A Spy Story - The Truth Behind the Graucho Glasses
Spies. They’re everywhere. Well, they’re everywhere if you believe the hysteria that followed the arrest of Anna Chapman, the marginally attractive Russian spy who tickled the fancy of almost every newspaper editor in the Western world when she was caught in the United States.
Lurid tales of honey traps and white picket fence façades followed. A new cold war was afoot. Anyone could be on the Russian payroll. Even your next door neighbour. Yeah, him.
That she was a rubbish spy – she probably didn’t get the KGB’s memo about not setting up a Facebook account, and engaged in the kind of banal activities even Inspector Clouseau would baulk at – didn’t seem to matter.
Surveillance, we are led to believe, is an inherently glamorous, seductive game; a world of femme fatales and radioactive drinks, with deceit on every street corner. But Cameron Addicott, formerly of the British elite Alpha unit and SOCA [Serious Organised Crime Agency], knows the reality is far more mundane.
“You’d think it’s all about car chases, but I’ve only once said ‘Follow that cab’,” he tells me absent-mindedly. He’s busy fiddling with a walkie-talkie and earpiece that won’t do what it’s told. He gives up, leaving it on the table, broken.
“Really it’s mostly waiting. And eating. Ninety percent of the time you are just waiting for something to happen.”
Addicott used to be on the sharp end of the surveillance game, tracking and convicting some of Britain’s most notorious criminal gangs. He helped hunt down the people smugglers, drug gangs, money launderers and, worst of all, those who avoided paying taxes – the lowest scum of all.
Now he has just written a book about his experiences, The Interceptor, which lifts the lid on the surveillance industry: a grimy world full of very bad men, where the glamour of the chase is a rare flash of activity among endless cups of coffee and thousands of dead-eyed man-hours. So many hours, in fact, that he lost his family and, after 17 years of planting bugs under cars and watching criminals live it up from afar, had to get out before the job killed him. Forget Spooks or 24, or even Anna Chapman half-wittedly trying to write in invisible ink: to catch the bad guys, or — depending on which side of the fence you’re sitting — avoid the good guys, you need the patience of Job.
“If you are tracking someone, always stay a good distance back but always fix your gaze on something ahead of the target,” explains Addicott as he finally hands over a working walkie-talkie. “That way if they turn around, you can walk past without looking obvious.”
He is about to show me how to be a proper spy, minus the hours of waiting, and minus the danger. As well as being the first former SOCA operative to go public, he has also set up Spooks Unlimited, a spy experience where you play a surveillance operative on the trail of a dangerous criminal kingpin around the streets of London.
I’m handed a briefing sheet. A fictional drugs baron, played by one of Addicott’s former colleagues, is staying at a London hotel. The task is to locate him, follow him and find out what he is doing in London by picking up on the clues he’s left behind: a paper slip from an ATM in Covent Garden; an overheard conversation in a travel agent’s; a meeting with another man in a pub where a handover of unspecified goods takes place; all the time taking instruction from Addicott via the walkie-talkie.
You can see why the spy life is so addictive. Merely wearing an earpiece gives you an inner air of confidence, as if you are
in on a secret the rest of the world will never work out. For a few short hours it’s just us and the target in tunnel vision. Nothing and no one else matters.
Alas, I turn out to be a very poor spy. I lose the kingpin twice: once on the Tube and another time in a crowded market, and every piece of information turned out to be wrong, except the fact that he is in London. “Not bad for a first attempt,” Addicott says diplomatically.
Anna Chapman would be proud.