Spy author Charles Cumming discusses his new title 'A Foreign Country'
Cumming talks about missing out on that M16 job and the role of gender in the world of spies.
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On the inspiration for the book: There’s been a scandal over here involving Witness B, an MI5 officer – MI5 being domestic security, MI6 being foreign intelligence. Witness B was accused of being present at an aggressive interrogation of a man called Binyam Mohamed. [Mohamed, a UK resident originally from Ethiopia, in 2010 agreed to a settlement worth a reported 1 million pounds from the British government after a lengthy legal fight over whether intelligence services conspired with Americans and allowed torture during rendition.] Mohamed was taken by the CIA and rendered through North Africa and then sent to Guantanamo Bay because the Americans believed that he was a potential terrorist because he’d been in Pakistan and Afghanistan immediately after 9/11.Skip to next paragraph
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Mohamed said it wasn’t true. So this MI5 officer was accused of being complicit [with the US]. I thought that was a quite interesting idea. We have a very close relationship with the Americans; the British are entirely reliant on the Americans for a lot of their intelligence and so forth. The last thing they want to do is break that relationship. I was trying to explore that.
On having a female MI6 chief as a major character: The reason to have a female chief was there is a sexism, a male chauvinism in MI6 over here. It’s still very much of a male-dominated, English public school-dominated service. It’s actually highly unlikely that Judi Dench [who plays James Bond’s boss in recent movies] or Amelia Levene [who runs MI6 in “A Foreign Country”] would actually make it to the top of the service. When I said to my friends in MI6 that I’d created this character, they all puffed out their cheeks. They couldn’t believe it. We’ve had two female heads at MI5.
On the benefits of having a woman lead MI6: I’m fascinated by the journey that an intelligent and an ambitious woman makes in the professional world in contrast to the journey that a man of similar ambition, of similar intelligence makes. What sort of concessions does a woman have to make? Does she have to work 20 percent harder than a man? How does her sexuality come into it? It’s just more interesting than having a standard male chief of the service. Also, the dynamic between Kell, the main character, and Amelia. They’ve sort of come up through the service together, there’s a great tension there that’s a possible romantic tension, as well. It just gave the book more layers.
On why spy work remains a male province: It doesn’t matter so much at the domestic level or the European level or in North America. But if you’re a woman operating in certain parts of Africa or Italy or elsewhere, the top people expect to deal with a man. There’s a sense of a loss of face or status if they are negotiating with a woman, that’s one element of it. Added to that, there’s the problem of being a woman in quite aggressive environments, which again counts against them. Female MI6 officers would probably tell me that that isn’t the case. But that’s how it’s been explained to me why would it prevent a woman from getting to the top.
On well-adjusted spies: [laughs] In my experience, there are people – in all walks of life, whether it’s politics or the Olympics or merchants – there are people who are at peace with what that they do. And there are others who are not. Maybe in that world, particularly in spies, this is more the tradition of spy literature. The idea of the conflicted protagonist, the man who is on the one hand a patriot, a guy who has joined to protect and serve, and then finds himself compromised, lying, deceiving and making accommodations they wouldn’t necessarily have made in their idealistic youth. It’s kind of a metaphor for all our lives, not just spies. As we get older, life becomes very complicated in terms of concessions we have to make.