A spell in the CaRSI

Century House, home of MI6 in the 1970s. Photo: Peter Jordan/Wikimedia Commons

The late Crispin Aubrey’s research material has now been donated to the Statewatch archive, and is in the process of being digitised. It seems a good time, therefore, to provide a brief account about my own small effort to shine a light into the murkier corners of 1970s official secrecy. 

One Sunday lunchtime in the early summer of 1976 I went to a party in Hampstead, where I met a young Scottish woman called Aggie MacKenzie. We chatted for a while and then a few hours later I gave her and a friend a lift into town in my old Austin A40, dropping them off at a bus stop before heading home to my rented flat in not at all trendy Stoke Newington.

Somehow, I had acquired her phone number and a few days later I plucked up enough courage to ring her. We began our relationship shortly after that: she shared a house in Stockwell with several other young women who worked with her in, what she told me then, was the Foreign Office. I lived on my own, so we took to spending most nights together in my flat.

Her housemates were all the kind of well-bred Home Counties types that you would have expected to be secretaries in the Foreign Office, but Ag was different. The year 1976 is famously remembered now for its long hot summer, but it was also the year in which the ‘George Davis is Innocent OK’ protest came to a triumphant end. Davis was a Londoner with a criminal past, but had been arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit, after the police concocted a case against him. He was finally released from prison under the royal prerogative. Living in east London I knew about this, but Ag knew more. Not long after arriving in London the previous autumn, she had been to the play about him which was then running at the Half Moon theatre and had even been on a subsequent demonstration demanding his release. When her bosses found out about this, she was warned never to go on a demonstration again, she told me.

This was also the time when I was instrumental in getting the community newspaper Hackney People’s Press back into publication. I had become involved in HPP the previous year, when the main person in the publishing collective had been the Time Out journalist Crispin Aubrey. Crispin had dropped out of this in the autumn and it went into abeyance for a while. However, I got together with two or three other people and we had produced a modest eight page edition in April, with the aim of building up another group. A few more then came forward and Ag also began helping on the production weekends, her typing skills leading to an immediate improvement in the quality of the artwork.

At that point I still thought that her job was in the ‘Permanent Under Secretary’s Department’ of the Foreign Office. It was not based in Whitehall, she said, but in an anonymous looking building next to Lambeth North tube station. However, a few months later she told me that this was a fiction: she was in fact working for MI6, or ‘the Service’ as it was known, and this office block was its head office, Century House. She said that she hadn’t known who her real employer was until the day she started, having been recruited straight from college in Aberdeen to work for the Foreign Office as a bilingual secretary. (She has written about this herself on a number of occasions over the last few years.) I should say at this point that I never asked her for any details of her work. There were a few times over the next couple of years when she mentioned things in passing, but we were both conscious of the fact that she had signed the Official Secrets Act, and all that entailed.

My natural caution was exacerbated in November 1976 when the news broke that two American journalists, Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball, had been told that they were to be deported from the UK on the grounds of being threats to national security. Agee was an ex-CIA employee who had written a book about his time in the agency. Hosenball was a Time Out reporter who had written extensively about security matters in the magazine. My interest in this story was given added spice by the knowledge that Crispin was a colleague of Hosenball’s in the Time Out newsroom.

Two months later, the lease on Ag’s Stockwell house ran out and we decided that she would move in with me. We had only been together in the flat for a few weeks when the news came that Crispin had himself been arrested, along with another journalist Duncan Campbell, after the pair had conducted an interview with a former soldier, John Berry, who had contacted the Agee/Hosenball Defence Campaign. The three were eventually charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act.

An ABC Defence Campaign was set up immediately and I started going to its meetings. The people attending were a mixture of family members, friends and colleagues, lawyers and the usual oddballs who turn up when events like these are advertised publicly. Although the charges the three men faced were serious, there was an element of farce both in the way in which they had been arrested and the subsequent course taken by the prosecuting authorities, and a lot of the campaign’s activities therefore concentrated on ridicule and fun. I tried to make myself useful by doing artwork for posters and badges as well as turning up for various leafletting and picketting events. It was at one of these, a lunchtime protest outside the MI5 head office at Curzon Street House, that I suddenly became aware that a small window had opened behind my head and a camera lens was poking out. As soon as I turned to look at it, the lens was hastily withdrawn and the window closed.

A few months later, in May 1977, Ag was sent by the Service on a residential course. Apparently this was standard procedure for secretarial staff, to prepare them for possible postings abroad. She didn’t tell me exactly what it would entail but I had read enough John le Carré novels to guess that it involved tradecraft and the like. The venue was somewhere referred to only as ‘the Fort’, and it was somewhere near Portsmouth. (In a sign of how things have changed since then, I now know that the site is in Gosport and is called Fort Monckton. The centre is even mentioned on the Fort’s Wikipedia page.) In preparation for the course, she had been told that she had to give her current address and phone number, so she listed ours. At this point in our relationship she hadn’t yet told her parents that she was living with a boyfriend, knowing that they wouldn’t approve. They thought that she had moved in with a female work colleague who, conveniently for her, wasn’t on the phone. However her sister, who lived in London, did know the truth.

So I was surprised when, late one evening, the phone rang and a man with a middle class English accent asked to speak to ‘Aggie’. No, you can’t, I said, she’s away on a work course. I asked who was calling. He told me that he was a cousin, and that he was unexpectedly down in London and thought he would get in touch. I said that if he was a cousin, he presumably knew Ag’s sister’s number and that he should get in touch with her in the meantime. At this point, the man sounded confused and hung up. It then dawned on me that he was in fact some sort of spook checking up on the number, and seeing who answered. Also, I knew that no one in her family called her ‘Aggie’: to them she was always Agnes or Ag. When she came home at the end of the course, I told her and she immediately agreed that it must have been someone checking.

I decided then that I should be even more careful about Ag’s real employer and not do anything to draw attention to it. However, over the year or so we had now known each other I had gleaned various bits of low level information from her which I thought it would be useful to share with the wider world. It wasn’t difficult to work out, for instance, exactly which was the building in North Gower Street which housed the headquarters of the MI5/MI6 joint station. It had no signage outside, a bomb-proof protruding ledge over the entrance doors, discreet security men sitting behind the reception desk and floor to ceiling net curtains in all the windows. I learnt to recognise similar characteristics in London’s other ‘top secret’ buildings.

By coincidence, a building in Borough High Street housing the MI6 Training Department was almost next door to my own place of work, the Folio Society’s offices in Great Suffolk Street. I would stroll casually past in my lunch break, noting how various plain vans could occasionally be seen reversing into its loading bay.

I couldn’t just give this information directly to Crispin, or anyone else for that matter. If I did I would have to reveal Ag’s real employer and even though I could trust him not to pass on the information, it would probably leak out. So I decided that the best thing to do was send it out anonymously, although I would have to wait for an opportunity to do so.

Ag went back home to Rothiemurchus, near Aviemore, for the Christmas and New Year holidays leaving me in London, and I realised that I then had time to act. I decided to create a bulletin from a new organisation which I called CaRSI, the Campaign for the Revelation of Secret Information. Producing the bulletin involved me adapting some of the tradecraft I had gleaned from all those spy novels. I had plenty of Letraset at home which I could have used to create the CaRSI letterhead but I realised that this would be easily traceable so I stayed late at work one day and photocopied the Bodoni Bold page – a type sheet I had never owned – from the Letraset catalogue on the office copier. I remember being quite pleased with the logo I designed using this photocopy, with its use of a lower case a in an otherwise all-cap setting, but I realised that I wouldn’t be able to claim ownership of it for a while. I pasted the logo up into a master page and then used the copier again to make some letterheads. The copier had a replaceable ‘blanket’ on which the original image was cast before transferring it to the copy, so I changed the blanket and threw the old one away after finishing the work. As I knew it would be some time before I posted out the letters, I reckoned the bin’s contents would be well on the way to landfill by then.

I had spotted an office equipment shop in the Strand which had a sign in the window saying typewriters for hire, so I called in there and rented a portable typewriter for a week, paying cash and leaving a deposit. To be on the safe side, I gave the shop a false name and an address in west London. Everyone was much more trusting in those days. I typed up my information onto a single page of my letterheads, rather grandiosely calling it Bulletin No.1, and put it into a plain envelope. There was a self-service photocopier at Baker Street Tube station so I went there to make copies, taking care to wear gloves when handling them.

I bought a sealed packet of envelopes and some stamps, and again wearing gloves while handling them, typed the names and addresses of various newsrooms onto a number of envelopes. I forget how many media outlets were on my list but it was probably about a dozen in all. These included Time Out, Peace News, The Leveller and various left papers. Then I put the bulletins into the envelopes, sealing them and sticking on first class stamps with a damp spongecloth, so not to leave saliva traces. I placed all the envelopes into another larger one before removing my gloves. Then I burnt all the leftover bulletins and the original master copy in the kitchen sink and flushed the ashes away. I put the typewriter away in its case, having first given it a thorough wipedown to remove any fingerprints from the keys and the carriage. I wiped down the outside of the typewriter case, took it back to the hire company and then dumped the rest of the envelopes in a public litter bin.

I decided not to post the envelopes out while Ag was away: someone might spot this, I thought, and decide that this wasn’t a coincidence. So I sealed the larger envelope up and put it at the back of a desk drawer, reckoning that she wouldn’t find it there. One day, a few weeks later I decided that the time was right to post the bulletins off, and took the envelope with me to work. I went up to the West End on my way home and posted the individual envelopes, if my memory serves me correct, in a busy letterbox in Tottenham Court Road. Again, I wore gloves and dumped the outer envelope in a public bin.

Nothing happened for a while. I think Crispin might suspected something because he made a cryptic remark to me about getting some anonymous information, but I feigned surprise. A good summary of the bulletin appeared in Peace News, and some other publications referred to it but, for obvious reasons, I didn’t want to go out of my way to save the press clippings. Crispin also referred to the bulletin in his 1981 book, Who’s Watching You, describing it as being ‘clearly based on the inside knowledge of a “whistleblower”.’

It’s now 42 years since my foray into the espionage world. Ag left her ‘Foreign Office’ job in 1978 and went to work in the press office of the National Union of Students. Shortly afterwards, I also started a new job, as the publications officer for what was then called the National Council for Civil Liberties (now just Liberty). Its dingy office in King’s Cross Road had also served as the headquarters of the Agee-Hosenball Defence Committee, and a tap on its phone had probably led to the arrest of the ABC defendants. The ABC case itself finished in November 1978 in pretty farcical circumstances with the three defendants being found guilty on three Official Secrets Act Section 2 charges, which was almost a technicality. Crispin and Duncan got conditional discharges, and John Berry a suspended sentence.

Crispin Aubrey left a voluminous archive at the time of his sudden death in 2012. As his wife Sue said ‘Crispin never threw anything away.’ It has now been handed over to the Statewatch collection and is in the process of being catalogued. Somewhere in the two and half filing cabinets there may well be a copy of CaRSI’s one and only bulletin. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

The issue of Peace News which reported the CaRSI bulletin. (No 2064, 24 February 1978).

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They know whereof they speak

For over a year the most incisive comments on the whole Brexit fiasco have come from the wonderful Irish Border Twitter account. The anonymous writer (I am the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I’m seamless & frictionless already, thanks. Bit scared of physical infrastructure) provides a running commentary on the absurd pronouncements of ‘experts’ and politicians in London, Brussels and elsewhere as they try to find yet another solution to the backstop conundrum. (The answer is, there isn’t one.)

Another person who understands all this is the comedian and TV presenter Patrick Kielty, who comes from Co Down. His analysis of the absurd situation was published in a terrific article in Tuesday’s Guardian, with his credentials summed up in a chilling three sentences at the foot of the page: “His father was killed by loyalist paramilitaries in 1988. Those responsible were later released under the Good Friday agreement. His documentary, My Dad, The Peace Deal and Me, exploring the legacy of the Belfast agreement won a 2018 Grierson award.”

Keilty writes eloquently how for the DUP (“the political wing of the Old Testament”) Brexit is about “proving they’re biologically British, not adopted. It means the party will always order what Johnson and Farage are having but, unlike them, actually eat it.” However, as he adds, the irony is that their hardline position could mean that they end up by jumping off the cliff, thereby causing a hard border, a border poll in Northern Ireland and the perfect economic storm where it might lose that vote.

It’s worth reading Kielty’s article in full, but here is a substantial quote:

As the prime minister Maybots her way through the charade of alternative arrangements, there’s only one thing you need to know – there are no workable alternative arrangements. If there were, you’d have heard of them by now. The details of this technological masterpiece would already be a double-page spread in the Daily Mail with Rees-Mogg mocked up as Alan Turing under the headline “Enigma cracks Enigma – spirit of Bletchley takes back control”. If an alternative arrangement that worked actually existed (or was likely to exist in the next couple of years) Brexiteers would have already accepted the backstop, knowing they could easily replace it with their idea during the transition. The fact that they won’t bet on themselves tells you all you need to know about what they have in the locker.
… All of this could have been avoided if the majority in Northern Ireland had been listened to during the referendum campaign. But as Nigel Farage and Johnson trumpeted their migrant-free magic kingdom, we were Kevin in Home Alone – only remembered at the baggage carousel after the plane had landed. It’s why the minutes of the first meeting between Michel Barnier and David Davis will never be released. “So, what do you propose for your land border with Europe?” Polite laughter. “We have a land border with you guys?”
Even at this late stage, it remains the unanswered question – how can you take back control of your borders when the only land border you have can’t be put back in place? The fact that more than 70% of people in Northern Ireland voted to give up control of that border via the Good Friday agreement so they could live in peace remains totally ignored.
When Conservatives say they care about Northern Ireland, they actually just mean the freehold. Like a stable block with planning permission, they know the extra square footage adds value but they’ve no intention of actually developing it. Just as long as they can see it from the big house, they’re happy. As for those who live in the stable? If Brexit has proved anything, it’s that many Tories don’t give a stuff about the people of Northern Ireland – not even the unionists. If they did, they wouldn’t dream of a hard Brexit because it only guarantees one thing – a border poll.
That’s one that will be decided not by Sinn Féin or DUP votes, but by the moderates in the middle – nationalists who once felt Irish enough post-Good Friday agreement and those pro-European unionists applying for Irish passports. The inevitable economic downturn and border circus of a hard Brexit might just be enough to swing those floating voters and Northern Ireland out of the union. So, why would any member of the Conservative and Unionist party take that risk? Because no matter what they say in public, they’ve never honestly believed Belfast is just like Finchley.

As a Brit who has lived in Dublin for twenty years, I completely agree. Most people in Britain have some vague notion that Ireland is that other island on the left hand side of the weather map – the bit where the temperature symbols only appear in the top corner. But they can’t tell the difference between the accents of Eamonn Holmes and Louis Walsh and if they work in a call centre or mail order firm they inevitably say “Is that in Southern Ireland?” when I give them my address.

These are the kind of people who couldn’t give a toss about the unintended consequences of the Brexit decision. They just want the politicians to “get on with it”. They voted to “take back control” and the fact that taking back control could well result in the break up of the whole United Kingdom is a consequence that they just haven’t thought through.

But we are not allowed to disagree with them because they represent “the democratic will of the people”. Never mind that the slim majority in 2016 was brought about by a perfect shit storm: lies and chicanery from the Leave camp and ineffective support from the Labour leadership for the Remain campaign. This has led to the terrible position of there being a small bunch of  Labour MPs who voted Remain themselves but, because a majority in their seats voted Leave, will probably support a Tory Brexit. It will be a sad, sad day if they are the ones who – along with the DUP – finally carry Theresa May’s disastrous deal over the line.

Quids in for Dublin’s Facebookers

A recent Irish Times report by Mark Paul about salary levels at Facebook’s Dublin-based operation gives us a salutary lesson in how modern capitalism works. In 2017, Facebook employees received an average salary of €154,000, more than three times the average Irish industrial wage which stood that year at €46,000. The report showed how this was was made up:

The financial statements show that the 1,008 staff directly employed last year by Facebook Ireland each received an average salary of €95,766. Add in share payments, bonuses and so on, and the average pay packet of a Facebook Ireland staff member in 2017 was €154,000, up from about €140,000 in 2016 and €123,000 the year before.

Comparisons with one of the best-paid “indigenous” Irish companies, the electricity suppliers ESB, were almost as staggering. Its 7,790 staff last year were paid an average of only €77,000 in 2017, with another €7,000 or so pension payments. The AIB – one of the country’s pillar banks and the traditional provider of one of those much-coveted “jobs for life”, a post in banking – can’t even match that. Its 10,100 staff were paid average salaries of about €56,000 in 2017, almost €100,000 less than Facebook.

And, as if to rub salt into the wound, Facebook recently confirmed that it plans to move onto the plush D4 site in Ballsbridge, just vacated by AIB, where it will have space to expand its workforce up to 7,000.

Facebook might well be the market leader, but there is no doubt that the other internet giants with a presence in Dublin are also paying these high salaries to their core staff. No wonder, as Mark Paul says, that the rocketing cost of living in Dublin is creating pressure points all across those parts of the economy that don’t face Silicon Valley. Currently, there is building work going on all over the Irish capital, but how many of these homes are being constructed for hard-working families on normal wages has yet to be ascertained.

Whose Christmas is ruined?

News that two completely innocent people have had their lives ruined by the UK’s tabloid press will come as no surprise to those who follow its vicissitudes.

Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk have said today that they are deeply distressed by what they called their “disgusting” treatment in sections of the media, after they were detained in relation to the drone flights that brought Gatwick airport to a standstill last week.

They were released after 36 hours of questioning. Their friends expressed dismay that the couple had been arrested in the first place. Within a few hours of being arrested, their pictures appeared on a number of Sunday newspaper front pages. The Mail on Sunday went furthest with its headline “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?” Meanwhile television presenter and ex-newspaper editor Piers Morgan had to apologise after describing the pair in a tweet as clowns – a description which he later deleted.

It’s very reminiscent of a case from 2010 when Bristol landlord Christopher Jefferies was arrested on suspicion of murdering his tenant, Joanna Yeates. His character was thoroughly maligned by the press, although he was completely innocent of the crime. Jefferies ended up winning substantial damages. Let’s hope Gait and Kirk also get their day in court.

Medial caps get camelised

Pic: The Wandering Nerd

A question on last week’s University Challenge made me think for a second. I don’t have an exact transcript but it went something along the lines of “In typography, what is the term for an uppercase letter in the middle of lowercase letters, particularly in proprietary or commercial names?” I was casting about in my own mind for the definition when in buzzed one of the contestants with the answer “camel font”. Jeremy Paxman agreed that this was good enough, but supplied the words which must have been written on his card, “camel case”.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the correct typographical definition. The one I was mentally searching for (and I confess that I had to find it after the show by going to the Wikipedia page on camel case) was in fact “medial caps”. These have been around for decades (think CinemaScope, AstroTurf, InterCity) but became much more common in the 1980s (think WordPerfect, PageMaker and, later, iPod and its ilk). Camelcase  is a definition of the same practice, but comes from computer programming rather than typography.

Writing about this, however, gives me a great opportunity to use the illustration above which I found on the Wandering Nerd blog when I Googled “WordPerfect”. This shows the little crib sheet supplied by the manufacturer which you were supposed to place above the function keys on your keyboard to remind you of the shortcuts needed for various operations: F6 for Bold, F8 for Underline, etc. I wrote the whole of my book Editing Design and Book Production for Small Publishers in WordPerfect. By the time it was published in 1993 it was already going out of date, with the arrival of DeskTop Publishing (more medial caps). But that’s another story.

By the way, Emmanuel College Cambridge beat St Peter’s Oxford in the University Challenge match. I think they may go far in this year’s series.

We’re all on WhatsApp now

News that the European team’s victory in the Ryder Cup was bolstered in part by their bonding in a WhatsApp group has resulted in another slew of publicity for everyone’s favourite messaging app. Even an old-fashioned blogger with an aversion to Facebook like me finds it a great tool. (I know that it is now owned by Facebook but I take all the reassurances that the social media behemoth can’t access its data at their word.)

What is even funnier is the news that a bunch of Scottish Conservatives opposed to the blatant leadership manouvering of professional buffoon and erstwhile UK Foreign Secretary are using the codename Operation Arse “so that we’d be clear who we were talking about.” Let’s hope that they have a WhatsApp group of the same name.

Preparing the Phoenix

My daily trip to the Phoenix Park has become very complicated. A huge central area has been cordoned off to enable the construction of a venue big enough to hold the expected 500,000 people who will attend a Mass to be celebrated by the Pope. This is taking place on Sunday 26 August.

The result of all this activity is that I have had to move my dog-walking start point from the Papal Cross car park to the one on Glen Road. This happens to be the area where most of the females and this year’s fawns from the park’s fallow deer herd hang out. This part of the Fifteen Acres is where the deers would normally be at this time of the year, but they are confined to the eastern part of the space by the temporary fence.

My enforced move has meant that I am much closer to the dozens of people who turn up every day to feed the deer, something that is actually prohibited by the park authorities. Every day I see several bunches of deer, each surrounded by tourists proffering food – mainly carrots and apples. This activity is bad enough (according to the Wild Deer Association of Ireland, even carrots and apples are not good food for deer) but then some of the feeders make things worse by leaving their litter behind.

The other day, I saw one hind with something shiny in its mouth. It was too far away for me to get a photograph, and it dropped the object as I got closer. But this is what I found when I got to the point at which it had been grazing:

There was a major outcry about what we are doing to our habitat when the Blue Planet TV programme recently broadcast the effect of plastic pollution on the species with whom we share our earth. And yet people still leave their rubbish behind in a field where wild animals graze.

Looking around the interwebnet for material on deer feeding in the Phoenix Park I came across some incredible examples of general idiocy. Here is a man feeding a buck with some sort of biscuit:

And here is ‘Dublin-based model’ Brittany Mason (whoever she is) delighting her 77,000 Instagram followers with her cute picture. She apparently ‘made friends with Bambi today’, carefully remembering to add her sponsor’s hashtag to the post.

I took these examples from a very good piece posted in 2016 on the Dublin Inquirer site, and there are many more horrifying pictures there.

One of the reasons why the trend has grown is because tourist guides and social media are encourgaing the practice. Here are a couple of examples I turned up:

Some proper research needs to be done on the effects of this rapid increase in feeding. According to a recent Mooney Goes Wild radio programme, where one Spanish student was found to be giving the deer popcorn, Laura Griffin from UCD is looking at the subject. I hope that this will be published soon, and perhaps then the OPW will take a much more active stance on prevention.

In the meantime, maybe people will realise that the deer are wild and really shouldn’t be approached. Particularly during the annual rut, which will start in a few weeks time. Here is a piece which appeared in the Irish Sun, written in the usual sniggery language we have grown to expect.