Secret service memoirs are invariably rubbished. When Robert Anderson's Lighter Side of My Official Life appeared in 1910 - Anderson had headed a counter-Fenian agency - Winston Churchill lambasted it in the House of Commons for its 'gross boastfulness': 'It is written, if I may say so, in the style of "How Bill Adams Won the Battle of Waterloo". The writer has been so anxious to show how important he was, how invariably he was right, and how much more he could tell if only his mouth was not what he was pleased to call closed.' Peter Wright's Spycatcher (1987) got the same kind of treatment; even Stella Rimington rubbishes it. Nobody loved him, whether they accepted his charges - a Russian mole in MI5, the 'Wilson plot' - or not. This is understandable. Ministers (like Churchill) resent the betrayal of trust; outsiders are bound to be sceptical. Spies are liars by vocation, certainly if they're involved in disinformation, as Rimington admits she was. They have the same urge to justify themselves as any of us, and less chance of being found out: we can't check up on them. Espionage is a funny business which may attract odd people, and even if they're not odd, it's likely to turn them - in the view of Harold Macmillan - 'either weird or mad'. There are so many examples in modern British history where covert derring-do denied at the time comes to be acknowledged thirty years later, when it is safe, as to make it reasonable to suspend judgment on more recent events. This is a cross that people like Stella Rimington have to bear.
LRB 18 October 2001 | PDF Download