Thursday, November 12, 2009

Theme Thursday : Telephone

The Time : January 1975
The Place : Transport House (the Headquarters of the British Labour Party), Westminster, London.

The young man dissected Smith Square, oblivious of the hoots of cruising taxis or the idling engines of delivery vans. As he rounded the corner of St John's Church he paused momentarily in order to take in the sight which still, after all these months, sent a minor thrill down his provincial spine. He could take in the scene like one of those panoramic cameras they used on school photographs : starting with the imposing grandeur of the ICI building, swinging past the proud stone entrance of Transport House, crossing the road to the Marquess of Granby pub and finally tracking around to the ever-confident portals of the Conservative Party headquarters. This was the centre of the British political universe. This was not where the news was read, nor was it where the news was reported. This was where the news was made. This was where the movers moved and the shakers shook. And he still could not believe that he was part of it.

It was true that he was only a small part of this strange world of political intrigue. He was a gatekeeper. His job was to receive the long line of human flotsam and jetsam that were washed up to the reception desk of the Labour Party, the governing party of Great Britain. Sometimes it would be sad ex-colonels with bulging briefcases which chronicled their attempts to sue some Government Ministry or foreign power. Or mad inventors who had hit upon the secrets of perpetual motion and were in need of nothing more than a small grant from the Government in order to reveal their knowledge and change the future of humanity. Whoever they were, however strange and unhinged they might look, if they turned up at Transport House without an appointment the receptionist would reach for the telephone and he would be summoned to meet them, greet them and send them on their way.

And on this particular morning the telephone call came early. He had hardly found time to make his pot of tea and scan the headlines in the morning paper before he was called to the reception room to deal with a "caller". Cecelia was on the reception desk that morning and she nodded in the direction of a smartly suited man who was somewhat nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot whilst clutching a brief case with all the protective determination of a mother swan. The young man introduced himself and asked how he could help the visitor. And the visitor started to tell his strange tale.

He was a technological security consultant who had been undertaking a regular electronic "sweep" of the neighbouring headquarters of ICI. The company were on constant alert against the dangers of industrial espionage and he was paid to conduct regular electronic sweeps of the building to ensure that no bugs were in place and no telephones were being tapped. Whilst conducting such a sweep that morning they had detected clear evidence of a number of telephones being tapped but when they had investigated further they had determined that these phones were not within ICI Headquarters. They were next door in Transport House. They were within the headquarters of the Labour Party.

The young man listened to the story but made little of it. Watergate had been in America, that kind of thing just did not happen in Britain. And what was more, the Labour Party was in Government, it would hardly agree to bugging itself would it? He made a note of the conversation and sent the man on his way. Later he mentioned the visit to his boss, but he too just laughed and consigned the episode to the consequences of an over-active imagination.

About a week later the same young man was sat at his office desk. It must have been a Tuesday afternoon because it was quiet : for reasons he had never been able to understand eccentrics and loonies tended to stay at home on a Tuesday afternoon. He was speaking on the telephone to his wife, listening patiently as she poured her heart out about her lack of fulfillment in her chosen occupation. She too was far away from her Yorkshire home, trying hard to maintain enough enthusiasm to complete her PhD thesis on the Latin writer Seneca The Elder. She was disillusioned with classical studies and desperately homesick for her native Yorkshire. She wanted to abandon her thesis and do something which was more socially useful and personally fulfilling than textual analysis. She also wanted to go home. The conversation went on and on. He mainly listened whilst she went over the same choices again and again. To continue the thesis or to end it. To stay or to go. He knew he had to let her make the decision herself and therefore he just listened as she tried to work through the problem herself. And then, out of nowhere, there was a click on the line and a new voice suddenly interrupted their conversation. "Oh, for heaven's sake just make your mind up and do it" it said. And then once again there was silence.

They never discovered who that voice belonged to. They never heard it again. Sometimes when it was late at night and there was nobody about they wondered who was listening and why. It had been almost as though someone had been bugging the line, but they couldn't have been. Could they?

Just over a year later the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson suddenly resigned under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Later he claimed, in private conversations, that he had been the victim of a prolonged campagn of destabilisation by elements of the British Secret Service.
The Young Man continued to work for the Labour Party for a further three years before returning to his native Yorkshire. After a career as a lecturer and a writer on European affairs he took up blogging as a retirement hobby.
His wife eventually decided that she could never achieve fulfillment as a textual critic and abandoned her PhD. Later she applied to Medical School back in her native Yorkshire where she moved along with her husband.
Some ten years after the events described above the retired British Spy, Peter Wright, wrote a book (Spycatcher) describing how a secret group within the British intelligence service actively worked to bring about the fall of the Wilson Government in the 1970s. Amongst the illegal activities he had been involved in was organising telephone taps on phones at the Labour Party headquarters.


  1. oh wow alan. that is an amazing story...and you were right history. way cool.

    happy tt!

  2. what an incredible story and i had a suspicion it would end up being you who was the young man because I was thinking how else would you know?

    It reminds me of stories my mother has working in the MI5 and then when married to chief of police in one of the colonies way back in the 50's. Such intrigue and espionage but this is London!! Whoa.

  3. Alan, you never cease to surprise and amaze me. Really interesting.

  4. Very intriguing story. Spying...espionage...demise of a political career. An amazing episode to have experienced. Thanks.

  5. Probably worth a hunt through the files at Kew to see how the 'tapper' wrote up the call about some strange people being homesick for the North.

  6. I should perhaps remark that I heard a very slightly different version of this sequence of events from a private source - absolutely everything true except about the voice, I should hasten to say.

    In my alternative and possibly apocryphal version the young man was regrettably dozing slightly whilst listening patiently to his best-beloved and to his horror realised he'd uttered the quoted words (which he had naturally enough been thinking.) Hastily trying to forestall domestic disharmony, he said "What was that? My goodness, it must be that bug-er on the line!"

    (As my mother-in-law always used to say "Why spoil a good story by telling the exact truth?"!)

  7. Edwin you spoilsport! :o)

    Brilliant story! Love the way that it unfolded - sounds as though you had an interesting time being 'where the news was made'...

  8. Edwin : Nobody is going to believe your version of events because -
    (1) I would never talk to my wife like that, and
    (2) If what you suggest is true then why did Harold Wilson resign. Now answer me that!

  9. Fascinating experience, Alan. Wow!

  10. I can't believe that was you there! That is an incredible story...really amazing.

  11. Thank you Kimy and Betsy : And despite what Edwin suggests - it was all true.

  12. I love your posts. I always learn something new and interesting.

  13. It's always such a delight to read your blog - and what a fascinating story you tell today.

  14. Wow, another of your amazing indeed!

  15. "this was where the movers moved and the shakers shook."
    That was a great line, Alan!

    I'm sure we had a copy of "Spycatcher" in our house. Both my mom and dad read it.
    I am put in mind of the LeCarre novels and dramatizations and although it's not really the spy game, "House of Cards".

  16. Wow - Amazing bit of history tossed in with all these phones! Cool, man!

  17. And the prose emerges! I'd definitely love to read long-form historical fiction from you sometime.

    Hint, hint.

  18. Great story--what could have been going thru the operatives mind to cut in like that? Intriguing!

  19. so tuesday is a slow day for crazies? Good thing we don't do Theme Tuesday!

    The story is mind boggling! yes big brother is watching...and listening too!

    I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing~

  20. Alan this was wonderfully crafted. Strange how we have movies made of the Watergate fiasco but so little in terms of exposing this time in British Politics. If only the Brits would expose their secrets. There are so many!

  21. And here I was, thinking "What an intriguing piece of fiction!"... until the end. This Young Man, "a lecturer and a writer on European affairs," sounds vaguely familiar. Wonder if I can locate the blog or blogs you mentioned?

    Fascinating, Captain.

  22. Wonderful when your personal history and your country's history intertwine like that. Excellent post.

  23. wow. what a story.


Halifax Town Hall

  This is an old picture postcard of Halifax Town Hall from my collection. It is the detail that is fascinating: Salmon & Glucksters tob...