Ask most people to name a spy and they will say James Bond. If they are a little more cerebral they might say George Smiley, the spymaster who, having been immortalised by Sir Alec Guinness on the small screen, this Friday comes to the big screen in one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the autumn. In the latest version of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Gary Oldman is taking on the role of Smiley, with a supporting cast that includes John Hurt and Colin Firth.
But back to our question, which was name a spy. Such is the potency of literature that most people have long since blurred in their imaginations the difference between fictional spies and real-life ones. This is partly because some of the best spy novels were written by former spies, notably Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and, of course, John le Carré.
So let us phrase the question more clearly. Name a real-life spy… Most people will go with the big three: Philby, Burgess and Maclean. Others that pole-vault to mind are Anthony Blunt, George Blake, Dame Stella Rimington, Mata Hari, Eddie Chapman (Agent Zig-Zag), and Peter “Spycatcher” Wright. Those wishing to put the vaulting bar a little higher might also name Guy Liddell, Oleg Gordievsky, Vera Atkins, Melita Norwood, the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs, Richard Sorge and that notorious Soviet spy Harold Wilson.
But what do all these real-life spies have in common?