007 Things I learnt from a (sort of) spy

 (Trunk archive)
(Trunk archive)

It’s Thursday morning and I’m late filing a feature. Thankfully, my editor has granted me an extension, but soon I’m meant to be meeting Ava Glass: ex-civil servant and author of new spy thriller The Chase, a novel so lauded it was picked up by the makers of TV hit The Night Manager before Penguin had a chance to publish it.

In a mild panic, I give Glass a call. Perhaps I can move our interview back a day or two if I’m lucky. As I sit, listening to the phone ring out, I contemplate what I’ll do with my life if I get the sack. I’ve always liked the idea of joining the circus, although I can barely do a roly-poly. Somewhere around the 13th ring I’m met with a voicemail prompt.

Fabulous, I’m doomed. A cheery American voice belonging to a woman who doesn’t go by of Ava tells me to leave a message. Aha! Perhaps I have the wrong number. Her publisher assures me I do not. My mind whirs. Yes, Ava Glass could be a pen name. But could Glass be writing The Chase from first-hand experience? Could she herself be a spy?

Eventually, my phone buzzes with a message: Glass (if that is her real name) kindly tells me she’s unavailable over the coming days. Alas, I accept the possibility that this interview could be my last and head to Vauxhall, where we meet for a cup of tea. Tall and glamorous, with well-coiffed, shoulder-length blonde hair and the same voice I’d heard on the phone, Glass is hardly inconspicuous. Though I suppose that doesn’t matter because, well, neither is Mr Bond.

Her role, she tells me while we sip from antique cups a stone’s throw from the imposing MI6 building, was to ‘act as a sort of a midway point between the spies and the public’. The book is inspired by her interactions with countless secret agents. ‘[The Home Office] wanted me to talk to them and then communicate to the public what they did, who they were, why it was so important,’ while also ‘trying to convince them to use social media or to use any media at all’.

Needless to say, our secret services aren’t particularly fond of working with the media, nor posting on the ’Gram, says Glass, leaving us norms in the dark. But what does Glass know about the UK’s most evasive professionals? Well, I spy…

001 Sadly, real spies don’t look like Sean Connery

Thanks to their plain appearance, they’re actually invisible, says Glass. ‘You would never look at them twice. They’re not particularly beautiful or in any way ugly, not distinctive or striking. Just absolutely the most ordinary people you can think of, that’s what you need to be.’ In fact, Glass would never be told formally whether a person she was interacting with was a spy or not, although ‘some would give you the wink and you kind of knew’, she says.

002 Want in? The security checks are even more hardcore than you’d expect

At the beginning of her career as a civil servant, Glass found that, strangely, she wasn’t doing the job she was hired for. ‘Everybody kept saying we’re just waiting until everything calms down a little and there’s some time and it’s quiet. And during this time a young woman befriended me. She was extremely confident and asked a lot of questions,’ she says of the civil servant in her 20s who claimed she worked in the legal department. An open book thousands of miles from her Texas hometown, Glass was ‘super happy to talk about myself and my background, family and who everybody was and how I ended up here.’ Then, something strange happened: three weeks later her new friend simply disappeared. ‘Her email disappeared from the system. Her landline and desk phone quit working and nobody could tell me. And after that my work started. They sat down with me and everybody talked to me, and that’s when I realised she was my security check.’

003 It’s true what they say: trust no one, even if you share a bed with them.

‘I worked with the most lovely man, incredibly nice. He told me he was in his 30s, that he was gay and was in a civil partnership. He was utterly devoted to his partner, but he’d never told him the truth about what he did for a living. His partner thought he worked at the Department of Transport and I asked him, you love him more than anything, you completely trust each other so why would you not tell him? And he said: “I’m afraid if I started talking, I might say the wrong thing, it’s best never to start.” Imagine not telling the person you love most in the world the truth about what you do.’

004 There is one way to guess what they do, however…

If a civil servant’s job sounds vague, doesn’t quite add up or comes across as so boring you can’t bring yourself to ask any questions about it (ahem, Chandler), that might just be for a reason. ‘Nobody ever comes up to you and says, “Hi, I’m John, I’m MI5.” They say, “Hi, I’m Tom, I’m from logistics.”’ Then, it’s up to you to do the snooping. For example, you might notice, like Glass, that ‘there is no logistics and Tom isn’t Tom’. However, beware: ‘Speculation is frowned upon,’ says Glass. Plus, even a trained pro like her may never fully grasp the truth. ‘I don’t know if anything they told me was true,’ says Glass. ‘It’s like trying to walk on water. Everything looks normal, but you kind of sink with each step, you don’t know anything and you’re talking to people who know everything.’

005 Surprise, surprise, women make brilliant spies

Shocked? Me neither. According to Glass, ‘there have been many female spies, from the very beginning. As far as I understand, about half of all intelligence officers working now are women, and everybody I ever met who wasn’t a spy but wanted to be one was.’ And despite the fact that ‘we’re told we can’t do it, one reason women make such good spies is because men underestimate them so much, they never suspect, the same way I didn’t suspect the woman who befriended me.’

006 Citizen of the world?

Kiss your spy dreams goodbye If you think having multiple passports is your ticket to a life of espionage, think again, because they don’t care if you can travel freely throughout the EU. ‘Somebody I worked with very closely desperately wanted to be [a spy]. She was British, but she was born in Germany to an Australian and British parent.’ The dream, right? Wrong. ‘She applied over and over again to MI5 and they wouldn’t hire her because of her nationality. She had three passports and that’s too many. You have to be British-born to be a spy, especially in MI5 because otherwise, how can they ever trust you? That’s their theory, anyway.’

007 London might actually be one of the safest cities in the world

Keep an eye out for security measures that magically appear, because that means someone is doing their job. ‘The thing that changed me the most was seeing how clever the spies were and what they were doing, figuring out what was about to happen.’ And it can be very small, innocuous seeming things, says Glass. ‘I walk around and I think, oh, they put a bollard out there so that must be one of the places they’ve identified. A building won’t have bollards in front of it one day and it will the next. You go to other cities and they haven’t been that thorough. Certainly not American cities. London is so well-protected and it’s not saying nothing can ever happen here, it can and it probably will — although I hope not — but they’ve made it so hard.’ Overall, as far as Glass can tell, they’re doing the best they can. ‘They’ve been just on it. I haven’t researched every country in the world, but we are considered to have one of the best intelligence departments in the universe. These guys are kind of amazing to watch.’ Seems so, if you know where to look…