By John Fullerton
It’s a fair question and I get asked it all the time.
The characters of Spy Game are fictional. Brodick’s case officer, for example, the former army officer named Hermitage, is based very roughly on the late and great headmaster of my boarding school. He had immensely bushy and ginger eyebrows, which he has no further use for and which I took the liberty of donating to the fictional Colonel Hermitage, formerly of the Royal Irish Hussars.
The real headmaster, a former Royal Marine, also had a booming parade ground voice and a distinctive way of distributing books on entry to the classoom. He hurled them like frisbees at great speed at our heads, with interesting if chaotic results. He gave me a key to his private library and introduced me to to writers I’d never heard of, such as the playwright and poet Christopher Fry, author of The Lady’s Not for Burning.
Years later, long after school, I bumped into the retired head in the street for the last time. ‘Ah,’ he growled, somehow managing to speak with his pipe clenched between his teeth, ’Fullerton. My favourite English student.’ It was probably the best compliment I’ve had then or since. He was a great teacher, and particularly inspiring on Shakespeare.
Marion, Brodick’s cruelly deserted wife, is named after my maternal grandmother. Mungoo is an amalgam of Afghans I knew. So too is Mirwais. I did have an Afghan friend who had indeed been a professor at one time and who was murdered by Islamic extremists some time after I left the area. The hardline guerrilla chief Burhanuddin, darling of Pakistani military intelligence, was real enough, though I’ve changed his name and he did indeed add me to his long kill list of hateful westerners. It was quite an honour.
And the primary character, Brodick – well, he’s me, I suppose, but a personality that is a lot more naive, sensitive, lonely and generally afraid than I hope I ever was. I wasn’t lonely; I relished being on my own, and I was never alone socially for very long anyway. Brodick has to be afraid and lonesome or there wouldn’t be any kind of emotional arc or whatever it’s called. And yes, he’s a loyal servant of empire, as I was, not knowing then any better.
So what’s real, you ask?
The setting is real. Dean’s Hotel, which boasted electric lights and fans and was laid out on more than seven acres of garden and lawn, is no more, having been demolished to make way for a shopping mall, or so I’m told. Crossing the Afghan frontier with the guerrillas on foot is pretty realistic. Even the amorous gay assistant cook is real, but I didn’t really pull the trigger of the AK-47 in an effort to blow his brains out, though I was sorely tempted.
The events inside Afghanistan, from the scary to the absurd, are real too, from hiding in the kerez or subterranean irrigation channel to floundering around at night on the muddy perimeter of Kandahar airport with Soviet gunships landing and taking off.
It’s true that I did interview Soviet prisoners of war, but I did not meet or interview the senior Soviet official who was kidnapped in Kabul. His name has been changed. In reality he was indeed elderly, poor fellow, and he was ill and he did die. That much is real.
The biggest ‘lie’ in Spy Game is the SIS instruction to kill an Afghan refugee and Brodick’s best mate. That’s entirely fictional. My handlers didn’t ask or tell me to kill anyone at all. Which brings me to the way in which I have portrayed Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officers working under diplomatic cover.
They were much more sensible, sympathetic and aware than my fictional depiction of them, and that’s for the simple reason that I needed to raise the level of tension in Spy Game by inserting a degree of mutual misunderstanding and even enmity into the relationship – something that never existed in real life all those years ago.
When my contract was over, I was invited to stay at the home of some American friends in Pakistan and there, with all the usual bourgeois expat comforts, I wrote my first book, a slim 60,000 word guide called The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. I bashed it out on my Olivetti portable in six weeks. What I thought remarkable was that my former SIS employers made no attempt to discover what I was writing and made no attempt to police the project or try to influence my views. They didn’t censor anything, nor did they try to. And I certainly did have strong opinions which may, or may not, have coincided with official UK policy. I was left to it and they didn’t ask for a typescript – though in the event, the Foreign Office bought 7,000 copies of the later Methuen edition – so it can’t have been all bad. Or maybe it was!
The final conversations with my handlers that came towards the end of my stint as recorded in Spy Game were accurate if memory serves me well. I was indeed told that I would, as a professional intelligence officer in SIS, probably chafe under the bureaucratic restrictions of a peacetime service, and I was reminded that while there might be a war going on just across the frontier, we – meaning the UK – were not at war. And yes, they did also say I had a tendency to rush off and do things I thought needed doing without waiting for authorisation.
The message being that I wasn’t really suitable material for an SIS career.
They were right about that, too.