Monthly Archives: January 2010

How I never became a spy

I was always fascinated by the idea of being a spy when I was a kid. I think someone bought me a thick red hardback ‘spy handbook for kids’ for Christmas one year, and I never looked back from there. Each day I’d race home from school and pore over it, testing myself to make sure that I knew everything there was to know about dead letter boxes, codebreaking, and leaving notes for my handler in the classified section of the Daily Telegraph. Put simply, if my country ever called on me to be a real life James Bond, I wanted to be ready.

Of course, I knew that becoming a spy wouldn’t be easy, so I launched a campaign to get myself under the collective proboscii of the British counter-intelligence authorities. Having been accepted at a university well-known as a hunting ground for some of the finest spies (and traitors) that my country ever produced, I figured it was just a matter of time before I was behind enemy lines, sleeping with a Russian temptress desperate to get her duplicitous hands on my rather impressive cyphercipher.

I even took a university course on espionage in the 20th century, taught by one of the topic’s finest minds. And as I listened to Oleg Gordievsky describe how he managed to escape the Soviet Union to defect to the west, I smiled knowingly, as if to give respect to a man like myself who knew what it took to be a spy.

Strangely, the call never came. The closest I got was being interviewed by the ‘Foreign Office’ as a final reference for a friend who had irritatingly been spotted as a potential recruit to the secret services. The day after a grey suited figure came to talk to me, my friend was called to be told that he wasn’t suitable.

Having failed to become a spy, anonymity hasn’t always been my main concern. And that extends to this blog. Sure, I may hide behind this shadowy ‘Brit Out Of Water’ figure, but most regulars know my name, and I’m even Facebook friends with a few of them. I try to keep my work out of the blog, on the basis that – well – I like being one of the few people left in America who still has a job. But other than that, I’m a pretty open book.

Such openness is not without its problems though.

This weekend, it finally struck home with The Artist Formerly Known As The Youngest that I write a blog, and that it was possible that it might occasionally mention her. And like the proverbial dog with a bone, she wasn’t going to let go until she got to the bottom of it.

“So what do you call me on your blog?”

“I don’t really have a name for you since your sister was born. You used to be called The Youngest, but you’re not the youngest any more.”

“So what do you write about me?”

“I don’t really write about you as that wouldn’t be fair to you. But you do come up as part of a story every now and then.”

“So what do you write about me?”

“Like I say, I just refer to you in passing.”

“So what do you write about me?”

“It’s not a blog about you. It’s about my life in America. You are just occasionally mentioned as you’re part of my life in America.”

“So what do you write about me?”

“I mention your mum much more. She’s The Special One. You’re a side character, to keep your life private.”

“SO. WHAT. DO. YOU. WRITE. ABOUT. ME?”

“Well you can read it for yourself – I’ll give you the address.”

“Why would I want to read your blog?”

Ah, American youth – reassuringly narcissistic, unless it involves doing some work. Let’s hope the US spies of the future are spoonfed the secrets of their targets, and that all hidden messages are contained within Mythbusters.

Maybe I just got out of bed the wrong side this morning?

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of labels, it has to be said. Not the ones that come inside your underwear, although frankly I think I speak for us all when I say that it can be rather annoying when they get caught in your netherlands when you least expect it. But grouping people into one amorphous mass because it’s just kind of easier to say “crazy” rather than “that woman with the collection of frogs perched on her head” just doesn’t really work for me.

I’ve attracted a few labels in my time. The current favourite for the kids (The Little One mercifully excepted, although possibly only because of her inability to form understandable words at this point) is ‘fat’. Seemingly a little harsh, but hopefully nothing that a month of not drinking alcohol won’t sort out. That said, my tag as ‘gadget geek’ is probably well-deserved, although if I continue to purchase with the pace I’ve been keeping up over the last five years, the next label I’ll no doubt be acquiring will be ‘vagrant’ thanks to The Special One kicking me out on the street.

It doesn’t even have to be me that’s being labelled in order for me to get annoyed. A few times over the last three months, one relatively distant acquaintance has consistently referred to The Special One as ‘mommy’ eg How’s mommy? Is mommy sleeping well? What are mommy’s plans for going back to work? It’s all I can do to stop my fingers slamming the keys through the keyboard in fury as I reply. After all:

a) Do you think that using the word ‘mommy’ with me is ever going to induce joy in my soul?
b) You are a grown adult with a good education, do you really have to talk like a five year old?
c) My wife has a sodding name, you know.
d) I’m pretty sure that if she defined herself by anything, The Special One would be likely to use ‘world champion cumberland sausage eater’ rather than ‘mommy’. I appreciate that she’s had three kids and that they’re a hugely important part of her life, but she also peed the bed three times when she was young and she doesn’t expect people to refer to as ‘legendary bedwetter’.

But the label I least like being used to describe me is ‘expat’.

The problem is not so much with being away from my homeland, although that in itself brings its own problems such as missing friends and family. But does the tag that comes with leaving your own country really have to be quite so negative sounding?

a) It defines me by where I used to be, rather than where I am now. I went to Rhyl when I was a kid, so should I have been referring to myself as ‘ex-Rhyl visitor’ for all these years?
b) There’s an implicit assumption that I cannot truly be happy until I am returned from whence I came. I mean, most nights I do look out of the window and watch the rain pour down as I dream wistfully of black pudding, but even I smile sometimes.
c) Is it just me, or does it somehow suggest that I was thrown out of my own country, possibly for my role in the Great Train Robbery?

My biggest problem though is that I’ve seen too many TV shows featuring British expats in Spain. And frankly, I don’t like the idea of being lumped in with some over-tanned tracksuit-wearing former hairdressers from Bermondsey whose idea of having exotic food is having tinned tomatoes with their egg and chips. Call me a snob if you like, but my idea of exploring the world is not ‘drinking halves of mild in Ye Olde Red Lion just outside Torremolinos’.

Essentially, ‘expat’ has become too much of a catch-all for anyone living away from their home country. Reluctantly accepting that the world would fall apart without collective nouns, I think we need a wholly new label rather than attempting to reclaim ‘expat’ as a proud tag for adventurous world citizens.

But what to call people who have no vote, a permanent look of confusion, and who regard ‘wherever in the world we happen to be’ as their true home?

“Disenfranchised befuddled turtles” just isn’t going to cut it, is it?