Monday, 1 June 2009

The Spies Who Snubbed Me

Way back in the fifties and sixties, when I was smaller than I am now and you could buy individual Hovis loaves for around sixpence, it was fashionable for the Security Services to recruit their staff from public schools and universities. I often wondered how the selection process worked. Did a member of HMG just sidle up to some floppy-haired undergrad, hand him a prospectus that had been produced using an ancient 'Roneo' copier, and say, 'If you're interested, old son, give us a ring.'? Was that how it worked? No glossy brochure, no website with interactive content, no email address to contact? The student probably didn't even have access to his own personal phone; you can imagine him in the lobby of Jesus College, two old pennies in hand, waiting for the public phone to become free. 'Hello...is that MI5? It's about the spying job...'

I was both a public schoolboy and a government servant, but, sad to report, no-one ever tried to recruit me into the probably terribly bureaucratic world of spying. Now that I have my Open University degree, I suppose I could be in the frame. But the OU, despite the high regard in which it is held, is unlikely to attract the attention of MI5's upper echelons ('Get Hale at any cost...yes, the one who wrote the dissertation on Roman dinner etiquette!) I'm probably more likely to be recruited by some charity wanting a late middle-aged Chugger who is marginally less irritating than the young, failed-TGI Friday wannabees who currently accost one in the street. But I digress. As per usual.

How did spying work way back when? We're so used to having the internet, mobile communications, video and audio surveillance that it's a wonder how spies were able to cope with their job. How could you tail a target vehicle if you didn't have a vehicle yourself and no tracker to slip unobtrusively under the car? What if you needed to phone in a sighting of a terrorist and there wasn't a phone box handy? It must have been hell. In modern spying a suspect can be tracked by satellites with cameras powerful enough to read his number plate from space; then, you just hoped that your binoculars were good enough to clock the index. If you could get any binoculars out of stores, that is. In my juvenile mind I like to think that modern spying is as sophisticated as it appears in 24, where Jack Bauer is able somehow to tap into the schematics of an apartment block, and activate the security cameras to see the baddies holed up in some washroom. And then call in a helicopter gunship to 'take them out' by being all shouty down his cellphone.

Taking someone out by calling for a helicopter gunship wasn't something that ever came to mind when I worked for HMG back in the mid 70s. On my desk I had a blotter, a mug with a couple of pens in it, and an old sit-up-and-beg phone, that actually made a ringing sound when it...er...rang. My desk had two drawers; that's because I was an Executive Officer and was only entitled to a desk with two drawers. A Higher Executive Officer was in receipt of a desk with four drawers - two each side - and the next rank up got something nice in polished wood. Our desks were uncluttered by computers. Everything had to be written out longhand and then forwarded to the typing pool in a brown folder. It would come back a couple of days later, riddled with errors that could easily have been spotted if the typist had actually bothered to read over what she (and it was always a she) had just typed. I once visited the typing pool. You couldn't actually go in; you just handed your work through a little hatch in the wall and then went away. I like to think that the ladies in the typing pool were a kind of 70s equivalent of galley slaves, tapping away to the drum beat of the Hortator or Pausarius. Either that, or the poor girls were so dangerous that they were kept under lock and key for our safety. But there was a little light relief. On the wall outside the room was a much photocopied picture of lots of little cartoon men falling about laughing, bearing the legend, 'You want it when?'

I spent three and a half years with HMG, each day more exciting than the last, especially when a new consignment of paperclips was due. But my work colleagues were a quirky and marvellous bunch and, were I gifted with the power to write a sitcom, I'm sure I could do something with Arthritic Near-Pensioner, Welsh Lady with Glass Eye, Cheeky Barrow-Boy Type, Snooty Colonel's Daughter, and Glamour Puss with Sulty Voice and Loads of Make Up...

Which reminds me. I asked Mrs. H if she had any ideas what I could write about in my next post. She thought for a moment, and then said, 'make up'.

So I got there in the end.

10 comments:

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

I wonder when you wrote and posted this? It says 01.30 and already you're at the bottom of my reading list but it hasn't been on view for most of the day!

However, I digress! The typing pool was about as shadowy as those secret squirrel types. I could tell you some stories, let me tell you! Don't you think that the spies must have been so much more resourceful in the good old days when they had to rely on their wits rather than a panoply of gizmos? Perhaps they all had a gentleman's agreement not to let on that they knew that they knew that they knew?!

chris hale said...

Derrick! Good to hear from you.

I really don't understand the quirky times my machine puts on these posts!

I agree that lack of equipment made for greater resourcefulness; I always feel really clever when I'm able to solve some DIY problem by cobbling together odds and ends from my shed...

willow said...

OMG, those old electric 70s typewriters with the carbon paper. It's like a bad dream! But at least by the late 70s we had the magical Liquid Paper to correct errors. And we did wear lots of makeup back then.

Comedy Goddess said...

How did spying worked way back when? The same way it happens now: The Mommy Network. We still do that. I knew about the huge bailouts before Barrack.

chris hale said...

Willow - I gather some people used Liquid Paper as makeup!

CG - But of course! Mum (or Mom) knows all, sees all!

Madame DeFarge said...

Sounds like my early days, even although I celebrate my 19th anniversary as a CS tomorrow (a propos of nothing). As an EO, I wasn't allowed to make phone calls about my work. I had to refer everything to the HEO. I still remember the unabatd delight of being allowed to make phone calls. I had to go on a special course.

chris hale said...

MDF - I hesitate to say 'Happy Anniversary'. Not allowed to use the phone? Blimey! Who was your boss? Joseph Stalin? They were happy for me to use the telephone, but my boss insisted I answer with the words 'Hale speaking' rather than 'hello'! How terribly formal and not me at all.

mo.stoneskin said...

The sad truth is that sliced bread - Hovis in particular - is no longer any good. They used to speak of the "best thing since sliced bread", I now talk of the "worst thing since sliced bread", it is incredibly expensive while being ultra dry.

chris hale said...

Mo - Yes; when they say 'Hovis; as good today as it's always been' I always make a point of saying, 'No it isn't!' Curiously, I never tire of this little routine, although I fear Mrs. H may be of a different opinion.

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