Would You Like to Become a Spy, Sir? How I Failed to Become a British Spy (Twice)

My first vague contact with spies was when I was 16. This was when I was buying some Russian books in the now disappeared Collet’s Russian bookshop (the Collets were Marxists) in Museum Street London. There were two other customers in the shop, both Americans, talking in a low voice the need to spy on the Soviet Union. Unless they were acting, they were CIA spies, indiscreet, but obviously not afraid of a schoolboy overhearing them. Such were Cold War times; London was the off-duty base (Berlin being the front line; today it is Kiev) and it was full of American spies.

My second contact was at University in Oxford. Now there it was known that some lowly MI5 operative used to search the rooms of students studying Russian at Oxford and Cambridge, no doubt in the hope of recruiting them. Certainly my room was searched, but I was never approached; no doubt they decided that I was too ‘religious’ for them. This was unlike two fellow-students, now well-known, who went on to work for MI6 and the BBC (BBC foreign correspondents double their salary in this way and also get some very useful inside information).

My third contact took place last Monday. To my surprise, I was stopped at Gatwick Airport as I prepared to board my flight to the Ukraine. A pleasant man dressed as a policeman looked at my passport. Seeing visas for Russia and stamps for the Ukraine, he explained that he worked for Special Branch. Would I like to speak to him since I had some time before the flight? Having obliged me to accept his offer, he told me that they were looking for people who were going to the Ukraine. ‘We need travellers to tell us about the state of the infrastructure, the mood of the people’.

To this he then asked if I would you like me to send my details to his superiors. This was quite simply a crass and desperate attempt to recruit me as a spy. After all they now advertise for spies in the national press and offer them very low salaries. Listening to him inform me that they were very interested ‘for obvious reasons’ in the Ukraine, as in ‘a number of other countries, you understand’, I answered him that this proposal did not interest me, that I did not want my details to be passed on, and that as he could see, I am a Russian Orthodox priest. Desperate times indeed!