SPIES & SCRIBES
by ©Tyne O’Connell
The basis of all drama is secrets, not necessarily nefarious secrets, just secrets.
Secrets are the beginning and end of all stories which is why authors such as Aphra Behn and Ian Fleming have doubled up as spies throughout history. Even as a small child I found the notion of secrets intriguing. Earwigging is such an essential pastime for both authors and spies and with secrecy as the currency for both professions, the two have always been linked.
The origins of the saying, the pen is mightier than the sword go back to the early 7th Century BC when writer and sage, Ahiqar wrote, ”The word is mightier than the sword.”
The great prophet Muhammad said, “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.” Something all Islamic mothers would do well to teach their sons. Unfortunately the brutality of the sword has so often slain the inky scribe before the ink is dry on her page.
Certainly, by the time Shakespeare’s character, the spy Rosencrantz declares, “many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills!” the notion of the power of the written word to change and end lives had already taken root in the collective imagination.
It seems a little quaint in the current age of hacks and net trolls to imagine a time when writers were considered so supremely influential that the world’s Royals and governments courted writers openly and in secret.
Aphra Behn (1640 -1689) the great wit of the Restoration was not only the most prolific playwright of the Restoration, coining the phrase “She Stoops To Conquer” but she led a black slave rebellion in Surinam and saved the British Fleet while acting as a spy for the Stuart king in Antwerp.
Aphra Behn – code name 160, or Astrea, is believed to be the first person to invent the use of lemon juice as invisible ink. It was through a lemon juice ink warning written over a witty letter to her king that Aphra warned King Charles II of the imminent attack on his fleet, enabling him to dissemble thus saving the day.
Author Fanny Burney was another writer/spy who was on the front line in the battlefield of Waterloo. In fact Fanny Burney’s vivid account of the fighting was the source material for Thackeray’s later work Vanity Fair. Aphra Behn had more plays produced on the West End than either Sheridan or Dryden and acted in many of them while managing to squeeze in a slave rebellion and spying for the courts of both King Charles II and his father before him in the 17th Century.
Orwell, Sartre and Ian Fleming were well known spies and authors of the 20th Century though the most influential and successful spy authors have inevitably been women. Being considered the weaker sex has given women the power that comes with being underestimated.
My father was a spy in World War II and one of the last of the Old Edwardians, who guarded privacy as a precious jewel. His views on privacy massively influenced me, both as an author and as a person. The modern trend to share everything – to expose ourselves and others entirely, coupled with the perception that there is an intrinsic value to “being one’s self” were anathema to him.
He taught me about secrets as a child. I remember the first time I asked him if he could keep a secret when I was five he replied, “It is a bit rich to expect someone to keep a secret that you are declaring yourself unable to keep.”
He did not feel bad about keeping secrets and saw no reason why he should. He was a great proponent of the old assuage “a problem shared is a problem spread”. Like a plague he considered it considerate to isolate one’s private burdens.
Like all children I adored secrets and consumed secret worlds in the form of books by C.S.Lewis, Angela Brazil and Nancy Mitford like other children consumed sweets. When I wasn’t reading – like many authors – I was earwigging. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t listening behind doors or earwigging in cafes.
Granny’s warning, “If you earwig on other people’s private conversations you may hear something you don’t like,” didn’t put me off. Besides she always said, “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” What harm could come of earwigging?
I eventually found out when I was thirteen when I inadvertently overheard my two best friends discussing me – unaware I was in a loo cubicle when they’d snuck into the lavatories for a private confab. I was so hurt by what I was hearing I didn’t know whether to confront them or weep.
A boy I was keen on at the nearby boy’s school had approached one of their brothers to ask if I had a boyfriend. I didn’t, but these girls, my so called best friends who were always telling me I had the best figure in the school to my face, were now saying they didn’t understand what he saw in me, especially with my eczema and ridiculously large breasts. So they’d told him I did have a boyfriend and wasn’t interested. They agreed it was for my own good which is always what others say to justify cruelty. They were doing me a favour preventing me from heartbreak and pinky swore not to tell me. Over the course of the day my humiliation turned into righteous indignation. How very dare they talk about me behind my back! Were my breasts really too ridiculously large?
I shared my outrage at my friend’s two-faced conversation with my parents over dinner in the hope of support and advice as to how to confront their betrayal. Instead my parents reminded me that it was none of my business what my friends chose to say about me behind my back. If they had wanted to air their views with me they would. As it was they had deliberately chosen not to and in fact I was the one in the wrong, earwigging on a private conversation.
My father pointed out that as things stood, I now knew something they didn’t know I knew. Not that my breasts were too ridiculously large to make me fancy-able (I hadn’t mentioned that mortifying segment) but that my best friends were not above sabotaging me.
It was one of those defining moments. On my father’s advice, I didn’t confront them. But I did end up pulling said fit boy and more importantly I learned a valuable lesson. You cannot control what people think of you and it’s pointless to try. As scarred as I was, it did not damage my friendship nor hamper my earwigging; an essential pastime for authors and spies alike and the reason the history of spies is littered with authors.
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