I spent a good chunk of my childhood reading trashy spy novels in the reading room of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club, oblivious to the real spies who may… or may not… have been drinking in the bar one floor below.
The dawning realisation that I probably knew some spies was a glamorous notion that has never really lost its allure.
I grew up during the Cold War, on the edge of the Bamboo Curtain, so it’s no surprise I was immersed in spy novels.
My English teacher got me started when I was 10 with the suggestion that I might enjoy Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. I went looking for it in the school library and when I couldn’t find it in the junior section asked the librarian, who directed me to the senior shelves.
Until that revelatory moment, I had no idea little first formers were allowed near the senior books. I never turned left at the library doors into the junior section again. And I did enjoy the Greene book, along with the many others he wrote. Mrs Brain, my American English teacher, I salute you for introducing me to one of my favourite authors.
But if she’d hoped to set me on a path towards higher literature she was bound for disappointment. When I wasn’t reading Greene I was reading the trashiest of trashy spy novels, mostly gleaned from the little library at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Sutherland House.
The Baxters went to the FCC most Sundays for lunch. I would disappear as soon as possible up the stairs to the small reading room where I would curl into an armchair with Matt Helm or James Bond until the Avengers with Diana Rigg started on the black and white telly.
Meanwhile, I suppose, there was a real-life spy or two among the membership just a floor below.
My father talked sometimes about spooks, but mostly in terms of a general caution against holding confidential conversations in toilets, most especially at the FCC.
It was Hong Kong, on the edge of the Bamboo Curtain in the middle of a Cold War. How much was fact and how much fantasy is a good question for all of us who lived through those times but it’s one that I can’t answer.
Tired of my taste in fictional espionage, the Big Bax introduced me to the real thing with Contact on Gorky Street.
It’s the firsthand account of British spy Greville Wynn who ended up imprisoned in the Soviet Union and was later released in a spy exchange.
Bax always called it the first adult book I read, by which I think he meant it was my first non-fiction book.
I was hooked and read it and reread it until I realised there was ample fresh material to feed my new habit on my father’s bookshelves. I graduated to the stories of Philby, Burgess and Maclean in quick order, never realising that I was surrounded by journalists who had pursued and interviewed these men.
I didn’t return to spy novels until I was in faraway Brisbane, Australia feeling homesick. I turned to John le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy for its Hong Kong setting and the character of Old Craw, based on Dick Hughes, who was once our neighbour in Hong Kong.
I’d only recently discovered that one thing Dick was known for was securing an interview with double agents Burgess and Maclean following their defection to the Soviet Union. I was a bit thrilled by my sudden personal connection to these stories I loved so well.
When I told Bax I was reading the book with Uncle Dick in it he said he’d read it but it wasn’t as good as Ian Fleming’s job on him.
I was astounded. With all those James Bond novels I’d read I never noticed Uncle Dick in any of them. You Only Live Twice, featuring the easy to spot Dikko Henderson, strangely hadn’t featured on the FCC shelves. I presume because it got nicked.
Speculation persists as to whether Hughes himself turned his hand to espionage. But suspicion falls easily on to the heads of journalists because the skillsets are largely the same.
In his book Foreign Devil Hughes listed the nine precepts of espionage as devised by a Japanese spook named Ozaki. Most of them, as he pointed out, apply equally well to journalism:
- Never give the impression that you are eager to obtain news: men who are engaged in important affairs will refuse to talk to you if they suspect that your motive is to collect information.
- If you give the impression that you have more information than your prospective informant, he will give with a smile.
- Informal dinner parties are an excellent setting for the gathering of news.
- It is convenient to be a specialist of some kind. For my part, I am a specialist on Chinese questions, and have always received inquiries from all quarters. I was able to gather much data from men who came to ask me questions.
- My position as a writer for newspapers and magazines stood me in good stead.
- Because I was often asked to lecture in all parts of Japan, I had an excellent chance to learn general trends of local opinion.
- Connections with important organizations engaged in the collection of news are vital. I was affiliated with the Asahi Shimbun and later with the South Manchurian Railway.
- Above all, you must cultivate trust and confidence in you on the part of those who you are using as informants in order to be able to pump them without seeming unnatural.
- In these days of unrest, you cannot be a good intelligence man unless you yourself are a good source of information.
How many of the journalists in the bar on the floor below the reading room were taking the ‘double dollar’ is unknown but it’s fair to assume, simply via Ozaki’s precepts, that a number of them were.
How many of the associate membership were spies is possibly a more interesting question – for what better place to hang out than in a watering hole packed with journalists swapping their gossip?
For a kid who loved spy novels the growing realisation that I probably knew some spies was a glamorous notion which has never lost its allure.
The spycraft of the Cold War had its origins in World War II, a different world to the one in which we live today. If you love the gadgetry of James Bond (and who doesn’t?), there are some examples of the real thing on the website of the Boston Museum of World War II.
In its section on the Cold War there’s even an example from Hong Kong in the 1970s – a dead-letter box disguised as a can of food. You can see it here, along with some material on Ian Fleming and his work in naval intelligence which of course led to his creation of everyone’s favourite and best-dressed spy.
Just how intelligent the intelligence agencies actually are is an important question which doesn’t get asked enough.
BBC blogger Adam Curtis dared to suggest that perhaps the real state secret is that spies aren’t very good at their jobs. He presents some compelling evidence in this comprehensive and very entertaining long read:
Bugger by Adam Curtis, (with a special starring role for Nigel West’s hair).
The poisonous bubble of the espionage community he describes hasn’t gone away. It’s mutated into an even bigger monster with an insatiable appetite for data – our data, our cat pictures, our maudlin lovelorn ramblings and unwise rants against our employers.
The only recourse of the dissenting citizen seems to be to bore the unseen watchers as much as possible, a stance which has been adopted with enthusiasm across the internet.
One thing I notice about modern spycraft, as revealed by Edward Snowden, is the distinct lack of glamour. Another is the redundancy of spies and wannabe spies in the Ozaki model.
Is it a coincidence that technology has rendered the old-fashioned spy irrelevant at precisely the same time it threatens old-fashioned journalism?
As neither a spy nor, at this stage, a practising journalist I’m not well placed to answer but as James Bond updates his skills for the modern age, it’s still his Cold War incarnation that does it for me.
And when I think of the FCC in Sutherland House, it’s as a setting for spy stories, real and imagined. The inability to distinguish fact from fiction only adds to the glamour.
Spies and Journalists: Taking a look at their intersections by Murray Seeger at Harvard’s Nieman Reports.
Good night and good luck by Christopher deWolf at Maisonneuve – a delightful account of the Hong Kong FCC’s history including more detail on its association with Le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy.
Spies with the write stuff by Hamish McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald – a review of a good documentary about the Hughes family, also called You Only Live Twice.