A gat in the hand means the world by the tail


THE film rights to this Chris Andrews Twitter story have probably already been sold. It’s got everything – a powerful political family, a sting, a love interest (well, a wife, but we can rewrite that), an unexpected twist and, best of all, lots of Pelican Briefy close-ups of someone at a computer screen going tap-tap-tap-frown-tap-tap-tap, without which no thriller is complete.

Andrews was exposed as the anonymous tweeter @brianformerff, who posted some 300 tweets critical of his own party. That wasn’t where he went wrong, though. After all, you can’t throw a stone nowadays without hitting a critic of Fianna Fáil, which is why stone-throwing has gone so much out of favour. No, he was exposed because @brianformerff reportedly made derogatory remarks about the wife of a man who turned out – imagine that – to be a keen amateur detective.

I say Steve Buscemi for the character of the mysterious gumshoe who rumbled Andrews after hunting him down for months. Admittedly, Buscemi is no Humphrey Bogart, but then no one is any more; that’s what’s wrong with the world today.

Here’s a brief reminder of what he did – if this fantastic story is to be believed, at least. Having suspected for some time that Andrews was responsible for the antagonistic Twitter character, he collected every tweet issued from that account. He then deduced – using powers that you would not understand, Watson – that they had all come from a computer, rather than a mobile phone, for example.

This is where it starts to get even more weirdly obsessive. He set up his own web redirection server, so that if his prey clicked a given link, it would reveal the computer’s IP address. It turned out to be an internet café in Rathmines – not the most promising setting from a cinematography point of view, I’ll grant you, but we can change it in the final script.

The last stage of his plan involved covert photography and video surveillance of Chris Andrews tap-tap-tapping in the café, and it’s at this point, I think, that we’re going to have to give our private dick a little more flesh.

Let’s make him wear a fedora, so that we can enjoy the rare opportunity of quoting Sam Spade: “Say, what’s on your mind, besides your hat?” Throw in an unfiltered cigarette, together with the consequent hacking (forgive the techie pun) cough, and a certain fragrance, from spending all night in his car on Rathmines Road, piddling into a bottle. Let’s add a dog, as well – a Jack Russell – sitting in the passenger seat, panting, staring, understanding.

At the front desk of the internet café in Rathmines is one of Dashiell Hammett’s lanky brunettes with a wicked jaw. She is chewing gum and whistling some popular number.

“You do know how to whistle, don’t you?” she challenges him. “You just put your lips together and blow.” She knows that’s not a quote from a Dashiell Hammett story but heck, we live in an untidy age. If DJs can call themselves musicians, then shop girls can surely mash up their literary references for art’s sake.

“I’m not here to whistle,” he says, charmlessly. “I’m here to secretly spy on the other patrons.” And when he splits an infinitive, God damn it, it stays split. And when he sets his sights on a disgruntled Fianna Fáiler, God damn it, he gets his man.

If the man would go to these lengths because someone belonging to him was insulted on social media, where insults fly about like a drunk’s spittle, then what other immense feats of vengeance is he capable of? It’s practically Shakespearian (setting up a redirection server to track someone’s IP address being the modern equivalent of pouring hemlock in their ear).

Pity the children who make the mistake of ringing his doorbell and running away. They open their Spongebob Squarepants lunchboxes the next day to find scrawled notes clipped from newspapers saying, ‘i kNow wot u Did’.

What if you pranged his car in a car park and drove off without leaving a note? You’d end up with two or three of those flying camera drones circling your patio.

“What are those, darling?”

“Beats me. They’re probably something to do with the barbecue. I told you you should read the instructions on the barbecue.”

It just goes to show what you can achieve if you have enough time, energy and money to indulge your crazy. You can despatch a device to see what Mars looks like up close; you can establish Wikileaks; you can uncover which member of a Fianna Fail dynasty is peevishly dissing his former associates; you can even put together a film script exploiting every detective cliché you know.

 Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 19th August 2012

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