Friday 3 May 2024

Spies, Lies & Deception - Celia Rees

 Being interested in spies and all things spying, I just caught the end of this fascinating exhibition at The Imperial War Museum. 

I first visited the IWM in the Sixties and have been a regular visitor over the decades. In recent years, my visits were often focused on a particular exhibition which had direct relevance to something I was writing. Fashion On The Ration was really useful when I was writing Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook; Lee Miller: A Woman's War was invaluable as one of my characters was an American photojournalist. I like exhibitions. The mix of images: photographs, paintings, sketches, postcards, newspaper cuttings and the objects that people used, owned, carried and valued tell you a great deal about those people and their lived experience. To a writer of historical fiction, these things provide invaluable reference, enabling us to more accurately re-create and re-imagine past lives. 

I've also spent time in the Imperial War Museum Research Room, doing Real Research, reading contemporary accounts of life in Post War Germany for Miss Graham: diaries, letters, journals, log books and official documents. It's not just information, these documents provide really valuable details of people's lives. These are the 'nuggets' we depend on as writers to make our characters authentic to their time and make them come alive, details that it would be impossible, otherwise, to find or imagine. Even the paper, the handwriting, the writing instruments, pencil or fountain pen, the browning paper, the courier font of the manual typewriter are evocative echoes of past lives. 

The Imperial War Museum is also a place of inspiration. I was in another Spy Exhibition when I had one of those powerful moments when disparate strands of an idea come together and coalesce into something that you know will be a book, in this case Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook

Spies, Lies & Deception covered more than a hundred years of espionage through 150 different objects, photographs and interviews. It began with spying in World War 1 and went on to the interwar period and World War II: the deceptions, inflatable tanks and Operation Mincemeat; the gadgets dreamed up by MI9 the precursors of Q and the heroism of agents like Noor Inayat Khan who had to use those gadgets for real. 

Noor Inayat Khan

The exhibition continued through The Cold War period with the Soviet double agents, Cambridge spy, Kim Philby and  Karl Fuchs, the spy who gave away the secrets of the atom bomb to the Soviets. One of my favourites from this period is Melina Norwood, an 87 year old great grandmother, another atomic spy, who wasn't uncovered until 1999. As a woman, she was not considered a threat. 

Melina Norwood - great grandmother - and spy

The exhibition continued to the present, ending with the Salisbury Novichok poisonings and the role of Bellingcat, the online investigators, in uncovering the real identities of the two men responsible, both officers in the GRU,  Russia's Foreign Military Intelligence Agency. 

Matchbox containing secret messages.

We've come a long way from messages hidden in matchboxes to Bellincat's combing of open source data. In a world of deepfakes, where it is hard to tell fact from fiction, their investigation of the Salisbury poisonings proved it is harder now to hide and keep secrets. Just like mobile phones have made any citizen a potential news photographer, online open source intelligence organisations, like Bellingcat, keep an eye on clandestine developments in an increasingly complex and dangerous world.  

No comments: