THE SECRET LIFE OF A SPY
(Updated May 2012 – See Below)
Many years ago I had the unique opportunity to talk with one of the most modest, unassuming heroes I have ever met. His name was Ted Allbeury, a most remarkable man on so many levels. In World War Two – and during the Cold War that followed – he was a British intelligence officer, that’s a spy to you and me. Many years later he became world famous as the author of over 40 spy novels… gritty, compelling stories often set in the war or cold war era that he knew so well. It was in his not so secret life as an author that I met him and found out about the secret life of a spy, which as he told me, isn’t anything at all like the James Bond movies. Bond was pure fantasy. The character was too flashy, too memorable. The best intell operators, Allbeury told me, would be able to completely blend in, were easily forgetable and utterly unmemorable.
Furthermore, the true intell officer’s innate ability to really understand what makes people tick was also one of the reasons why Allbeury was such an accomplished author. His novels aren’t just reliant on tricky plots but really involve you with complex and often conflicted characters facing difficult moral dilemmas that you feel are drawn from real life. Exactly how much of his stories were fiction and how much were real life? Even decades after the war he refused to tell me, citing his signing of the Official Secrets Act as the reason. He could fictionalize his experiences, however, and that was “allowed”.
Throughout his years as an author Allbeury kept in touch with the intell community. I think a lot of them respected and admired his writing and the way he portrayed their secret lives with dignity, insight and understanding. Not an easy job given the often complex secret lives spies must necessarily lead. In some cases not only are you fooling your enemy, you’re also fooling your own side. Allbeury told me about George Blake who was a real life double agent. He even managed to fool himself at times in order to work both sides of the infamous Iron Curtain. Allbeury believed that Blake could compartmentalize his mind in such a way that when he was working for the British he truly believed he was loyal to them and when (say later that same afternoon) he was working for the KGB, he felt totally loyal to them instead. Blake did much more damage to the West than Philby and the rest combined in Allbeury’s expert opinion.
Imagine living a life like that – a secret life within your secret life. It hurts my head just thinking about it. But then, I haven’t had the necessary training. And according to Allbeury, the very training that keeps you alive as a spy also forces you into a life totally apart from those you are sworn to protect. Which has to make the intell profession one of the loneliest jobs in the world. After all, you know more about your opposite number (enemy) than anyone else and they know all about you too. No wonder Allbeury used to receive more Xmas cards from former enemies than he did from friends for years after his active service!
So – at the end of the day – what do spies get out of it all? Few get paid all that much and as I learned, all the glamour and excitement of 007 is a complete fantasy. I guess the most spies can get out of their secret lives is a kind of quiet satisfaction. I mean, Allbeury’s characters rarely had happy endings. And when they did it was a notable exception. I presume that was all based on his own real life experience.
I doubt Allbeury ever exactly found happiness himself because he’d seen too much of life’s darkest side. But I think he was still very much a Romantic. Despite the mindnumbing horrors that he’s witnessed and later fictionalized as a repeated act of catharsis, I think at heart he still wanted to believe in good and in the possibilities for good in mankind. I don’t know if that’s true of all spies still living out their secret lives in unrelenting isolation – but for their sake, and ours, I hope so.
If you’d like to know more about this truly remarkable man and his incredible life, just plug his name into your favourite search engine. (He had a whole other exciting life as a UK radio pirate back in the 1960s!)
Ted Allbeury passed away at the end of 2005 but fortunately lives on in his many excellent books. If you are drawn to spy novels with believable characters facing incredible challenges while engaged in the loneliest secret profession in the world, I think like me, you’ll become a big big fan of his work. You can still find his books on line, or at your local book store or public library.
Ironically, for a man who told me that the best spies are totally forgetable, Allbeury remains vividly in my mind as one of the most truly memorable, inspiring individuals I have ever met. And yet I have no doubt he was one of the best at his job. Go figure, huh?
If you’d like to hear more about the world of spying and espionage, why not check out the podcast of the International Spy Museum. You can find it here:
Your comments, as always, are welcome to theaudioaddict [at] hotmail [dot] com
UPDATE (May 2012)
I’ve been frequently asked where to begin reading Ted’s back catalogue. I have literally enjoyed all of his novels and can highly recommend any of them to you should you run across one in a library or used book store. I am not aware of any currently still in print but there may be a few. Unlike some of his genre contemporaries, Allbeury’s work has suffered from a great general lack of appreciation following his death. This is completely unjustified by the uniform high quality of his work. I predict some future film or TV producer will make a fortune (and a great reputation) by digging up some of Ted’s work and using them as the basis for future projects. If any of you are reading this blog, may I suggest you begin your search by looking no further than…
“Shadow of Shadows” by Ted Allbeury
by The Audio Addict
(Revised from a dead tree publication I once wrote for after I interviewed Ted. Note that there is some duplication of ideas with my post that you have just read because obviously both were based upon my one interview with him. However, what you are about to read was written in its original form years before that which you have already read above.)
If you like spy novels you will be impressed by “Shadow of Shadows”. If you’ve never read one before or if you scoff at them as kids’ stuff this work will forever change your mind.
Ted Allbeury’s personal and professional experiences in the deception-filled world of espionage provided him with the necessary background for his novels. His skillful interweaving of seeming fact and (what we assume to be) fiction is incredibly convincing as to its realism. During his literary career, decades after his active service in British Intelligence, he was still sworn to secrecy by the Official Secrets Act. As a result we’ll never really know exactly how much reality there is in his body of work. I suspect he probably lost track himself as he continued to write to the end of his life in order to exorcize his profession-inflicted psychological trauma.
A former career as a spy is no guarantee as to any literary abilities of course. Fortunately Allbeury wrote brilliantly. His development of characterization by the middle of his literary career was especially admirable; you often ended up feeling a great deal of surprisingly genuine empathy for his complex and very adult characters.
His previous novel (before “Shadow of Shadows”) was another one I thoroughly enjoyed – “The Other Side of Silence”. It is a fictionalized account of real life British spy/traitor Kim Philby’s desire to return home to the UK from Russia before his death. It is a credit to Allbeury’s writing talents that Philby emerges as a largely sympathetic character – not what you would expect in such an otherwise anti-KGB, anti-communist themed novel. Philby is portrayed as a man caught up in – and ultimately trapped by – the deceptions of his own design. A design he created in order to survive in espionage – an existence wherein nobody is to be trusted and anybody is your potential enemy.
What emerges is a portrait of the spy as an essentially lonely individual, isolated by his training and instilled survival instincts, causing him to be alienated from the very civilian public he serves. Throughout his body of work Allbeury repeatedly reprises this insightful construct – namely, that spies will always have much more in common with their fellow agents – even enemy agents – than with their non-spy neighbors next door.
In person, Allbeury was an intelligent, well-spoken silver-haired grandfatherly figure when I met him some time before his death. It was difficult to imagine him as a spy. Easier to have imagined him in any of his other post-spy careers – as a farmer, a public relations man and even an offshore pirate radio broadcaster. It was his opinion that the best spies (or agents) were always the least likely to look the part. The typical Hollywood movie “007” would be considered far too attention-seeking to actually carve out a successful career in the real world. (Real life spies are sometimes called “grey” men for obvious reasons). He also told me that the type of (male) agent most likely to survive is the person with a “feminine” intuition to warn them of potential danger. (A very solid reason why women usually make such outstanding agents too.) Not the sort of admission you’d expect to hear from a man who admitted to killing enemies in wartime with his bare hands.
But back to “Shadow of Shadows”…
In it his lead character James Lawler – an SIS agent – digs into the complex and illusion-filled past to determine the truth about another notorious (fictionalized but real life) UK spy turned traitor George Blake – this in order to learn about the connection between Blake and a homesick KGB defector, Petrov. It is a story of suspense and mystery set in a world where there are no rules and friendship and trust are rare commodities that must be painfully earned and never taken for granted.
Allbeury’s flashback technique – employed here so effectively- allows the plot to unravel organically. This provides the reader with a growing insight into the story and its characters just as the characters learn more about their circumstances and themselves in the process.
The end of the novel – which was Allbeury’s 14th – hits a surprisingly optimistic note. It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm for his lead characters having lived with them throughout the dazzlingly byzantine plot. “The Other Side of Silence” had a completely satisfying albeit totally unexpected ending. “Shadow of Shadows” also has a completely satisfying conclusion but for a different reason. I sincerely hope you will have the pleasure of discovering it for yourself one day. Thanks to it we come to fully understand that spies are not just Hollywood cardboard characters but real multi-dimensional people. And that like the rest of us civies they too deserve whatever real happiness they can survive long enough to find.
I’d like to think Allbeury made that discovery for himself in his real life too – he surely deserved it – although I remain unconvinced.
Comments (always welcome) to theaudioaddict at hotmail dot com