Wednesday 30 June 2010

Old habits die hard: Russia still following the KGB playbook?

Ironically enough, I had started reading again Len Deighton's Berlin Game, which is nothing if not full of example after example of the KGB's efforts during the Cold War to get under the skin of the Western intelligence services.

But sometimes, life trumps art. This week's revelations about the uncovering by the US of a major Russian spy ring in suburban New Jersey, London and Cyprus demonstrates that - even 20 years after the end of the Cold War - the successors to the KGB, like some reformed rock group on a global tour, can't help playing some of the old hits.

The story has everything you'd expect to find in a novel by Deighton or Le Carré. The glamorous female spy Anna Chapman who runs an international estate agency on the side; the Murphys from New Jersey, deep cover sleepers who took too literally the idea of "when in Rome..." and ended up arguing with Moscow Centre over their mortgage; spies using 'old school' techniques such as dead letter drops, invisible ink and brush pass exchanges which were once the stock in trade of the workaday spy. It all sounds too fantastic to be true.

Yet, evidence emerging from the FBI arrests suggests this was a serious attempt by the Russians to mount a 'deep cover' operation as extensive and serious as anything tried by the Russians during the height of the cold war. In a Russia anxious to be seen on the global stage as a modern, responsible global power, the old ways still have a lot of pull.

Officials of the SVR - the successor to the KGB's external operations - have clearly dusted down the tried and trusted techniques which made the Russians formidable opponents for the Western security services .... and which served as bread and butter for spy fiction writers right throughout the Cold War. But have they lost their touch? Some of the revelations coming out of the US suggest that the KGB's successors seem to have lost some of their 'spying smarts'.

This revelation has allowed journalists to dust off their cuttings books from the eighties and nineties and ride on what is becoming, surely, a wave of journalistic nostalgia for the 'good old days' when you knew exactly who the enemy were, and you knew they'd always provide good copy!

Con Coughlin in The Daily Telegraph asks, quite correctly, if the Russians know the Cold War is over? Espionage, he says, is alive and well. As he points out, we've already experienced in the UK with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko that Russia's capacity to reach far beyond Moscow in dealing with dissidents is still great. But Britain, of course, has remained active in Russia long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the arrest of MI:6 agents in Moscow - using a hollowed-out rock as a dead drop - testified. But this week's story draws the world back to a simpler time when spying was more art, then science.
"In a world where advanced satellite technology allows the world's spy masters to eavesdrop on the phone conversations of Taliban commanders, and where sophisticated computer hackers can infiltrate government databases at will, there's something rather quaint about these Russian spies' archaic methods. But the Russians have no one to blame but themselves for this embarrassing state of affairs. It is their agents, not the Americans, who have broken the cardinal law of espionage: don't get caught."
Anne McElvoy in The Evening Standard has an excellent take on this whole episode. As someone who wrote the memoirs of former Stasi chief Markus Wolf, McElvoy understands the thinking of the Eastern Bloc spies; she reminds readers that Russia - as a threat to our security - has never really gone away:
"At the height of the extremism threat in London there was a fashion for short termists [in the security services] to argue that ... what was needed was Arabic speakers and experts of the Islamic world. Of course, the more experts on that, the merrier. Foolish, though, to think Russia no longer mattered."
Spy writers around the globe will, no doubt, be firing up their PCs.  The espionage genre, just maybe, has gotten a second wind!

Watch this space.

Monday 21 June 2010

Something from the picture archive - The IPCRESS File

I've recently acquired a nice original publicity photo from Universal Studio's production of The IPCRESS File in 1965. This black & white still is instantly recognisable: it's an on-location image of Len Deighton demonstrating to Michael Caine - playing the character who became 'Harry Palmer' - the technique for making an omelette.

The omelette in the film becomes part of 'Harry's' seduction technique on his gorgeous fellow agent Jean, played by Sue Lloyd.

The anecdote associated with this image is pretty well known. In the film, the character of Palmer is show preparing the omelette, and a close-up shot is used of him breaking eggs into a bowl using only one hand. In fact - as this picture indicates - Deighton was on set for this cooking scene and it is his hand which deftly cracks the eggs into the bowl. Caine, by all accounts, couldn't do this correctly!

As the blurb on the back of the publicity photos confirms, even this early in his career as a writer Deighton was equally as well known for being a food writer and cookery expert as he was a writer of espionage thrillers: his Action Cook Book came out in 1965 (and was subsequently re-issued in 2009 by Harper Collins).

What is of course fascinating is how archaic the dissemination of publicity information and images in advance of a film's release seems to our modern eyes. In many ways, however, film publicity is still the same - get the trailer out to build anticipation, set up interviews for the stars with key media, generate maximum publicity from the premiere. What was missing back in the sixties was any notion of social networking, word of mouth, viral marketing.

Monday 14 June 2010

New Deighton article in Daily Mail - on the fascination of airships

Interesting article in Saturday's Daily Mail newspaper. It's a feature article by Len on the history of powered airship flights, and in particular, the Zeppelins. The reason behind it seems to be that it's part of the PR push around the Harper Collins re-releases of various books: in this case, Len Deighton's French Cooking for Men. The article, however, makes no mention of cooking.

The article is subtitled "a heartfelt lament" because, as Deighton describes, the experience of going up in an airship such as the Graf Zeppelin is one he'll never experience, their Golden Age coming to an end before the last war. It's clear this is a source of much regret; airships are a lifelong fascination for Deighton, as is the history of powered flight generally, and one which has been reflected in his writings. Not only did he course write Airshipwreck - a history of the - frequent - disasters which affected the world of airships - the machines features in some of his books, notably Winter.

With his usual grasp of detail, Deighton explores not only the history of the airship's brief mastery of the skies but the complexity of their construction and the narrow margin between commercial success and - as seen with catastrophes such as the explosion of the Hindenburg - failure. He nonetheless writes about the ongoing fascination of these gargantuan machines:
"Despite this obvious truth, for me, the Zeppelin still has a magic that aeroplanes cannot replace. The size is awesome, the shape gothic, a pointed arch twirled into a tracery of aluminium. They have gone forever. But there was a time when a generation of Germans built their cathedrals in the sky."
An unexpected little article, apropos of nothing.