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In Support of the Author

Sweet Tooth

by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 301 pp., $26.95
LONDON—How’s this for a job title: secret agent’s apprentice?
The British government is recruiting teenage apprentice spies and codebreakers without university degrees in a bid to deepen the talent pool of its intelligence services for the era of cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare.
The Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the program Thursday….
“It will be the young innovators of this generation who will help keep our country safe in years to come against threats which are every bit as serious as some of those confronted in the Second World War.”
The Foreign Office said the apprenticeship program aims to find up to 100 new recruits for GCHQ—Britain’s electronic surveillance agency—and the MI5 and MI6 intelligence services. The idea is to expand recruitment of spies beyond the traditional method of a discreet “tap on the shoulder” at university.
The program will be open to bright 18-year-olds with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and computer gaming.
They will undergo a two-year course of university classes, technical training, and work placements before starting full-time jobs.
High school students will also be invited to take part in a “national cipher challenge” competition intended to inspire them to consider careers in mathematics and cybersecurity.
—The Boston Globe
October 19, 2012

5 November 2012

The Right Hon. William Hague MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
King Charles Street

Dear Mr. Hague,

I write, as requested, in support of the application by Mr. Ian McEwan for a senior teaching post within the “apprentice spies programme” (you and I naturally prefer the British spelling) that was launched last month. You and your advisers will already be well aware of his especial credentials for this post. As you will know, his latest historical work, Sweet Tooth, opens:

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

But I need at once to declare an interest, not in that as a woman I might be suspected of having sympathy for Ms. Frome, but in that Mr. McEwan has paid me the compliment of identifying me at an early stage of his book as the single mother who would one day become Director General of MI5. But then this, as my autobiography spelt out, is an Open Secret. The unfortunate Ms. Frome has been so good as to remark that “in 1972 Trimingham was already a legend among the new girls.” (Trimingham, indeed.)

I trust that I may start by taking up some points from the press release.

A bid to deepen the talent pool. Mr. McEwan’s work of twenty years ago, The Innocent (1990), sounded the “ever deeper echelons of electronic surveillance beneath the surface of Berlin”: the Berlin Tunnel or Operation Gold, a joint CIA-MI6 venture of 1955–1956. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean acted out their fantasies, and so did Commander “Buster” Crabbe, the doomed frogman who plumbed deep British waters to spy upon a Russian ship. (Black Dogs, in 1992, pondered the fall of the Berlin Wall, as does Sweet Tooth now: “a TV documentary reporting in triumph that East Germany had finally overtaken Britain in living standards. Years later, when the Wall came down and the books were opened, it turned out to be nonsense. The GDR was a disaster.”)

Codebreakers. I take the liberty of drawing your attention to Mr. McEwan’s play, The Imitation Game (1981), about the women—yes, the women—at Bletchley Park whose recording of radio signals fed the electronic brain that was the brainchild of Alan Turing.

Without university degrees. Yet those who will teach the apprentices would do well to have university degrees. My own is from the University of Edinburgh, where I studied English—as did Mr. McEwan, who received his degree in 1970 from the University of Sussex (an institution that matters not only to the atmosphere but to the narrative of Sweet Tooth), being then seconded to the University of East Anglia to study creative writing. Like creative writing, the study of English literature, as you and I well know, can forge links to the world of espionage, of plots and of plotting (indeed, of gunpowder, treason, and plot), and I am sure that someone of your breadth of interests will be familiar with Professor John Hollander’s groundbreaking code-breaking study of “Fictive Espionage” (Baylor University, March 19, 2002), with its straightforward respectful reference to the “horrific events during the past half year.” Among the traditional elements of espionage, in both fiction and fact, are

the enigma to be solved; the trials to be withstood—interrogation being a particularly important one; and the effort of a desperate lonely wanderer or fugitive to escape from the operations of some hostile conspiracy, all the while that he is himself part of another one.

I recall that in a BBC interview in 1979 (it was published in the Listener, a journal that figures in Sweet Tooth), it was put to Mr. McEwan that his work belonged within the tradition of which the greatest writer is Kipling (the master of cruelty who was sometimes mastered by cruelty). Mr. McEwan: “Well, I haven’t read Kipling.” This may be thought to have settled it, but 1979 is a while ago, and Professor Hollander has done well to remind us that “Kipling’s Kim is a story of espionage-recruitment.”

The MI5 and MI6 intelligence services. These institutions interfere with and vie with one another in Sweet Tooth, as they do in life (and as my autobiography tactfully makes clear). Serena: “And though it was strictly true that Tony Canning ended up recruiting me for MI5, his motives were complicated and he had no official sanction.” Tom: “I wish to make it clear that at no point have I ever had any communication from or contact with any member of MI5.” Made clear, but not made good. Elsewhere, a brigadier reported that “MI6 was operating where it was not supposed to be, in Belfast and Londonderry, in the United Kingdom.”

Incidentally, your colleagues may need to remember that not everyone gets these identifications right. The poet Geoffrey Hill once characterized Offa, King of Mercia, as “overlord of the M5,” and was later able to take a dry delight in the textbook that identified this figure as the head of the British Secret Service. Motor way off track? But the mistake may have been what later prompted the poet to write a poem about Turing.

To expand recruitment of spies beyond the traditional method of a discreet “tap on the shoulder” at university. Mr. McEwan takes an understandable sly pleasure in the fact that the colleague of ours who interviewed Ms. Frome was a man named Tapp. (“Tapp asked me if I had ever taken an interest in encryption.”) It is clear from Sweet Tooth that Mr. McEwan knows the history of his times, including the fact that by the 1970s things had changed and had not changed much. “The famous ‘hand on the shoulder’ was still applied, perhaps less frequently, perhaps with less pressure.” He adds: “Generally, both hand and shoulder belonged to men.” More private parts (if a woman may make so bold) than shoulders were often in play. In Sweet Tooth, there are those of Ms. Frome as well as of the adulterer Professor Canning (oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive), and of Tom Haley, the novelist who turns out to be both duped and duper.

At university. Mr. McEwan understands that there are universities and universities. This is made manifest not only in the attention accorded to the University of Sussex (one of those “new” universities in the 1970s) but in his apprehending how important—and how importantly different—Oxford and Cambridge are or were, when it came to spying. Serena Frome is “a girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics,” educated at Newnham College, Cambridge. The apprentice spies programme (ASP) will need, ASAP, to look yet once more at the Cambridge Three (or Four or Five): Burgess, Maclean, Philby, abetted by Blunt and by A.N. Other. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Oxford University’s effortless superiority to Cambridge is nowhere clearer than in the pathetic inability of Cambridge spies to remain undetected.

Sweet Tooth derives from the operation of that name, with cold war culture as the continuation of politics by other means (to adapt Carl von Clausewitz). In this case, there is the use of the Secret Vote to support culture in clandestine—though of course honourable—ways that explicitly recall the CIA’s secret part in the funding of the NCL journal, Encounter. (I owe to Mr. McEwan my appreciation of a particular abbreviation—not acronym, for Mr. McEwan is careful with words, and knows that an acronym has to constitute a word, as ASP does, not a string of letters—“helping out the NCL, the non-communist left.”)

Young innovators. ASP, bent upon the young, will stand in need of the experience of those who, though still in one of their primes, are no longer young. Mr. McEwan is sixty-four. We still need him. And the programme will need the imaginative skill that can spin and doctor a plot—as Sweet Tooth shows he still can. Ingeniously, too, in a study of how a clever person can be at once ingenuous and disingenuous. This is allied in Mr. McEwan to a familiarity with mathematics and with probability theory that has long been a feature of his work. “Solid Geometry” (1975) made play with this and with “the mathematics of the Absolute,” as did his novel Saturday (2005) with its attention to “a quantum wave of probability” and to Schrödinger’s Cat.

In Sweet Tooth, the American game show Let’s Make a Deal makes a crucial appearance, turning as it does upon probability and odds. The two young people argue it out: “But you’d be wrong. If you go for the other box you double your chances.” And in a retelling that turns more grindingly upon adultery and hotel rooms, “And now that 403 is shown to be empty, there must be a two in three chance his wife is in 401.”

As to Mr. McEwan’s own political convictions, a legitimate concern of yours as Foreign Secretary, clearly, were he to join your programme: broadly NCL, I’d say. The 1970s:

In those days, dwelling on the iniquities of the Soviet system was routine for Western politicians and editorials in most newspapers. In the context of student life and politics, it was just a little distasteful. If the CIA was against communism, there must be something to be said for it.

Some people believe that Mr. McEwan has moved on from, or moved off from, his young self, active and activist in Or Shall We Die? (1983), his libretto about nuclear war, for an opera by Michael Berkeley, and in The Ploughman’s Lunch (1985), on the media and the Falklands War.

I realize of course that it would never be the case that party politics, or the settling of scores, would play any part in such matters of national security as ASP, but I venture to suggest that you might find amusing the sadly all-too-believable episode with Prime Minister Tony Blair in Mr. McEwan’s Saturday. And I need hardly say, even sotto voce, that the Foreign Secretary who is at the center of the furore in Mr. McEwan’s Amsterdam bears no resemblance whatsoever to the present holder of this distinguished office.


But let me release myself from the press release, and instead comment in some detail on one aspect of Mr. McEwan’s candidacy and credentials: Double, double, or the double cross. Mr. McEwan understands something that is often forgotten even though it was none other than T.S. Eliot who remarked it in 1926 (in the Times Literary Supplement, 2 September, anonymously of course). Reviewing Fred Newton Scott on American Slang, Eliot chose as his first example of the “racy popular speech” and the “current American slang” that had entered England the verb to double-cross:

This useful and expressive word is already in decay; its original meaning of a betrayal of both sides is reduced to plain betrayal, which renders it superfluous.

It was observed of Eliot in 1984 that

one application of his acumen here would be to say that the word “double-cross” carried the seeds of its own betrayal; almost at once it was betrayed—double-crossed even; betrayed on both sides, American and English.

Mr. McEwan’s own acumen as to what it is to double-cross someone is everywhere present in his work as the apprehension of how intimately engaged this betrayal is with games and sports—and thereby with the lethal game and sport of espionage. Oxford English Dictionary (there isn’t a Cambridge one):

An act of treachery to both parties (orig. in gaming or sport) esp. by pretended collusion with each other; more widely, betrayal of the other party in a (dishonest) transaction.

Recorded since 1834, with 1874 “Slang. Dict., Double cross, a cross in which a man who has engaged to lose breaks his engagement, and ‘goes straight’ at the last moment,” and 1887 “Referee A double cross was brought off. Teemer promised to sell the match, and finished by selling those who calculated on his losing.” It was H.G. Wells who wrote in 1930 that “espionage had never been so universal, conscientious, and respected, and the double cross of Christian diplomacy ruled the skies from Washington to Tokio.” Not in Washington or in Tokyo but in Oxford, J.C. Masterman (who figures within Sweet Tooth as an Oxford don who wrote detective stories) pulled off The Double Cross System, the history of how the Nazi spies of World War II were “turned.” It is relevant to Mr. McEwan’s candidacy that he understands these turns and twists of the double cross; more, that he would probably agree to plait OED sense 1 with sense 2, “A cross between two hybrids each obtained by crossing two separate inbred lines, e.g. in the production of maize” (and the production of a maze?), as well as with sense 3, “Shortened form of double CROSS-STITCH.”

The chilling thrill of all such doublings and duplicities is felt throughout Sweet Tooth (where double-crossing is indeed stitched up), and this despite Ms. Frome’s dislike of such literary devices or deceits: “No room in the books I liked for the double agent,” no room for the likes of Borges and Barth. Professionally, as a spy, it is a different matter: “In that reckless tipsy moment I wished I had a Russian controller and a double life…or better, that I was a double agent.” In a way, she is to have her wish. The tables are turned. Her Tom will wonder whether “our deception and humiliation have doubled the reasons for going our separate ways. I prefer to think they’ve cancelled out.” The ending of Sweet Tooth may be judged to compound or to cancel out.

And Mr. McEwan, who knows how crucial a clue may be in the world of espionage, had earlier planted a fine clue as to how to take the surprise ending of the story that is told:

Shirley drove with surprising confidence, swinging us at speed round Hyde Park Corner, and demonstating a flashy technique with the gear stick, known, she told me, as double declutching, necessary on such an ancient crate.

OED: “declutch: To disengage the clutch of a motor vehicle; so double-declutch, to release and re-engage the clutch twice when changing gear.” Including 1925, “The expert driver will have recourse to double declutching,” and 1937, “Syncromesh..rendered double declutching a refinement but no longer a necessity.” The gear-change at the end of Sweet Tooth is an expert bit of double-declutching. The book is dedicated to Christopher Hitchens, expert at double-dehitching.

But then doubling back is equally crucial to Mr. McEwan’s powers of observation and of self-scrutiny, germane to his seeing the need for and the needs of apprentice spies. Serena Frome, a sorcerer’s apprentice spy, wonders about the watchers within her organization: “I had some vague ideas derived from films and I’d doubled back on myself in the street.” Mr. McEwan’s ideas are the opposite of vague and are derived not from films but from his previous works, all of them referring to previous convictions or further charges that he asks to be taken into consideration. So the story “Reflections of a Kept Ape,” from In Beween the Sheets (1978), is called in evidence within the sheets of Sweet Tooth, as is “Dead As They Come,” which tells of the man who loves and kills a shop window dummy.

What, I wonder, were they thinking of, our colleagues, when they decided to subsidize such a writer as Tom Haley (to be distinguished, of course, from Mr. McEwan) in the cause of the culture war with communism? The Congress for Cultural Freedom: sexual congress, and cultural licence? One does sometimes understand what the man meant when he said, albeit in German, that whenever he hears the word culture he releases the safety catch of his Browning.

One further matter remains. I am aware that a letter of support does not carry conviction unless it says at least something about some respect in which the candidate might be thought to fall short. So let me simply remark that Mr. McEwan, being a literary man (and the more power to him), does sometimes tease us rather with his literary allusions and particularly with his droppings of names. Oh, the publisher Tom Maschler, and the poet-editor Ian Hamilton, and the competitive friend Martin Amis, and the Laureate Andrew Motion—it is doubtful whether those who have never met these London literary luminaries will be enthralled by these cameo appearances. But minor characters, and so a minor matter perhaps.

People in Mr. McEwan’s works are always having to sign the Official Secrets Act. “Sign between the penciled crosses, if you wouldn’t mind,” in The Child in Time. In Sweet Tooth: “I would be obliged to sign the Official Secrets Act and be bound by its strict provisions.” “We’ll have to wait until well into the twenty-first century to be clear of the Official Secrets Act.” It is of course many a year since I signed the Official Secrets Act. Anyway I am sure that I have your entire confidence, and that all I need to sign now is this letter of support for Mr. McEwan. Sufficient unto the day, which happens to be (and this is the kind of irony that Mr. McEwan rightly relishes) Guy Fawkes Day.

Yours sincerely,
Dame Millie Trimingham

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