Saturday, 25 January 2014

Spooks: what becomes of them?

Old soldiers never die, according to the old song, they just fade away.

It must be even worse for spies. What do they turn into? A near lifetime spent tracking opposition sleuths, and being counter-tracked by them, crawling through the Moscow sewers gun in hand to save the world from the most powerful and nefarious organisation it has seen (practically unbeatable by anyone other than a single man with a light Scots brogue), and then – what? A retirement bungalow in Surbiton amongst neighbours who’ve swallowed the story of a career in the Ministry of Transport, and who keep issuing invitations to unbearable bridge evenings where they lose contracts by not drawing trumps?

It’s probably just as well that the reality of a spook’s life doesn’t generally involve much defusing of timers on nuclear bombs, with seconds to spare, but far more checking through e-mails ordering take-away pizzas to find out whether they reveal a nefarious pattern (other than a dislike of anchovies and a preference for capers), or listening to phone calls for minicabs in the hope that they represent something other than a desire to get from central London to Dulwich after the last showing of Casino Royale.

In other words, it isn’t a lot more interesting than spending a career in the Ministry of Transport.

Still, there must be the elite few who live on the edge throughout their careers, and then have to fade into retirement. They fight their fights necessarily in the shadows, and then vanish into obscurity. They hide behind assumed identities and then slide into anonymity.

Take James Bond. Look at his appearance in his heyday:

James Bond in his prime and his most glamorous role
 And look what he’s become:

The same in his latter-day role of grumpy old man
Just your common or garden pensioner, isn’t he? The kind you might expect to meet in a Glasgow pub, wittering on about taxation or Scottish independence. Which is what he mostly does, these days, come to think of it.

So it’s great to come across one spy who has gone from the glamour of that profession into the profession of glamour.

Anna Chapman, née Kushchyenko, was part of a sleeper cell of Russian agents in the US. How glamorous is that? Leading a daily life based on an elaborate fiction while all the time maintaining readiness to spring into action when called on by the fatherland to do her duty. Even in an enemy, that level of dedication has to be pretty inspiring.

Anna Chapman in her role as Mata Hari
As, of course, does the ingenuity of the people sent to track her and her associates down. Step by step they unravelled the web of deception, tracked down the network of links, and identified the individuals. In June 2010, the FBI swooped. They arrested Anna and her nine associates. Within a couple of weeks, she was back in Russia, her whole devious plot foiled, and her life of glamour over.

Except that she’s just shown that it isn’t. She’s back. And not so much in work that is glamorous, as in the promotion of glamour: she’s launched her own fashion range. On her dress designs, the Guardian commented, ‘the biggest shock is they’re actually quite good.’

The Anna Chapman fashion look
I'm told it's called 'modern modesty'
Well, well, well. So one former spy hasn’t faded yet. She's gone from fashioning networks to storming the world of fashion. 

Can’t see it catching on in the shadow lands inhabited by James Bond, though. To say nothing of Smiley’s. Not sure that ‘modern modesty’ was quite their style.

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