Everyday Spycraft

[blue rare]

One of the most potent aspects of art is that it can help us understand and come to terms with the darker aspects of the world and ourselves.  The mysterious power that the storyteller brings to bear is their ability to simultaneously call forth, examine, and assuage the fears that haunt us, the traumas that surround us.  I believe this is especially true of what we generally think of as genre stories.  A serial killer under the bed, the ghosts in the forest, a murderer at the party, the dirty bomb on the subway, or the unpredictable demons that lurk within us all, being human inevitably means we have cause to fear.  But confronting those fears in the transformative realm of art allows us to see them up close, to smell the breath of the monsters without being devoured.  It also, from time-to-time, enchants us with the beauty of the art: a well-turned sentence, a striking image, a vivid atmosphere, and a beautifully crafted plot.

It is partly for this experience that I have long been addicted to espionage thrillers.  As a child, I wanted to grow up to be a spy.  Even today, I haven’t ruled it out.  From the elegant international intrigue of Ian Fleming’s James Bond to the gritty post-Brexit London of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb and his Slow Horses crew, I am an avid fan of fictional depictions of this shadowy, clandestine world.  The Conversation, The Ipcress File, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are amongst my favourite films.  Tattered paperbacks of Len Deighton and John Le Carre have kept me company in the wee small hours of endless sleepless nights, as well as in countless waiting rooms and airport departure lounges.

For me, spy stories are the ultimate form of escapist entertainment, even when the storylines rub up against the harsh realities of our all too dangerous world.  It is genuinely alarming to scroll through the daily headlines and see so many stories about terrorism, political corruption, suppression of human rights, and nuclear threat.  It’s to the point where, most days, I actively avoid the new feed.  And yet, I’m blissfully transported and soothed when those sorts of things happen on the page or on the screen.

I wonder, though, if the fascination that I and others feel with regard to tales of espionage might also be about something deeper and more ineffable.  Maybe we are drawn to forms of skullduggery because we see reflections of our own behaviour there.  How many of us, for instance, can honestly claim not to live behind a false front?  How many of us can deny engaging in false flag operations, forever finding ways to lay personal blame at the doorsteps of others?  How many of us don’t learn, at some point, how it feels to have our covers blown, or what it means to go dark?

There is glamour in the world of spies, and adventure too, but also so much ugliness and cynicism.  Perhaps there are clues in these stories, a wisdom to be learned, if only in the negative: in a world of betrayal and deceit, nobody ever wins.  Perhaps, at the end of the day, the coded message is that some cold wars, especially the ones we wage against ourselves, can only be ended when we refuse to continue being double agents.  When we decide, in other words, to tear down the walls we’ve built, cast our fake identities aside, and learn to leave all this spycraft to the professionals.