J.G. Ballard said ‘the suburbs are far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine’, and echoing that sentiment the Cold War espionage thriller produced a discreet subset: the suburban spy drama. Notable examples by John le Carré (Call for the Dead, 1961, filmed memorably as The Deadly Affair, 1966) and Len Deighton (The Ipcress File, 1962, later a career defining role for Michael Caine, with the crucial action taking place on one of London’s peripheral industrial estates) explored a compelling terrain.
Both feature quiet, neat streets where everyone minds their own business. Adjoining these are the arterial roads and desolate silences of ‘light industrial’ inter-war offices and factories. An environment so tidy, uniform and well-kept that it was almost avant-garde. And amidst this landscape, the anonymous characters. The completely normal middle-aged couple, with no children, who speak in very slightly accented but otherwise perfect English. Their opaque background, with curiosity expressed about what they did in the war. Eventually the authorities close in, discreetly quizzing selected locals (typically the milkman, or similar) whilst noting the odd callers and the tiny details that give them away. Finally, behind the net curtains, the spare bedroom is found packed with radio equipment and code books.
The reader is shown a world where, despite apparent conformism, subversion of the worst kind lurks, a quiet, deliberate and treacherous transgression of the behaviour and loyalties that suburban mores were supposed to perpetuate. So, in some ways Ballard was right, albeit not, one imagines, for the reasons he envisaged, which tended to revolve around repressed sexuality, class and sudden, brutal violence.
Le Carré‘s debut novel may well have been inspired by the Krogers (Morris and Lona Cohen), supposed antique book dealers, but in reality key players in the Soviet team that plundered the UK’s naval secrets. Based in a bungalow in Ruislip, they were part of the same network that included George Blake (a discreet flat in Bickley, and regular micro-film drop-offs with his embassy contact on Bromley South station). The Communist Party of Great Britain had form here too: in the 1930s they operated a wireless transmitter from Wimbledon.
With a career that exceeded that of both Blake and the Krogers, Melita Norwood was an excellent exemplar of this trend, unmasked late in the day to some good-humoured joshing as ‘Stalin’s Granny’ or ‘the spy who came in from the Co-Op’.
Mum was a suffragette and her father, Peter Sirnis, had arrived in the UK from Tsarist Russia after the failed revolution of 1906. Like many Latvians, or Letts as they were then known, he was a loyal Bolshevik (and also a friend of Kropotkin) and for many years he published the Southern Worker and Labour and Socialist Journal, which regularly rushed into print the speeches of Lenin and Trotsky. The family lived in Pokesdown (a respectable suburb of Bournemouth), and after graduating from Southampton University, their daughter got a job as secretary to the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. This gave her access to papers prepared for research committees and contractors, many of which she copied to Russian intelligence, having been a Party member and NKVD agent since 1936.
In 1937 she moved with her husband to a newly built semi-detached house in Bexleyheath. It was an impeccable choice. The area was being liberally plastered with mock-Tudor housing – ironically, the location had been pioneered by William Morris, doyen of English faux-mediaeval socialists – and she remained in situ for sixty-five years. It was originally selected by her and her husband (a research chemist and fellow CPGB activist) due to its handy proximity to Woolwich Arsenal, where a Soviet spy ring led by Percy Glading (home address ‘a salubrious part of south Harrow’) operated. She survived undetected when Glading and his colleagues were rounded up in 1938.
Between 1940 and 1949 (when the USSR exploded its own atomic bomb), she was an important figure in the Soviet Union’s Military Overseas Network. Because of her father’s background she was highly valued, more so it would seem than the coterie of gay public-school boys, for whom, whatever their ideological purity, Stalin et al had little time.
The UK’s security services stumbled across her in 1965 as part of the post-Kim Philby unravelling of the Cambridge network. But by then her activities were some distance in the past, and no action was taken. She retired and became during the 1970s and 80s quite well known in ‘left’ political circles in south-east London: a firm supporter of CND, visiting Greenham Common, making jam for sale at Labour Party fund-raisers and distributing thirty-two copies of the Morning Star each day to friends locally (surely a giveaway). A lot of folk knew her and liked her, and, within the social circles she frequented, she was indistinguishable from a great many retired, left-of-centre political activists generally.
She was finally named after Vasili Mitrokhin defected in 1992 with his sensational cache of papers (published by Christopher Andrew from 1999) at which point the massed ranks of the press descended on Bexleyheath where – drinking tea from her Che Guevara mug, and tending her vegetable garden – she explained her actions:
I did what I did, not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, a good education and a health service.
It was good, perhaps, to know that a desire for lower bus and train fares could be offered in mitigation when facing charges of assisting world revolution. The juxtaposition of her remarks with the political views and the stage from which they were expounded (‘a quiet life in a leafy street’, noted the local paper) was striking.
We now have a fictionalised film of her life, Red Joan, directed by Trevor Nunn. The reviews have been so-so and in truth it lacks the panache of Nunn’s best work in the theatre, particularly Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr jousting about nuclear physics and morality in 1941) and Rock and Roll (Tom Stoppard’s interplay between Czech political dissent and 1960s hippy culture).
The script is okay, even if, as with many films now, it has at least one notable howler, attributing to Clement Attlee circa 1941 the comment about ‘having one of our own with a bloody Union Jack on it’ that was actually made in 1945 by Ernest Bevin. Some liberties are taken. Dad and his backdrop is airbrushed out, and the academic action in the 1930s is switched to Cambridge University (sexy, and allowing the appearance of intellectual upper-class left-wingers) rather than Southampton (drab, unfashionable and red-brick). Judi Dench stars, in national treasure mode.
But one wonders why it has been produced, and what market it is pitched at. Surely not, unlike most UK period pieces, the US. (It’s no Downton Abbey). What is the point being made here? In the finale, Dench, speaking to the press on her door-step in Bexleyheath as a twinkly eyed old lady, proclaims – paraphrasing Norwood – that she didn’t do it for money (true) being driven instead by a desire for world peace. The message is that this trumps everything else: legitimate national security concerns, loyalty to one’s colleagues, the conditions of her employment, etc.
The choice of subject matter and the dramatic conclusion lead one to think that, although coming across as a costume drama for the Corbyn generation, this is another example of the UK looking again at political issues that dominated the recent past, and reviewing its position. Scandal (film 1989, based on the 1987 book Honey Trap by Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril) is similar, pushing the undeniable argument that Stephen Ward was scapegoated to prevent higher social and political figures being tarnished by the Profumo affair.
Another example might be how, in recent years, the notion that the Wilson governments were subject to undermining by the UK intelligence services, mainly at the behest of the US, has moved from ‘conspiracy theory’ to general acceptance.
Given the appearance of Red Joan, are we now considering what our real role is in the world? That being a junior and not very important partner of the US is demeaning, ludicrous and expensive, and that preventing (in the 1940s) the US having sole ownership of weapons of mass destruction outweighed, then, a lot of other considerations? In which case, was it really treason, and, what do we mean by ‘treason’ anyway? Who decides? If so, the making and release of the film may mark the point at which these views shifted from fringe pacifist/ultra-left to mainstream. It’s an interesting thought.
With the Soviet era now receding, the chances of there being other Norwood or Blake figures to unmask seems unlikely, though the possibility that MI5 and MI6 files contain names yet to be released, or are being withheld, is a distinct possibility. And a few may have escaped detection completely, fading away into their suburban obscurity.
Perhaps London remains a city of spies. Today, the unregulated buy-to-let sector, and the canyons of new build flats (sold off-plan to overseas buyers, some of doubtful provenance) offer a wide range of locations within which those seeking a hiding place whilst collecting information might hide. Who will emerge from this territory in the future, and what will their motives and stories be?
also from Simon Matthews: