Saturday, 20 August 2022

The spy who felt more like Q than Bond

IN January 2014 author Sir Alistair Horne suffered a stroke.

IN January 2014 author Sir Alistair Horne suffered a stroke.

He was just two chapters away from finishing his latest book Hubris, which was published this year.

His one-month lay-off before writing the final words allowed him to sit in his home in Turville, where he has lived for 28 years, and appreciate the wonders of nature like the birds in his garden while looking out of the window.

Another thing he did to pass the time was read a number of the early James Bond books penned by Ian Fleming, who once lived at Joyce Grove in Nettlebed, now the Sue Ryder hospice.

The books may well have allowed Sir Alistair to hark back to his own time spent as a spy, which included three years providing intelligence from Germany, where he was working as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

“When I left Germany I most missed giving up a piece of equipment they gave me,” he says. “It was a suitcase with a false bottom. I was smuggling documents across from Germany to Britain and it was from the Mayfair Luggage Company in Half Moon Street. You felt like Q from Bond.”

Sir Alistair explains that back then, when he was a journalist, it was “part of your duty” to do intelligence work on the side.

He adds: “Seeing people with my spy job would help me with people as a journalist, but you couldn’t use it as information.

“If you got caught, you were on your own. If I had been caught, I would have been expelled from Germany.

“I had three contacts, two who I liked as human beings and a third who gave me the most useful information — I disliked him but he gave me the most useful stuff.”

Having left the army at 21 and graduated from Jesus College, Cambridge, he started working at the Cambridge Daily News.

He recalls: “I was covering absolutely everything you could think of. I remember covering the elections in 1951. It was the first I had covered and there were three candidates — a Liberal, a Conservative and someone from Labour. One day I ended up driving behind the Liberal candidate.

“Their car had the flippers on the side and I thought the Liberal clearly can’t make up her mind!”

He moved to the Daily Telegraph the following spring, working in their newsroom in London. When I started, it was awful,” he says. “I could not see across the room because of the tobacco smoke and I had asthma.

“I had to do very menial tasks and was suffering with boredom. Then someone came from the foreign desk and asked if anyone could speak German. I said I could but could barely tell the difference between male and female words.”

He was posted to Berlin where he was recruited to do intelligence.

Sir Alistair says: “I am great believer in intelligence. It saves more lives then any other form of warfare.

“If a gentleman asks you to do a job you would immediately say you could do it. It was part of your duty. It was what you did. Especially information from Germany.

“I think the three things of journalism, spy, historian all dovetail into each other. A requirement is that you ask the right questions and be suspicious.”

Sir Alistair spent three years in Germany but in 1955 he lost his job after an argument with the foreign editor about what became his first book, Back Into Power.

He wanted to look at the “new” Germany after the Second World War but his editor, who he remembers as Reggie, thought he should be the one writing about it.

Sir Alistair recalls: “I was terribly interested in the subject. There was antipathy with my boss and I had longed to get out from under him.

“I sent the publisher the first chapters and they liked it. But Reggie said ‘if anybody should write this book it’s me’. I then got a call from London saying I had got the sack and I haven’t done an honest day’s work since.”

He says he has missed his time as a journalist because he loved the gossip. Since then Sir Alistair has written 25 books including The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, which won the Hawthornden Prize, and the Wolfson Prize-winning A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962.

The latter led to him being introduced to former American President George W Bush in 2007.

Sir Alistair says: “I was offered to go to the White House. George Bush was fascinating and I was received with great warmth.

“He gave me a tour and showed me the desk where he sat. He treated me with great courtesy.

“He had just read my book on the Algerian war, which had just been reprinted in America. He is the most charming and delightful person and a very good listener. I went for a dinner at number 10 with Gordon Brown at his request. We talked entirely about history and I sat next to him. He is extremely likeable.”

He was joined at the dinner by fellow literary historians including Max Hastings and Simon Schama.

Sir Alistair says: “Bush came here for Gordon Brown and said he wanted to meet some British historians. I’m happy to say I really enjoyed the evening.”

Last month, Sir Alistair celebrated his 90th birthday and the international release of Hubris, which is based on the tragedy of war in the 20th century.

He says: “I looked at all these leaders and what they had in common was hubris — acting beyond their capacity. It’s extraordinary how often in life you see it happened.

“Richard Nixon was a brilliant politician and president. He had everything going for him but then he committed hubris with Watergate. He fell from the top to the bottom.

“I sat down and worked out which battles were really illustrative of it and it covers a range through history. I started with a part of the world I don’t really know — Japan.

“One of the most exciting thing about writing history books is to place things and make things come out more clearly.

“Getting into it is difficult. The start of a book is the most difficult but also the most important, you have to get it right.

“If the first chapter is wrong you’re in trouble. I doubt the reviewer would bother and would read other books. Whenever I start I try to go with an idea. With Hubris it was what does it mean and writing that gets me through the first few lines.”

Sir Alistair celebrated his birthday and the American launch of Hubris with five of his grandchildren. “It was wonderful,” he said. “We sat around the dining table and got thoroughly boozed.”

The author, who was knighted in 2003 for services to Franco-British relations and his literary contribution, still pens occasional pieces in newspapers, via his literary agents.

His most recent piece was about Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Sir Alistair says: “The fear is starting up the Cold War again but he is one person who can unlock the awful mess in the Middle East. We both share the same big problems, which is Islamic extremism.”

However, one piece he suggests he may still write is based on his experience since that stroke early last year.

“I want to write a piece called ‘in favour of having a stroke’. It does have its good points, it allows you to read books and people are very kind.”

Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP £25

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