David Wolstencroft on London spies
Espionage abounds in the capital, but the dark world of double-crossing is giving way to a deadlier game of terror. Novelist and creator of ’Spooks‘ David Wolstencroft lifts the lid on London‘s spies
London is the spy capital of the world, and it’s no surprise. We’re a terror target and a cultural melting pot with an international financial centre that sits a stone’s throw away from some of the worst spots of urban depravation in the country. There are enough nooks, crannies, dead ends and alleyways to service all branches of the espionage industry – as well as its intersecting worlds of criminality, infidelity, blackmail and betrayal. Our city is an espionage trade fair, a veritable Birmingham NEC of covert networking opportunities, and the spooks come here in their thousands to take advantage of it. The whole world is joining in, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including bank holidays.
We watch the Russians watching us while the Swedes watch the Norwegians, the Belgians watch the Dutch, the Americans watch everyone and everyone watches the French. There’s a good reason why there are far fewer spy novels set in Milton Keynes than the capital.
There are approximately 2,100 people working at Thames House, the London headquarters of MI5, the UK Security Service. That figure is set to rise to over 3,000 in the next 18 months. Over the river at MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service HQ at Vauxhall Cross, the exact number is classified information. However, it’s ‘generally accepted to be around the same figure’ the Foreign Office told me (so, not that classified, then). In any case, that means there are over 4,000 spy staffers living and working in London as you read this. Chances are, at some point during the next year, you’ll be herded against one of them in a bus or tube carriage. One of them might even be your next-door neighbour. If you drive a taxi, it’s easier to spot them; they’re the ones who leave their laptops on the back seat.
Traditionally, all spycraft was conducted on the streets of Zone 1. The players had cloaks and daggers, they were recruited from embassies, diplomatic missions, legitimate businesses and false flag charities. This was the Great Game on the home front, a ballet of secret diplomacy amid the struggle for nationhood and primacy in the postwar era. The enemy was known, it had a flag, and to live and work in London today is to witness a city that is a palimpsest of that time. Baker Street had Sherlock Holmes, but it also had the Special Operations Executive. Curzon Street, where MI5 was based after the war, used to be the epicentre of the espionage universe; now it has a cinema. All around us are the ghosts of spy missions past. Some we know about; most, we don’t and never will. Nearly every street corner has a story to tell.
In reality, of course, while the cortex of spy strategy hummed away in anonymous-looking buildings in central London, the business end of matters was often conducted away from public view. The decision to run an agent might have been made by the pinstripes in Curzon Street, but the transactions more likely took place on a park bench near a public toilet in Rotherhithe, or in a musty safe house in North Finchley with rising damp and five years of dust on the window frames. Urban centres provided the power; urban suburbs provided the cover.
Now, in our new century, cometh the new reality. Espionage these days is more about preventing atrocity than nation against nation. Forget about poison umbrellas and dead drops in St James’s Park. The reality of modern spying is the same as the daily commute – it’s mostly mundane. The pace is tectonic rather than dramatic. Surveillance takes months, years; it’s about as sexy as statistics. Even the tragedy of the London bombings was compounded somehow by the sheer drabness of the perpetrators. They weren’t master villains living in undersea bases. They were deluded, murderous little prats living in Luton. Although recent findings indicate that one of them may have had ties to a terror cell, for most of them, the closest they got to a diplomatic reception was watching the Ferrero Rocher advert.
What this all means is that in our post 7/7 city, we’re all spies now. We are surrounded by a swirl of intrigue and treachery going on all around us, whether we’re on the way to a meeting in Mayfair, or buying a sarnie in the suburbs. The Game has evolved and continues around us. Nation is still pitted against nation, and perhaps more pertinently, corporation against corporation. Our tube carriages are full of people not meeting each other’s eyes unless they’ve got a rucksack; our streets have neighbours who’ve lived next door to each other for 30 years, hardly knowing each other’s names. Newspaper headlines scream disinformation at us. A new Cold War is brewing.
More than ever, we live in a shadow city: a place of subterfuge and intrigue, mystery and secrets. And we love it.
David Wolstencroft is the creator of ‘Spooks’ and author of ‘Contact Zero’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £6.99, available in paperback later this year).
- Add your comment to this feature