A good dusty archive is one of the great loves of my life. I'm a rooter, a sorter, a browser, and a filer. It's what I enjoy doing and there are worse things for a post-middle-aged man to get up to. For me, there is an attraction to original documentation and archives are where you can find the original sources of the dramas, tragedies, comedies and histories that we call life. I'm not a purist : I don't have to get my fingers around the original, I am prepared to put up with a decent digital copy. This being the case, the Internet is an increasingly happy hunting ground and I regularly go in search of on-line archives. I will try and systematise the results of my explorations - after all I am a rooter, sorter, browser and filer - with a weekly feature which I will excitingly call Archive of the Week. And where better to start than with MI5.
MI5 (it stands For Military Intelligence, Section 5) was established 100 years ago and it is Britain's security and counter-intelligence service. Whilst MI5 deals with internal security (countering spies and nasty plots), external security (running spies and cooking up nasty plots) is handled by MI6. Over recent years MI5 has become much more open about its activities and now boasts a web site where it has adverts for current vacancies and, more than likely, it has its own Facebook Group and Twitter Account ("Following Sergie Oblamov down Strand, Wot U Doing?"). It also has its own archives and has started to make some of the masses of documents it keeps available on the Internet. The source documents which are available are proof once again of how source documents can add a powerful resonance to any story.
Take, for example, the case of Eddie Chapman. His story is fairly well known. A professional safe-breaker and armed robber in the 1930s he found himself in prison in the Channel Islands at the time of the German occupation in 1940. He put together a plan for escaping to mainland Britain by volunteering his services as a spy to the German authorities. They trained him, gave him the obligatory code pads, invisible ink and suicide pills and parachuted him back to Britain. On arrival he contacted MI5 and told his story. The authorities were quite impressed with Eddie and decided to use him as a double agent and - as Agent Zig-Zag - he was one of the most important and successful double agents of the Second World War. The exploits of Eddie Chapman have been recorded in several books and at least one film. But, to my mind, none of that accumulated story-telling can come close to reading the original badly typed statement which was taken down by his MI5 interrogators and can be seen in the MI5 archives. That smudged, torn, brown, fading document has a power that is compulsive. It is the stuff of history.