Tuesday 31 January 2023

'The pleasure of shaking a tail': Bill Hagchester on memoirs of intelligence

From the Albian Review of Books, May 2023:

To be a historian of espionage is not, by and large, a Romantic endeavour. The fact is that for all the glamour Hollywood treatments lend even the most down-at-heel depictions of tradecraft, the day-to-day business of spying is for the most part a boring affair. So it is not entirely surprising that when something - a scandal, an outrage, a triumph, a glorious catastrophe - happens to impart some excitement to this most staid of disciplines, it sparks a kind of feeding frenzy in the publishing world. Such is the case with the recent spate of books discussing the early years of that most Romanticised of espionage agencies, the legendary Republic Intelligencers of Albia. 

It is a truism in intelligence circles that revolutionary movements start out hating the secret police only to wind up forming their own: in the case of the Albian Revolution this took place surprisingly quickly and, indeed, was one of the main drivers of the new regime's remarkable success in deposing the Windsors and their loyalists. At least one figure who was, we now know, embedded with the RI from remarkably early on has described this as the natural consequence of the forces the Intelligencers came together to fight: in her remarkable new memoir the poet Angel McKenna observes that 

'we were up against the dark side of Old England: the star chambers and Hellfire Clubs of a regime almost uniquely corrupt in human history. It shouldn't have been a surprise that we had to fight dirty to beat them. I first met the Republic Intelligencers with blood on my hands, and they didn't get cleaner. But one look at the evidence we turned up of what the Windsors had got up to was enough to put any thoughts of doing a Lady Macbeth from one's mind. We did hard things, and we became hard people, and we doled out rough justice and made grubby little deals, but if you saw the files, and the photos, and the fucking films those monsters made of what they did, you'd do the same. Of that I have no doubt.'

Perhaps inevitably the poet in Ms McKenna wins out over the historian in such passages, but then for all the historic interest in her work she has remained insistent that this is merely a personal memoir, albeit that of the woman who foiled the infamous Lipstick Plot. Those looking for revelations of Albian perfidy will come up short - though Ms McKenna has said in interviews that this book's publication should be seen as marking her retirement from a life spent defending the realms, she has also been candid about running the MS by RI censors before her editors had sight of it, to ensure that nothing operationally sensitive might be revealed. But what she is very good at is conveying the internal experience of doing such work: the adrenaline of being on an operation, the elation of seeing targets take the bait, the pleasure of shaking a tail. One wonders who will face the challenge of turning her gripping prose into the inevitable film: George Clooney is widely rumoured to be interested, though Ms McKenna says she's holding out for Peter Strickland. We shall see. 

One area where either director will probably have to tread carefully is the role in the Lipstick Plot allegedly played by the recently deceased US cultural attache Charles T. Billings, at least according to Bob Woodward's more sensational Good Luck Chuck: the Life and Death of a Compromised Diplomat. Woodward's contention is that, despite official declarations to the contrary, Billings was intimately involved with the attempt to assassinate the late First Citizen Mercury, and was 'turned' by the Intelligencers in return for a promise not to expose his role. Billings would go on, according to Woodward, to render material assistance to the Albian government in the matter of the removal of US missiles and the ECHELON affair 'and anything from a dozen to a hundred more chiselling acts of betrayal'. 

Readers who detect a hint of personal animosity from Woodward to his subject are correct to do so: one consequence of the ECHELON revelations having been that details of Woodward's ongoing relationship with what the Americans like to refer to as 'Naval Intelligence' became more widely known, presenting his involvement in the Watergate revelations in a somewhat unflattering new light, and it's hard not to read this book as an attempt at settling scores. It's clear that Woodward is himself convinced of Billings' treachery, but the fact remains that, for all that his book is packed with sentences of the 'if/then' variety ('If Billings was working for Republic Intelligence, then it's possible his involvement with the Council of the Realms had sinister motives...'), the evidence he arraigns for the prosecution is circumstantial at best. Pointedly, the US State Department has maintained its silence on the matter. Ms McKenna's memoir discusses her involvement with Mr Billings in terms of the latter's cultural work, but doesn't hint at anything else - though that may, of course, be something she ran by the censors first. 

Perhaps most surprisingly, however, one of the best accounts of the early days of the Intelligencers occurs in a work which is not strictly a history of espionage at all. The latest instalment of the academic Stewart Lee's magisterial Life of Alan Moore has arrived at the period where its subject crosses over with the war in Albia, which includes Moore's (officially) brief career working with the RI during those early days of our more optimistic nation. As with previous volumes in the series, Lee's research, based on investigations of the official Moore Archive at the University of Nottingham, as well as extensive interviews with both the bearded magus himself and many of his contemporaries, is staggering in both its breadth and depth, and has turned up some remarkable revelations about the 'absolute seat-of-the-pants operation' the RI were in their early days, not least among them the extent of Moore's involvement in creating pro-Albian propaganda in the early days of the regime: it was Moore, for example, who insisted that the Lipstick Plot be publicised, against the wishes of more cautious colleagues, and who helped McKenna come up with the original, sanitised 'Albian Tintin' story of how she came to foil it, on the grounds that 'countries need myths, even if they ought to grow beyond them'. Whether the recent rash of revelations about our nations' early struggle represents part of that process of growing beyond, or simply the latest chapter in a fractious history, remains to be determined: as does the question of what role, if any, the Intelligencers will have in this new phase of our existence. 

Thursday 19 January 2023

Death is One of the Main Characters

It was surprising how quickly the old order fell. Hunkered in Balmoral, the Windsors and forces loyal to them tried to break out and take the rest of Scotland, but only got as far as Aberdeen before getting bogged down. Regime die-hards in Essex and Kent tried their best to harry the Rebellion's flanks, but were no match for the London Legion, the ragtag force of army deserters and citizen soldiers who fought so hard to free the port at Tilbury. And when units from newly-liberated Kernow marched to the Legion's aid, the diehards were forced into full retreat, besieged in Dover, where no supplies came because France, angered at the Windsors' decision to carry out a murder on their soil, was blockading all traffic. Some made their escape on small boats, washing up on the shores of the Channel Islands, and learned the hard way that the people of Jersey and Guernsey hated outsiders just as much as they did - and this time they were the outsiders. Few were surprised at how quickly the crapauds moved to re-open the camps left over from the Nazi invasion, this time for the 'resettlement' of English refugees, whose bitter complaints about their conditions fell on deaf ears in the islands. 

Meanwhile, in the liberated territories, the Rebellion got down to the business of forming a government. In honour of his great sacrifice, Freddie Mercury was grated the ceremonial title of First Citizen in a ceremony at the Tower of London, in which he emerged resplendent in the Crown Jewels of the former regime, each of which he ritually cast off and threw in a skip (they would later be broken down, and their gemstones, such as the famed Koh-i-noor diamond, returned to the countries from which the Windsors' ancestors had stolen them). It was decided that the United Kingdom should become a Union of five independent Republics: Scotland, Northumbria, Cymru, Kernow and Anglia, joined together in the name of Albia (a combination of the ancient names of these lands; a new goddess, stronger and brighter than tired old Britannia). As a fraternal gesture, the newly-united Republic of Ireland was invited to join us as well: for entirely understandable reasons, they declined, though officially the offer remains open. 

But for me and my parents, in Newcastle, life went on pretty much as before, barring six weeks or so of turmoil as regime loyalists tried to take the city. My mother reported on as much of it as she could for the Chronicle: it was tough, seeing her heading out in her flak jacket and helmet labelled PRESS, knowing we might not see her again. Dad did his best to look after me and my brother, keeping the war from the door and food on the table, and wondering what it would be like when he went back to teaching once fighting died down. 

By April things were mostly back to normal. Dad was back in school: he liked to say that whatever regime was in power, biology never changed, and however they decided to structure the curriculum he could teach kids about mitochondria and cellular meiosis just the same. But really, he cared for his kids: not just me and Jim, but the kids he'd taught, who he'd worried about during those weeks of explosions, sirens and uncertainty. Some seats in his classroom were empty; some would be filled by kids from other classes, whose teachers weren't lucky enough to return. None were the same as they were before the war broke out, but dad did his best to keep their spirits up, and did well. More than once, I've ran into one or another of his former students, who's told me how much he helped them cope. 

April, of course, is when I found myself part of the war. Some of that story has been told before, but some details were left out, and sanitised, to maintain the myth of the Tintin-like adventurer who foiled the Lipstick Plot. The truth, however, is a little grubbier and a lot more disturbing, but I think it needs to be told here both because I have to tell my own truth, and because it sheds a light on the kind of people employed by the old regime to do its dirty work. So, here is the story of how I killed a woman, at the tender age of just thirteen. 

As I say, things were returning to normal in Newcastle. The city was excited for the big speech First Citizen Mercury was going to make at City Hall, and my mum was working overtime reporting on the preparations. One Saturday, dad took my brother and me up to see her for a pub lunch at the Printer's Pie, the pub on Pudding Chare where the Chronicle journos went drinking. As a special treat, I was given some money and, while Jim and Dad waited for mum, allowed to walk the short distance to Forbidden Planet, where I could buy some of my favourite things - comics.

New issues were tricky to get hold of, of course, though cargo was coming through Liverpool and other Western ports again, but there was still a wealth of back issues to choose from. My tastes in those days ran mostly to superhero stuff, though I'd started branching out: I read Alan Moore's V for Vendetta in one sitting during one of the worst nights of the war in Northumbria, the sounds of real-life shelling mingling with the silent fireworks and explosions of David Lloyd's art. And I was looking at a recent work by another of those Albian Invaders, Neil Gaiman, when she came up to me. 

'Hello boy,' she said, in a surprisingly husky voice. 'What's that you're looking at?' 

I showed her the cover: a picture of a young boy with dark hair and glasses, riding a skateboard, followed by an owl. 'The Books of Magic,' I told her. 'It's about this kid who learns to be a wizard.' 

'Really? And is that what kids like these days? Boy wizards?'

I shrugged. There was something kind of weird about the way she said boy, but I figured that was probably just my dysphoria. 'I guess. It's a bit of an archetype, isn't it? You know, like Ged from Earthsea and that. The main thing is the guy who writes it, Neil Gaiman. He writes this book called Sandman which everyone's always raving about...'

She clapped her hands together and smiled. 'My! Archetypes and Earthsea! You are a bright child, aren't you?'

I blushed. 'I wouldn't say that, I just read a lot...'

'I can see that! So what is this Sandman about?'

'Well I've not read it yet, but from what I've seen it's kind of goth. You know, black clothes and graveyards and that. Death is one of the main characters.'

'Hmmmm! You know, speaking of graveyards, I discovered a really interesting grave in the churchyard of St John the Baptist, just across the road. A poet's grave, actually. I could show you, if you like.'

Going with her was naive, I know, but in my defence, I was young, and all the stranger danger videos I'd been exposed to in the eighties had told me to be wary of creepy dudes with stubble and booze on their breath, not posh, well-dressed women who talked about books. 'Just let me get this first,' I told her. 

It wasn't far from the shop to the churchyard, and it was on the way to the pub anyway. The lady was looking around a lot, but that was by no means unusual: after all, there was a war on. 

When we got to the churchyard she began to slow down, walking a little behind me. 'Where's this gravestone?' I asked her. 

'Just there,' she pointed. And then, while I looked in the direction of one of those old black headstones, she kicked me in the small of the back and knocked me to the ground. 

She was on top of me almost immediately, grabbing at the waistband of my jeans, trying to shove her hand inside, muttering 'Bloody fat children...have you even got a dick under all this pork, you piggy little cunt...'

Desperately, in shock, I thrashed around, managing to knock her arm away and get onto my back, but she was still on top of me. Frantically I got my hand into the pocket of my jacket. 

Things had largely gotten back to normal in Newcastle. But my mum still made sure both me and my brother carried knives. 

And so I stabbed her in the neck. Once, twice...I don't really remember how often. What I do remember is the look of horror in her eyes, the blood gushing out of her throat.

'You...you little...fucking....cunt...' she gargled, as if she was drowning. 'I was going...going...to...'

I scrabbled back against the gravestone and watched her fall to the ground. My heart was pounding. My breath came in ragged gasps. And suddenly I was aware of another man running into the graveyard, a balding, grey-haired man in a trenchcoat, a gun in his hand. 

I dropped the knife and threw my hands out. 'It wasn't me!' I shouted out instinctively. 

He lowered the gun, looked around, and returned it to his holster. He knelt over the woman's body, checked her pulse, then looked at me. 'It's alright,' he said, in a sonorous, Welsh-inflected London accent. 'It's alright. I'm not going to hurt you.' He reached into his coat and pulled out a badge. 'I'm a Republic Intelligencer. My name's Iain. And you are?' 

I told him my deadname, which I still went by in those days. 'That's a nice name,' he said, and produced a walkie-talkie from inside his trenchcoat. 'Listen, I need to call one of my colleagues, okay? Will you be alright while I do that?'

I nodded, and he got on the radio. As I began to calm down I looked down at the ground and saw the cover of my copy of The Books of Magic had been stained with blood. A rivulet of arterial spray, crossing the face of the protagonist, Timothy Hunter. On his forehead. Just above his glasses. Like a scar. 

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Let's call our political and media class what it is: a nonceocracy


Why does this headline end with 'teachers told'? 

Because it's the only way this paper can print this headline without telling an outright lie. Notice also the use of the weasel phrase 'well-being'. Not health, not safety. 'Well-being'. A nebulous term, used precisely for its ambiguity. Another way rags like the Torygraph lie without completely lying.

See, socially transitioning - which, aside from maybe taking puberty blockers - is the only form of transition kids can go through, is NOT associated with any negative health outcomes. In fact, it's exactly the OTHER way around - preventing trans kids from socially transitioning is associated with LOTS of negative outcomes - including suicide. Hard to think of an outcome more negative than that.

So why would our government issue guidance like this? It's simple really. 

They WANT to harm children. They get off on it. 

What possible other conclusion can one draw? This is the same media and political class which cheerfully celebrates a man like Giles Coren, who fantasised about raping a teenage boy and wrote a really creepy column about his own daughter and how 'sexy' she made him feel. The same media and political class which fulminates over the cancellation of Jeremy Clarkson over his one-handed rantings about throwing his bodily emissions over a naked Meghan Markle. The same media and political class which knowingly enables the likes of Nick Cohen, Chris Pincher, David Warbuton, Wayne Couzens, David Carrick and the many, many other rapists still to be exposed in our press, police and Parliament. 

The same political and media class which clutched its collective pearls when Ian Blackford used Parliamentary privilege to name a vicious paedophile working in one of their public school pervert factories. Because that is their greatest fear - being exposed. Being known. Unmasked for all the world to see. To them, Blackford committed the unpardonable crime: he broke the omertá. He called a nonce a nonce. 

They dress it up in concern, in rhetoric which slanders LGBTQ people as 'groomers', but make no mistake: headlines like this are a softening up process for letting the government pass laws like those we've seen passed in America, reclassifying allowing your trans kids to transition - by far the BEST thing a parent who truly cares for their child can do - as abuse. And then once they've reclassified it thus, they can justify taking children away from their truly loving parents and putting them in care, and eventually fostering them out to Decent Patriotic Christian Parents - or to put it country simple, nonces. 

Defy this fascist government. Defy the nonceocracy. Stand up for trans lives. PROTECT YOUR CHILDREN.

Pucker Up and Think of England

 'New Castle? Where the fuck is that?'

The limey sighed ever so slightly under his breath. I found myself nostalgic for the simple, Ivy League condescension of Hartford. 

'It's a city in the north, near the border with Scotland. And it's only one word, not two. And the locals pronounce it - '

'I don't care how they fucking pronounce it, I'm not going deep cover there, am I? I can't believe Langley fucking signed off on this.'

To say I was not enjoying my time in the no-longer entirely United Kingdom would have been the mother of all understatements. I'd barely got off the plane before the situation I'd been told I was going to monitor turned into an actual shooting war. It would have been nice if the Brits had told us they were going to off Fred the First's she-he boyfriend but I guess those fruits figured Royal business always counted as an internal matter, even if they killed the bitch in Gay Paree. The Directorates were not happy, and my superiors even less so. And now I was stuck in Limeyland, officially disavowed by Langley, living out of a holdall full of cash, Marlboro and fake passports I'd picked up from a locker at the St Giles Y, and having to be patronised by this prick. 

'Look there's no need to be rude. I don't like this situation any more than you do but the fact is we need a big win right now. There's no getting through Bulsara's security in London but this speech in Newcastle might give us an opportunity. That's why we need you there.' 

Bulsara. Typical Brit, I thought. They couldn't lay a glove on the dude so they'd resorted to...what was it all these sissy kids were calling it? Deadnaming. Schoolyard crap. No wonder their papers were so smug they were unreadable. There were mornings when I wished it wasn't just Farringdon Road that got bombed.  

'Might give us an opportunity. This is a Hail Mary play and you know it, chum. We may as well pack up and go home.'

'And how do you intend to do that, Mr Billings?' He bristled. 'Are you going to swim?'

The fucker had me there. There were no passenger flights in or out of the country and the rebels had the ports locked down. I was going nowhere. Except New-fucking-castle, one word, don'tchaknow, it seemed. 

'Alright pal, you convinced me. I'll go to King's Cross, take a train up country, double-tap the guy who wants to ride his bicycle, and get cut down in a hail of fucking gunfire, most likely. Never say we don't make sacrifices for the special relationship.'

He snorted. 'Really Mr Billings, our plan isn't anywhere near that crude.'

Oh, here we go, I thought. 

'You won't be slotting the target, Mr Billings. In fact we hope there won't be any need for gunplay at all. We simply need you to act as a bodyguard for our real assassin.' He cleared his throat and pressed a button on his phone. 'Vicky, darling, could you send in JR? Thank you.'

The door buzzed and a woman walked into the office. She was a little short, with messy red hair and a face just chubby enough to set off her hatchet nose. Oh great, I thought, we're going to honeytrap the world's most famous homo with some British fucking dolly bird. Great plan, 007

I mean, seriously, fuck these people. 

'Billings, meet JR. She's going to neutralise Bulsara for us.' 

She reached out a surprisingly large hand.  'I prefer Jo,' she said.

I shook it. 'Pleased to meet you. I prefer not being in your shitty fucking country.'

She glared at me, just for a second, then pretended to laugh it off. 

'Jo, show Mr Billings the weapon.'

Oh, this is gonna be some bullshit, I thought, and was proved right when the broad pulled out a tube of fucking lipstick.  'For fuck's sake...'

'We shouldn't have to go that far, Mr Billings. This lipstick contains a slow-acting topical neurotoxin, virtually undetectable. Jo here has been inocculated with the antidote, but Bulsara has not, and by the time he realises he's been poisoned it will be too late to administer it. Jo will push through the crowds posing as an adoring fan and give Bulsara a kiss on the cheek. And that, as I believe you say, will be all she wrote.'

'This is the stupidest - '

'Really Mr Billings? Is it any stupider than exploding conch shells? Or cigars laced with thalium salts? Mr Bulsara is a pop star. He's used to this kind of fan interaction. It won't seem suspicious.'

'Maybe, but this isn't Sun City, buddy. Mercury's gonna have heavy security.'

Jo chuckled. 'Oh trust me Mr Billings, I can be very forceful when I need to be. I'll get to him.' Her expression changed, and she began to jump in place like a teenybopper. 'Oh, Freddie Freddie Freddie, I love you! I'm your biggest fan!' Just as abruptly her face changed back to her usual scowl. 

Her boss giggled too. It was a regular limey laugh fest, Carry On Assassinating. 'You're sure you're up to it, Jo? Mr Bulsara isn't a little too old for your tastes?'

She smirked. 'I'll pucker up and think of England, Rory.'

Jesus wept. So this was the latest stage in my glorious career: babysitting some kind of British pervert. Fine, I thought. Ours not to reason why. But I also thought: fuck this Q branch bullshit. When I get a bead on that bastard I'm dropping him old-school. 

Monday 16 January 2023

Car Crashes and the Smell of Burning Hair

Prince Dai and Freddie pictured in happier times. Illustration by Sarah Peploe

I burned the first hair off my body the same day Prince Dai died. I waited until my parents were in bed, stole one of my dad's lighters, watched it sizzle, smelled the smell and then, worried that my parents would detect it, hid the lighter underneath my pillow and sprayed some deodorant, and tried to write something about Dai's death in my diary. It was rubbish, of course: I was barely a teenager. But I felt, even then, that I ought to write something. I knew, somehow, that writing was how I would find my way through. 

When I came down to breakfast that morning and my mum told me what had happened I assumed it was a joke. 'Did you know Dai and Freddie have been in a crash in Paris?' I mean, come on. That's a set-up if ever you've heard one, right? And, of course, it was. Set up by the Windsors and their lackeys in the secret police, the creepy little bastards who used to rule this country and still wish they did. Dai was killed outright in the crash, but no-one expected Freddie to live and describe what he saw, or that the assassin sent to tie up his loose end in a French hospital would be so inept. But Freddie did live, and he described what he saw: the nondescript white car overtaking the pursuing paparazzi, the strobe shone in their driver's face, the look of dumb hate in the eyes of the man in the car. And one thing more, not part of their plan but the real reason for it.

The baby. 

It's hard for us to think our way into the Windsors' shoes, to understand the bizarre importance of blood and succession to them. Even though Dai was in the process of divorcing Charles, even though he had said he wanted nothing more to do with them, as far as Elizabeth Windsor was concerned if there was even the tiniest possibility that some King Ralph-style catastrophe could lead to the child of a guy from Zanzibar who was originally called Farrokh Bulsara sitting on the British throne, that had to be stopped. Especially if said child had been born from the womb of some transgender abomination. So the Commander-in-Chief of the UK's forces gave the order, and her secret intelligencers set to work on a plot, and that plot came to fruition in that Paris tunnel. 

Mercury's survival was not something any of them had planned for. Everyone had assumed that the AIDS guy would be the easy kill, was practically dying anyway. But their intelligence wasn't as good as they thought: none of them knew that Dai had used his contacts to get Freddie on the new retrovirals coming out of Cambridge, the ones that would save so many lives in the years after the War, when the Albian Republics made AIDS relief their top foreign aid priority. Those drugs made him tough enough that he survived the crash, tough enough to hold off his would-be assassin until the nurses could knock him out with a bedpan. And tough enough to tell the truth about what happened. 

The BBC and other British media went full omerta on that news, of course, but the European media were all over it and besides, it was also filtering through to online newsgroups, pirate radio, the whisper networks. Finally it was the Guardian that would print the truth, and pay a heavy price for it. We know now, of course, that it wasn't a gas explosion that destroyed their building and killed so many excellent columnists and reporters, but few were fooled even then. 

Some consider the Farringdon Road bombing the beginning of the War of Independence. Others pick the civilian deaths when troops loyal to the Windsors fired on the crowds which attacked what were then called the Royal Palaces in response to the news. Despite the controversy surrounding his transition, Prince Dai was a beloved figure, and the scale of popular anger at his murder took everyone by surprise. Some of the smaller palaces were ransacked before the authorities could respond, and by the time the mob turned its attention to Buckingham Palace the troops were on a hair trigger. Their firepower couldn't overcome the crowds, but it bought Elizabeth and her husband Philip time to be helicoptered to Balmoral. 

It didn't buy them time to burn all the evidence of the Windsors' crimes, though. And when those were exposed, even more would join the troops who'd gone AWOL from Iraq and smuggled weaponry back home to begin guerilla attacks against the army that abused them. The war was on. 

But not for me. Not yet. Back then, the only thing I was at war with was my body. But that would soon change. In a way I could never have expected.