By Quirke, Antonia
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 138, No. 4960
In MI6: a Century in the Shadows (27 July, 9am, Radio 4) we went on "an unprecedented journey inside the service" to find the present chief, John Scarlett, who confirmed that he was interested in "human sources". As in: "People capable of telling you secrets." By which he meant: "Information." Clarifying dangerously further, he narrowed this down to: "Ie: information that other people don't know."
Next, a former deputy chief suggested that when it comes to the delicate business of recruiting spies, it is generally a good idea to actually "know the other person".
In the background you could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock that belonged to the first head of M16, Mansfield Cumming. Cumming took a while to get into the role of destroying the German naval Establishment from a small, high room in Whitehall with nary a single typist and only one leg--he was said to have hacked the other off with a penknife after an accident in France. Diaries of his first day on the job record: "Sat here alone all day. Saw no one. Nothing to do."
But this was back in the olden days, before Toyota pick-ups with .50-calibre machine guns mounted on the roof, and when men married the first person who allowed them to unclasp their brassiere.
Mind you, I used to know a spy, and he always said that it mostly involved sitting around in vans in Bosnia waiting for people to come out of flats, which they hardly ever did. And when they did, they would invariably be accompanied by high-minded sisters who were devoid of make-up. He said he and his colleagues never had any fun and were forever losing telephone numbers or forgetting to bring maps, and in general it was a complete shambles.
This friend was what my mother would call "delicately balanced", had been to Harrow, and held his shoes together with string. …