Sunday morning on the allotments is always different to the other days of the week in that Albert, for as long as I can remember, always roars out Methodist hymns as he works. To make things even worse he pays no heed to the seasons, this morning we had a whole range of triumphal Easter renderings. My analysis has it that he has a repressed guilt complex centered around the fact that on the Sabbath he doth labour, a clear contravention of his Methodist roots. The other codgers simply believe that he is one pence short of a shilling.
Albert and I go back a long way and we share a childhood ambition, one never realised. We both grew up wanting to be not train drivers but spies. I can remember sitting in a Lyons Corner House – this is a rather old story – amongst about a dozen boys who all appeared to be reading a newspaper. Each paper had a central hole through which one could watch people entering the establishment. The idea was based on movies we had seen and was, we imagined, part and parcel of a spy’s job description.
Of course the war years were ideal for would be spies. Urged on by posters warning of listening ears, we all spied relentlessly. No success can be claimed but two of those boys have nursed the desire for the art right through to old age. Now we are both disillusioned, not merely because we never made it but becuase it seems that every spy has a business card and regularly gives TV interviews. I am reminded of this by an exclusive in today’s Sunday Telegraph.
From this we learn that Mikhail Repin, a Russian spy, was expelled after trying to gain secrets from politicians. There are, we learn, around 50 spies employed in the Russian embassy in London’s Kensington Palace Gardens. They even have a conventional organisation structure within which Mr Repin was a mere third ‘secretary’. All of the spies regularly meet officials at the House of Commons and defence and security think-tanks in Whitehall. At a barbeque last summer Repin mingled with such notables as Keith Vaz and Simon Hughes.
For an annual fee he was able to enrol for private lectures by senior military and intelligence officials plus regular drink parties and finger-food buffets. In fact he was given free access to every corner of the establishment. No one seemed surprised at the presence of a handsome young Russian who asked lots of questions and made copious notes of the answers.
Clearly spying is not what it once was and one cannot help wondering if the time has come for Mr Putin to order a headcount review. Fifty does seen over the top, particularly since everyone knows who they are and what is their spying speciality. We learn that the expelled Repin was tasked to learn more about government policies on the EU (something even the government would like to know), trade finance and the UK-US relationship. Rather than replace him, Mr Putin could consider the cheaper alternative of watching Sky News.
To those of us brought up on the works of John le Carre it is all very disappointing. In mitigation it does occur to us that the large number employed by Russia in London may reflect the fact that they imagine us to have unrevealed secrets about such things as the EU. In actual fact we ran out of secrets long ago, and are now rapidly running of ships, planes and troops too.
But maybe we missed a trick here. In all good spy novels it is the double-agents that catch the eye. We could have negotiated a job-share with Mr Putin which involved Repin moving to the Russian embassy in Paris. There must be a potential for spying there and we just might get to know what Sarkozy means when he talks darkly of teaching Cameron and his followers a lesson they won’t forget.
After all, given the modern version of spying modus operandi all “Michael ” Repin would have to do is join Sarkozy’s lap-dancing club and ask him!
ANSWERS TO YESTERDAY’S WEEKEND QUIZ; 1. Three 2. A helicopter 3. MI5 4. M People 5. Labrador 6. Gabrielle 7. The Old Curiosity Shop 8. Greece 9. On the seabed 10. Kent