The spy and his conscience

The Poison Tide is now in paperback. To mark its publication – and in the hope that it will make me as rich as Croesus – here is an article I wrote for SHOTS online magazine about the battle between the spy and his or her conscience. 

‘I have something good I can offer you’, the Director of Naval Intelligence promised Commander Mansfield Cumming on the 10th of August 1909; ‘come and see me, I will tell you what it is’.   The ‘something good’ was the role of chief of Britain’s new Secret Service, the organisation we know today as MI 6.

Cumming’s orders were to build a network of spies capable of offering advance warning of an attack on Britain – particularly from Germany.  It was a tall order for a fifty year old naval officer serving in the backwater of harbour defence.  Cumming was stepping into the shadows, into a world of stories – of lies – of disguises, of traitors and thieves, prostitutes and ‘professional spies’.   Within just ‘a few months of this work’, he admitted to his diary, he had been subtly changed by a canker of doubt and ‘suspicion that grows upon one’.

The hero of my story, The Poison Tide is changed too.  A university educated engineer, a pioneer of the submarine service, Sebastian Wolff is the product of a good Christian family – a spy who loves his mother.  But ten years serving his country in the field, imprisonment, torture, ‘suspicion’ are turning him into someone he hates.  The Kaiser marches his armies into Belgium, the world is at war, and Wolff is required to risk his life undercover in Germany again.  Charged with tracking down a traitor, his mission takes him from Berlin to New York and inside a German spy network plotting to wreak havoc on British ships and war supplies.  In pursuit of his country’s enemies he is required once more to become someone else, to forget Lieutenant Wolff, his past, his values.  The slate must be clean.  He must be a man without principle or belief beyond his patriotic duty, and for his country he will lie and cheat and kill – even betray those he loves.

There are two kinds of spies, Commander Cumming observed, ‘blackguards’ who work only for money and can’t be relied upon, and ‘patriots’ who can.  The master spy, Hector Bywater was one of his ‘patriots’.  After the First World War Bywater wrote a bitter memoir of his time as an agent. He had been brought into contact with the ‘strongest emotions of the human soul:  Love, hate, fear, revenge, greed’, and it left a mark he could ‘never hope to escape’.  Survivors, Bywater observed, would never ‘dream of taking up intelligence work again, under any consideration whatever.  The romantic associations of Secret Service exist largely in the imagination of writers’.

Perhaps Bywater had John Buchan in mind.  What use would Cumming have had for Richard Hannay?  The hero of the 39 Steps andGreenmantle emerges from his scrapes with honour intact, always the officer and gentleman.  And James Bond’s licence to kill seems to leave him with no emotional scars.  They are most extraordinary men, untouched, either free from feelings of guilt or untroubled by conscience – barely men at all.

‘We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren’t like that really’, a fictional spy of a very different sort observes in John le Carré’s classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  But on active service – ‘out in the cold’ – the spy learns ‘to live without sympathy’ because a spy with too much of a conscience is a danger to himself and to others.  ‘Don’t get cold feet’, insisted a tradecraft manual written for Cumming’s new Secret Service in 1918.  In le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the fictional head of the Service offers this piece of advice to George Smiley; ‘I like you to have doubts.  It tells me where you stand.  But don’t make a cult of them or you’ll be a bore’ – and he might have added, ‘useless as a spy’.  ‘He had a conscience once’, a spy observes in le Carré’s The Looking Glass War; ‘He’s like all of us.  He’s learnt to live without it’.

I wanted to write the story of a spy – one of Cumming’s ‘patriots’ – who can’t learn to live without his conscience, and struggles to do what others deem to be his duty.  Hundreds of young men are dying on the Western Front every day.  Wolff obeys orders, because they obey.  His experience of war is very different because he knows the name of his enemy; he is obliged to look him in the eye and smile, and ‘without sympathy’ betray him even as he calls him ‘friend’.  All is to be accomplished in the name of duty, for a ‘greater good’ – for victory, but for this there a personal price to pay.

Only at the point of death does Alex Leamas, the hero of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, rediscover ‘sympathy’ and the man he used to be.  But Wolff is tortured by his life in the shade, because he never quite loses right and wrong.  He lives with his conscience always – George Smiley’s ‘doubts’ – the sense that ‘duty’ isn’t enough to exculpate.  He is an ordinary hero, a man like you and me, struggling with doubt, his past, the ‘thou shalt not’ values of childhood; struggling and failing, yet trying to hold on to a sense of who he is and what he believes; the vague sense too that a better world should emerge from the sacrifice of the war.  Most of what he feels is the stuff of our ordinary lives, only drawn into sharper focus by his service – the choices he makes tested in extraordinary times.

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