The last official secret - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 38. The last official secret

When I was a young and carefree spy it was only natural that I should believe that the nation’s hottest secrets were housed in a chipped green Chubb safe that was tucked away at the end of a labyrinth of dingy corridors on the top floor of 54 Broadway, opposite St James’s Park tube station, in the private office occupied by the Chief of the Secret Service.

Broadway, as we called it, was old and dusty and, as a matter of Service philosophy, inconvenient. Of the three creaky lifts, the Chief had one to himself which conveyed him, in its own sweet time, directly to the hallowed heights of the top floor. Only the chosen few had a key to it. We lesser mortals made our ascent to him by way of a narrow wooden staircase watched over by a fish-eye mirror and, on our arrival on the top-floor landing, by a stone-faced janitor seated on a kitchen chair.

I think it was we young entrants who loved the building most: for its perpetual twilight, its smell of the wars we hadn’t fought and the intrigues we could only dream of; for the poky invitation-only bar, where old hands fell silent as you walked past; and for its dark, dusty library of espionage literature, presided over by an elderly librarian with flowing white hair who, as a young spy himself, had run with the Bolshevik revolutionaries in the streets of Petersburg, and tapped out his secret messages from a cellar next to the Winter Palace. Both the movie of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the BBC version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy capture something of this atmosphere. But neither came close to the mysteries of that old Chubb safe.

The Chief’s private office was an attic room with layers of grimy netting over the windows and the unsettling quality of seeming to be underground. If he wanted to address you formally he remained seated behind his bare desk, shielded by portraits of his family - and, in my day, of Allen Dulles and the Shah of Persia. If he wished for a more relaxed atmosphere, there were the cracked leather armchairs. But wherever you sat, the green safe was always somewhere in your eye-line, staring at you inscrutably across the room.

What on earth could it contain? I had heard that there existed documents so secret that they were only ever touched by the Chief himself. If he chose to share them with another person, that person must first sign his life away, read them in the Chief’s presence and hand them back.

And now the sad day is upon us when the final curtain will be rung down on Broadway Buildings, and the Service and all its chattels transferred to new accommodation in Lambeth. Is the Chief’s safe exempt? Will cranes, crowbars and silent men convey it bodily to the next stage in its life’s long journey?

After a debate at the highest levels, it is reluctantly ruled that the safe, however venerable, is no longer fit for purpose in our modern world. It will be opened. Whatever is inside will be examined by sworn officers, minutely documented and granted all the handling procedures appropriate to its sensitivity.

So who’s got the bloody key?

Not the reigning Chief, apparently. He has made a point of never venturing inside the safe or needlessly familiarizing himself with its secrets. What you don’t know you can’t reveal. His surviving predecessors are urgently consulted. On the same principle, they too resisted trespassing on such holy ground. And they don’t know where the bloody key is. Nobody, not Registry, not the Secretariat, not the department for in-house security, not even the stone-faced janitor on his kitchen chair, nobody has seen or touched a key, or knows where it is, or who last had it. All that is known is that the safe itself was installed at the command of the revered and pathologically secretive Sir Stewart Menzies, who served as Chief of the Service from 1939 until 1952.

So did Menzies take the key with him? Was he buried with it? Did he literally take his secret to the grave? He had every excuse. He was one of the founding fathers of Bletchley Park. He had conducted a thousand private interviews with Winston Churchill. He had negotiated with anti-Nazi resistance movements inside Germany, and with Admiral Canaris, the conflicted head of the German secret service, the Abwehr. Heaven alone knew what wasn’t in that green safe.

In my novel A Perfect Spy, it appears as the chipped green filing cabinet that accompanies Ronnie’s alter ego, Rick, on his life’s journey. It is said to contain the sum of his debts to society, but it too is never opened.

Meanwhile, time is running out. Any day now, the new tenant will be asserting his legal rights. An executive decision is urgently called for. Very well, the Service has picked a few locks in its day, so it looks like time to pick another: send for the Service burglar.

The Service burglar knows his business. With disconcerting speed, the lock yields. The burglar hauls back the creaking iron door. Like the treasure seekers Carter and Mace before the open tomb of Tutankhamun, the spectators crane their necks for a first glimpse of the marvels within. There are none. The safe is empty, bare, innocent of even the most mundane secret.

But wait! These are sophisticated conspirators, not easily fooled. Is this a decoy safe, a dummy, a false grave, an outer bailey to protect an inner sanctum? A crowbar is sent for. The safe is gently prised from the wall. The most senior officer present peers behind it, gives out a muffled exclamation, gropes in the space between safe and wall, and extracts a very dusty, very thick, very old pair of grey trousers, with a label attached to them with a nappy pin. The typed inscription declares that these are the trousers worn by Rudolph Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy, when he flew to Scotland to negotiate a separate peace with the Duke of Hamilton in the mistaken belief that the Duke shared his fascist views. Beneath the inscription runs a handwritten scrawl in the traditional green ink of the Chief:

Please analyse because may give an idea of the state of the German textile industry.