Pining for the days of an old-fashioned spy drama | South China Morning Post
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  • Jan 29, 2015
  • Updated: 12:29pm

Pining for the days of an old-fashioned spy drama

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am

Spies do not come readily to mind as victims of change like the rest of us - of workplace restructuring, cost-cutting, retraining and the like. Snooping seems like a secure, steady occupation, insulated from the chill winds of change by one country's need to know another country's military and scientific secrets.

It takes cataclysmic change to make any difference to that. So it was with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. The bottom suddenly fell out of the market for seedy intrigue and dangerous seduction, fictional and factual. Demand rose instead for the comparatively sedentary skills of industrial and economic spying.

And so it was again when the September 11 terrorist attacks ushered in a more dangerous world. Spies these days are more likely to be found tracking jihadi terror suspects, following the trail of laundered money and smuggled arms and explosives, and sifting through e-mails, rather than seducing and compromising people into revealing secrets and sifting through rubbish bins for secrets.

The older ones among us were reminded last week of how much the image of spies has changed by the passing in Britain, at the age of 91, of John Profumo.

Profumo devoted the last 40-odd years of his life to charity work, for which he was awarded an honour by Queen Elizabeth. It was an honour richly deserved but not, sadly, for which he will be best remembered. That will be as a cabinet minister involved in a political and security scandal in 1963 that almost brought down a government.

Over-50s remain fascinated with the plot. The cast included the minister for war (Profumo), an English lord, the Soviet naval attache (a spy), the society call girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, and the 'establishment osteopath' who introduced the girls to high society. The rumoured scenes included naked romps in a swimming pool, a cabinet minister dressed in bondage gear, masked men at whipping parties and orgies. They raised laughter then as well as outrage and resentment at the double standards of the establishment.

It emerged that the war minister slept with Ms Keeler, who also slept with the Soviet spy. Was this a security risk, or a 'honey pot' - an attempt by British counter-spies to compromise the spy?

Profumo quit public life for a life of penitence after he lied to Parliament about his rumoured affair with Ms Keeler.

What would younger people make of it all, the outdated titles and descriptions, scandalous behaviour that is tame by comparison with much raunchier standards today?

A revolution in sexual mores and political life means we are unlikely to see the like of such scandal and tragedy again.

In this age of global terror, spying has lost the romantic image of the cold war days. But the streets of Britain and many other countries seemed a lot safer then.


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