wins.

There are questions demanded about just what is meant by “defend the country” (and/or “democracy”), when the powerful bodies who claim to do so, seem to pick and choose who or what counts as legitimate, and seek to manipulate or subvert the will of the people as expressed through the ballot box.

But the main thing I took away was that literary sense of, “this could have been so much better, if only they’d only listened to me.”

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Politics, Reviews, Writing about writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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