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”.