The spies who couldn’t come in from the cold

Written By: Denis MacShane
Published: June 4, 2014 Last modified: October 25, 2016

The man who came into Hatchards, bookstore of choice for the ruling class, next to Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly and opposite the Royal Academy, didn’t look in – or out – of place. There was something of the 1960s about the floppy hair covering his ears and forehead. An open neck shirt, casual trousers and thick rimless glasses through which keenly observant eyes peer give the impression of a retired, but mentally alert, physically active, outdoors chap whose face has been burnt by wind not sun.

Like a good secret agent, no one noticed him slip into Hatchards. A retired further education teacher who had, perhaps, come to London to see an old friend and, with an hour to spare, popped into the bookshop from which the Queen, and most of the aristocracy, order their reading.

Although now owned by Waterstones, Hatchards has kept the feel of an independent bookshop, with real books – interesting new fiction and non-fiction – rather than the rows of production line product – Jeremy Clarkson, Max Hastings, John Grisham – at WH Smith.

But this was no ordinary retired FE teacher. Edward Wilson – Ted to his friends – arrived to launch one of the finest spy novels written in English so far this century. And his choice of Hatchards was no accident. When that Old Etonian Guy Burgess decamped to Moscow to drink himself to death, he lived a miserable life until the Labour MP Tom Driberg turned up and told him where to go cottaging, and a parcel of books, from Hatchards, paid for by his doting mother, was delivered each month to his apartment.

Today the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, whom Tory MPs liken to Spode in the Jeeves books (sorry, no further details on the odious Spode, just read the marvellous new Everyman edition of PG Wodehouse), bans relatives from sending books into jail. In the 1950s and 1960s, communist apparatchiks in the Soviet Union, with the approval of MI6, allowed books from Hatchards to be sent to Burgess, who would have been hanged had he returned to London. Grayling, with his ban on books for those consigned to prison for motoring offences, is made of sterner stuff.

Wilson was there to launch The Whitehall Mandarin, a brilliant and insightful account of the lies and duplicity that riddled Whitehall and British spookery in the 1950s and 1960s. It is fast-moving with elements of John Buchan in the sheer inventiveness of the story-telling. John le Carré hints that he is of the left, albeit that cautious liberal left of The Guardian which could not wait to tell its readers to vote Liberal Democrat in 2010 and has never seen a strike it could support. Ted is unashamed to wear on his sleeve a belief that trade unions, socialist ideas and the need to take on imperialism remain relevant in the 21st century.

His life story is one long pilgrimage on the left. He came from minor Southern aristocracy in Maryland which took him into the US Army which paid for his university education. He opted for a Special Force unit before being shipped out to Vietnam in the most murderous years of the war after the 1968 Tet Offensive showed the US had lost although the war continued for years, consuming blood and treasure.

Why didn’t he dodge the draft like Bill Clinton or George W Bush? Many middle- and upper-class Americans stayed at home as black and working-class whites went as cannon fodder in a pointless war much as they were later sent by Bush and Obama to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I didn’t think it was right to stay at home, plus if you were an officer there was only a one in ten chance of being hurt”, he says. Those odds would worry most of us but he did his duty earning combat medals. However, the experience turned him off war and US global policy and, after a sojourn in Canada, he went to Bremen where he learnt German and witnessed, at first hand, the frenzy over Cold War spying. The Kremlin placed an agent as Willy Brandt’s right-hand man; post-war Europe’s greatest social democrat had to leave office. In Britain, a cabal of MI5 and MI6 officers, linked to media molochs, were obsessed with proving that Labour was little more than a Soviet front. There were Labour MPs taking money from the Russians, and the Communist Party was all over the trade unions and grooming young Broad Leftists in student unions, but they were wrong.

But the spooks protected the traitors of their own class, such as Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby. The vulnerability of anyone who was homosexual and exposed to blackmail by the KGB, CIA or British security agencies added sex to the equation. All this is beautifully captured in Wilson’s earlier Cold War novels – The Envoy, The Darkling Spy and The Midnight Swimmer – and there is an element of class in his work not to be found in le Carré or the modish new spy thriller writer Charles Cumming.

After Germany, Ted Wilson arrived in Suffolk where he has spent the past 30 years. He has lost his Maryland accent, although he can do a Southern drawl or Suffolk burr with uncanny accuracy. He taught at Lowestoft College and became local head of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education where, as he cheerfully admits, he negotiated a generous early retirement package to become a full-time writer.

His hero is a working-class Suffolk grammar school boy called William Catesby; the name is important because Catesby is, arguably, the most subversive name in English history. Robert Catesby was leader of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 to kill James I and blow up Parliament; the current issue of History Today has a headline about the first Queen Elizabeth’s War on Terror and those Roman Catholics in league with France and Spain plotting against a Protestant on the throne of England.

This Catesby works at MI6 and is a fierce patriot full of contempt for the posh public schoolboys who run the show and mess things up. But Ted has a neat trick of bringing into his book real life characters – the Queen, Che Guevera, Richard Nixon and Harold Wilson in The Whitehall Mandarin – and in contrast to le Carré’s sometimes over-wordy debates, the blending of historical fact and fiction, as this left-wing American tells the story of the Cold War between 1945 and 1975, as well as the thrills and spills, makes you turn the pages fast.

He doesn’t read modern spy thrillers. “Conrad’s The Secret Agent is the best spy novel ever written and I don’t bother with the more recent ones.” It is uncanny how much he gets right about the London establishment, its habits, meeting places, fixes and grotesque mistakes. He tells his audience at Hatchards he agrees with Harold Macmillan who treated the spooks’ briefings as worthless. Having read a good number of them, when I was a Foreign Office minister, I always felt I had got all the information earlier by reading The Economist.

Wilson is published by Arcadia, one of our small but smart publishers, and does not have the kind of promotion or presence in airport book stalls of le Carré, Cumming or Stella Rimington. They are all enjoyable reads but Edward Wilson offers so much more depth and a real sense of the politics of the Cold War and how the spies turned it into their private play pen.

Yet serious geo-politics was involved. “How did the Chinese get to develop the H-bomb much faster than the Americans or Russians or Brits – unless someone gave them the details of how to build one?” he asks. “Putin’s Russia and his ugly games in Ukraine are a side show to the build-up of China as the world’s next hegemonic economic and military power. If you are sitting in MI6 at Vauxhall Bridge or the CIA at Langley, how do you get agents into the heart of China? Which MPs, journalists, and think tank researchers are on China’s direct or indirect payroll?”

The spy game never ends and to understand it the novelist’s art is more useful than that of the journalist or historian. The Bible records the work of Caleb, sent by Moses to spy on the enemies of Israel. Ted Wilson, writing out of deepest Suffolk, is a magnificent addition to the English tradition of writing about this dark side of politics and government. He deserves a big readership as fact and fiction blend into great storytelling.

About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former Europe Minister