11 February, 2006

Truth ache

The book I'm reading at the moment is one for which I might very well have been imprisoned were this 1986 and not 2006. Indeed, it's one that was effectively banned in this country for much of the late 80s, despite being sold with relish in airport lounges right around the world.

It's Spycatcher, by Peter Wright. And ever since I bought it, I've experienced a frisson of excitement each time I glance at its distinctive cover, an image viscerally burned into my memory thanks to the massive, seemingly unending coverage which surrounded its notorious publication. Even this morning, when I picked up the book to read another chapter, I couldn't help but feel a jolt at its significance.

I have so many vivid memories of countless news reports documenting Mrs Thatcher's attempt to outlaw the titular tome, reports which seemed to drag on for years and years, and which were forever accompanied by the same piece of video footage: its wizened author limping along a path in a giant floppy hat, somewhere in the backwaters of Australia.

I also remember with equal clarity the massive furore that greeted the ostensibly illegal serialisation of extracts from the book in the Sunday Times, which given my mum and dad took the paper at the time I was able to eagerly devour, if not quite comprehend.

In retrospect it's possible to see the vestiges of worth in the Government's argument that a book which effectively laid bare the entrails of Britain's secret service operations from 1945 onwards should have been due some kind of attention. But because the Goverment bungled the entire affair, all the way from not paying Peter Wright's pension to deciding to ban the book but not knowing how, it ended up the cause celebre of final Thatcher years, and one which the Prime Minister failed to handle with any kind of tact and discretion.

20 years on, inevitably the text now resembles a fairly harmless protracted point-scoring exercise. In fact, it reads very poorly, the author coming over as a pompous troublemaker who's always right when almost everyone else is wrong, who spent the bulk of his life in a profession he despised, and for whom spying brought nothing but unhappiness. It's a wonder he was employed for so long, the amount of grumbling and badmouthing in which he partook. He's not that much cop as a scribe either - and that's despite the input of a ghostwriter, Paul Greengrass.

Very much not the sum of its parts, Spycatcher is best remembered for the outburst it prompted from the then Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service Robert Armstrong during one of the many court hearings the Government mounted to get it banned. Sometimes in his job, Armstrong declared, it was necessary to be "economical with the truth". Twenty years on, that, at least, remains as potent a maxim as any that can be associated with the book.

It all adds up to a somewhat salutary legacy for a once impeachable publication. Especially one that I picked up for £2 at my local Oxfam.


Blogger Dave Conrey said...

I just wanted to let you know that you've got me intrigued on this book, but I can't find it anywhere, unless I want to pay some bastard $65 for a paperback.

Anyway, thanks for the tip.

5:20 pm  

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