Jubilee flags and security spikes: MI6HQ

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.

You can find the MI5 website here. I highly recommend it. And here is the MI6 equivalent

*definition taken from Wikipedia

MI6HQ building pic via Wikipedia Commons


45 thoughts on “Jubilee flags and security spikes: MI6HQ

  1. always difficult. who watches the watchers?

    actually I believe that building is really Woolworths headquarters, and somewhere else in London is a funny street, with little buildings that is the REAL headquarters.

      1. Not at all! I first came across it earlier this year when people started putting bunting outside their houses for all the jubilee celebrations 🙂

      1. Good documentation…

        “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental , nor do they result from from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink”
        ― George Orwell, 1984

  2. I often wonder that, Kate. Who watches the watchers? Phil is right. I often think these days about the cameras we can’t see and Lou’s Orwellian quote makes me shudder. Yet, I value my freedom and this complicated idea of democracy. You’ve given much food for thought for me to chew on.

  3. ‘Twas a very familiar sight, for a dozen years, when I worked on the other side of Vauxhall Bridge, in Pimlico, and I have to say that I do find the building more reassuring than sinister ;).

      1. Ah, it’s a small world indeed, Kate, and I’m sure our paths will cross one of these fine days :). Incidentally, I’ve seen those yellow duck tours vehicles going along the road behind the Festival Hall on a few occasions, so I guess they are returning to their base in York Road….

  4. To destroy the mood of (forgive the pun) intelligence here, is this the home office building where James Bond meets with M? If so, I’m not familiar with it at all. Has the exterior ever appeared in a 007 film?

    1. Apparently yes, Lameadventures: Goldeneye, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. Filming was supposed to go ahead there for the 23rd Bond film in February, but snow stopped play.

  5. I’m afraid that all I can think of when I see this building is that it was based on a design conceived in Legoland or Noddy’s Toyland, but that may be another case of misdirection by those commisioning the architects.

  6. I’m just beside myself that you went to Bedlam. I have always loved the idea of a place called Bedlam, have read about Bedlam, have imagined Bedlam. I had no idea it was now a museum.

    As to who watches the watchers: perhaps they watch each other, and dole out punishments when appropriate. If you haven’t seen the movie Inside Job, look it up. You will know why I made that comment. http://www.sonyclassics.com/insidejob/

    1. Bedlam changed its location a few times, Andra.It started off in 1247 at Bishopsgate(Liverpool Street Station) in 1675 it moved to Moorfields, outside the old city boundary – that’s where, in the 18th century, people would pay to go and gape at the lunatics – and in 1815 it moved to this site in Southwark. The first winter there was no glass in the windows and the patients froze, they said ‘all madhouses emitted effluviates’ whatever that means, and fresh air was presumably the cure. You might enjoy this://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=65447

  7. What an imposing building, but I, too, like the idea that the real headquarters is in some Diagon Alley location behind an benign-looking hat shop. I agree, we’ll always need watchers if we value freedom.

  8. Excellent points raised here. I love the Imperial War Museum, btw. It’s one of my favorite museums in London, although the Museum of London will always be my favorite, hands down.

    Misdirection seems to be a favorite activity among politicians and governments these days. Distracting us from the important issues by thrusting more petty, but more sparkly, things in our faces.

    1. You’re not wrong, Weebles. A woman after my own heart, loving those two museums. The Museum of London is a hidden gem in so many ways: even finding the entrance is a challenge. But so beautifully curated to make sense of thousands of years.

  9. What an amazing building! Quite impressive! I am torn between great curiosity about what goes on behind those walls and an equal concern that I really don’t want to know. I am grateful that I feel secure most of the time, and to counterbalance that probable somewhat naive thought, if I think about it too much, I can really be quite unnerved. I do think in this case ignorance may be bliss. Debra

  10. I tried to comment on this one days ago… I was on my way into Washington DC on a train, and the wifi was sketchy. But even that made me think that I like that MI6’s secrecy lies in the open, unlike here where our intelligence services so often squirrel away in hidden campuses.

    1. You put that so well, Cameron. A kind of open secrect. Did you catch the Youtube link I posted? The day of the pageant, in pouring rain, one of our major orchestras was sat outside MI6 HQ playing the Bond theme as the Queen sailed past. Priceless.

  11. Bunting and spikes certainly seem strange together! That video of the London Philharmonic orchestra playing the bond theme outside this building is truly priceless 🙂 Thanks for the link Kate.

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