I spy with my little imagination


THE magic seems to have gone from the world of international espionage. We’ve lost cigarettes, interesting hats, Venetian blinds (which once cast such flattering noirish shadows and are now démodé) and analogue technology.

Espionage equipment should feature at the very least a clackety qwerty keyboard and, ideally, some sort of rotor-and-spindle arrangement. Instead, it now involves mobile phone software. This week we learned that the Assad regime in Syria has attempted to curtail the rebellion by using Irish-made software to censor text messages. We also learned that this technology is so opaque that even its makers claim not to have been able to foresee how it might be applied. I ask you, where’s the intrigue in that? Who’s Eve Marie Saint playing in that picture?

It makes you long for the halcyon days of espionage past – farther back even than the cheesy Ian Fleming/ Cold War era, because no self-respecting woman would cast herself in an imaginary James Bond film. No, if you daydream about being an International Woman of Mystery, it will be Alfred Hitchcock-style.

You are all smooth-haired finesse, with perhaps just one interesting scar. You light your imported filterless cigarettes at the end with the brand name, so the sinister figure tailing you won’t be able to identify you by your trail of distinctive butts. You use all your fast-talking ingenuity to elude Peter Lorre, while affecting to be unpersuaded by the manful seduction techniques of Humphrey Bogart. Sigh.

Between the two worlds of people who are spies and people who are not spies lies a vast demimonde of people who wish they were spies but aren’t. It usually consists in having within you the soul of a ten-year-old boy, even when you’re decades too old and the wrong sex.

Aspiring spies find even the words associated – espionage, clandestine, quisling, cipher – to be evocative almost to the point of melancholy. We have learnt the Morse code, in preparation for a day when we might have to tap out the details of an assignation, using only an espresso cup and a teaspoon, across a crowded café in Beirut.

We also know by heart the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet, which almost never comes in handy. However, if you’re of a bullying bent, it can be used to scare off persistent offshore telemarketers, for whom names like Eithne require an Enigma decryption machine. “Ezra?,” they say. “Extra? Spell it please.”

“Echo India Tango Hotel November Echo,” you bark, in a crazed voice. The line goes dead, and with that you forgo any chance of being able to purchase the only product you will ever need, which comes with this complimentary DVD and this complete set of attachments totally free not to mention a questions-asked money-back guarantee.

Pretend spies are lingeringly fascinated by radio generally, and shortwave radio in particular, and few things excite us as much as the numbers stations – those shortwave radio stations that broadcast streams of numbers or letters thought to be aimed at spies. It is said there are some pretend spies who can’t sleep unless ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ – the interval signal broadcast from the MI6 numbers station on Cyprus – is playing on a loop.

But the life of a pretend spy can be chancy. Have you ever approached someone at a bus stop and said, “The hen flies at midnight.”? It can go either way. Sometimes people study their feet in an embarrassed way, or offer you money, or search frantically for an authority figure.

But other times you get the reply you want: “You are wrong. The hen does not fly.” And then you know your mission has been a success: the code has been understood, and you can retire to some bar somewhere, where you will blend in seamlessly over a shot of Wild Turkey straight up and a Lucky Strike. (There’s no smoking ban. There just isn’t. You can have a smoking ban in your vivid-interior-life-as-a-spy if you want, but there’s none in mine.)

It can be dangerous too. The pretend spy always suspects her car is being followed, especially on motorways, and is usually right. When you slow down and speed up, the car behind does the same! The only remedy is to make an unannounced U-turn, drive into the car park of a garda station and begin honking your horn repeatedly. The guards always know what to do.

The sad part is that despite all this studious preparation and catlike alertness, pretend spies never get asked to do any real spying. What was the point in getting a second passport, memorising the Russian alphabet and learning to say “Give me the papers! Quickly!” in 17 languages? Espionage has moved on, and the thought of learning to programme spam filters for mobile phones doesn’t have the same cachet.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 19 February 2012