I could have been a spy. Twice over. No, really.
The foregone opportunity surfaced from the depths of my memory today when I observed something rather odd at Bond Street station.
Travelling upwards out of the murky tunnels of London’s underground train system, I shuffled my feet to find a tread on the steep escalator. London’s Tube system is built quite far underground so the escalator ride tends to take the best part of a minute or so. It is a good chance to engage in people watching; several downward-bound escalators pass by the same number heading in the other direction.
I was observing the parade of tourists, shoppers, workers and families flowing past me when I spotted it: a man travelling upwards, eyes fixed straight ahead. About halfway through the escalator journey he reached inside his suit jacket and produced a packet the size of a fat, standard envelop. Maintaining his static gaze, he extended his right arm straight out to his side into the path of our moving stairs. A disembodied hand about a ten-person-distance in front of me calmly took the envelope. Leaning over the handrail I tried to make out the recipient as the suited man passed me. His eyes, his head never varied from their constant position.
Of course, it could have been anything. It was most likely innocent. Twenty minutes before someone could had made a phone call; “I forgot that letter I need for the meeting.” “Well I am heading to Bond Street so why don’t I meet you there.” “Great. I will be on the escalator; the one that takes forever.”
But my gut reaction; the voice inside my head tells me that it was espionage.
It is well documented that London is a haven for spies and their activities. In 1978, Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov was killed on Waterloo Bridge: a two minute walk from where I now recount this story. Markov was killed by a poison dart concealed inside the shaft of an umbrella. Despite sounding like something from a James Bond film, it is true. Look here.
Five years ago former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in a Knightsbridge restaurant. He was given radio-active sushi. I will leave you, dear readers, to make your own Fukushima jokes, but the story is real as you can see here.
But what of my own brush with the twilight world of espionage I hear you ask?
It was late 1998. I was a few years into my first posting as a Head Teacher in North West London. A father of one of the pupils would come up to me before and sometimes after school each day for a chat. There is nothing unusual in that, many parents do the same on a daily basis. The well-spoken Englishman has a cut-glass accent that suggested he had been educated in Britain’s elitist schools. During our numerous, short conversations, I learned that he worked for the British Government but nothing more specific. He seemed very interested in my nationality and would regularly ask questions about American culture and my upbringing.
About 6 months after we met, he approached me and in his Queen’s English said, “I would like to invite you to a gathering of other Americans living here in London.”
He was most insistent. Despite relaying that I would not be interested, he pressed. “You really must come, it is something my office is organising and I think you will find it most interesting and helpful to your career.”
After a week or two of such conversations I relented. It was arranged that I would meet the group at a local office building. I knew the building well, as it was the headquarters of an American bank.
At the pre-arranged time, I found the plummy-speaking parent waiting outside the office tower. He pulled me aside as we made our way together to the lift/elevator. “I have to confess something,” he said, “This group is a recruitment tool for the CIA.” I laughed until I realised he was being serious.
Protesting that I was most definitely not spy material, let alone an American spy, he led me out of the lift and into a large board room. A dozen other displaced Yanks surrounded the table. They were all, like me in their 20s or 30s. From their dress, I could tell all were in professional occupations.
The meeting began when a dour-faced man who spoke like Clint Eastwood asking the candidates around the table to share, “Why you love your country.”
Open-mouthed I listened as those before me talked freely and openly. They shared jingoistic snippets of devotion to the American flag and the American ideal. Shuffling in my seat, I was most uneasy with what was being said. Those who know me well will account for the fact that my views on the country of my birth are less than positive.
Eventually came my turn to join the USA-Love-Fest.
“In short, America is not my country. Britain is. America was founded on honourable principles, namely all men are created equal and the guaranteed pursuit of happiness. However, it has economically and politically manoeuvred itself into a position where it can do real good in the world but chooses not to. Instead it has become hi-jacked by outdated Puritan values and has become insular. It cares nothing for the world outside its own borders. Frankly, America’s reputation in the world is a cause for embarrassment rather than pride.”
I looked up to gauge the reaction in the room but the facilitator had already moved on, asking the countryman to my left in his Clint Eastwood-esque drawl, “So what do you love about America?”
The recruitment meeting ended when Clint the Squint told the assembled patriots, “We will be contacting two of you to discuss the way forward.” With that I left. Scratching my head and re-running the bizarre events through my mind I walked out of the bank building wondering how long it had been a front for the CIA.
I went home and told Mrs Head about the experience. “I would make a rubbish spy,” I observed. “I can’t keep a straight face and I lose everything.” I envisaged myself misplacing the microfilm by leaving it on a train or getting my fat fingers in front of the miniature camera lens.
And besides; what information could a head teacher gather which would be of use to the CIA? Joseph did not eat all his packed lunch on Tuesday? Susie wanted to hold hands with Thomas behind the bike shed but she saw him talking to Laura and now she says he is a Poo-Face?
Needless to say, I wasn’t one of the lucky two to be contacted.
Two years later and George W Bush had stolen the 2000 election. I was about to move onto my second headship when I received a phone call. I recognised the voice on the other end as the well-spoken parent who worked for the government.
“The group would like to meet you again.”
I was more shocked than annoyed. Surely they got the gist of my stance after my brief sharing speech in the American bank building two years before. I went into my anti-American tirade once again to prove the point. I certainly wasn’t interested last time and now the buffoon Bush Jr was in office. That made the negativity within me increase exponentially.
They never rang again after that.
It has crossed my mind that ever since I have been on some unofficial and murky list of disenfranchised ex-pats. Certainly on my next visit to the States, myself and my entire family was stopped and held in a detention room for several hours. The officials could not understand that despite having an American passport myself, I had denied my children the same privilege.
“It is simple, really,” I explained over and over again. “My kids were born in Britain, they will be raised in Britain, their mother is British and they are British. They do not need nor do I want them to be American citizens.” The officer either couldn’t understand or didn’t believe my logic.
So if I suddenly and inexplicably disappear off the face of the earth, dear readers, use this blog as evidence. I said no to the intelligence machine. Twice. I will keep a watchful eye for stray umbrella points on Waterloo Bridge and stay out of Sushi bars for evermore.
Keep the Faith,