‘They were afraid. Brave men are always afraid. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the willingness to face fear. They faced their fears.’
The words are familiar. Euripides rehearsed them, Seneca upheld them, Mark Twain perpetuated them. But never have they seemed as relevant as when former SOE [Special Operations Executive] agent
Noreen Riols spoke them of her former fellow agents in an auditorium of stunned Guildford Book Festival goers last Sunday afternoon. That’s the thing about spies, they’re practical, resourceful
people, not idle dreamers. Compare Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", or the much bandied ‘keep calm and carry on’ of 1939 ad infinitum, and
the grounded, self-motivating quality of Riols’ words could hardly be more patent.
Today Riols is well known as a writer (she has had ten books published worldwide) and for her frequent contributions to Woman’s Hour, the BBC World Service, and the press at large. For the earlier
part of her life, however, her career remained a secret. Fluent in French, she entered F Section of the SOE in 1942 at the age of 17 to aid the Resistance effort in occupied France. To this day she
has no idea who put her forward for the job. She is one of only six women to have attended Beaulieu, the finishing school’ for agents.
Another SOE agent who made writing his civilian occupation was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. This is interesting because a real James Bond would probably have looked down his nose at his
creator’s other life. For Bond is MI6, and as Riols said in her moving lecture, MI6 agents always viewed SOE agents as "amateur bandits", while MI5 "did everything they could to get
rid of us, but they never managed, because, you see, SOE was Churchill’s brainchild. It was his secret army, and he realised in his vision and his wisdom that this was a war which was going to be
fought like no other war before."
These men had charm. Riols recalls afternoon walks with an agent she only later learned specialised in silent killing, "I wonder, had I known his speciality, would I have gone to the forest
with him so happily, or would I have had the courage to resist his amorous advances?" She recalls, also, meeting a "handsome, charming, pleasant, efficient" man during her service.
His name was Kim Philby – the agent who had to flee England at the end of the war after being outed as a spy for the Soviet Union. "Shows what a bad lot the SOE were!" jested Keith
Jeffery when he spoke at the Festival later last Sunday evening.
Jeffery’s authorised history of MI6, which was published last year, revealed that
author Graham Greene also dabbled in intelligence work. "He had a walk-on part," Jeffery clarified, drawing on the evidence he gathered from records of Greene’s training regime for MI6.
Jeffery had access to the SIS archive and his book consequently uncovers a wealth of formerly classified material. But as readers of the book have noted, it nevertheless perpetuates much of the
mystery intrinsic to the secret service. ‘Biffy’ Dunderdale, a spy Ian Fleming befriended, may well have provided inspiration for the playboy Bond, but as Jeffery said, there’s no way of knowing
When the SOE files were finally opened in 2000 Riols kept being asked the same question, "Did you know Fifi?" She knew no one by that name. By the description the media gave of her, the
female SOE agent "who was used to detect whether men talked in their sleep", Riols suddenly had an inkling that she did, in fact, know this ‘Fifi’. She once shared a house with a
sophisticated woman who seemed to spend her life in hotels, but never seemingly on missions, "but she wasn’t a tart at all. Not in the true sense. She was a rather distinguished, educated
woman". It suddenly clicked.
It is precisely this element of secrecy and mystery, external, but especially internal, to the services, I think, that often makes spies such excellent authors. While the public may be itching to
know agents’ true identities, spies rarely know each other. A complex character like Bond surely isn’t the concentrated reflection of one man the author knew; he’s the product of the unknown,
identity-shirking agents the author met and might have thought he knew, but never could; inspiration is the experience of finding a Fifi in one’s bed. The spy-author may well write what he knows,
but as the words of Riols and Jeffery last Sunday made manifest, ‘what’ can rarely truly encompass ‘whom’.