One of the questions you must face when starting out on any form of espionage is – who are you going to spy on? Or more exactly, who can you spy on, given constraints of time, money, admin, etc?
It’s no good me saying I’m going to gather secret intelligence on renegade elements of the Taliban, only to discover that I don’t have the cash for the airfare to Kabul, let alone enough time to be back for my dad’s 60th birthday party at the Maidstone branch of Pizza Express. So I’ve decided I’m going to spy on Londoners. There’s plenty of them about, and if you’ve got the determination and the know-how you can quite easily gather intelligence on them in your lunch hour, or by taking a morning off work for ‘emergency dental work’.
My first spy mission begins, like all good ones, at the Elizabeth Duke counter of Argos. But they don’t sell the batteries for the spy-camera-pen gadget I bought specially from Maplin.co.uk, so they direct me to the jewellers across the road. They do have the batteries, but they can’t make the pen work. This is probably a good thing because, according to the instruction booklet, the ultra secret, highly discreet pen-camera talks out loud every time you use it. If it had batteries it would shout helpful undercover things like “Device Activated” and “Secret Picture Number 6” and “Over here, over here, look at me I’m taking your picture with this pen, oops, sorry no, forget what I said, I was talking about something else, la de da”.
Since it’s my first spy mission since making a false beard from the Usborne Book of Spycraft when I was eight and following my brother upstairs, I have decided to do something easy – I’m simply going to follow a man around for a bit. I spot a target: a middle-aged man walking across Shepherd’s Bush Green. Is he a high-ranking intelligence officer in the South African secret police? Is he a KGB sleeper about to make contact with his handler? Or is he, as I suspect, a greengrocer on his way home?
I follow him across Shepherd’s Bush Green and back past Argos. Important questions swim in my head. Should I nip into the Romanian Orphans charity shop and get a spare hat and jumper in case he ‘makes’ me? Why haven’t I got any batteries for my normal camera? Why don’t they tell you how many pockets spies need? And, if he is a greengrocer, isn’t 6.30 in the evening quite late for him to be going home? And where was home? Was it somewhere in the direction he was heading, like Kensington? Or, was it Moscow?
It was neither. After a brisk stroll past the rows of To Let signs on Sinclair Road, he turns into Olympia station. The thin platform is crowded with commuters so I stand directly behind him… and after the tensest wait for a train ever, three carriages roll in. As people squeeze toward the doors I find myself right next to him. I let him go first, already I feel we know each other now, like colleagues at the same firm who have seen each other in the corridor for twenty years but never say hello.
He squeezes into the middle of three seats, facing away from me, while I stand in the aisle. He takes out a book, but I can’t see what it is. It’s a hardback – is he ploughing through the latest Amis, or feasting himself on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s blistering dissection of Stalin’s dictatorship of the USSR, The Court of the Red Tsar? As he turns a page, I get a snatch of the cover: Wenger.
After ten minutes, just as we were both getting involved in Arsene’s early career in midfield, the train slows to a halt just outside Clapham Junction.
What sort of train person was he? One of those lunatics who have such a poor grasp of time that they jump up five minutes before the train stops and end up hanging around in the corridor like cattle in an abattoir? No, he calmly sits there until the train empties, then hops out. He walks past me on the platform without looking. In the subway under the station it occurs to me he could be heading for somewhere miles away, to Portsmouth, or Southampton, Balham even. I cannot emphasise enough the value of a Travelcard when spying.
He walks out the station and up to a bus stop. With no buses in sight I take my chance to run across the road and buy batteries for my camera, and take my first picture of him. A 159 comes down the hill. I run back across the road and jump on after him.
He sits at the back of the bottom of the bus, in the corner. I sit next to him, and as the bus trundles past the estate agents of Lavender Hill, I take the chance to take get a close up by pretending to be fiddling with the camera. He clocks my fiddling and takes a long stare at me. A few seconds later, he gets off and I follow him to a mansion block where he let himself in. Was this his home? Or a safe house? Or the low-lit den of a ‘mystery woman’? I will return. But with a false beard.