Who is a spy?

If you were to ask people to name a famous spy, I bet a popular answer would be James Bond. Not that I've run a survey or anything like that - I just feel that this is what people would say. It never ceases to amaze me that people are quite fond of spies but don't necessarily think about what they do. Not a great fan of 007 myself, I've only seen a few films and read one book by his creator Ian Fleming (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), and nothing in it or in the films suggests that he's a spy. To me he looks like an assassin. He has been given a job to do: he is to find a baddie and then eliminate him. The fact that his employer is the secret service doesn't make him a spy, and he is expected to kill. This he does, successfully, with aplomb and fireworks. We are all familiar with his frantic car chases and spectacular stunts.

I attended a conference on spy films a while ago and listened to a great number of papers. Many of them were on Bond although George Smiley and some other names featured as well. However, I felt the main focus fell on Bond, the whole Bond phenomenon. When I asked how Bond had actually acquired the status of a spy, the academics looked blank. It seemed that the question had not been asked before. There was no answer.

I have thought about spies and spying a lot, trying to understand what a spy does and is. I have avoided the word in the biography I've written, of Brian Giffey. He was a desk officer employed by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in Tallinn, London and Baghdad. 'Spy', however, is a word widely and indiscriminately used. To me it amounts to journalistic shorthand: it is a short and exciting word, particularly useful for headlines.

Another name that may come up is Kim Philby. The jury is still out whether he was a spy at all. In his case it is fascinating to observe that a number of printed sources suggest that because he betrayed his country, he was a double agent, not a spy. Mind you, it is only a suggestion. Altogether there is less interest in discussing what a spy actually does. The popular idea is that a spy leads a restless life, courts danger, lives in a haze of adrenalin, adventure and secrets.

Brian Giffey whom I researched for several years was definitely not a spy although he did lead a restless, nomadic life, knew all about danger and secrets and had his fair share of adventure. I have found him an absolutely fascinating character: colourful, unpredictable, vain, pompous, inconsistent, well-read, musical, artistic and invariably entertaining. His amorous relationships have also added colour to his complicated character. I'd gladly invite him to dinner if he were alive. I'd enjoy his company and be amused by his stories. On the other hand, he was a middle-ranking desk officer who seems not to have been involved in anything big. Or is it that we simply don't know enough? MI6 won't even name him, and why is that? He died 50 years ago, had no living relatives other than his young wife who died in 2000. Maybe he hasn't been named precisely because he was involved in something big that we don't know about. There is something strange about his dismissal, and yet he continued to work for the British government years later. And I wonder about his relationship with Philby.

Philby and the Cambridge Five are well-known but, unlike Giffey, they were traitors. Giffey by contrast was fiercely loyal to the Crown. Oh how I wish that his widow, who was 25 years younger than him, hadn't destroyed his diaries, some of them kept in foreign languages (French and Russian).

Keeping memories alive

I had an excellent day yesterday when I was shown a short film of the two men whose biographies I have written and published. Both men with their wives had arrived at a third man's house - he was instrumental in the film having been shot at all. The year was 1941, Britain was at war, and here were these three couples having a good, carefree time in a big garden not a great distance from London. They knew each other, were good friends in fact, it was summer, it was warm, they were happy and enjoying each other's company. One of them fondly patted the family dog and the dog was pleased. There is no sound to the film but I could see how easy the smiles were. They must have said pleasant things to each other; they must have amused each other.

In this day and age of sophisticated technology it is perhaps hard to comprehend how important it is to see such film. Those times are long gone, the couples filmed are long dead, our generation has all kinds of gadgets to record whatever we want. We have learnt to take it for granted that we have the right equipment. Nothing is difficult and some people may have tons of film recorded. And yet, from what I understand, we have not yet invented a foolproof system that allows the film to keep forever. And it's not only film that should be preserved. People have photographs, old letters, even old bills. Are they worth preserving? And what is worth preserving?

Yesterday made me realise once again that it is not only important to preserve but also to sort and label. I absolutely must set aside time to deal with my own old things. I'm no longer in the first flush of youth, so in my case there is also the question of what will happen to my papers and photographs when I'm gone. Will anybody know who these people are, say, in a photograph, whom I held dear? I have no film - at least that makes it easier. The sorting will no doubt be pleasurable, remind me of things I've experienced and people I've known. It is the deciding, however, that is difficult: where should the things go, how am I to label them, what should be thrown away?

I simply must remember how much pleasure the film gave me yesterday. It will give me strength to carry my plan through. It is one thing to research a person, to get to know him and enjoy his company, so to speak, but it is quite another to see him move, turn and smile. And I have just now seen the faces of the diplomat (August Torma) and the intelligence officer (Brian Giffey) break into a smile right in front of my very own eyes. Priceless.

Learning Russian

You would think that the most obvious place to learn Russian is Russia, but not so if you were an aspiring intelligence officer, keen to become a Soviet specialist at the time the Soviet Union was seen as a menace. Brian Giffey, my pin-up boy, first heard the language spoken in the Caucasus when he was 30 years old and he began to study it at the age of 40 in Riga, the capital of Latvia. At the time, in 1928, Latvia was an independent country where there were enough Russian emigrés who could teach him. Brian had also met a local mystery man, Roman, who inspired him to learn the language.
Riga is a stunning city, renowned for its Art Nouveau buildings. One can walk around mesmerised by the beauty and wealth of detail. There is quite a substantial area full of buildings that would stop you in your tracks, some of them surprisingly substantial. The more you look, the more you notice: a turret here, a human figure there.
I think that Brian enjoyed his time in Riga. And he achieved good results: with his newly-acquired Russian he was accepted by Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Posted to Tallinn in early 1929, he continued to improve his Russian and, according to his notes, he pretty much lived in Russian for the first five years in Estonia. His official title there was 'passport control officer', a cover for his intelligence work.

Sweet smell of success

I am a published author. This often makes me wonder about success. How is it to be measured? What does it really mean to be successful? How would I know? Can I judge about it myself or do I have to wait for others to tell me?

My latest book is an intelligence biography. Not many publishers would touch the genre, so I resorted to self-publication. This means that I had a certain number of paperback books printed. I'm not going to tell you how many - it doesn't really matter. For argument's sake let's say it was 500. And let us say that by now I have sold 250. Let us also say that it has been great fun so far and I've had a lot of pleasure from the process. However, the signs are not good: the sales are tailing off. I have come to realise that I may not be able to sell the remaining books. So this means that I have not been successful - I have 250 books to sell and there's no queue of people waiting to buy.

Suppose I had ordered a printrun of 250 instead? Then all the books would be sold, I would be happy and my project would qualify as a success. And so it may have been my mistake to decide on 500. Did I overestimate? But 500 didn't seem too many at the time. Even now I think there must be some 250 people somewhere who would like to read my book, if only they knew of its existence and if only I knew how to reach them.

I have thought of hiring a publicist. That would involve further cost, but that doesn't worry me half as much as the thought that with the publicist's help I might easily sell the remaining 250 and what would happen then? Suppose the publicist advises me to print more books, since the sales are going well. He carefully avoids committing himself to a figure when I ask how many I should order. He cannot guarantee anything, he says. And so, let us say I order another 500. And suppose that again I manage to sell 250 easily but get stuck with the remaining 250. What then? The present situation will be repeated and I will lose sleep. Again.

So how many copies will bring success? And altogether, what is success? At what point is a writer at peace? What is a sure sign of success? I have pondered about the three for £10 offers in bookshops. Is this something to aim for? It seems illogical. Reduced price can't be a sign of success - quite the opposite. So I have written to a handful of traditionally published authors who in my estimation seem successful. Not the top names, just moderately successful ones, who might even be interested in my quest. I have been polite and just asked for confirmation that the author is successful and that success does feel good. Not one has replied.

So how am I going to find out about success? I may never achieve it but I'd quite like to know what it is. Or do all authors, however popular, worry about their sales, wondering whether they could sell another 1,000 or how many more thousands to go before a million?


These pictures were taken during the launch of Portrait of a Secret Agent at Slothrop’s, a bookshop in Tallinn, Estonia.

The Caledonian Club

These pictures were taken during the launch of Portrait of a Secret Agent at The Caledonian Club in London on December 3rd 2014.

Do you believe in coincidence?

I do. So many things in my life, and so many discoveries in my research, have happened by coincidence. I have been researching for the past nine years, on and off, and have grown to love it, particularly the long days in the archives. It is the drudgery of sifting through piles and piles of documents combined with the unbelievable excitement of finding something that seems like a nugget of pure gold. This is how I’d describe finding Brian Giffey, an altogether fascinating character who turned out to be a British intelligence officer.

I came across Brian’s name when I was doing my PhD on an Estonian diplomat, August Torma, who found himself trapped when the Soviet occupation of his country in 1940 robbed him of his position and income in London. Torma had been the Estonian ambassador to the Court of St James's since 1934; he was a man in his prime. Brian was someone the ambassador knew, as was clear from a note I found in the archive: Brian and Anni were expected at a party. There was nothing else - no surname, no leads to follow. The pressure of my PhD made me persevere elsewhere: I needed to establish Torma’s circle of friends. Torma had corresponded extensively and I made it my business to look up all the people, as far as possible, who had written to him. One of them was Ants Oras, an Estonian literary critic and translator, who became a post-war refugee first in Sweden, then in England, and ended up as a university lecturer in Florida. He and Torma corresponded over a number of years. By the time of my research Estonia had regained its lost independence and a biography of Oras had been published. In it I hoped to find details of his relationship with Torma, but my hopes were quickly dashed. However, as I was leafing through the book, my eye fell on the page about Oras’s siblings. It turned out he had a sister called Johanna, more commonly known as Anni, who had married a British subject, Brian Giffey. So here were my Anni and Brian - an amazing coincidence!

For a while I didn’t dare to believe that they were the right couple - it seemed too good to be true. But then a book of memoirs confirmed what I had assumed. A conversation recorded in the book suggested that the Oras family was strange: Ants was a nationalist, his sister Anni had married a British agent, but one of her cousins, Paul, was a communist and admiral in the Soviet navy. At that point I knew I was on the right track; I also knew that it would be exciting to research this family. The two in-laws, Brian Giffey and Paul Oras, never met, so when I finally came to write Brian’s story, Paul Oras occupied barely a page. Brian Giffey, however, is a character large and interesting enough to fill a book: he served as a British intelligence officer in Tallinn, London and Baghdad. The biography is entitled the “Portrait of a Secret Agent who Knew Kim Philby”.

Would you like to read my author interview? http://bit.ly/2lp3zll