Spies like us

You can probably count on the fingers of one hand (or fewer) the number of spies to have hailed from coastal Suffolk, but in fiction anything is possible – hence a secret agent from Lowestoft. Steven Russell enjoys a new Cold War thriller

AS odd interview moments go, I’ll never trump colleague Andrew Clarke, who in a small office at the Ipswich Regent theatre was “treated” to a personal and impromptu rendition of Nessun Dorma by larger-than-life actor Brian Blessed. It lasted several high-decibel minutes. Today, Edward Wilson suddenly clicks a button and the room is filled with the cheerful and mellifluous national anthem of the former East Germany – Auferstanden aus Ruinen I think it’s called: Risen from Ruins. “They do have the nicest national anthem,” says author Edward. “I have it as a sort of aural screensaver . . .”

We’re talking about the Deutsche Demokratische Republik because his new thriller is set partly in pre-wall Berlin, when the city was an “espionage swamp”. Edward knew well the atmosphere of the old Soviet satellite, having lived in Germany at one stage and spent time with friends in the east.

In his tale The Darkling Spy a Whitehall intelligence mandarin learns that a friend-turned-traitor known as Butterfly is poised to defect to the Americans, taking knowledge that could destroy reputations and generally wreak havoc. London simply has to trap this Butterfly before he flutters across the Atlantic and his secrets destroy the British establishment.

Which is where spy William Catesby comes in handy. His reputation in the Secret Intelligence Service isn’t high, “because he’s a bit of a loudmouth, a left-winger, and they think it would be a good idea to send him to Germany as a fake defector. Because of his political views, he’d have credibility. His mission is to reach this fellow on the eastern side and ‘get’ him”.


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Underpinning this fictional story is the real-life intrigue of the Cambridge spy ring that passed information to the Soviet Union during the Second World War and into the 1950s.

“Probably the biggest thing I do in this novel is explain the (Kim) Philby situation,” says Edward, who lives near Halesworth. “I think I’m the first one to do it in fiction.

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“Philby was absolutely guilty. He was rumbled in ’49. Everyone knew he was The Third Man (with Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess). So why didn’t they arrest him? I can’t prove it, but it seems very likely he wasn’t arrested, he wasn’t prosecuted, because they ‘doubled’ him back – they probably stood on parts of his anatomy that he was very fond of using! – and used him as a conduit for disinformation sent to Moscow.

“When he finally defected – and the Secret Intelligence Service almost booked his ticket to Moscow for him! – the Soviet Union never really trusted him. They used him for training entry-grade spies. Even if they knew he was ‘doubled back’, they couldn’t admit it because of the loss of face.

“If all that happened, and I’m not the only writer who thinks it did, it really shows the British intelligence service at its most cunning.”

Edward says the main theme of The Darkling Spy – both a sequel and a “simultane-quel” to 2008’s The Envoy, as the timescales of the two stories overlap – is the extremely vulnerable situation of Britain during the Cold War of the late 1950s. Some American generals considered it a sacrificial pawn, and a clique of British spies walked a tightrope between loyalty and treason to protect the nation’s interests.

He’s fascinated by that era of mutual suspicion, “when Britain was in the most acute danger”. For years the Soviet Union did not have the ability to hit the United States from afar, he says. “That’s why they put the missiles into Cuba. (US president) Kennedy lied through his teeth when he talked about ‘the missile gap’. When he was elected, the Soviet Union had only four intercontinental ballistic missiles. Well, they had three, because one blew up on the launch pad and it killed all the scientists.” America had much more hardware.

“The dramatic situation of Britain was if the United States generals had decided to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union, the revenging bombs would have landed largely on East Anglia and London.”

And we were vulnerable because we had American bases on our soil?

“Absolutely.

“It was a very difficult game to play and I think the people who probably knew most about it were the spy community. I suppose what I try to do in these books is show what was happening beneath the surface.”

The Envoy was about spy Kit Fournier, CIA bureau chief in London, and had a real Suffolk flavour – provided largely by the 1950s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment testing facility on Orfordness. The local angle for the second book of an intended trilogy comes in the shape of its main character. William Catesby is a born and bred, working class, Lowestoft lad from an impoverished family on Roman Hill who proves a talented linguist thanks to his Belgian mother teaching him Flemish and French.

Catesby attends Denes Grammar, moves on to Cambridge, and then to a senior rank in the Secret Intelligence Service.

“In this way, the book is an homage to a town where I worked for more than 20 years,” says Edward, who lectured at Lowestoft College from 1976 to 1997 and then taught at Denes and Kirkley high schools as well as Roman Hill, Kirkley and Foxborough middles.

The Darkling Spy is also a love story, with the action taking place in East Germany, Hungary during the 1956 revolution, and of course East Anglia. Catesby turns out to be a bit of a hero, “though a bit depressed in the end. It’s sort of similar, I think, to le Carr�’s best spy novel, which also involved a fake defector, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold . . . but in no way derivative!”

The author recognises there’s significant public interest today in the Cold War era. “The BBC (radio) is doing the retrospective on the Smiley novels; there’s Tom Rob Smith with Child 44 and The Secret Speech. I think the interesting thing about writing about the Cold War now is we have far more information than le Carr� did; and because we’ve got all this stuff that’s only recently come into the public domain, we can play around.”

The more we learn, the more we realise things weren’t quite as they seemed 60 or 70 years ago.

“It’s a killer statistic that 28 million Soviet citizens died fighting Fascism (in the Second World War) – nearly one in six of the population. Britain suffered very badly, but it was 1% of the population who died. The Americans had one out of 400. The Cold War was fought by people who had survived the siege of Leningrad; they’d survived Stalingrad.

“Of course, the Soviet Union was brutal and heavy-handed, but, because of that history, in many ways it’s amazing they were as sane as they were, in the face of that loss.

“Of course, once Stalin had died, it was a different show. Khrushchev, when he gave his secret speech in ’56, it would have been like David Cameron going to the Conservative conference and denouncing Thatcher and all her works.” (At a closed meeting of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev attacked aspects of the late dictator’s approach and attempted to swing official policy back towards the ideals of Lenin.)

“I don’t think, often, the general public differentiate between the post-Stalin Soviet Union and the pre-Stalin one,” says Edward.

The concluding part of his trilogy will be The Midnight Swimmer, set during the Cuban missile crisis and again featuring Catesby and Suffolk. He’s about 100 pages in.

After that he plans to tidy up a book largely finished and based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “It’s about a Suffolk which is sort of like the Mary Celeste. Sycorax (the witch) and Caliban (her son) arrive and there are no people. There are mouldy cups of tea half drunk; unlocked bicycles lying around. I think I might not say why it’s been abandoned . . . Then Prospero, Ariel and Miranda arrive. Prospero is a deposed South American president! It’s sort of like a survivalists’ story set in beautiful Suffolk – unfortunately, without the people of Suffolk!”

n The Darkling Spy is published by Arcadia Books at �11.99

An American abroad

Edward Wilson is in his early 60s and hails from Baltimore

He studied international relations on a US Army scholarship and later served as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam

He was decorated for his role in rescuing wounded soldiers from a minefield

After leaving the Army he gave up US nationality to become a British citizen

He has also lived and worked in Germany and France

He’s spent only six days in 37 years back in America

Ever tempted to go for longer? “Not really. I lived in the United States for 21 years, have lived in Suffolk for 36 years, so I feel more of a Suffolk person”

Of the election of Barack Obama he says: “It shows America at its best. I was a bit tearful, actually, when I heard The New York Times published an article saying ‘After 150 years the American Civil War is finally ended’

“I’m a great fan of Obama, but because of the complexities of the American system I don’t think he will be able to carry out all his good intentions – and also (because of) the power of the huge money interests”

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