Once upon a time, able – or at least suitable – undergraduates were recruited to the Secret Intelligence Service by a nudge and a wink from a deep undercover agent posing as a French tutor at their Oxbridge college. These days, SIS (‘the organisation more commonly known as MI6’) advertises its vacancies in the Economist. Wannabe ‘operational officers’ (the people more commonly known as spies), preselected for their faith in capital and the beneficence of markets are invited to visit www.mi6officers.co.uk. The website’s nicely designed in fashionable shades of grey, and there’s even a virtual BlackBerry on which you can explore the ‘qualities’ that Britain’s spymasters are looking for (‘We can’t overstate the importance of a sense of personal integrity’) in the people whose task it will be ‘to protect the nation’s security, stability and’ – the clincher for Economist readers – ‘prosperity’.
As a preliminary test to see whether or not you’re even vaguely the right kind of person for the job, there’s an interactive game you can play. This is much less exciting than it sounds. The anticlimax may be deliberate, a way of hinting that SIS is many things but Tomb Raider isn’t one of them. In any event, the game turns out to be a bit like a GCSE English comprehension exercise, only easier and with more pictures. You have two minutes to read a ninety-word cover story, telling you your name, your birthday, the non-existent company you supposedly work for, as well as a few details about the non-existent country you’re based in. You then have to answer eight multiple-choice questions. If you get them all right, you’re rewarded with an appropriately lukewarm message: ‘Not bad, not bad at all. You might (and it is only a might at this stage) have some of the skills we need. Maybe you’d like to apply.’
Following the link marked ‘apply now’ takes you to a more no-nonsense part of the service’s website, which fills you in on some of the other job requirements, as well as providing various reassurances about what a nice place SIS is to work: it has ‘almost a family atmosphere’. You’ll need a degree, though it needn’t be better than a 2:2, and have to be ‘interested in working in an international environment’. Surely not. But most important of all – and it seems they can’t stress this enough; it’s no less crucial than being a British citizen – is that you mustn’t have taken any illegal drugs lately. Alcoholism, madness and bankruptcy are deal-breakers, too. Presumably these things are thought to make you not only a bit unreliable, the kind of person who might absentmindedly pop a CD full of state secrets in the mail, say, but also open to bribery or blackmail. Not to mention prone to spoil the family atmosphere at HQ.
It may be that all this strikes you as a bit too cuddly and open, and makes you long for the days of secrecy and high adventure before John Major passed the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, which not only publicly acknowledged the existence of SIS for the first time, to absolutely no one’s surprise, but also made it subject to Parliamentary oversight. Or it may be that it strikes you as a load of old horseshit: bureaucratic window-dressing for activities that are in reality deeply unsavoury, crushingly expensive and, in the final analysis, embarrassingly ineffective. Phillip Knightley, whose books include The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the 20th Century, has persuasively argued that ‘most intelligence is useless . . . Most political leaders know this but ignore it because they find intelligence a handy tool.’ In this particular instance, Knightley was commenting on the Butler Report into prewar intelligence in Iraq. The sexed-up dodgy dossier is daintily alluded to in the job ad in the Economist: ‘The intelligence you’re about to present to the government will have far reaching consequences. Does it stand up?’
A means of escape from the grim realities of 21st-century espionage is at hand in Devil May Care, the new James Bond novel by Sebastian Faulks ‘writing as Ian Fleming’ (Penguin, £18.99). ‘Picking up where Fleming left off’ when he died in 1964, Faulks transports his readers back to a time when men were men (or at least Bond was), women could escape from prison by flashing their breasts at a jailer, SIS was still a state secret, the enemies of that state were safely on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and the only looming global disaster anyone had to worry about was all-out nuclear war between the superpowers. Devil May Care ‘shows Bond facing dangers with a powerful relevance to our own times’ – drugs, Arabs and unpopular American wars – but the proleptic irony stops there. The novel takes rather too much pleasure in the opportunities for political incorrectness that ‘writing as Ian Fleming’ seems to offer.
The first character to be introduced is an Algerian drug dealer in Paris: ‘His face was a greyish brown, pocked and wary, with a large, curved nose jutting out between black brows.’ In Afghanistan, Bond encounters ‘dark-skinned tribesmen with Afghan headdresses and unkempt black beards’. There’s a treacherous gay American spy with a ‘wet’ handshake. The villain is a power-crazed, congenitally deformed Lithuanian – one of his hands is covered in hair and has an unopposable thumb, like a monkey’s, supposedly, though in fact all primates have opposable thumbs – with an irrational hatred of the British Empire: he’s forever banging on about the Irish Famine or the suppression of the Kikuyu. His sidekick is from Vietnam: ‘He had yellowish skin, narrow eyes with the epicanthic lids of the Orient, and flat, inert features.’
The racism might not be quite so glaring if the plot didn’t take such a wearisomely long time to get going. On page 130 (of 292), Faulks writes: ‘Something told him that his holiday was over.’ About time too. The second half of the novel rattles along efficiently and entertainingly enough, however. After finishing it, I took another look at the job ad in the Economist. It could be fun . . . Then I read the last line of the small print: ‘You should not discuss your application with anyone.’ Which was it to be, SIS or Short Cuts?