Review published on March 5, 2017.
Martin Pearce has a distinct memory of asking his uncle what he did and hearing the reply ‘Oh it’s quite boring really, dear boy. I’m a kind of security guard at embassies’. It was an unusual choice of career for the son of a Derbyshire farmer, who would normally have followed his father into farming. But the truth was much stranger than that, since Maurice Oldfield was head of MI6.
He was educated at Lady Manners School and then went to Victoria University of Manchester after gaining a scholarship. He gained a first class degree in Medieval history and was elected a fellow. Then, World War Two began and he went from a quiet university life to signing up; his potential was realised and he was seconded into the Intelligence Corps. His war service meant that he was awarded an MBE and when peace was declared he promptly joined MI6, starting in counter-intelligence. So began his career in the shadowy world of the spies.
He spent a lot of time overseas, working from the embassies in Singapore and Washington and he cultivated a vast network of informants, both friends and acquaintances, who would provide snippets of information and reports to him. His great strength was his analytical mind and the way that he could draw on all these pieces of information to arrive at the bigger picture. His other strength was playing the waiting game, letting a target have some free reign with the hope that he would then make a mistake so they could bring him in. He was in Washington during the Bay of Pigs events and it is thought that his advice to President Kennedy played a small part in averting a larger catastrophe. Returning to the UK, he was promoted to director of counter-intelligence, becoming second in line to the head. He missed getting the top job when Sir John Rennie was appointed, but his time had not yet come. That happened in 1973 and he became the first head not to come from an establishment upper-class background or attended Eton or Oxbridge. He held the position until he retired.
Peering into the smoke and mirrors that is the intelligence services in the UK, Pearce has uncovered the true story of his uncle. It was a pretty blemish free career, although it was tarnished at the end after an alleged event when he was the co-ordinator for security and intelligence in Northern Ireland. It was a minor blot on an exemplary career, but it was thought to have been a rogue element in MI5 that caused questions to be raised. This is a fairly balanced account as Pearce has sought to uncover the evidence and report accordingly. With all of these books on spies, it would be equally fascinating to find out the gaps in the account that Pearce was not able to discover. This would be right up your street if you like real life spies.
Paul Cheney 3/3
Spymaster: The Life of Britain’s Most Decorated Cold War Spy and Head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield by Martin Pearce
Bantam Press 9780593075203 hbk Sep 2016
The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain Since 1918 by D.J. Taylor