Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Doctorr Hook's part in the greatest spy story ever told

Blurbs on the covers of real-life stories of espionage that invoke the name of John Le CarrĂ© too often seem like a devalued currency. They’re like those reviews of new Stones albums that say “their best since ‘Exile On Main Street’. However I can assure you that The Spy and The Traitor, Ben Macintyre’s book about Oleg Gordievsky, fully warrants that kind of billing and that's for two reasons. 

The first is that Gordievsky is, as spies go, noble. He didn’t do it for money. He did it because he believed it would make the world a safer place. The second is that Macintyre is a brilliant storyteller who knows how to leave out the kind of detail that drags on the narrative and understands the importance of key details much as a spy would.

For instance, when Gordievsky was working for HM Government while based in Russia it was agreed that if he wanted to talk to his handlers he would stand outside a certain bakery at a certain time of the week carrying a Safeway bag. That meant staff from the embassy had to check in at this place scores of times, always wearing the same coloured clothes, holding the same carrier bags and having about their person a Kit-Kat and a Mars bar. Just in case. When Gordievsky was transferred to London his handlers kept on checking in at the same place in case the KGB had been watching and would connect the British spies’ non-appearance with Gordievsky’s absence from Moscow. Handling that one agent, whose identity was known only to a handful of officers, involved hundreds of people in years of harmless charades and a small minority in acts of breathtaking courage, particularly when it came to the moment of his "exfiltration".

The team set off from Moscow by car on the pretext of going to see a doctor in Finland. They take with them all the supplies they would need to stage a full picnic, English middle-class style, as well as syringes full of sedatives to quell the nerves of anyone called upon to spend a long time in the car's boot. Unbelievably the team also includes a husband and wife who, partly because they can't find a sitter and partly because her presence would serve to confuse their KGB shadows, take along their baby girl. Furthermore, this being the mid-80s, to pass time on the journey, they take cassettes including Dire Straits' "Brothers In Arms" and the Greatest Hits of Doctor Hook. Macintyre makes almost comic use of this last choice in the narrative. I'm sure if they make this into a movie the director will have a field day.