My Life as a Spy

Some years ago BBC television showed a documentary about young National Servicemen who were selected to be trained as translators of Russian.  Their role was to listen in to radio broadcasts of the enemy, this being the Cold War, and listen out for information that would be helpful.  It was seen as a plum job in the army, who wouldn’t want a job that had perks?.  However, it was also a job that was only available to the young men who could complete the course.

BlogLIfeSpyThis book by Leslie Woodhead covers the same ground as his television programme.  He tells the story of his recruitment into the lucky band of soldiers, sailors and airmen and his time on the course.  National Service was a grim prospect for the young man from Halifax so his Russian course was a type of refuge into a world where his classmates were equally bookish.

Leslie Woodhead is a film- maker so his experiences made a good documentary.  His experiences of RAF camps play a bigger role in the book but both cover the rigours of life in the Joint Services School of linguistics.  He ends up serving in Berlin at the front line of the Cold War where the major task seemed to be listening in on Russians who were listening in on Germans.

To reach the heights of this service he had to learn Russian. Although the move to the JSSL was welcome, the pressure came from trying to stay in. There were endless tests and it was demanding to become proficient in Russian in such a short time.

As for many of his contemporaries on the course, Leslie Woodhead was left with a fascination with life on the other side of the Iron Curtain or what is now Eastern Europe.  His films have covered many subjects but included several about life behind the wall.

As well as giving his life story, this book is a short history of an enterprise of the British in the Cold War; training military personnel to speak the language of the ‘enemy’ is a little explored aspect of military history.

‘My Life as a Spy’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

This poem by Christopher Marlowe is one that sits in the mind and returns when it is needed.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Come live with me and be my love,BlogMarlowe
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

Christopher Marlowe

The Americans

I loved the first and second series of this American drama shown on television here.  I believe there is a third series with yet another on the way but the second series was particularly strong.  The conceit is a good one and one that works better over the extended format of a television series; it would be weaker as a film.


Two KGB agents live the all American life with their son and daughter in the suburbs of Washington DC.  All seems well and ‘normal’ with this family except Philip and Elizabeth carry out missions for the Soviets as instructed by their handler.  Their children know nothing of their parents real identities and neither does the neighbour who happens to be an FBI agent working in counter intelligence.  All of this is made more potent by the fact that it is the 80s and Reagan is not a conciliatory player in the Cold War.

Throughout the series we see the conflict in both parents as their children grow up as Americans.  Philip in particular finds his feelings as a father can get in the way of his mission.  Elizabeth sees her children grow up in a system she is dedicated to overthrowing and has limited room for manoeuvre in terms of combating the messages given by the American school system.  Their real ‘job’, masked by their pretend work as travel agents, is just one aspect of who these people are and that makes this a fascinating series.

There are three main strands to this series and, although they interweave, the fascination comes from the idea that no one knows where the enemy is.  We see the FBI at work, the inside of the Russian Embassy and the spies themselves.  We know how the activities of these strands affect the others even if they rarely cross paths.  Having been brought up to fear the Soviet Union, and having been taught for many years that the Russians wanted to take over, the most amazing thing is my sympathies are all with Philip and Elizabeth; that is clever television!

‘The Americans’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Wheeler on America

This documentary series from 1996 was an excellent reflection on America and how the political scene of the 60s affected what followed.  Charles Wheeler was one of the BBC’s most distinguished correspondents.  Between 1965 and 1973 he served as the BBC’s man in Washington, from where he crossed the country to report on the response of a nation to civil rights reforms, the war on poverty and the Vietnam War.  It was the episode on ‘Lyndon Johnson’s War’ that was the most powerful.  Here we saw politicians, government officials and supporters of the president grapple with questions of loyalty. In the end, there seemed to be no room for the great society reforms Johnson proposed because the war dominated everything.

Richard Goodwin,who worked with both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson put it succinctly when he said the Vietnam War would be central to understanding the 20th Century as the Civil War had been to the 19th.  Both were watersheds in the development of American society.

Wheeler is an erudite guide through a significant period in history.  The programme shows footage from the his news reports of the 60s and Wheeler reflects on his comments from that time; he stands by most, but not all, of his comments. His judgements are adjusted by time and new information.


Wheeler’s views on Nixon have stood the test to time.  When Watergate forced Nixon out of office, though, Wheeler was elsewhere in the world.  He was a journalist to trust.  His mission was to inform and make clear; quite different from modern news output which seeks heat rather than light.  His death in 2008 left a hole the BBC have yet to fill.

Spies in Disguise: Boy in Tights

This book from Kate Scott is great fun, if only because it plays on the central idea of a boy having to dress up as a girl.  In our culture, boys are highly tuned to threats to their sense of boyhood. The author uses this affront to masculinity by placing young Joe in a position where pretending to be a girl is vital to his and his family’s safety.  He discovers that his parents are spies (presumably on the side of good but actually it is never specified who they work for!) and when their cover is blown by some bad guys, they collect him from school and zoom off to a new part of the country, new names and, in Joe’s case, a new identity.


Joe is amazed to learn that his ordinary parents are, in fact, spies and not as boring as he thought they were. The good news comes with bad, though, when he discovers his new identity is Josie and not Joe.

The fun comes from the way he reacts to the clothes he has to wear.  His dad’s idea of a girl is to cover him in pink and frilly things.  When Josie befriends Sam at his new school, his view of what girls are like changes.  Sam is a better footballer than he is and she does not take kindly to stereo types.  Yet, it is the differences between boys and girls that provide the fun here.  There are some serious points behind all this jollity, though.  The way girls are perceived, especially by boys is brought up.  Why do we think all girls like pink?

Josie has a wig and tights to contend with and a school day where the boys dominate the playground with football.  When his/her parents get involved with a spy mission that involves Josie’s school, there is the perfect opportunity for the young boy to develop his own spy skills.

This is a children’s book that successfully plays on the way boys and girls see each other and treat each other.  It is a lot of fun and the fact that there are now two sequels suggests that the central idea can run and run… as long as Joe/Josie is not uncovered!

The National Portrait Gallery is a Treasure House

In London so a visit to the National Portrait Gallery was possible.  On a previous visit I had seen the statue of Edward William Lane in a corner.  As I was on a different mission on that occasion I made a mental note to look more closely next time.  This was that ‘next time’.

Edward William Lane was a Victorian Orientalist.  He studied and wrote extensively on the Egyptians and translated Arabic works.  His most famous translation was ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ which he published between 1838 and 1840, first in monthly parts and later as three volumes.  However, his version was cleaned up or censored to avoid any swooning by those early Victorians.

by Richard James Lane, plaster statue, 1829

by Richard James Lane, plaster statue, 1829

His portrait in the gallery was made by Richard James Lane and dates from 1829 when he returned to Britain from abroad. He is shown in Turkish dress since this was the attire adopted by the wealthy in Egypt.

This fascination with the exotic can also be seen in the portrait of Byron by Thomas Phillips. This dates from 1835 and shows the poet in Albanian dress.  He died in 1824 and this version of the painting is based on a sitting from 1813.

GEORGE GORDON LORD BYRON  English poet depicted here in his costume as a Greek patriot - Date: 1788-1824

GEORGE GORDON LORD BYRON English poet depicted here in his costume as a Greek patriot – Date: 1788-1824

The Fog of War

This documentary film from film maker Errol Morris is an exploration of the views of Robert McNamara on warfare and his role as Defence Secretary to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.  It is structured around 11 lessons which he passes on from the wealth of his experience.  The title comes from the idea of how difficult it is to make decisions in the time of war.

BlogFogofWarMorris makes use of archive footage, both news coverage of McNamara when he was in post and film of conflicts, to illustrate his points.  His eleven lessons had been previously outlined in a book the former Defence Secretary wrote but he keeps them general and does not apply his own lessons to specific wars.  I suppose this is to protect the notion that they apply regardless of context but the evasion of specific information on Vietnam is telling.

It is a fascinating film, McNamara comes across as the man who wanted to do the right thing.  He avoids making a judgement on his own tenure in office.  He emphasizes his role as in the service of a President, not surprising since he gave up a much more lucrative role as executive at Ford to enter the cabinet.  He is less forthcoming when invited to make a judgement on the war in Vietnam.  This is the hole in the film but it is one that speaks eloquently, as you would expect: Errol Morris is a good film maker.

‘The Fog of War’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?