HAS there ever, in the field of human history, been so much owed by so many to such a motley collection of drunks, chancers, neurotics, congenital liars and deeply dodgy characters as those double-agents MI5 assembled at the height of the Second World War?
That, at least, was the thesis Ben Macintyre argued convincingly in yesterday’s engrossing opening event: that the D-Day landing only succeeded because German double-agents working for MI5 had successfully persuaded the Nazis that the Allied invasion was going to come via Calais rather than the beaches of Normandy.
This is the kind of history that you really couldn’t make up – that the whole course of the war effectively hinged on a bisexual Peruvian, a Serbian playboy, a failed Spanish chicken farmer, a hysterical Frenchwoman whose love of her dog nearly wrecked the entire mission and a Polish professional spy who may have been a triple- or even quadruple-agent.
Because MI5 controlled the entire Nazi spy network in Britain by 1943, these five oddballs became an immensely valuable part of the war effort. If just one of them told the truth to their German handlers, the whole mission would have crumbled and the Allied invaders would find themselves facing the might of the German 15th Army. What was already a close-run thing could easily have been a bloodbath, if not an actual defeat.
Although those five double-agents might seem the very last sort of people you’d ever want to rely on, Macintyre pointed out, spying attracts a particular kind of people. “They’re the kind who already have had to make themselves up. They deal in a form of fiction just like novelists do – creating a persuasive world and luring people into it.”
As if on cue, next up on the main stage was Michael Frayn. Or at least I think it was. It could be, he suggested, that he was someone else altogether who had arrived at Edinburgh airport, seen someone holding up a sign saying “Michael Frayn” and decided – for sheer devilment, deliberate deception or as an existentialist acte gratuite – to pretend to be Michael Frayn for the day and see how far he got.
That, at least, is the opening scene in his Man Booker long-listed novel Skios, in which a charming rogue arrives at a Greek island airport and decides, on a whim, to go with an attractive woman holding up a sign indicating she is there to meet a certain Doctor Norman Wilfrid.
The farce that ensues might sound implausible, but as Frayn pointed out, there is a huge tradition of successful impersonation, all the way from Jupiter pretending to be Amphityron to various musicians passing themselves off as Little Richard. “And, of course,” he added, “spies do this all the time.” Which is, I think, where we came in.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
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