Chapter 1 - Why Shouldn't It Be Me? by A.J. Hall
Second Wilson Minister in Spy Claims screamed the headline. Being no more awake than was reasonable for that time on a Sunday morning, I barely paused in my zombie-like stagger towards the chiller cabinet. Presumably the headline referred to the memoirs of a former MI5 man, who attributed his less-than-stellar career to his belief that his boss, his boss’s boss and everyone in his chain of command up to and including the then Prime Minister were in the pay of the KGB. Rather than writing him off as a fruitbat, the Government was currently wasting vast sums of taxpayers’ money trying to suppress his book, and the newspapers were, in turn, boosting it sky high. Not being interested in someone’s whiskery old workplace grudges, even ones involving Russian spies, I hadn’t paid the kerfuffle much attention.
I put myself in possession of a pint of milk and, as an afterthought, a Kit-Kat, and wandered over to the counter. Mr Shafiq looked up from his perusal of the Sunday Times. I prepared myself for an interrogation on the current state of my love life and matrimonial prospects (I swear Mum delegates) and on how things were going at work and when I could expect to be promoted, but instead he tapped down on the open paper with one stubby forefinger and said, in a tone of horror, “Bernadette, you know this man?”
“I — er — what — who?”
He swivelled the Sunday Times through 180 degrees, and pointed at the group of photos in the centre of the extract from the MI5 man’s memoirs. My fourteen-year old self, wearing a pair of disreputable cut-off denim shorts and the sort of halter-neck top one thinks is terribly daring at that sort of age, stared back at me from the midst of a group of kids of similar age, leaning against the guardrails of a yacht which was tied up against some sunlit quayside (it was L’Aber Wrac’h, in Brittany, as a matter of fact.) From the yacht’s helm a tall, rangy figure wearing a pirate hat and carrying a soft-toy parrot on his shoulder beamed paternally over us all.
My jaw dropped. “Johnny Thorpe! He’s accusing Johnny of being in the pay of the Kremlin? Is the man completely cuckoo?”
I don’t know if Mr Shafiq was more impressed I was on first name terms with an ex-Cabinet Minister or appalled that I might have gone sailing with a Soviet mole. I also wasn’t sure what he made of the halter-neck — I was certainly expecting an earful from Mum, once someone got round to sending the clipping to her (we were not a Sunday Times family, in the general way.)
He thrust the paper into my hands, refused to take payment for the milk and Kit-Kat, and shooed me off home, with the admonition to have a good strong cup of tea, with plenty of sugar, for shock.
I wasn’t in shock, precisely, but I had certainly been woken up as thoroughly as if dumped into cold, deep water (which, come to think of it, had happened to me about three minutes after that photograph had been taken, something which hadn’t impressed Johnny at all, he drawing a firm line between ordinary teenage horseplay and unseamanlike idiocy.)
My flatmate was away, attending a niece’s christening in Folkestone. I made myself a large mug of cafe-au-lait, dug my address book out of the depths of my handbag, and phoned the unseamanlike idiot in question.
Maggie answered within two rings. The moment she heard my voice, the first words out of her mouth were, “So you’ve seen the Sunday Times?”
“Of course I’ve seen the bloody Sunday Times. The question is, what are we planning to do about it?”
“Shaz rang me half an hour ago from Totnes station. Entmoot at the Archduke’s, 14.30. Ring everyone else you know, see who can make it.”
With which instruction, she hung up. I began thumbing through my address book.
There were eight people already assembled in the winebar under the Waterloo arches when I struggled in from the Hungerford Bridge. Four others came in over the next fifteen minutes. I didn’t recognise most of them; they must have passed through the Golden Enterprise Trust after my time. Shaz had gone on to become a mate and then a Trust skipper. She helped out at the Trust’s Holcombe Ducis base in the sailing season, and survived on bar work and odd jobs round Farrant once the boats were laid up for the winter. As a result, she knew a lot more Ents than I did.
Maggie rushed up to me and flung her arms round me. “Bernie, have you heard the latest? He’s going to be on the BBC tomorrow evening, and they’re wheeling out Laurie Odell to interview him. Again.”
I made a sucking, whistling sound, rather like the one a marine engineer makes just before telling you your joint de culasse is completement foutu. The BBC weren’t just bringing up the heavy artillery: they were hand painting Johnny’s name on the shells.
Famously, in 1963 Odell and Thorpe had clashed on-screen. Against all odds, a snippet of the interview had survived, and been included in a BBC2 programme on Johnny and the Trust, broadcast a couple of years ago, which Mum taped it for me. Even given shocking production values, static camera angles and the gratingly precious RP accents of the period, it was amazing.
In the red corner, Johnny Thorpe MP: recently arrived in Westminster courtesy of an unexpected bye-election, already making waves with his work on a cross-party committee on National Security and a trenchant weekly column in the Daily Mirror. Back then, he’d had the raw, rangy good looks fashionable at the time. Think of the young Ian McKellen or Alan Bates. In the blue corner, Laurie Odell: not yet the waspish contrarian twenty-five years and a well-publicised swim across the Tiber would make him, but a well-regarded historian and tough interviewer.
People talk about chemistry between interviewer and subject. Odell and Thorpe were water and potassium.
In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain summed up the tension between those who serve in war and those born a year or so too late. “What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?” “I made the world safe for Beverly Nichols, my son.”
That undercurrent flavoured the early skirmishes between Odell, a Dunkirk veteran with the limp to prove it, and Thorpe, whose maiden speech about bullying in National Service training camps (on which he spoke from personal experience) caused near-apoplexy in the Telegraph and Express. Things really hotted up when Thorpe mentioned Guy Burgess.
“Burgess was Eton and Cambridge. Ideal for their purposes. He’d have been kicked out of his job for his drinking and indiscretions if he’d been to a grammar school,” Thorpe observed. “Not that he’d been allowed into the F.O. in the first place if he’d been to a grammar school, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Is shoddy journalese garnished with class envy really the best you can come up with?” Odell dripped disdain.
“Class envy? Class reality, rather. Even before Burgess, the investigative services knew Soviet recruitment agents were targetting men of his class expressly for their connections. Every possible klaxon was ringing by Philby’s time. But the Establishment still refused to put one of their own on the spot.”
“The ‘Establishment’?” Odell didn’t bother to hide the sneer. “Such a convenient scapegoat. The Soviet Union targetted — targets — plenty of Labour councillors and trades union organisers, or is that something you’d rather we didn’t talk about?”
Johnny threw up his hands. “That’s all people like you ever say. ‘What about Communist infiltration of Labour?’ Every. single. time. First cast the beam out of thine own eye , they told me in Sunday School. Burgess. Maclean. Philby. Do you seriously think they’re the only ones who’ve spent years sitting pretty at the heart of the Establishment, having their sins overlooked, no-one asking awkward questions, because they went to the right schools, and wore the right sort of clothes, and drank in the right clubs?”
Those old-fashioned studio lights must have been tropical. Odell, somehow, had managed to remain band-box fresh, almost dapper beneath them. By contrast, the pitiless camera showed dark pools of sweat under Johnny’s armpits, unfortunately emphasied when he made a great awkward sawing motion with one arm.
“We must cut out this cancer. As a wise man said to me one night when we were nursing my father’s cabin cruiser along the Devon coast on half a pint of petrol and a good bit of hope: The only way we’ll really put the Great into Britain is by ditching all these idiotic notions of an ‘officer class’. I’ve never heard a truer word.”
The clip ended there, so we never got to see Odell’s response. The bit about ditching the idea of an officer class was Johnny all over. As I’d later found, the big difference between the Trust and other sail training organisations, apart from letting girls in on equal terms from the outset, was that he absolutely couldn’t stand what he called, “that fake Naval guff.” He once threatened to keel haul a skipper who’d come in on loan from one of the other organisations and who expected us to respond with “Aye, aye, sir,” and salute whenever he told us to do something, and I’m not wholly convinced he was joking. It was the main reason none of us believed for a second he’d have spied for the Soviet Union. They’d have been far too authoritarian. I also suspected it was why he hadn’t actually lasted long as a Cabinet Minister.
Shaz hammered on the table to get our attention. “We’ve got to get someone into the audience — as many someones as possible. With prepared questions, in case they take them from the floor. Who do we know at the BBC?”
At which point, everyone pulled out their address books and started making suggestions and comparing notes. Despite the circumstances, Johnny would have been proud of us. One of the points he always made when asked what the Trust was supposed to achieve was that rich kids aren’t just rich because their parents have money, they’re rich because their parents have connections. Hence the newsletters and the Entmoots, and periodic invitations to tea on the House of Commons terrace (before Johnny decided not to stand again in ‘83) and the general expectation that if there was a crewing opportunity or anything else coming up which might suit an Ent, each of us made damn sure all the Ents knew about it.
As proof we’d learnt our lesson, by 19.30 the next day Shaz, Maggie and I were in the studio audience for the upcoming interview. If Johnny were being sent out to execution by BBC, at least he would have friends in the crowd at the gallows foot.
The on-air light flicked from red to green.
“Sir Jonathan: Why shouldn’t it be you?” Laurie Odell smiled for the benefit of the camera, but the frisson which ran round the studio was palpable. Why shouldn’t it be you? was the Trust slogan. Using it to open this particular interview was a bit like the officer commanding a firing squad telling Baden-Powell to “Be prepared” as he faced them.
Johnny managed to look both bored and unamused. “That’s an odd way to describe treason. It’s not something that just happens to people, like measles.”
“No; you mistake me. I wasn’t talking about the allegations, not at present. Why shouldn’t it be you? That’s the phrase everyone associates with you. According to your autobiography, it came to you on a night fishing trip, off the Devon coast?”
“If that’s what I said, then that’s what happened.” Johnny sounded suspicious, and no wonder. Having refreshed my memory of the tape of the 1963 interview the previous day, I had an inkling what was coming.
Odell’s voice was silky. “When we met last on camera, as I recall, you expressed enthusiasm for abolishing the ‘officer class’.”
Shaz’s firm grasp on my arm prevented me from standing up in my seat and yelling, “You lying toad!”
Johnny blinked. “I hardly think —”
Odell raised his hand. “Please. Let me finish. You said you’d come to that conclusion on the advice of —”
He looked down at his notes. It was pure theatre. “Ah yes. a wise man who appears to have shared his views on the social system with you When we were nursing my father’s cabin cruiser along the Devon coast on half a pint of petrol and a good bit of hope. That night fishing trip seems to have been pretty influential in your life, one way and another, wouldn’t you say?”
My stomach muscles clenched. Johnny, though, had spent twenty years in Parliament. Dealing with hostile questions had been his bread and butter.
“Changed my life completely,” he admitted cheerfully. “But what’s your point? If you’re suggesting the KGB recruited me that evening, then you’ve never been off a rocky lee shore with a dicey engine. I doubt either of us would have found time to say more to Lenin’s ghost if he’d appeared on board at that very moment than, ‘Comrade, would you mind holding this spanner?’”
Laughter rippled through the audience, and I felt audience sympathy start to move in Johnny’s favour.
“No-o,” Odell conceded, letting the vowel trail tantalisingly onto the studio air, as if, but for the law of libel, he’d have preferred to say, Not then. “But the ‘wise man’ you referred to was Robert Anquetil, yes?”
Pavel stirred. Over the heads of four rows of people, I saw Johnny’s expression change. My stomach roiled. He had not expected that. Nevertheless, he came back swinging.
“It was indeed. A good sailor and a finer man.” He dropped his voice a fraction. “Your researchers, of course, will have told you Robbie’s fishing smack was the original Golden Enterprise, the boat I named the Trust after?”
From Odell’s expression they certainly had; equally certainly, he’d been planning to ambush Johnny with his knowledge, not the other way round. Johnny followed up before he could regroup.
“You’re right in one way; that was a very crowded evening, if not for the reasons you think. Earlier on, like a complete fool, I’d brought my father’s boat into its mooring far too fast, overshot, slammed into Robbie’s boat, and made a hell of a mess of his port quarter and his rudder. He’d have been perfectly entitled to bawl me out as an incompetent oaf and never speak to me again, except for insurance purposes. Instead, he came aboard the Fair Wind and we took her out that same night, just me and him. I thought I’d done a fair bit of boating — that’s why I’d been such a cocky little so-and-so earlier — but he showed me exactly where I’d been going wrong, and didn’t patronise me, either. I owe him a lot.”
He sat back in his chair, as if inviting Odell to bring it on. Odell obliged.
“While there’s no reason you should have known it at the time, you are, of course, now aware that Anquetil worked for Naval intelligence?”
“He won a DSO and bar during the war. A lot of people might have considered that was enough service for several lifetimes, and vanished into a cushy job in the City. Or in the BBC.” Johnny paused for a moment. “That wasn’t Robbie’s way. Of course he continued to serve.”
“But serve whom?” The crack about the BBC had gone home; there was steel in Odell’s voice now. “I’ve been shown evidence Anquetil was recruited by Moscow as a sleeper agent either shortly before or just after the War ended —”
About three seats to my left, a middle-aged woman with severely cropped grey-blonde hair jerked upright, as if given an electric shock. She had the wiry build of someone who either played a lot of golf or did a lot of rock-climbing, and the deep, leathery tan of someone who did whatever it was under a hotter sun than England can produce. Her eyes were fixed on the stage. Her hands clamped on the handles of the plain, good leather bag in her lap, as if without something to cling to she might punch Odell’s lights out. As things were going, I might volunteer to hold her coat.
Johnny cut across Odell before he could say anything more. “Evidence? Do you mean the Levchenko papers? Good God, man, is that where all this is coming from? I met Levchenko, which I’ll bet you never did. The man was a drunk and a con-artist, and in need of a cushy berth, and willing to spread any slime going if he thought it might secure one.”
He drew a deep breath, and swivelled in his chair, so he was looking right into Odell’s eyes, not into the camera. “We both know Anquetil was badly treated. Then, when Levchenko popped up, everyone who’d played a part in mistreating him got to salve their conscience by thinking that he’d been a wrong’un all along. Anquetil was dead by then, so couldn’t defend himself. Pull yourself together. Are we really arguing about this?”
You could have heard a pin drop in the studio.
Odell cleared his throat. “There’s a little thing called ‘free will’ that you’re forgetting. However unjustly he may have been treated, it was Anquetil’s own choices that laid him open to it. And those have nothing to do with whether or not he was a traitor. Which the Levchenko papers say he was.”
Johnny snorted. “Rubbish. His country betrayed Anquetil, not the other way round. The Establishment closed ranks against him, as completely as they’d have closed around him if he had been one of their own. It was a rotten business and I won’t stay silent. I suppose not staying silent is what leads to this b—”
He cut the sentence short. I slid a glance sideways to the grey-haired woman. Her colour was high and her lips moved, soundlessly. I wasn’t sure if she was praying, egging Johnny on or directing curses down on Odell’s head. The last was probably the most likely. I could see her as the head of a coven: the sort other witches referred to as “a very tight ship.”
Odell took a sip of water. His next question came right out of the blue.
“Sir Jonathan, what can you tell us about the Talisman incident?”
The grey-haired woman leant forward in her seat, tense and poised like a heron about to strike at an eel. Again: no wonder.
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of sailing in the West Country knows of the Talisman incident. Anywhere from Salcombe to Fowey, some old geezer with a beard will bob up and claim to have been in St Anne’s Oldport when they brought in the wreckage, and start nattering on about sea-serpents or submarines or trained attack whales.
Short version: the Talisman was a small yacht owned by the Foleys, a posh local family sufficiently rich and peculiar to have built their own lighthouse. The youngest son of the house took her out singlehanded one Easter a year or so after the War. Fog rolled in. Boat and skipper vanished. A bit of planking and a lifebelt bearing the boat’s name washed up a day or so later.
Fog can catch anyone out, and rocks and currents make that a horrible bit of coast. No-one batted an eyebrow about the tragedy, until the skipper’s father, being, as mentioned, both posh and peculiar, went off on one. His son was a Lieutenant R.N, a former Commando and an instructor at Dartmouth, so no way on Earth would he have accidentally parked himself on a rock in a fog like lesser mortals. It didn’t help that there’d been a big Naval exercise in the area that particular Easter weekend. Sir Charles, who had a lot of clout, got a Question raised in the House. I gather he thought his son had been sunk by misdirected live fire from one of Her Majesty’s ships and that the Navy were covering up their incompetence.
At which point, the authorities bungled things somehow. One endless night when we were moored off Hugh Town, the wind was getting up and I could swear I could hear the anchor dragging, Pavel distracted us all from thoughts of imminent death by talking on and on about it. He studied politics at the LSE, where the Cold War was his special subject. Whatever was said in Parliament not only hadn’t satisfied Sir Charles, it set a few dozen hares running in completely different directions. Spies were top of the theories for Talisman’s sinking, but aliens, top-secret experimental sonar waves and tentacled horrors from the deep all made their appearance.
“I’m sorry? Why raise the Talisman now? ” Johnny tried to sound as baffled as the rest of us, but it wasn’t a first-class job. Odell spotted that at once.
“Timing, to begin with. You began your National Service in the summer of 1949, immediately after taking your Higher Certificate. You were posted abroad after training, so you could hardly have been sailing off the Devon coast during the next eighteen months or so. Robert Anquetil was in no position to sail with you after you were demobbed. Therefore, the only feasible time for this night sail off the Devon coast must have been Easter weekend, 1949. Coincidentally, that was the weekend the Talisman sank. And the harbour logs of St Anne’s Oldport show your father’s boat, M.V. Fair Wind, was berthed there from April 10 to April 22 in that year. So, Sir Jonathan?”
Shaz grabbed my arm so hard I nearly yelped. Pavel glowered at the stage. Johnny had never, ever, dropped a word of knowing anything special about the Talisman, still less about being in St Anne’s Oldport when she sank. If he were innocent, I could think of no reason why he shouldn’t have done so. For one fleeting moment, I wondered if he had fooled us all, and was as guilty as sin. Then I glanced again at the grey-haired woman, and felt relief flood back. There was nothing in her expression but outrage, and it was all aimed at Odell. Her faith rekindled mine.
“I’m afraid it’s not in my power to talk about the Talisman incident,” Johnny said.
I don’t think I was the only one to gasp out loud.
“I’m sorry?” Odell seemed genuinely disconcerted. Johnny lifted his chin.
“I said, I’m afraid it’s not in my power to talk about the Talisman incident. You’re familiar with my career. You know my involvement with defence and security matters during my time at Westminster. That gave me access to a great deal of privileged and sensitive material. Until it’s released to the Public Records Office, I afraid I can’t talk about any of it.”
He gave a broad, honest, sea-dog grin, straight to camera. “So, Mr Odell, if you continue to press me about Talisman, we could both be looking at the block on Tower Hill. Much as I admire Sir Walter Ralegh, that’s one thing about him I’d greatly prefer not to imitate.”
The audience released their pent-up tension in a gale of laughter. Once again, I slid my eyes sideways to the grey-haired woman. She was about the only one not laughing. Her mouth was set in a tight, unhappy line.
Odell blinked. “In that case, we’ll have to leave that matter there. Suppose we turn to the specific allegations raised against you?”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll help you out all I can. But there’s one thing I have to say first.” He turned once more to the camera. “As you might imagine, I and my lawyers have been going through through this with a fine-tooth comb for days. I’ve also had some high-level discussions in Whitehall. Not only do I absolutely, uncategorically reject these ridiculous smears — I won’t dignify them by calling them accusations — but I can confirm that the only reason I have not yet issued a writ for libel is the risk that airing this matter in court might itself jeopardise national security.”
He turned back to Odell. “So, bearing that in mind, ask me what you want.”
Odell did his best, but it was generally agreed Johnny had taken the honours of the night.
“Hi! Johnny — Johnny Thorpe — Sir Jonathan, could I have a word?”
It was the grey-haired woman from the studio. She caught up with us just as Johnny was packing Shaz into a taxi on the Aldwych, handing the driver a tenner and exhorting him to do his best to make sure she caught the last train from Paddington.
Pavel and I stood aside a little, but close enough to step in on the offchance she was going to whip a knife out of her plain, good bag and shout, “So perish all traitors!” I don’t normally expect random women to turn into Charlotte Corday, you understand, but there was something white and set about her expression which gave a hint of someone screwing their courage to some sticking point or other.
Johnny’s face changed; I suspected he also recognised that expression. That, or he thought she was a journalist.
“Excuse me, do I know you?”
“Hardly — that is, we have met, but I wouldn’t expect you to recognise me after forty-odd years. Even though it was a rather — ah — memorable weekend.”
A brief pause. Then the penny, visibily, dropped.
“Good grief. You’re a Marlow. That is, I mean —”
His glance dropped to her left hand. Mine followed. It was bare of rings.
She grimaced, slightly. “Yes. I’m Nick. And the surname’s still Marlow. That is — I went back to it. After.”
“Oh, I see. I’m so sorry.” He flushed. Notwithstanding his public career (including the bits of it we had never suspected until tonight) Johnny retained a morbid horror of making social gaffes. If you hung about with the Ents, you either spotted it or someone tipped you off. Sooner rather than later, in either case.
“Oh, don’t be. It was ages ago, and by far the best thing for both of us.” Something about her tone suggested she also knew Johnny’s weak spot and was making allowances. “Anyway, I’m truly sorry to butt in, after the hellish time you must be having, but I had to say thank you for sticking up for Robbie Anquetil back there.”
He ducked his head, and muttered something about someone having had to do it. She nodded. Her Charlotte Corday face had not relaxed; there must be more coming.
“I also — look, I wanted to apologise for being a little shit back then. After all, if you and Robbie hadn’t — Look, I’m not just saying. I did want not just to say sorry, but to thank you. But you and your parents left the hotel pretty much straight away on Monday morning, and also — well, put it that I wasn’t exactly encouraged to make contact. Blocks side by side on Tower Hill, and all that.”
Pavel and I exchanged glances. So that odd remark Johnny had made to Laurie Odell about the block on Tower Hill hadn’t just been a joke, then. Forty years ago, someone had made that specific threat to Johnny and to this Nick Marlow: a hyperbolic threat, but one with real power behind it. Both of them were still under that power, forty years later.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Nick. Do me credit for guessing how it was. Anyway, we can’t stand out here talking about it. The three of us were about to go and grab something to eat. Would you like to come along and join us?”
That was when she noticed Pavel and I were still there. Visibly, she reached a flattering and utterly wrong conclusion. “Sorry, Johnny, am I keeping you from your family?”
She nodded in our direction. Johnny gulped. “Well — sort of. But not in the sense you mean. We’re not related. Pavel and Bernie are Ents.”
She blinked and then said, deadpan, “Funny, I was expecting them to be taller.”
Johnny let out a great guffaw, and I knew everything was going to be all right, after all. We fetched up in a bistro tucked into a cellar on Chancery Lane, drinking Fitou, eating merguez sausages with frites and swapping travellers’ tales.
Nobody mentioned the Talisman again. I don’t suppose either Johnny or Nick Marlow would, not before outsiders, not until the dread day of judgment on which the seas dry and the secret files of the intelligence services yield up their dead.
I had some holiday days I needed to take before the end of the year. I might go down to Devon. Autumn’s the best time, with the tourists largely gone. Shaz had a sofa I could crash on, and I could tell her what she’d missed. And I might — just possibly — wander along to St Anne’s Oldport, and see what people had to tell me about a fishing smack, once called the Golden Enterprise and the man who had sailed her.