Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

I Nearly Became a Spook; Nowadays MI5 Advertises for Recruits, but as Writer Charles Cumming Recalls, It Was a 'Chance Encounter' at a Dinner Party That Led Him into the Murky World of Spying

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

I Nearly Became a Spook; Nowadays MI5 Advertises for Recruits, but as Writer Charles Cumming Recalls, It Was a 'Chance Encounter' at a Dinner Party That Led Him into the Murky World of Spying

Article excerpt

Byline: CHARLES CUMMING

IT ALL began 10 years ago, almost to the day. I had been staying at my mother's cottage in Dorset when a man came to dinner, a man who would change my life.

He called himself Christopher. He was in his early fifties, slim and slightly drawn, but with an underlying air of mischief. The collars of his tailored shirt were frayed and he wore velvet loafers embroidered on the toe with a coat-of-arms. Suffice to say there was something different about him, something that set him apart from the other guests at dinner that night, the stockbrokers and accountants, the brigadiers and their wives.

Christopher and I sat next to one another at dinner. We talked for perhaps two hours.

He said that he had been at Oxford with my stepfather and had "recently retired from the Foreign Office". I did not realise it at the time, but this was the first stage of my recruitment to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). I was being sized up.

About a week later, my mother bumped into Christopher in the supermarket. "I liked Charles very much," he said. "Has he ever thought about going in for the Foreign Office?" Needless to say this was music to my mother's ears; at the time I was working as a waiter in a failing Polish restaurant. Before long, I was ringing the bell of a discreet address in Pall Mall, miles from MI6 headquarters in Vauxhall Cross.

A guard in a smart grey uniform opened the door and ushe red me into a wide, high-ceilinged hall dominated at one end by a vast oil painting. I had to sign my name in a book and was handed a security pass. In time, a woman came downstairs and led me to a sparsely furnished room on the first floor. A man was waiting behind a desk, looking out over Pall Mall.

He had matinee-idol looks and the most piercing blue eyes I had ever seen.

He introduced himself as "Richard Beckett", my first experience of a cover name. For all I knew he was a career diplomat, a Head of Chancery on leave.

We shook hands and those eyes burned through mine. I blinked first.

It is strange, looking back, how ill-prepared I was for what followed. After about an hour of chit-chat, in which we discussed everything from my academic background to the novels of Turgenev, Beckett announced that he was going to leave the room. "But before I do," he said, "I would like you to sign the Official Secrets Act."

The request was so casual he might almost have been enquiring after the time.

Beckett placed a brown piece of paper on the table in front of me, the sort of form you might fill in at the dentist. I had no time to read the small print, no time to consider what I was doing. I merely scrawled my name at the bottom and handed it back.

Beckett then instructed me to open the black folder that had been lying on the table, unopened, throughout the duration of our interview. …

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