This detailed 800 page book covers fifty years of MI6, the UK’s foreign espionage service. From relatively humble beginnings during the second world war, MI6 grew to become a leading foe of Soviet Russia and its notorious KGB. The book documents in detail issues that affected the service from the beginning and I especially was enamoured by the division of early chapters covering each of the spheres of influence where MI6 were working in the aftermath of World War 2. The book amalgamates knowledge I have of this service from other reading and often due to its sheer volume, will analyse in depth details that were previously unknown. It often is critical of the service’s failures and sometimes questionable morality in its operations. The obvious exposure of the country by moles within MI6 such as Kim Philby were very damaging to our nation. It is clear that there was much frustration during the Cold War with a failure to penetrate the Soviet system properly. Also, as the years have moved on, the critical importance of US intelligence – the CIA and NSA – to UK intelligence services – becomes paramount. Our declining empire has meant that MI6 has had to do all it can to keep our position as a global power propped up in the world. There is a very good section on the often blunderous years of operations in the Middle East, culminating in the Suez crisis which was a clear debacle. Moving into the modern era (Book concludes just before second Gulf War) the author successfully identifies future directions for the service and there is interesting coverage of MI6 whistleblower Richard Tomlinson, who has revealed his life as an operative in a controversial book. I enjoyed this large book and feel that it will be useful for reference in any further research I may do on intelligence services.
Charlie Richardson was an important figure in the London Underworld during the 1960s. The Krays often overshadow The Richardsons in terms of their notoriety as London gangsters but, as is clear from the revelations in this book, The Richardson family were certainly equally as important in the capital’s underworld. Whereas the Kray twins had fame and used to use a lot of violence, the Richardsons tended to be more business-orientated. The two families met each other and were interlinked, sometimes having nasty fallouts during their periods as rivals. Charlie Richardson begins his book back in his youth, remembering the harsh days of World War 2 and what growing up during the blitz and subsequent years of suffering under rationing etc meant to his character formation. He had an early acumen for business and started off as a scrap metal dealer, something that he built his whole operations around. His reputation as a South London hard man led him to brush shoulders with the rich and famous and very powerful. What struck me was not so much the run of the mill criminal tales but the way he was used by high society politicians and espionage networks. Ultimately, his trumped up 25 year jail sentence in 1966 due to allegedly torturing some of his debtors using an electroshocking ‘black box’ – a crime he still refutes – was probably so severe due to his involvement in a South African spy plot to bug Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Downing Street telephones. The chapter when he dodged out of his military draft ending up in his first big prison spell was interesting. Charlie Richardson was certainly a ladies man and could charm the women, moving through several before finally settling with his final partner, Reggie, on his release from jail. The businessman shows in his overseas mining ventures and it was clear that he can not be regarded as just a tough typical cockney criminal. He was a thinking man and his university studies whilst serving his jail sentence showed how he was certainly of a high intellectual ability. What strikes the reader about Charlie Richardson, in his honest and straightforward autobiographical account, is that, aside from his illicit activities and tough reputation, he was above all a family man with values. It is certain, in particular from the character testimonies bequeathed after his death, that Richardson was held in very high esteem with the respect of ordinary decent folk as well as having clearly earned his stripes as perhaps the ‘Last Gangster’ of a forgotten age. Still to this day Richardson’s name in London is held in awe and through reading this book, it is clear to me, why this should be.
Telling the remarkable story of Kim Philby, who was probably the most effective spy in history, this book reads fast and furiously, a real page-turner. The book focuses on the dramatic relationship between two friends, both rising stars in the world of British espionage, Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby. The intrigue of Philby is that he was working for the Soviet Union after being drawn to communism through his time at Cambridge University, from where a ring of five key defectors were recruited. Philby managed to infiltrate MI6 at a top level, ultimately serving as the liaison officer between US and UK secret services in Washington DC. He had access to information from leading CIA agents such as James Angleton and through his public schoolboy charm he was adept at getting colleagues to drunkenly reveal all their secrets, secrets that he discretely passed to the KGB centre in Moscow, from where he took his orders. Even after the fall of fellow Cambridge conspirators, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Philby managed to shake the tale of a particularly suspicious MI5 and continued to operate in the clandestine world of espionage. His ultimate confrontation with best friend Elliott, after the game was finally up, left the door open for him to finally defect to a relatively anonymous retirement in Moscow. He chose political ideology over loyalty to friends and the story of Kim Philby is one of ultimate treachery. In his wake he left much damage and must have throughout the Cold War caused the death of hundreds, even thousands of people who were involved in Western operations. The book tells a most exciting tale and its global spanning and most exceptional debauchery and intrigue make it a real life James Bond adventure. Certainly worth a read and proof that real life is often stranger than fiction. Five star rating.
They say that truth is often stranger than fiction and this book that I have given a 5 star rating reads very fluently and tells the real story of British secret service agents as they engage in the art of espionage across the globe. True heroes and heroines emerge as you quickly flutter through the pages. From SIS’s early war history through to the heavy espionage focus against the Soviets during the Cold War through to the closer to present military escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq, spies are always at the centre of international events, the front line defences of any country and they are especially important to Britain with the remnants of its empire. The shocks of betrayal are often harsh and blunders in espionage can prove very costly. Although the reality is often different to the popular perception of James Bond, some of the adventures and intrigue of the real espionage world are profound tales that push the human spirit to its limits. I think that the most fascinating tale of the book, one which has haunted the halls of Whitehall and Washington to this day, is that of the Soviet super-spy Kim Philby, of the Cambridge Five. Philby rose to the highest echelons of the secret service on both sides of the Atlantic at the height of the Cold War, all the time working discreetly for the Soviet Union, attracted ideologically by Communism. His deceit actively cost the lives of many and severely disrupted many critical operations. The book details not just Philby but also the defectors coming in the other direction and there are some great depictions of the tasks performed by MI6 and MI5 operatives who had to handle these defectors and also run foreign agents behind the lines. The book leaves a hunger for further research and I shall be looking carefully at the fictitious works of Graham Greene and John Le Carré, both of whose real lives feature in this book as they were both at one time secret agents. The book to me tailed off a bit after the excitement of the Cold War and the last chapter on the political blunderings of the failed Iraq War intelligence was a trifle mundane yet overall the book lived up to all expectations and was laid out very well with a very flowing narrative.
Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 by Stella Rimington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I can remember the media furore when this book was first published though it’s taken me some time to get around to reading it. Stella Rimington was certainly a woman who achieved a lot for the fairer sex, in becoming the first female head of such an important government department. Her views are quite pro-feminist throughout yet she is not overly patronising. I was expecting the book to be full of details on covert missions yet James Bond it ain’t. I think Stella depicts life in the security services in a very humble, human way. She is just a down to earth single mother, trying to raise children as a single mother, who through circumstance, happens to work for the much romanticised MI5. I think her ideas on public perception of the security services must be one-of-a-kind. Not only was she the first female head, but she was the first publicly declared head, in an age of aggressive media, in a period of massive political change (end of Cold War, rise of terrorism). Her views seem well-balanced and although some of the anecdotes are really way out of this world (the visit to Russia, for example), much of what she has to say could apply to any ambitious career woman’s life. It’s a good tale, and although I was initially disappointed with the lack of revelation, I came to grow to enjoy Stella Rimington’s insight into life and through that her telling of her life story.
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