A Trip to the Moon

When Neil Armstrong’s family suggested that every time we caught sight of the moon we “give Neil a wink” in remembrance, I immediately pictured Georges Melies’ moon in this famed short film – which in turn gave me the idea for compiling this list. So let’s start with that wink, shall we?

 

I’ve been meaning to post here at TNB for a while now. Today seems like as good a days as any… it’s not like it’s a public holiday or anything. It’s actually one of those rare days in the calendar where absolutely nothing of historical interest has ever happened in all the thousands of years of human existence… Well, there was that trivial little incident in 1776, but I’ve bored you enough with the history of cricket.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been drafting various posts on a range of topics. I never got around to finishing any of them because I was too busy being awesome at L.A. Noire and going to a cricket match. Seriously— this isn’t one of those jokes where I make fun of how English I am; I actually went to a cricket match. It rained, England won, and there was a ‘Tea Bar’ inside the ground. It was utterly spiffing.

I was going to write a long post about a play that I wrote, directed, and delivered a tour de force performance in a three minute cameo. But now it’s being staged again at a bigger theatre later in the year so I’m saving it for that.

Then I was going to write about how I quit Facebook and consequently became a better person. However that’s a subject that’s been pretty well covered recently, and far more intelligently than I could hope to be.

I even considered writing a lame emotional piece that would have been undercut with funny set pieces that would make it sort of like Bridget Jones’ Diary but with an actual English person and not a pretend English person with an American accent and the most French name anyone has outside of France/half of Canada.

But then I decided today would the perfect day for me to write an essay on all the things that make Britain great. I know most of you reading will be American and may find excessive displays of patriotism somewhat distasteful and unseemly. I can only apologize in advance, and include a link to the song Danger Zone for you to listen to if it all gets too British for you.

It’s not that I don’t love America. I love cheeseburgers, and I think my appreciation for Die Hard has been well documented. I’ve been to America and met many Americans, and I loved every moment and every person. I’ve been to Canada and even though we own it, it’s not nearly as nice. Everyone in Montreal is surly because they’re secretly French and the people of Toronto just haven’t been the same since Rush left.

I don’t have a bad word to say about America, or any of the Americans I’ve met. Of course I didn’t meet anyone like Charles Manson, Sarah Palin, Richard Nixon, or the new crazy Republican lady who should get Ted Turner to run as her VP candidate and use both Takin’ Care of Business and You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet as campaign songs. As far as I’m aware ‘70s rock musicians love it when right wing politicians appropriate their songs.

I genuinely love America, and I’m not just saying that because it’s your birthday either. Britain loves America like the accidentally conceived child it is. It’s okay, you might have been an accident, but at least you’re not adopted… like Canada…

Sure you could argue about historical facts and the cultural intricacies and immigration from other nations, but ultimately just as Davros created the Daleks, Britain created the nation of America… but in a good way. I’m not looking for thanks here. Casting Alan Rickman is Die Hard was all the thanks we could hope for.

I’m something of a history enthusiast, and one of my favourite historical events is the formation of an independent America…

Once upon a time we discovered America and then proceeded to populate it with potato starved Irishmen, the poor, the persecuted religious, and a couple of rich people to make sure no-one got out of hand. Unfortunately the horrible warmongering, America-hating French soon turned up and tried to kill all the Americans. Luckily Britain courageously fought the dirty French back so that all they had left was the shit half of Canada whilst we kept the half with Neil Young (and started spreading rumours that Chad Kroeger is actually from Montreal).

Britain and America then lived in peaceful co-existence where we agreed on everything from how awesome tea is, to how much tea should be taxed. Then one fateful day a shipment of tea disappeared from Boston harbour. The British were so impressed by the anger and frustration of the Americans reaction to this great loss that we decided you were finally ready to break out on your own. Shortly after that Britain gladly handed the USA independence.

But whilst you slowly developed into a mightily impressive nation, Britain is still superior for these four reasons:

1. Tea

Sure coffee looks cool. It sounds cool. It even tastes pretty good, and many, many diner scenes in movies and TV shows would lose a certain something if the waitress was pouring tea out of a dainty little teapot, but tea is still better.

For final proof, people often use ‘all the tea in china’ as an example of excessive reward that would still be too small to tempt them. There is no equivalent for coffee, because it’s not as good, and no-one actually knows where it comes from.

2. Action Heroes/Acting

American culture is littered with action heroes from the various ranch hands played by John Wayne to the sensitive amnesiac Jason Bourne. Between those two icons you’ve had John McClane, Johnny Utah, John Rambo, Chuck Norris, and the many roles of Arnold Schwarzenegger. A lot of them feature in pretty decent films. I love both Die Hard and Point Break.

In Britain we only have one action hero. We only need one action hero. We got the violence/sex/horrendous pun formula right the first time. Who wants to see Bruce Willis shouting obscenities in bare feet and shooting vaguely German terrorist when you can watch a fifty year old Roger Moore flapping his saggy jowls over the body of a twenty year old and making crude sex jokes?!

No American has ever played Bond. Meanwhile the three best known American comic book characters are all played by Brits because we’re all better actors than you. Yes, even Keira Knightley.

3. Colonization/War

We had an Empire. Despite our aesthetically displeasing dentistry we still managed to get our hands on most of the world and mercilessly exploit the local populations.

You can try and claim the two World Wars, but that’s like when you’re trying to open a jar, five people give it a go and then the sixth personally finally manages and takes all the credit and makes hundreds of movies about how great he is at opening jars. We were loosening those jars for a long time before you showed up.

The only war you ever won was against yourself. The War of Independence doesn’t count because it didn’t actually happen. Any evidence to the contrary is simply photoshopping and hearsay.

4. History

We Brits have history. America is part of our history. A fairly brief and unimportant part too, hundreds and hundreds of years after our Roman ancestry and walls to keep the Scots out.

The most important parts of American history aren’t even taught in our schools. I only know about it because I studied it a bit at university and read up on these things purely so I can make jokes about not being interested in the information I’ve researched.

Seriously though, it’s just sort of glossed over. Sometimes a teacher might tell the story about the shipment of tea failing to arrive if a student asks, but mostly we’re too busy learning about our rich cultural heritage, drinking tea, and dashing outside to play cricket during the brief periods when it stops raining.

So there you have it; indisputable scientific proof that my country is better than yours. Huzzah for Blighty! Let’s all celebrate with tea and scones! Spiffing!


I could have come up posting today and been very bitter. But today shouldn’t be about bitterness, it should be about celebration. I prefer making tea with tap water rather than sea water but… whatever… enjoy your cawfee…

But seriously, Happy 235th Birthday America— you’re looking good for it.






You are the first independent historian who has ever been allowed inside the MI6 archives, how were you chosen for the task?

The procedure was part-head-hunt and part conventional job-application. I’ve been working on aspects of military and intelligence history for nearly 30 years and was just completing a biography of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, a flamboyant and controversial First World War general who was (among other things) head of British Military Intelligence before 1914, when I was asked if I might be interested in ‘doing something historical’ to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6, as it is popularly known). Since I was assured that this would involve privileged access to the secret SIS archive, the offer was too attractive to refuse. I was not the only person sounded out, and, after I had been asked to prepare a scheme for a history of SIS’s first 40 years—from 1909 to 1949—which passed some sort of test, the process developed into a job-interview situation. I was not the only person interviewed, but, again, I passed the test and was offered the commission.


What was it like being inside archives that may never see the light of day again?

The SIS archive is the Holy Grail of British government records. None of SIS’s own papers are released to the National Archives, nor is it envisaged that any will ever be so released. The whole lot are also completely exempt from UK Freedom of Information legislation. As a result, when I actually got access to the papers, it was like being a kid in a candy store. The records themselves are not physically very different from other government documents of a similar age. I’ve been working for years in national and other archives—including, for example, the US archives at College Park Maryland—with ‘Top Secret’ military, political and intelligence papers, and the SIS papers are very similar in type. But there is obviously a tremendous thrill in being an outsider seeing classified materials for the first time. I was also acutely aware that there were (and are) no plans to let any other historian into the archive, and that I had only this one go at writing the history, so I had to get it right first time—or as right as possible. So, no pressure there!


Did you discover anything that shocked you?

What shocked me most of all was the sheer human cost of intelligence work. Working undercover and having to keep secrets for all of one’s life, while doing sometimes extremely hazardous work, is immensely hard. In wartime especially, many officers and agents paid with their lives. Of course we know intellectually that war is dangerous, and that people die. But when you find yet another agent ‘murdered at Buchenwald’ (for example), or stumble on the grainy individual circumstances of real people’s deaths captured in the apparently dryasdust documents on your desk, it gives one pause, and made me reflect (as it must anyone) on what I might have done in such circumstances.


What are the revelations in your book?

The chief revelation of the book is, in fact, the book itself, and the utterly counter-intuitive action of the most secret department of the British government actually commissioning a history for open publication, to be written by an independent professional historian. Of course, for the very first time, the structure and organisation of the agency, and its development over the first 40 years of its life, is reliably and authoritatively laid out. For the first time, too, the names of over 150 officers are named with the authority of the Service itself. But the history is also ‘warts and all’; failures are faced as well as successes.

There are never-before-told operations which include SIS work against the USA between the wars, focusing on American naval and military targets (the Royal Navy was, for example, particularly anxious to know about US naval construction), as well as American left-wing political groups and Irish nationalists. There is much detail about work against Soviet Russia in the post-revolutionary period, including operations in Romania in the 1930s, where the SIS head of station’s over-trusting attitude led to the loss of agents working in the Soviet Union, and also in Bulgaria, where the head of station got into trouble over money. Details of  SIS operations in Latin America in the Second World War have never before been told, including ship-watching for German commerce raiders; a telephone-tapping operation working from the basement of the Santiago embassy; tracking down of Nazi agents across the continent; and unsatisfactory agents (among whom were a French morphine addict and a ‘Chillian Irishman’). The book contains detailed coverage of the Service’s most successful interwar agent, Jonny de Graff, a Comintern officer who came over to SIS in 1933 and supplied a wealth of information about Soviet activities in Britain and across the world, as well as helping to foil a leftwing revolution in Brazil in 1935.

One of the most sensational stories in the book covers ‘Operation Embarrass’ and is as close as you’ll ever get in real life to an espionage thriller. Occurring in 1947–8, it was aimed to disrupt illegal Jewish emigration into Palestine and included direct action with limpet mines to disable potential refugee ships in port (including the vessel which became the famous Exodus); a black propaganda campaign from a bogus Arab organisation, among other thing sending forged letters to the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary; and planting disinformation documents on Soviets in a Vienna night club.

Another operation with the air of a thriller was ‘Climber’ in 1948–9 to penetrate the Soviet Union across the Caucasus mountains, but it also illustrates how human frailty could bring serious risks. The Georgian agents jeopardised security by returning to London ‘with their suitcases bulging with every sort of Turkish delicacy’ and ‘a large number of female garments which they were conveying from mutual friends’ in Istanbul for émigrés in Paris. We presume the famous traitor Kim Philby, then Head of Station at Istanbul, also betrayed the operation.


What espionage techniques did you discover which surprised you?

I was intrigued (as was the Service Chief, Mansfield Cumming) by the discovery during the First World War that semen made a usable secret ink for invisible writing. Apparently the SIS representative in Copenhagen stocked the substance in a bottle ‘for his letters stank to high heaven’, and he had to be told that ‘a fresh operation’ was necessary for each message. I was also impressed by the ingenuity displayed in concealing devices, to smuggle sensitive documents or other materials past security checkpoints. It was reported that in Italy during the Second World War a false horse penis had been manufactured and used.


Who is your favourite person in the book and why?

It has to be the first Chief, Mansfield Cumming, without whom the Service would not exist today. From a standing start in October 1909, he created an impressively functioning organisation which made a significant contribution to Allied intelligence work during the First World War. He fell in love with the ‘business’ of espionage—what came to be known as ‘tradecraft’—secrecy, disguises, cutting-edge technology and so on. He was also stoical and brave and was the subject of many extraordinary stories, including that he cut off his own leg with a penknife after a motor accident in 1914 which left his only son fatally injured. He was clearly a most attractive personality, much loved by his staff, though he was not without frailties, which included a keen eye for the ladies and a penchant for Edwardian pornography.


What was the most interesting thing you unearthed about a well known character?

That the novelist Graham Greene, recruited in the summer of 1941 to work for SIS in West Africa with cover as an army officer, was so physically incompetent and unco-ordinated that he had to be sent to a military training course in Oxford solely to be ‘given the most elementary instruction in soldiering’, in order to ‘wear battledress without embarrassment’.


Who was the most interesting new figure uncovered?

There are so many, but one of the best was agent ‘Ecclesiastic’, a glamorous 22-year-old Central European woman living in Lisbon, where she was the mistress of a German Abwehr (Military Intelligence) officer. Taken on by SIS, she became a double-agent, feeding carefully-collated disinformation to the Germans. This successful operation is unusually well recorded, including revealing reports from her flirtatious case-office, ‘Klop’ Ustinov (father of the actor Peter Ustinov), as well as a unique image of Ecclesiastic at work taking photographs of documents which she had purportedly taken from the Anglo-Portuguese Air Liaison office where she worked. Her German lover took the photograph as insurance against Ecclesiastic betraying him, and gave her a copy to confirm his hold over her. But she promptly passed it on to  her case officer and it survives in the SIS archive to this day.


The world’s most famous MI6 operative, albeit fictional, is James Bond. How does the real work of MI6 compare to that depicted by Ian Fleming?

The real work of MI6 is much more interesting, and much more grimly realistic than the fictional. James Bond is terrific entertainment (or at least the best movies are), but, in the end, he is not much more than a kind of cartoon character, who manages ‘with one bound’ (or so) to get free from the clutches of whatever evil genius he has taken on. Since the real James Bonds are real people, they do not have quite the indiarubber qualities of the fictional one. When they are knocked down they sometimes, alas, stay down. They are, moreover, frequently better trained and prepared than Ian Fleming’s fictional creation, who, for example, does not appear to speak any language other than English (though, arguably, Sean Connery can speak Scottish). But one of the prerequisites for a genuine MI6 officer is a facility with languages. Ian Fleming, who worked in British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War clearly knew a lot about intelligence work and people, and there are suggestions that James Bond might in part have been modeled on a debonair SIS officer called Biffy Dunderdale, who was Head of the SIS Station in Paris during the 1930s. Some other stories seem familiar from the Bond oeuvre, for example, the Dutch agent put ashore in November 1940 on the beach near the Casino at Scheveningen, wearing a tuxedo protected by a specially-designed rubber oversuit. To strengthen his party-goer’s image, his minders sprinkled some drops of Hennessy XO brandy on him before setting him ashore.


There is an enduring fascination with intelligence work. How do the actions of 1909–49 relate to modern intelligence?

There are obvious differences between today’s intelligence environment and that of sixty years ago and before, with technology perhaps being the greatest change, but the essentials of successful intelligence work are amply demonstrated in the 1909–49 history of SIS. At the heart of all intelligence work is trust, not just between case officers and their agents, but also between the agency and its government masters. This is as true of 2011 as of 1911. There were moments in the 1920s and 1930s when SIS, under the ambitious and empire-building leadership of Admiral Hugh Sinclair, got a bit ‘big for its boots’, trespassing, for example, into domestic security work for which it was ill-suited and which dangerously threatened to jeopardise its reputation.

From the very start, Mansfield Cumming recognised the varying motivations of agents: money, patriotism, ideology, revenge. Not much changes in this world. Another constant is the important subject of liaison with foreign security and intelligence agencies. SIS has had to cosy up to potential rival organisations—French Intelligence in the 1920s; the Gestapo in the 1930s—in order to target common enemies—the Italians and Communists in the two examples just cited. Spying against friends and/or potential allies can be problematic, as demonstrated with British operations against the USA in the 1930s. In this case, friendly co-operation and the abandoning of those operations (though not before they had systematically been evaluated) proved to be more productive than keeping them on. One difficulty with a distinctly modern resonance is the experience of the SIS officer who visited Palestine in December 1939. Here the British administration of the territory told him they wanted information about the Jewish Agency, and especially about their support of illegal Jewish immigration. The next day, a contact in the Jewish Agency, in turn, offered their assistance in intelligence-gathering.

Another dimension with a remarkably contemporary feel is the assessment of potential bio-warfare threats to London drawn up by an SIS committee in August 1939. Reflecting on the possibility of anthrax or foot-and-mouth disease attacks on agricultural targets, it also asked if ‘one hundred Nazi agents supplied with bacteriological material and operating in the London Underground Railways during the rush hours, [could] start a serious epidemic in London’. Even on the technology side, many of the changes are purely of scale rather than kind. The pioneering portable suitcase radio developed by SIS’s engineers during the late 1930s is the Second World War equivalent of today’s cell phone, and the careful protocols for using those wartime radios securely remind us, today as much as ever, that any method of communication is liable to be vulnerable if not properly used.


Did you have to leave a lot out of your book at the request of MI6?

This is a really important question, since it reflects on my status as an independent historian. While I was granted complete and free access to the SIS archives for the period of the book (and this was a potential deal-breaker if I had found my access in any way restricted), and that the history should be ‘warts and all’, the corollary to this was that my final text would be reviewed in-house for what were described as ‘necessary national security requirements’. The most significant dimension of this concerned the naming of agents. SIS’s line, which I accepted, is that it will itself never reveal the name of an agent. In general, only if an agent has ‘outed’ him- or herself, can their name be revealed. This point of principle obviously makes very good sense, and goes to the heart of the relationship of trust between the Service and its agents. If, for example, you are a German hired by the British to spy against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, SIS will say: ‘Your secret is safe with us, in perpetuity’. (One analogy is with an investigative journalist, who may go to jail before revealing his sources.) But after 1945, for example, that German agent might be very glad to have her story told, and may even publish memoirs revealing this. In that case, and in some other cases where the identity of an agent is authoritatively revealed in publicly-available official documents in an archive or museum, I was permitted to name names. Even in those cases where I couldn’t reveal names, I could still tell the stories using cover-names or numbers (which is, after all, what cover-names are for).

There still remains the reasonable suspicion on the part of skeptics that I, having been found suitable by SIS to write its history, might be precisely the wrong person to do an independent and properly-critical job. All I can say to that, is (a) the opportunity (of a lifetime) to be the only historian allowed access to the SIS archives was too great to resist; (b) even if it might be seen as a kind of Faustian Pact with an immensely powerful and seductive organisation, the risk was worth taking; (c) as a senior academic historian with a high reputation to protect, and much to lose if I did only a partial job, I hope my professionalism has enabled me to get the story as right as possible; (d) in practice, while I was prevented from including some details of names etc, I was not restricted from including material about bungled operations and inadequate personnel which was not to the credit of SIS; and (e) in the last resort the ‘proof of the pudding [etc]’ will lie in the text itself, and for that the discerning reader must make up his or her own mind.


What do you think is the enduring importance of your work?

My book has been called ‘definitive’, a flattering description but one with which I have some worries. Whether it is already definitive or not, I very much hope that the book becomes definitive, and really only time will tell, as it might take five or ten years for this to be so. The book certainly has been written to stand the test of time. It is authoritative, and, since it is the only work based on access to the SIS archives, will, at the very least and for many years to come (if not for ever), remain the only reliable source for the real story of SIS. If it becomes definitive, I shall be well content. Like any author, my chief hope is that the book will be widely read and bring pleasure as well as conveying information. In the meantime, however, it is an indispensable source for anyone interested in ‘grown-up’ history, particularly that of the most famous intelligence organisation in the world.



“We’re moving,” I tell my dental hygienist when she tries to set up my next visit, six months from today.

“Oh! Wow! Where to?” The inevitable next question.

Honestly, I really don’t care much for dental friendliness. I like clean teeth and gingivitis tops my pet peeve list, right along with things that involve a seething crowd of fans, but I am not here to make friends. Perhaps it’s the vacuuming of my spittle that makes me feel so vulnerable and mean, or the lead vest, I don’t know. I shut my eyes behind my colossal sunglasses and run my tongue across the polished surface of my incisors for strength.

I do not explain how we are planning to pack our family into our Honda CRV, drive ourselves to Lincoln Mortgage, sit for our property closing, hand over keys to our house and then drive out of town. It’s a long story.

I also don’t tell her that I wish she were a robot.

“West,” I say, not so helpfully, and only because she’s blocking my exit with her Care Bear scrubs and confusion I add, “Seattle maybe.”

We really don’t know, I don’t say.

We are among the millions that have been directly affected by the recession. I hate that word, that euphemism. It’s an insult to eupha-mizing. It’s a euphemism that needs euthanizing. We have been unemployed for a year, our house is under contract and we simply have no reason to stay, so we decided that we might as well be in a place we love and we love what’s west of here, so we’re going there.

When we tell people this, the responses vary from interest, excitement to sadness and heartbreak for the missing that comes with leaving. The dental hygienist is easy. The good friends are definitely harder. It’s one of those all-inclusive-full-spectrum kind of experiences.

“Fear not!” I say to the friends, but not to the hygienist. Actually, I probably don’t really say, fear not to my friends either. But I certainly do imply it when I assure them that although we may not have a firm destination, we do have a plan, we do have faith, and we do have job prospects, talent and are unabated survivors. We will land.

In the interim, relieved of the weight of our things (having traded them for garage sale cash) we will be light and expansive! With a loose itinerary and a sense of adventure we will zig zag! We will take the long cut! We will have spitting contests with our son over canyon lips and notice the difference in the shape of the sky, the varied species of clouds over Wyoming, Montana. We will get cricks in our necks from gazing up the to the peaks of the Rockies, the tips of the Redwoods. But most importantly, we plan to laugh in the face of our homelessness and bestow onto it, with an avowed sacristy, ineffable calm, hearty and appropriate euphemisms. We will not undermine it like that “recession” crap. Instead, we will enhance! Transform!

We will not be Homeless. No way.

We will be Nomadic. We will be Gypsies. Vagabonds. James Bonds. Free Willys. Rolling Stones. Pigs in Zen. We will be Superbad and coming to a town near you. We will be cruising with the windows down, making terrific wave formations with our arms and we will be shaking our heads at the naysayers and the game players because we will know we are indestructible.

We will pretend we are flying, we will know we are free.


I have far too many ideas in my head.

All fighting to get out, competing for my attention.

This is not a good thing. What I want is clarity, focus; mental definition and stability in a time of personal and global chaos.

You can have too many thoughts. It’s a distraction. I want to write.

I want to write short novels.

Novellas.

I want to be churning out one, two a month.

I want to be finishing a story every fortnight.

I think I need to, to purge the cranial overload.

Trepanning is what the ancient Greeks used, to purge the brain.

It was a physical thing, not a metaphorical mental thing.

Brain damage isn’t caused by the blow; it’s caused by the build up of fluid; the blood, the bile, the miscellaneous brain juice.

If I were a Bond Girl

I’d be Thunderball beautiful
Have a body like a smart bomb
Be Jill St. John, Britt Eckland and Barbara Bach
All rolled into one