Do you want what you get? Do you get what you want?

Part 1 In the good old days, my grandfather told me, if you were being investigated by a Special Branch man or, much more rarely, by someone from the other side, and provided that you weren’t too slow-witted to spot the fact, the whole business was usually done on a very civilised basis. It made no difference whether the grounds for suspicion were legitimate – as only very occasionally happened – or were the hybrid offspring of a chance collision of unrelated ideas in the mind of a possibly alcoholic clerk at hq, or arose because some self-inflating functionary in the outer scrubland of the political jungle took offence at some joke of yours which he failed to understand. The fellows engaged in business ‘in the field’, on both sides, were there precisely because they did not want to be bored out of their wits in hq or to be bound hand and mouth with obligations to believe simultaneously eleven mutually contradictory and wholly pointless falsehoods. They were almost always well-educated, good-humoured chaps, alert by nature and profession to the inanities and incongruities of the human circus, and once you had identified each other you could be sure of an excellent conversational partner and, often enough, of a good deal of help in dealing with the everyday obstructions to practical existence erected by the jobsworths employed to run society. In my own very earliest days in an adjoining field I encountered a few myself. In Exeter, for example, there was a very decent Special Branch fellow, member of an old county family, who had decided that farming was not for him. He knew the region and its sometimes hair-raising secrets (social rather than anything connected to police work) better than anyone. I more than once passed a very pleasant afternoon in Devonshire House with him and a couple of colleagues. One parted with a feeling rather like having had a good run in the country on a crisp winter morning, followed by a hot shower and a splendid breakfast.  In Baghdad I several times met Vitaly, a correspondent for Izvestia as his cover and no doubt very good at that. He was somewhat more reticent about his real business and there were matters he preferred not to discuss directly, but the breadth of his interests and his sense of humour, together with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Iraq, made him a conversationalist of the highest order.  Also a very good painter in water colours. Perfect English by the way.

Later I had very few contacts with that world, which was in any case changing. One of the last men in the field I knew personally, in Singapore, was still broadly true to that type. Through no fault of his own his educational background was not quite on the level of the Englishman I have cited above, let alone that of the Russian, but he was good-humoured, well-informed, markedly helpful in practical matters, and a thoroughly agreeable fellow.

Now, all that has changed. In the first stage these perceptive, resourceful agents were withdrawn from front line operations, to be replaced by cameras, microphones and other gadgets for recording data, usually without regard to its relevance, on the basis that ‘if we record everything then the stuff we need will be in there somewhere.’ Naturally this resulted in much greater credibility being given to those reporting conclusions to higher levels – it was assumed that the great mass of material collected amounted to convincing evidence for their views, however flimsy the evidence might actually be. In fact the real result was a great loss of efficiency. It was for instance only too easy for a machine to overlook the significance of the same name turning up in two different places hundreds of pages apart. But rather than bringing back the human agents the organisations plunged further into reliance on machines and algorithms of ever greater complexity, often ever more remote from the realities in the field. Inevitably the occasional successes were accompanied by major blunders which harmed not only the victims, but quite often and quite seriously the interests of the organisations themselves, whichever side they were on. No hope of rational assessment. If you decide that X is a goal to be achieved, you then set up a schema S of all the parametric values your electronic gadgets need to show in order to count as achievement of X; you then programme the whole caboodle to produce those values and turn the switch ‘on’. X is likely to result, with the whole hailed as a success. Quite independent of whether it was a good idea, short or long term. X may have been chosen for reasons of patriotism or prestige – just see how nations actually compete to hold the Olympic games. X may have been favoured by certain factions because it would make them the leaders in the operation and strengthen the position of those factions within their larger organisation. X may have been chosen because ‘it’s what we did last time’ (a principle notoriously responsible for much of the slaughter on both sides in World War I).

Part 2 to appear at a later date


Although he has taken up his studies at the Open University again after a two-year absence (about which we are certainly not going to ask any intrusive questions) Manos is well into his old recreation of devising get-rich-quick schemes. His current one is for a chain of restaurants, to be run on entirely new lines, modern, dynamic, and market-oriented. In other words, taking the banks as a model. They will be extravagantly furnished and decorated establishments, with very few staff visible to those who patronise them but whole teams of casually dressed young persons lolling about in front of screens in the back offices. The front-of-house staff with be trained to appear authoritatively friendly or actually obsequious, depending on who they are currently dealing with. In either case they will flatter the customers while offering expensive suggestions, and surreptitiously insult them once they are out of earshot. Guests (only vulgarly known as ‘customers’) can book a table and sit there admiring the luxurious décor and elegant social ambience in which they find themselves for an hour or two, taking selfies if they deem that socially acceptable, and photographs of other ambitiously dressed guests. After an hour or two they leave. There will be no kitchens. The beautifully designed menu, styled ‘your invitation to an ambience of unique elegance’ will make it clear, in very small letters and very abstruse terminology, on the back, that if any food or drink is desired, guests must provide the same themselves and are fully responsible for taking all measures that may be needed for its preparation.

Two more details: music will of course be provided, Mozart with all the difficult parts taken out and replaced by a gentle but unobtrusive rhythm to enhance the perfect restorative experience. And a preposterously high compensation package for the restaurateur.