I have a new interest – spooks. I am writing a novel (could be YA, could be adult) about a young Australian librarian, working in London, who becomes involved with an MI5 investigation run entirely by women. Her name is Helen Harris.
Which is my mother’s name. Mum loved crime novels, and I think she might like to be the one who discovered the identity of the body in the library. She was also a young librarian in London in 1951-2, working at the Brompton Road branch of the Kensington library.

Her nationality was the cause of some snobbishness – “Australia…isn’t it full of convicts?” – but the interesting thing was that a lot of people couldn’t really place her. Within the English class system, that was very important. For instance, while you could be lower, middle or upper middle class, there were a number of gradations based on your income, education and job or profession. For the middle classes, respectability and conformity were key. And you had to be on your guard. “What will the neighbours think?” A colonial was – well, not quite ‘one of us’.

Helen Harris – or Green as she was by then –  was extremely intelligent, university educated, well-read and sure of herself.  She was also versatile. Both my parents (Dad worked as a commercial artist) told us kids how it was always remarked upon that Australians had what we’d call now a broad skill set. They’d try their hand at anything. Dad could draw, paint and illustrate, design and execute beautiful lettering – which was unheard of in his advertising agency. Mum had been a primary school teacher, but along with her arts degree (with Honours) from Melbourne University, she’d also picked up a librarianship qualification. She was very observant, had the memory of an elephant, and I think she’d have made a very effective spy.

I didn’t have Helen Harris the spook in mind when I picked up Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal from the library book sale. I started to watch the series on TV when it first came out, but the sexism of the times annoyed me too much. So Philby wasn’t on my radar. However recently I read the riveting The Secret Hours by Mick Herron (note to self: read more Mick Herron!) It follows a couple of civil servants who have been seconded to an inquiry into misconduct in the British secret service. It is cynical, political (with one character alarmingly like a certain Boris Johnson), twisty, suspenseful and sadly quite believable.

So after I finished, I searched my bookshelves for something more on the British secret service – and hit gold.

The story of Kim Philby is well known; the consummate English gentleman, educated at Cambridge University, passionate about cricket, with the right clothes, the right accent, the right friends, the right clubs. The perfect British spy. Yet also a Soviet mole. The MI6, the CIA and the KGB files on Philby are still closed, but Macintyre was able to find plenty that was on the record to inform his slant on the story, which is through Philby’s relationships with male friends and colleagues. In particular, Nicholas Elliott of MI6 and James Angleton, the CIA inteligence chief. Both of these men would have counted themselves as close friends, an inner circle, trusted and trusting. And Philby systematically betrayed this trust for decades, with far-reaching consequences which includes hundreds of deaths, as well as more people tortured, hunted or exiled. Not cricket!

I started looking for the women in this tale. There were wives, secretaries and administrative workers. A few agents. Obviously – to the insular male establishment –  they did not fit the bill. Women did not have the old boy’s network, and they were not ‘clubbable’; so much of the important work was done in all-male environments, over drinks. I don’t think many women could tolerate the extraordinary amount of drinking that the men did, either.
But I am going to have to keep on searching for the story of female intelligence officers in MI5 and MI6. And luckily for Helen Harris, it seems that new histories are being written all the time.

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4 Responses to SPOOKS

  1. Kate C says:

    Oh my God, this sounds amazing, Susan! I can’t wait to read it 🙂

    Yes, Mick Herron is fabulous. Have you watched any of Slow Horses on Apple? Faithful to the books and perfectly cast (the books are great, too, obviously)

  2. Michelle C says:

    Your novel-in-progress sounds fascinating! I’ll also be looking forward to reading it.

    I’m working on something on the same topic, but middle grade rather than YA, and I also struggled to find anything about women. Have you read Charlotte Bingham’s memoir, MI5 and Me: A Coronet Among the Spooks? She was recruited by her spy father when she was 18. There’s also Stella Rimington’s autobiography, Open Secret, about how she battled sexism on her journey to becoming Director General of MI5.

  3. susan says:

    I haven’t watched Slow Horses yet. I want to read the book first!
    And thank you Michelle for the suggestions. There’s a book coming out later this year called ‘Miss Moneypenny’ by Claire Hubbard-Hall, about the women in the secret service – sounds like it will be right up both our alleys.

    For background on life in the UK in the 50’s, I delve into old women’s magazines and copies of British Vogue…which are just wonderfully full of detail. Have you looked into David Kynaston’s trilogy of social history? It’s so interesting and many of the changes are the ones that happened here, too.

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