If you visit Central London, you can easily find the futuristic-looking headquarters of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service on the banks of the River Thames at Vauxhall Cross. The SIS, also known as MI6, supplies the British Government with foreign intelligence and operates alongside the country’s internal security service MI5.
MI6 Headquarters in London
Since the end of the Second World War, the espionage activities of MI6 have been fictionalised (often in thrilling fashion) by many writers one of whom, David Cornwell, actually worked for the Service during the 1960s. Writing under the pseudonym John Le Carré, Cornwell’s Cold War spy novels contrast with the physical action and moral certainty of the James Bond books written by Ian Fleming. His characters are mainly un-heroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological game-playing and deception rather than physical drama.
And it’s in Le Carré’s novels that psychological games occasionally manifest themselves in the shape of sport. Not just in the description of sporting encounters (such as the tennis match in his novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’) but in the form of memories, cultural references and the discovery of artefacts.
Including those relating to the game of squash.
Squash and Special Intelligence
If you’re fortunate enough (or even cunning enough) to gain access to MI6’s archives, you’ll find – alongside a briefcase containing a document copier and a stethoscope-like ‘hushaphone’ for eavesdropping on conversations in bugged rooms – a squash racket with a secret compartment in the handle. To contain what, we can only guess.
Visit MI6’s website and you can find more up to date evidence that squash is still part of the culture of Britain’s intelligence service. Not surprisingly perhaps, MI6 offers would-be staff the opportunity to experience ‘foreign travel’ and ‘excitement’ (possibly an understatement) as well as to design ‘hi-tech gadgets’ for its agents (think ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies). And last, but not least, staff facilities at the Service’s headquarters include squash courts as well as a gym, a restaurant and, thankfully, a bar.
John Le Carre
Back in the 1950s and 60s, when the young David Cornwell was working for MI6 (and, initially, MI5), squash was also a part of Britain’s intelligence and broader military culture. Squash courts were installed in the basements of various Government buildings in London and were also available to staff based at Special Intelligence sites such as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) near Cheltenham.
As for Cornwell himself, squash was one of the sports he would have encountered as a pupil at Sherborne School in Dorset which he attended during the 1940s. And it’s perhaps during this period of his life that the game and its psychological aspects first came to his attention and began to feed his imagination.
Whatever its influence on David Cornwell the pupil –and later linguist, interrogator, spy and teacher – squash was eventually to appear in the writings of John Le Carré the novelist. And on more than one occasion.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
In 1961, a year after transferring from MI5 to MI6, Cornwell published his first novel as John Le Carré, ‘Call for the Dead’. The book introduced the character of George Smiley, an MI6 intelligence officer who was to appear in a further seven of Le Carré’s novels. Three years later, Le Carré was to leave MI6 to work full-time as a novelist, after his own career as an intelligence officer career was ended by the betrayal of his British agents to the KGB by Kim Philby, a British double agent and member of the Cambridge Five.
In 1974, ten years after leaving MI6, Le Carré was to depict Philby in his novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ as the upper-class traitor (code-named ‘Gerald’ by the KGB) hunted by George Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam. In the book, the ‘mole’ Gerald is simultaneously being hunted, unbeknownst to Smiley, by Jim Prideaux, a fellow agent and former lover whom he has previously betrayed. Eventually, Guillam realises who the elusive figure following Smiley’s investigations is…
“The night had its own madness after that; events ran too quickly for him to fasten on them singly. Not till days afterwards did he realise that the figure, or the shadow of it, had struck a chord of familiarity in his memory. Even then, for some time, he could not place it. Then one early morning, waking abruptly, he had it clear in his mind: a barking, military voice, a gentleness of manner heavily concealed, a squash racquet jammed behind the safe of his room in Brixton, which brought tears to the eyes of his unemotional secretary.”
A recent film adaptation of the book shows a squash match being played in the basement of a Government building between the Minister with responsibility for the ‘Circus’ (MI6) and his Under-Secretary for whom Smiley is working.
'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy' Squash Match
While Smiley heads to Oxford to consult an old MI6 colleague, the two squash players confer in the changing room with Percy Alleline, the Head of the Circus, who wants permission to share valuable intelligence (code-named ‘Witchcraft’) with American Intelligence.
But the end result of Alleline’s intelligence sharing initiative is to prove catastrophic, both for his own career and that of the Minister…
A Perfect Spy
Twelve years after the publication of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, Le Carré published ‘A Perfect Spy’ chronicling the moral education, from boyhood onwards, of its main character Magnus Pym, as it leads to his becoming a spy and subsequently a double agent. The book is Le Carré’s most autobiographical espionage novel, the author himself reflecting that writing it was ‘probably what a very wise shrink would have advised’.
‘A Perfect Spy’ has references to squash woven into its fabric and into the thoughts not just of Pym but of his wife, Mary, and son Tom. In one passage, Pym reflects on the lives of middle-class professional men like himself…
“…men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference. Modest men, practical, filling in their expense accounts and collecting their salaries, and impressing their Joes with their quiet expertise beneath the banter. Yet still, in their secret hearts, nourishing themselves on the same illusions that in those days nourished Pym. And needing their Joes to help them do it. Worried men, touched with an odour of pub meals and club squash, and a habit of looking round them while they paid, as if wondering whether there was a better way to live.”
In another, Pym’s son prays for his school ‘house master’, Mr. Caird…
“…Tom prayed earnestly for his dead grandfather’s soul, for Mr. Caird and for victory in Wednesday’s squash match against St. Saviour’s, Newbury, away, though he feared it would be another humiliating defeat, for Mr. Caird was divided on the merits of athletic competition.”
Pym’s wife thinks about her squash dates with a friend from the Canadian Embassy while her husband remembers his con-man father, Rick, as he prepares to meet a senior spymaster…
“The same evening, glowing from the best of nine games of squash, Pym was led to the presence of a Very Senior Member of the service, in a plain, forgettable office not far from Rick’s newest Reichskanzlei.”
But the gradual unravelling of the psychological games played by Pym eventually lead to his exposure and his suicide.
Which also goes to show that deception, in life as well as on the squash court, doesn’t always pay off.
Thanks to Neil Tweedie for his article “Psst! Want to join MI6?” in the Daily Telegraph. Also thanks to Wikipedia.