It is impossible to ignore the red white and blue union jack flag bunting on the MI6HQ building.
It is there to attract attention. I understand all that. But the bunting – festive strings of triangular flags- sits uncomfortably next to the jagged man-sized security spikes and the army of cameras which perch on the headquarters at Vauxhall Cross.
The bunting, which has remained implacably draped over this chilling building throughout this very British summer, feels -well – a little incongruous.
The very fact that we know who They are, and we know where They live, still leaves me incredulous. The organisation – responsible for protecting Britain against terrorism, espionage and sabotage, from the activities of agents from foreign powers, and for those who threaten to overthrow parliamentary democracy – has relied on secrecy for a very long time.
Yet even though the building stands in the middle of London bustle, questions hang in the air around it.
“We know where they are,” said Phil when we talked about it that evening,” and yet you try and find the door. It’s fiendishly difficult. And it’s covered in cameras you can see: but it’s the cameras you can’t see which are the important ones.”
They have a website. Oh, yes: both MI5 (home section) and MI6 (foreign section) run sites packed with information about old, dusty secrets they feel are ready to face the daylight. Both elucidate history going back to their inception; they detail their roles and MI5’s relates some of the notorious cases in which it has been involved over the years.
It gives the perfect illusion of transparency and accessibility.
Could that be called misdirection?
Misdirection – in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another* – requires that we do not look directly at the sorcerer who guards our freedom, but view him as in a glass darkly. We feel intrinsically that we should be able to assign him to a blind spot and lead our free lives.
Our bus, yesterday, was destined for the site of the old Bedlam hospital which has been reinvented as the Imperial War Museum. Not just a gung-ho weapons depository, but an examination of how war has affected the British people over the years. Including espionage.
Its Secret War exhibition looks at operations as recent as Nimrod, in which the SAS stormed the Iranian Embassy to free hostages in 1980. It details, with prosaic clarity, the actions which have underpinned this country’s life since 1909, when the Secret Service Bureau was founded by Captain Vernon Kell. It traces operations through the first and second world wars and the cold war.
We trailed past pipes which doubled as pistols, suitcase transceivers and night-vision goggles, and the paperwork which surrounded false identities and subterfuge. This was not based on some Bond novel: this was real, and it had been happening as we went about our daily lives.
The exhibition comes to a conclusion with questions. Who else would do this work, which so needs doing? And a chilling final line: “The war never ends. Only the enemies change.”
It is a conspiracy theorist’s Elysium, this place. A virtual door inside a building which is surrounded by bunting and vicious spikes. It is a diverting misdirection. We do not think to question what they are doing today, as the jubilee flags hang outside.
But the unsettling conviction remains that they need the spikes. There are always people who pose a threat to democracy. We may view espionage with fascinated distaste, and blanch at the idea of an eternal war and everlasting suspicion.
But we have that luxury because we are free.
It’s misdirection, once again: we do not see the freedom fluttering in the wind of the Thames, right before our eyes.
*definition taken from Wikipedia
MI6HQ building pic via Wikipedia Commons