This New Year of 2018 is showing considerable promise as being one of big stories. The best, so far, has been the claims that Jeremy Corbyn — he who would lead the country into a Land Fit For Marxists To Dwell In — was targeted by the Czechs (in their unenlightened Commie days) as a potential informant.
Now before Mr Corbyn despatches a be-wigged one in my direction, let me stress that there is no evidence that he was, or ever has been, a spy, an informant, a traitor or anything of that ilk. He is, ahem, a jolly old patriot.
I mention this story because I,too, was once targeted by Dark Muscovite Forces when I was editor of the Londoner’s Diary on the Evening Standard. It was an exciting job to hold at that time in the 1960s when London was (as Time magazine dubbed it) “a swinging place” to live and work in.
It was the decade of Profumo, his resignation as War Minister because Christine Keeler shared her slinky favours with a spy from the Russian Embassy. And it was also a time of change from a class-ridden country with a Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who was known for his “grouse moor” image.When the country was run by grandees intent on preserving their positions.
One day I received an invitation to a cocktail party at the Russian Embassy to mark a festival of the country’s greatest films. As I had never set foot anywhere near the grand mansion that was part of their Embassy in London, I accepted the gilt-edged invitation.
The party was a very grand affair with gallons of vodka, fine Soviet wines (despite that sounding a contradiction) mountains of caviar and even some very beautiful Russian women present (described as “attaches” of this or that).
But I had hardly been on my first sip of very atomic vodka when a smooth-looking character, in what was obviously a Savile Row suit, oozed up to me and introduced himself as (let’s call him) “Oleg”. He,too, was an attache (cultural division) and we discussed British newspapers, the weather, how he adored living in England and how he loved the English.
He was charm personified, with a very lively sense of humour, excellent English and exquisite manners. We spoke for about half an hour and I had totally forgotten about him until he rang me a few days later and suggested dinner.
Ignoring the advice of a colleague who warned that lunching with folk from the Russian Embassy could be dangerous, I accepted Oleg’s invitation. We met at the Ritz Hotel’s five star restaurant and dined very well.
But towards the end of dinner Oleg suddenly started asking me about various stories I had written in Londoner’s Diary and how frequently I visited the Houses of Parliament. It was then that my suspicions sprang into life. Why was he asking these questions?
It was obvious that he was seeking to make me a regular contact to milk for information which would be transmitted back to Moscow. It was, in a rather silly way, quite ludicrous for him to start milking me for information.
I was hardly privy to an state secrets and what information I could pass him was readily available in the columns of the Diary. I could only conclude that he was merely justifying his expenses.
But his overtures did not end with dinner at the Ritz. He started telephoning me regularly in the office, then at home (to the latter extent that I had to change my number). He continued to bombard me with invitations to parties (where, he assured me, there would be present some lovely women), to more dinners at the Ritz — all because he so enjoyed my company.
Finally, I was forced to become quite tough and inform him I no longer wanted his company and if he did not desist from bothering me, I would report his conduct to the Foreign Office.
That did the trick and I never heard from him again.But it shows just how determined the Communists were to garner information, even what was appearing in the newspapers, to despatch to their Masters.
This has been a background story to Jeremy Corbyn’s experiences with the Czechs. One almost feels sorry for him. Almost.
Here’s a memory that tells of at least one would-be spy who received his comeuppance rather painfully. One lunch time back in the late 60s I was one of a group of journalists drinking in El Vino, the Fleet Street boozing hole where we all frequently gathered.
One of our number was Ronnie Payne, an expert on spies and terrorism and who worked for the Telegraph. He was an extremely affable chap, well-built, always cheery and friendly.
As we all chatted away it became clear that a tall, thin man was standing close to our group and listening to every word. Suddenly, Ronnie growled in the ear-wigger’s direction, walked up to him and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck.
Ronnie then dragged him to the doors of El Vino and,with one mighty thrust, threw him sprawling on the pavement outside. Why this sudden violence?
It turned out he claimed to be a “reporter” from Tass, the Russian news agency which had offices in Fleet Street. But he was no journalist and was, in fact, a spy sent to report back on the “secrets” of Fleet Street.
The joke was that El Vino’s stock-in-trade was not only its fine wines and excellent Scotch, but also the bollocks and bull shit spoken by its customers. Any spy who reported this back to Moscow would soon find himself on a one way trip to Siberia!