Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Head of MI5 and a traitor's grave

Sir Roger & Lady Valentine Hollis open the local flower show

Harry Chapman-Pincher has released Treachery:Betrayals, Blunders and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage, published by Mainstream Books, a riveting expose of Britain's security service. Harry has been on their case since the sixties when I worked with him at the Express. In particular he has relentlessly pursued the truth about the boss of MI5 during the Cold War, Sir Roger Hollis, whom he believes was a double agent for the Soviets, despite government denials. And I agree with him.

This is the story of how I found a shepherd in a pretty Somerset village who unmasked Sir Roger as Britain's greatest ever traitor.

Ever since the Cambridge Spy Ring defected to the Soviet Union in the 50’s there has been speculation about the role of Sir Roger Hollis, head of MI5 from 1956 to ‘65. Kim Philby was dubbed, ‘the greatest spy of the century,’ when he fled to Moscow at the height of the Cold War. He had been tipped off of impending arrest as had been Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, both Foreign Office officials. And all turned up in Moscow years later.

Philby was said to know the identity of every British spy, and many American spies in the Soviet Union.  Britain was already reeling from the Christine Keeler scandal and her entanglement with War Minister, John Profumo and his ‘KGB spy’ friend, Stephen Ward. Why had the Intelligence Service not tipped off the Macmillan government? Britain was made to look foolish and questions were asked.

During the ‘50’s and ‘60’s a large number of MI5 operations were failing and the suspicion was that the KGB had a mole inside Britain’s Secret Service. Fingers were pointed at Sir Roger Hollis and his deputy, Graham Mitchell. Many authors have speculated on Hollis’s guilt, the latest being Harry Chapman Pincher’s book, released this month.

The Service set Hollis and Mitchell against each other to watch for cracks in their cover, but none came. Subsequent debriefs of Soviet defectors, coming the other way, showed that Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross and later, Anthony Blunt, were responsible for many of these operations failing. They had been tipping off their KGB spymasters for years from their comfortable jobs inside the Foreign Office, leading their controllers to call them ‘the magnificent five.’

Yet the disasters continued after the notorious Cambridge Spies had ‘gone over’ to the Soviets. There had to be another mole, high up in the Service but, in 1974, Lord Trend led an inquiry into Hollis and had found nothing.

In the ‘70’s, at the height of the speculation, I was asked to locate any existing pictures of Hollis. On the Mail I had done the picture research for Stewart Steven’s book on Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service and now he wanted Hollis. All the usual picture sources for Hollis had been ‘cleaned’ by the spooks. There was nothing of Britain’s spymaster-in-Chief. In London I located two photographs of Hollis that the ‘cleaners’ overlooked. A portrait and an old wedding photo of his first marriage at St Margaret’s Westminster. Both were ancient history so I went digging.

Hollis had been born in Wells, Somerset and I followed his trail West. I knew he was a passionate golfer which led me to the posh Burnham and Berrow Golf Club in Weston-super-Mare where he had been captain. Like all golf clubs there was a roll of honour board on display. The names of proud past captains were in gold leaf on mahogany panelling. 

The board of honour entries were blank for the years that Hollis was captain of this exclusive club. When I asked the members, there were shrugs all round: “Never heard of him.”
I reasoned, maybe that’s what they did in those Cold War days, hid in anonymity. I found the retired captain of the club’s Artisans section who still lived in the town.  This nice old chap confirmed:
“Yes. Sir Roger was club captain. He presented our annual Artisans trophy, but he never mixed with us much. There were never any pictures taken.”
So I moved on to the Bath & Wells Chorister School where Hollis had been a governor. The annual magazine always carries pictures. The years in question were missing. More shrugs.
On to the local paper who said: “Go back through the files.”

I flicked through ten years of the Wells Journal, a lovely little local paper, week by week.
And there he was. Undiscovered by the security ‘cleaners.’ The caption read:
‘Sir Roger and Lady Valentine Hollis open the local flower show.’  An elderly gent in a suit with his smiling wife holding a basket of chrysanthemums.

I was on the right track for Britain’s Cold War spy master.  Now I had an address. ‘Primrose Cottage,’ Catcott, a tiny typical Somerset English village, the sort on postcards in souvenir shops. But Primrose Cottage was the address of Catcott village Post Office. Surely Sir Roger didn’t sell stamps on the side? I scoured that village and found there was a second, identically named Primrose Cottage, way out in the back end of it. A perfect ruse to lead the unwanted from the real address. It was worthy of a George Smiley novel.

The centre of local life, as in all these villages, was the church. Catcott church is a tiny, beautiful Norman church in stone. A stone wall surrounded the trim churchyard of eighty or so gravestones. I hunted those graves for clues but there was no Hollis. Inside, the forty pews were unmarked. The walls the same. I was doubting Sir Roger ever lived there. Then it happened.

There was a church notice board in the porch with a pinned letter:
‘Will the ladies of the Committee please replace the chairs after use.’
Signed Val Hollis. Edith Valentine Hammond had been Sir Roger Hollis’s secretary for many years in MI5. Peter Wright in Spycatcher asserts that they had a long standing affair and she even refused promotions to stay with him. Finally, after Hollis divorced his first wife, they married and she became Edith Valentine Hollis. Now, long after his death, she was still tending this church. Therefore, I thought, he must be buried in it?

So I visited the local pub, the source of all knowledge. I took a pint with a wonderful, old local shepherd who wore a traditional, leather lambing apron.  We spoke about Hollis. I quizzed him on the mystery and his answer revealed all.
“Sir Roger? He’s there, all right. He’s in the churchyard  wall. They took out a flint and put ‘im in there. There ‘aint no marks, though. You won’t see ‘im.”

This shepherd had attended the funeral. My ephemeral spy master existed! His body had been cremated and his remains had been stowed behind a stone in the wall. His death had been expunged from all public record.
I had pictures of previous MI5 bosses who, when laid to rest, were honoured by black horses, caparisoned with tall, sombre plumes, pulling the funereal hearse, garlanded with flowers. Fitting tributes for a lifetime’s service once their secret identity was no longer necessary. This Cold War chieftain was in an unmarked grave.

Britain’s Establishment has always used an unmarked grave as a sign of treachery, going back eons. So why for Sir Roger? MI5 gives you short shrift on the matter.
‘It was claimed that Sir Roger Hollis, who was Director General of the Security Service from 1956-1965, was a Russian spy. The Trend inquiry of 1974 cleared Hollis of that accusation. Subsequently, the evidence of the former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky confirmed this judgement.’

In Britain unmarked graves are the resting place reserved for notorious criminals like Myra Hindley and Dr Harold Shipman. Earlier for Nazi war crimes perpetrators like Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering and Adolf Eichmann.

And yet Sir Roger Hollis was ignominiously hidden away behind an unmarked stone in a country graveyard wall, only his widow and a local shepherd left to tend his memory.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thanks to you all!

My kindle e-book, Murder at the Royal Wedding, is getting much attention. Most good, some not so! Thanks to all below who thought it worth a mention:

Roy Greenslade

Andrew Pugh

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What has Facebook and the criminals of Sydney 1912 got in common?

Facebook hit two milestones this week. Firstly, VP of Facebook Europe, Joanna Shields, announced that 30 million UK citizens were now on the service. That’s half the population of Britain.

Secondly, web security firm, Sophos, declared that Facebook had secretly rolled out their facial recognition software to Europe. The USA had it in December. This software programme scans all uploaded pictures and checks them against a database of names. They say it’s ‘to help subscribers relieve the boredom of tagging names to their snaps.’

Nothing nefarious going on there, then. Perfectly above board, I hear you cry.

So, half the population of the UK are on a facial recognition database in America. Soon followed, no doubt, by the rest of Europe. Facebook knows who you are. Google street view knows where you live. Apple’s iPhone GPS knows where you’ve been. Where IS George Orwell when you need him?

Of course, face spotting has been going on since the caves. In a split second our clever brains sort the bad monkeys from the good ones as a necessary survival skill. Like Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth) in “Lie to Me” who knows what people are thinking even before they do. Something inherent in us sets off a precautionary warning. And sometimes it’s wrong. Looking at police mug shots somehow preconditions us to believe the person in them must be bad. Poor old Hugh Grant looked less than glam in his LA police mugshot.

This reminded me of a wonderful book called “City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912 - 1948.”

The Australian Historic Houses Trust rescued from a flood a vast collection of forensic crime photographic glass plates created by the New South Wales Police of that era. Author Peter Doyle turned them into a fascinating book.

These monochrome pictures of the backstreet pimps, pushers, conmen and working girls of Sydney spring alive on the page. They are both fascinating and noir. Viewing them they force a reaction from that bit of the brain that ‘judges’ others by using natures original facial recognition software.

You can buy it HERE:

And see the pictures HERE:

Friday, June 3, 2011

Is she calling me a tit?

The excellent Cathy Zhu Chen at the book site has commented on Murder at the Royal Wedding thus: "One can almost feel the papillae on one’s tongue shrivel under the utter blandness."   You must be impressed by a girl who can quote papillae, a 17th century Latin word. Those of you who don't know, it literally means a 'nipple' or 'small protuberance.'  Is she calling me a tit?

What we have established is that her review is of the press handout. The estimable, and fair Cathy has now agreed to read the book and post again her thoughts on it. I hope to impress her this time.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

USA Today reviews Murder at the Royal Wedding

USA Today 02-06-11

Our colonial cousins have taken exception to my latest kindle book, Murder at the Royal Wedding. USA Today have reviewed it in non-glowing terms. Tasteless or extremely tacky? says the esteemed Carol Memmott in the book review pages. Not, you'll notice, the writing or the edge-of-seat excitement, but the premise of an assassin targeting Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, written by an ex-Fleet Street hack.

May I remind her that The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, an ex-Fleet St. hack himself, became a cult legend in paperback and on the big screen in Hollywood, with a story of an assassin stalking Gen. Charles de Gaul, head of the French Government, on an official parade in Paris? As we all know, nothing happened to De Gaul, it was a story. That's what author's do, we make stuff up, Carol.