By John Fullerton
Usually, it’s a tap on the shoulder.
She might be serving in the armed forces. He might be at university, or already well-qualified, a linguist perhaps, or working in a technical field such as fibre optics.
The tap is followed by a meeting well away from home and workplace in secure surroundings. There’s bound to be more than one discussion involving different people as the potential recruit is carefully assessed.
I didn’t get the tap. I tapped them.
That’s definitely not supposed to happen, and the possibility that I’d made the approach deliberately – that I was a foreign intelligence provocateur (a ‘dangle’ in espionage jargon) or simply of unsound mind – must have preoccupied SIS recruiters.
Having been born in England – in a county hospital on the south coast while my father was messing about at Portland with a new, experimental mini-submarine – I was unceremoniously whisked off within weeks to South Africa, my mother being South African and my father having succeeded, at the third attempt, in resigning his commission.
The Admiralty had wanted to hang on to him because he had useful active service experience as a submariner, on top of which he spoke fluent Russian which he’d already put to good use while serving in the British occupation zone of post-war Germany.
So I grew up in apartheid South Africa, attended a whites-only Church of England boarding school and was conscripted into the whites-only 1st Infantry Division and then the commandos.
I worked on an anti-apartheid newspaper, The Cape Times, as a reporter, senior night reporter and as night news editor aged 24.
I’d grown up thinking Britain was this wonderful, almost magical place from which flowed liberty, fairness and decency. Like many ‘colonials’, I saw myself as British and wasted no time in saving up enough to buy a cheap berth on a Castle Line mailship back to this liberal Shangri-la.
So here I was, in my rather shabby London nirvana of the 1970s, unqualified, inexperienced, with no money to speak of and with an accent that didn’t quite ring true. I worked for a pittance on a weekly, then a provincial daily, then in the London office of a group of provincial papers, including the Yorkshire Post and Sheffield Telegraph, and finally as defence & diplomatic correspondent for a right-wing magazine owned by a billionaire. I joined the Territorials for fun as well as for the extra few hundred quid.
I needed leverage – some way of exploiting my situation to my advantage. The opportunity came when I befriended the outgoing head of South African military intelligence, an army general and a devout family man. I was invited to his home in Pretoria and we even attended his local church together.
He was in a distressed state. He explained that power had shifted within the Afrikaner establishment away from the military to the police, and the sinister police chief, General Hendrik van den Burgh, had set up the new Bureau of State Security or BOSS intelligence agency as it became known. The top cop declared ‘total war’ against the enemies of apartheid at home and abroad – and that meant torture, deaths in detention, ’disappearances’, letter bombs and outright assassinations.
While gathering information for articles on the topic, I mentioned it to a contact who had until recently run the UK’s Defence Intelligence Service. A navy man and an engineer who was the friend of one of my naval relatives, he was credited with having reformed and improved the service’s performance, turning it into a truly professional organisation. I had a presentiment then what would follow, and I was right.
I was invited to lunch by the vice-admiral, and he in turn introduced me to an old friend of his, Nicholas Elliott, a former SIS director, confidant of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and someone with an impressive intelligence record.
At the age of 23, Elliott had ‘turned’ a gay Abwehr or German military intelligence officer with the rank of major in Istanbul in 1943, thereby establishing a vital check on whether the Nazis had tumbled to our code-breaking successes at Bletchley.
Later Elliott had been tasked with confronting his friend and former colleague Kim Philby in Beirut with evidence of the latter’s treachery, and it was through Elliott, then long retired, that I was introduced to a serving SIS officer.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
I could have been a BOSS plant, of course. It was no surprise that in my probationary period, tasks included gathering intelligence on the South African embassy in London. What was kept in the basement under the main staircase? What kind of locks did they have on their chancery doors? Could I photograph them?
There was little doubt that SIS already had the answers, but the exercise was enjoyable. So too was a quick trip to Paris, expenses paid, to interview the ‘young Turks’ at the Quai D’Orsay on the future of the French nuclear weapons policy, tous azimuts. I wore a dark suit, carried a briefcase and bellowing a hearty ‘bonjour’, ran up the stairs before anyone could object (security was delightfully lax) and quickly surveyed the names posted on the office doors. Four interviews later, I had what I needed.
Finally, at lunch with an SIS officer roughly my own age, I was asked where I would like to go after a short training course at Fort Monckton. Would I write down the names of the five locations I‘d prefer? I think he expected me to go away and think about it, but I pulled out a pen and scribbled the names of five places on a paper napkin.
Top of my list was Peshawar, capital of what was then called Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province – right next door to newly Soviet-occupied Afghanistan – and so it was that my experiences as a ‘contract labourer’ there would provide the basis nearly 40 years later for my latest novel, Spy Game.