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Fact or Fiction: A History of Espionage with Insider Owen Cameron

An interview with Insider Owen Cameron

True crime fiction and podcasts are constantly on the rise. 2018 has seen a real-life situation straight out of McMafia unfolding on the streets of a quaint English city. Stories of espionage continue to find a captive audience.

Why is it that London seems to provide these stories with a rich historical backdrop? Our Insider Owen Cameron, a former diplomat and lawyer, found some time to explain a little more about how the world of spies and espionage continues to enthral us.

Owen, there are countless cosmopolitan cities around the world. Why has London got such a strong association with the history of espionage?

It has to do with the origins of the British intelligence services, which continue to shape the character of espionage today.

When the government wanted to create an intelligence function, they couldn’t justify a budget out of government for it. They couldn’t justify an agency that doesn’t exist yet, since it didn’t have a proven track record!

As a result, in the early 20th century the British government often asked people who were already in locations of strategic importance to work undercover, almost as a side venture.

When we read these stories which have these elusive, illustrious characters – a Cairo trader, or a Budapest textiles expert, or a journalist in Belgrade – the historical explanation is that they were the British expats with the skills and connections who were able to be called upon to do the work when the need arose.

It sounds a little like Britain pioneered the idea of a secret service agency – was Britain one of the early adopters?

Britain certainly created its intelligence service well before the Americans. Indeed, it came before almost any other country, because Britain had a very real need to train people to work in different countries such as India, or Crimea or the Pacific and so on.

At that time, the United States certainly didn’t have international interests in the same way, and much of Europe was looking inwards and dealing with internal problems there. The countries we think of now as wielding considerable power certainly didn’t have the same concerns then.

Did that change as the global balance of power shifted?

Well, it wasn’t really until the Second World War that we started to see a shift. The Americans were invited by the British to come and learn from those in MI6, which is how the Central Intelligence Agency started.

So even the CIA has a strong connection to London?

Absolutely. It’s still possible to see the building in which the CIA developed, and where their operatives learned the fundamentals of the job. But – and this is really important – in the post-war years, right the way through the Cold War, London remained a reasonably safe city.

There were so many embassies here and the police force was fairly honest, so if you were wanting to conduct high-risk meetings, this really was a logical place to do it in.

Each intelligence service seems to have its own character and specific brand of mystique around it. Is there anything which makes the Security Service (more famously known as MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6, the foreign intelligence branch)  particularly British in character?

I think that their origins explain a lot. There’s a strong connection with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

In those early days, the intelligence services needed to recruit people with an established range of skills. They sought linguistic skills or familiarity with other cultures, for example. Oxbridge-educated young men were often part of established social networks and those networks of trust facilitated the growth of those agencies in the early days.

That’s where the origin of the “university shoulder tap” comes from. Candidates were tapped on the shoulder by tutors who considered them suitable for recruitment into the intelligence service.

How does London’s skyline and its architectural aesthetic help us buy into this?

Much of London west of St Paul’s Cathedral escaped the catastrophic devastation of the Blitz, and so it’s easy to suspend disbelief and visualise all these literary descriptions of covert operations and spy rings. The buildings now look as they would have then and if you know where to look you can see in the very window that Russian spies met their contacts. You can visit places where Eisenhower planned the D-Day landings. You can peer through windows where whistleblowers were interrogated.

The ability to tie historical drama to place is something that London manages so well. London has this ability to both retain its historical place markers, but also hide them in plain sight.

For me, that’s endlessly fascinating. I can be walking past a building in London – Brown’s in Mayfair is a good example – and see people just checking into the hotel completely unaware that the walls surrounding them were once the setting for an interrogation of a nuclear scientist who was feeding information to the Soviet Union.

Is this a case of fact being stranger than fiction? Some of the plots of spy novels – those by John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, and others – are fairly absurd, but is the truth just as fantastical?

The history of espionage is often the story of unknown individuals whose actions drastically alter the course of history. I think we all like to speculate what we might have done had we been in the same situation: so I think the realms of fact and fiction blend together in an endlessly beguiling way.

We all get so consumed with what we think is the permanence of the present moment. We don’t realise how transitory the present really is, and how many more of those moments have gone before and will come after. Sometimes it’s great to stop and consider the way London has this ability to keep on living and making its own history.

Can’t get enough? Join Owen on his Spy Stories Experience for a walking discovery of key locations in London’s history of espionage.