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.”


“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.

16 thoughts on “How I never became a spy

  1. punctuation

    So let’s just get this straight then: you have now admitted, in writing, you were inducted/trained as a spy at University by Oleg Gordievsky prior to being despatched on a mission to the US? Right. Gotcha.

    This should make future interviews with the Department of Homeland Insecurity rather longer and less comfortable than you’ve previously experienced. 😛

  2. Heather

    I wonder how long she’ll be able to resist before she is pouring over the pages looking for references of herself with indignant cries of ‘I never said that!’ flying through the air.

  3. NFAH

    That is brilliant. And I feel fortunate to be semi-anonymous without having to worry much about the cast of characters–living alone suddenly has its charms.

  4. John

    Your mate isn’t missing much in the Foreign Office. You didn’t get the tap from SIS because you didn’t fall into one of their two types (i) intelligent meathead – think Tony Wrather (ii)socially dysfunctional loner – think a (SLIGHTLY more normal) Matthew Marcus. They stopped taking flamboyant, cultured, clever but social Oxbridge graduates some time ago. For good reason. Not that you are gay. But they can’t take a chance. Moreover you probably couldn’t have said at interview that being British was like winning the lottery of life. Oh yes. That’s the sort of naivety it takes. I was offered a job with MI5, did you know. Turned it down. Regret it now. Terrorism is a boom industry. Diplomacy a bear market.

  5. Expat Mum

    That’s funny because it’s so typical of kids! The Queenager knows about my blog and knows her nickname. She is so disinterested I think she underestimates how much I mention her – otherwise she’d never stop whining about it. Fortunately she just rolls her eyes as if I’m a complete saddo and talks about “the ber-logg”.

  6. Alasdair

    Dylan – sorry to hear it …

    (Then again, your answers may actually have been causative – truth isn’t always helpful)

    (grin) So how high did he rise in the current government’s Civil Service ?

  7. Jacqui

    Sure, I didn’t take a University course but I did read Harriet The Spy and was VERY GOOD at writing down the comings and goings of neighbours from the tree house overlooking the street. 8:15, Mr Taylor brings in Rubbish Bins, 8:45 Mrs Kendel leaves in car…. It was a quiet street. If I had managed to get an interview with a Spy Organisation, any Spy Organisation, doubtless they would have found my skills of observation impressive. Unfortunately, I never managed to get an interview and like you, I was ROBBED of my true career.

  8. Victoria

    Great post. Loved especially the reference to your childhood Spy book. I must have had the same one, though mine was borrowed from our local library and I drove the librarian nuts by always renewing and hating to give it up for a month to anyone else. Like you, the FCO didn’t knock on my Student Halls door either. Bastards, I would have made a great spy.

    Still, imagine my delight when I found the book again (together with the sister book, “How to be a Detective”) for my kids a few years ago, in all places, Singapore! And they love it too.

    I’m expecting at least one set of 00’s out of the three of them from the investment this family has made in the Usbourne How to be a Spy Training Programme.

  9. Pingback: A Brit Out Of Water » Blog Archive » The killer in plane view

  10. Dylan Post author

    John – nice to hear about long-since forgotten schoolmates like Tony Wrather. I’m not so sure where you get the idea about my flamboyance though – you do remember me at school, right? I’ve seen more flamoboyant dog crap…

    Alasdair – he actually did get into the Civil Service, just not the spy division. Infact he wasn’t trusted in the foreign office at all. But I think he’s doing very nicely in whatever niche he found for himself!

    Elisa & mothership – I think it’s just that there are too many back-episodes of Glee to watch for the 14th time!

    And Jacqui & Victoria – I’m glad to find out that there are other frustrated spies out there. Our time will come, I’m sure…

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