IN THE good old days when Britain's secret services recruited only at Oxbridge - instead of through newspaper advertisements - one student, later to become a famous Sunday newspaper correspondent, was discreetly approached to join MI6. He went through all the preliminary vetting and then went for a one-to-one interview that could clinch the job.
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As he later described it: "The interviewer was a master spy, later to become head of the service. He had a brilliant mind as sharp as a steel trap and it was a pleasure to talk with him. He painted a glowing picture of what life would be like with what he called 'the old firm' and I was seriously considering committing myself when I felt his hand on my knee under the table. I thought it might be some sort of test, but when it began to creep up my thigh I decided that was the end of that."
So the news last week that the secret services have relaxed their ban on gays to attract recruits from a broader section of the population - "MI5 brings homosexuals back in from the cold", as one headline put it - is a little puzzling.
As all spywatchers know, they have never been out there. Right from their formation in 1909, Britain's secret services have been thick with homosexual officers, as has the opposition. At the peak of the Cold War we had been so penetrated by gay agents working for the Comintern that they privately referred to their spy ring as "the Homintern".
Guy Burgess, of Burgess and Maclean notoriety, was a prominent Homintern member and such a dedicated homosexual that even the Russians, prudish about such matters, had to provide him with a boyfriend after he defected to Moscow in 1951.
Sir Anthony Blunt, an MI5 officer with a fine war record, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, a distant relative of hers, and an art historian of international renown, also had a secret gay life. Alex Kellar, director of MI5's F Branch (Communist subversion) in the mid-1960s, was homosexual, and there are doubts about the sexual orientation of Sir Maurice Oldfield, who retired as chief of MI6 in 1978. He confessed in 1980 that he had lied about his preferences. (In fairness, I must add that when I drove Sir Maurice home after dinner one night and he asked me up to his flat for a nightcap, he behaved impeccably.)
The Russians may have been prudish but that did not stop them employing homosexual agents to compromise Western gays and then blackmail them. The best-known case involved Jeremy Wolfenden, the Daily Telegraph correspondent in Moscow in the early 1960s. The barber for the Soviet Ministry for Foreign Trade seduced Wolfenden on KGB orders. Just as they were going to bed in Wolfenden's room at the Ukraine Hotel, a KGB photographer jumped out of the wardrobe and said: "Allya, allya. Schta tut proiskhodit?" (literally, "Hello, hello. What's going on here?") as he photographed them.
The KGB then demanded that Wolfenden provide it with information about the Western community in Moscow, otherwise a packet of 10in x 8in prints would land on the desk of the Telegraph's foreign editor. Wolfenden bravely reported what had happened to MI6 who, in turn, tried to persuade him to "co-operate with the Russians but remain loyal to us". So, instead of getting himself off the hook, he found himself trapped by both sides - a contributing factor in his subsequent nervous breakdown and early death.
Those interested in the relationship between spying and gays sometimes wonder if the very nature of the secret world attracts gays, who, until recently, had to lead secret lives themselves? The profession certainly appeals to society's outsiders. One of MI5's most successful officers, Max Knight, was a zoologist, author, fencer, cricketer, magician, jazz drummer and naturalist. In bed he preferred neither women nor men but grass snakes.
Psychological conundrums such as this are probably better explored in fiction than in journalism. The Irish writer John Banville, in a novel about Anthony Blunt (The Untouchable, published by Picador) offers the theory that the milieu of the spy and the homosexual are almost identical. Take the clandestine meeting, or Traffen as spies tend to call it.
Banville has his Blunt character say: "When I began to go in search of men, it was already familiar to me: the covert speculative glance, the underhand sign, the blank exchange of passwords, the hurried hot unburdening - all, all familiar. Even the territory was the same, the public lavatories, the grim suburban pubs, the garbage-strewn back alleyways and, in summer, the city's dreamy, tenderly-green, innocent parks whose clement air I sullied with my secret whisperings."
To be fair, however, the secret services should be frank about their attractiveness to vigorous heterosexuals. Markus Wolff, former head of the East German secret service, the Stasi, scooped up most of West Germany's secrets by employing a legion of handsome, virile officers to seduce a generation of middle-aged women civil servants who had been deprived of sex and romance because most of the eligible West German men had been killed in the war.
My own theory as to why sex and spying seem to go well together is simple - once you overcome your scruples about reading other people's letters, eavesdropping on their conversations, burgling their premises, exploiting their character weaknesses, and blackmailing and betraying them, it's the perfect job. A life of travel, adventure, and authorised sex, with a flexible expense account (informers don't give receipts) can be attractive to bachelors of either persuasion. That's what the secret services are counting on.