Ian Shaw has won the BBC Jazz Awards “Best Vocalist” twice and is critically lauded by the press – “Has few rivals” (Sunday Times); “Our finest jazz singer” (Time Out); “A recipe for bliss” (The Telegraph). Is he really that good? Listen to John Fordham at The Guardian:

“Shaw’s humanity, technique, wit and willingness to take an insane gamble has always kept him in the jazz loop. What you get with Shaw is always really him – sometimes funny, sometimes resigned, sometimes wounded, sometimes over the top, but always technically perfect.”

Ian Shaw (with the fabulous Liane Carroll at the piano)

Ian Shaw (with the fabulous Liane Carroll at the piano)

Yet these days when he packs up his music at the end of a gig (charts for The Great American Songbook, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, as well as his own compositions), Shaw is likely to be heading for a place that sees few UK musicians of any stripe – “The Jungle” in Calais, the multinational camp for refugees, migrants, call them what you will, who hope to cross to the UK.

For the past three months he has been visiting regularly, initially because he was outraged by the conditions in the camp he saw on television. Once out there – having taken out much-needed clothes and sleeping bags – he discovered there were decent players among the refugees who had lost their instruments along the very tough way. So later he loaded his car and took over drums, guitars and basses (including one that once belonged to Jack Bruce of Cream, donated by Jack’s family). But he now also helps build, fund, organise and raise awareness of what is going on just a few miles from the Kent coast. And he has put his money where his mouth is. There has been one benefit already, at The Vortex in Dalston, with Sarah Jane Morris and Carleen Anderson, and another is due at Phoenix Artist Club, Soho (Nov 18th, two shows, fabulous line-up, £25, see http://phoenixartistclub.com). All the money raised goes directly to helping the refugees (“I’ve spent all my own,” Shaw confessed from the stage of The Vortex) in practical ways.

Ian Shaw with Georgia Mancio, who will appear at one of the Phoenix shows

Ian Shaw with Georgia Mancio, who will appear at one of the Phoenix shows

Shaw is keen that people know about life in The Jungle, to share the story of the people he has met and the sometimes terrible things that have happened and are happening (the camps are being de-populated, but the refugees are being moved to windowless containers). He is also keen to refute what he calls the “vile lies” about the camp, such as the inhabitants having so many clothes from charities, they burn them for fuel. In fact, charities are very thin on the ground – there isn’t a large UK one active in The Jungle at all. Just an ad hoc group of musicians (as well as a larger contingent of non-musicians) who aren’t doing it for the cameras or some high-profile telly marathon.

From the creation of sublime music in a slum camp to the building of a church from bin bags, from professors to war-battered paupers, Shaw has seen all sorts. And he will be over there in the coming months because, to quote Game Of Thrones, Winter Is Coming, and things aren’t going to get any better. If you wish to help, and get a great gig in to the bargain, head for the Phoenix next week. And he still needs musical instruments.



Why SPECTRE (and Bond) is at home in Austria

You may have noticed that a new James Bond film has opened. You may also have noticed that part of it was filmed in the Tirol, in Austria, in an Alpine village called Sölden. Of course 007 and snow have a long history, going back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (poor Bond, decent film, great soundtrack), so Spectre is continuing an 007 tradition which goes back to Ian Fleming’s love of the sport.



Fleming skied at a time when it was elitist, glamorous and dangerous. The glamour remains to some degree and as for the danger – you might have more forgiving skis and boots that don’t snap your ankle, but there’s still  whiteouts, avalanches, treacherous driving conditions and rogue cable cars. But that is all grist to the Bond mill – isn’t putting the spy in peril in a spectacular setting the essence of a 007 movie? It certainly is of the globetrotting Spectre.

But there are plenty of countries that have snow, so why did Mendes and crew choose Sölden? Well, the cynics might suggest that it was a village willing to close its main ski slope in peak season in return for the sort of publicity money can’t buy. Or possibly the Spectre scouts thought that the glistening glass cube of its mountain-top Ice-Q restaurant might rival Piz Gloria on the Schilthorn in Switzerland as an iconic Bond location.

The Ice-Q restaurant, Sölden, which isn't a rerstaurant in the movie

The Ice-Q restaurant, Sölden, which isn’t a restaurant in the movie

It is also possible that the scriptwriting team, always in search of a backstory these days, knew that, although Bond was not born or conceived in the Tirol, his DNA is all over it. thanks to his creator.

Ian Fleming was forced to resign from Sandhurst after contracting gonorrhoea from a prostitute and in 1927 he was despatched by his formidable mother to the town of Kitzbühel (having spent some time there the previous year) in the Tirol. He arrived in a place that eschewed stuffy Anglo-Saxon sexual mores. Which, once he had shaken off his initial torpor, suited the testosterone-fuelled Fleming just fine.

Fleming’s mother had sent the 19-year old to be tutored, alongside other English boys, by a very influential pair – the Forbes Dennises. Ernan Forbes Dennis had been the British ‘Passport Control Officer’ in Vienna, which if you speak spy, you will know is code for resident MI6 officer, although he was indeed also a keen educationalist and proponent of the theories of Adler. His wife Phyllis was a successful author who encouraged the young Fleming to write. Together they represented two cornerstones of Ian’s future life – espionage and writing.


     In the thirties he would also meet the splendidly named Conrad O’Brien-ffrench in the Tirol. He was an adventurer, explorer, an excellent skier and.. a spy. He worked for the Z Organisation, a kind of shadow MI6 that was sympathetic to Churchill’s insistence that Hitler wanted war. He set up a network of agents across Austria and Southern Germany. Ian and his older brother Peter (at that point a very successful author) often bumped into O’Brien-ffrench, as the man’s cover was that of a travel agent looking to open up the region to British tourism. When war broke out O’Brien-ffrench escaped from the Nazis by hiking over the Alps into Switzerland. Some claim he was later very influential in securing Fleming a post in Naval Intelligence during WW2.

Oetztal Alps credit Tirol Werbung.Aichner Bernhard

Fleming had learned to ski in the Tirol (and even today there is a downhill event in Kitzbühl named after him), although he always said it was a toss up between summer and winter as his favourite time – he loved the skiing but also appreciated that the girls weren’t so bundled up in their thick clothes in the warmer months.

The war put paid to Fleming’s sojourns to the Tirol. He would return to Kitzbühel when he was 50, with wife and son in tow, to try and recapture something of his youth, but according to his biographer Andrew Lycett the trip was something of a failure, even though the writer professed to have enjoyed himself. He was no longer an athletic young man who could have his pick of the locals, but an aging dyspeptic author in a failing marriage, with his bored wife and tragic son Caspar (who later committed suicide) in tow.

But Kitzbühel was never far from his thoughts and what he called his ‘golden years’ there made many appearances in his fiction. He decided that, as he had, James Bond would learn to ski in Austria. In Octopussy, the story of the Nazi gold and the mountain refuge was surely based on the wooden huts you can see dotting the Alpine meadows of the Tirol. And when James Bond marries Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, they are on their way to an idyllic honeymoon in Kitzbühel when she is murdered. He also left £500 each to three people in the town in his will when he died in 1964, exhorting them to “do something exciting” with it. Among them was Lisl Jodl, one of his many Bond-like romantic entanglements from the ’20s and ’30s.

So perhaps it was just serendipity and/or finance that brought the makers of Spectre to choose the Austrian Tirol  for the snow scenes (spoiler: Bond does not actually ski in this one), but conscious or not, they chose well.


You have to work hard to reach the finest view of New York’s Hudson Valley. The trailhead to the aptly named Overlook Mountain can be found just outside Woodstock, opposite a Buddhist Temple and you soon find yourself praying for good karma on the hike up. It is a rocky and relentless two-and-a-half mile climb, with barely a flat section until near the top, when you reach the spooky, eerie husk of a once-glamorous hotel. Its roofless hallways and public spaces are now full of trees and creepers and (a warning sign suggests) timber rattlesnakes. Take it as a waymarker that the end is nigh and move on, rather than explore its unstable interior.


       At the summit of the trail is a small sign pointing through the undergrowth. “Scenic Outlook”, it says, and you damn well hope so after that climb, where you have mainly been looking at a solid wall of trees on either side. You struggle through the brushwood until you find yourself on a rocky outcrop, with the valley spread out below you, the wide, silvery ribbon of the Hudson itself on the left, the glistening waters of the Ashokan reservoir on the right and what feels like the whole world at your feet. It is both sudden and breathtaking and I can’t recall such a sneaky reveal of a fabulous view outside of the Grand Canyon.


       You can gild this particular scenic lily by taking the steel staircase (if it is open – it’s manned by volunteers and usually weekend-only) to the restored firetower, which adds in a portion of the Catskill mountains to the north, humped like a series of green-backed cetaceans. I asked my wife if she thought the view was worth the long hike and the rickety steps up to the tiny cabin of the tower. “It’s worth the plane ticket over,” she replied. It was an opinion she was to revise on the return leg.

       The walk down was not that much easier than the ascent, but we were elated at having made it to the top on a hot, enervatingly muggy day. We were talking loudly and joking about rattlesnakes when two hikers who had halted some way ahead waved for us to stop. We did so. The man drew a finger across his throat. I instantly thought of Cabin In The Woods or any other number of city-folk-in-the-wilderness movies.

       But my wife hissed in my ear: “Oh my God, it’s a bear.”

       And so it was, a handsome black bear, inspecting the ferns, shrubs and trees that lined the side of the road about twenty metres to our right. Not a huge bear maybe, but when it reared up against a tree trunk, large enough to make knees knock. Every now and then it glanced our way or at the other hikers. It gave a few desultory sniffs of the air. It was a fine time to remember the half-eaten sandwich in my backpack.

bear photo

       Discounting the grizzly, which this was definitely not, there are two types of bear you are likely to encounter in the US, the brown and the black. “With one of them you make as much noise as possible and wave your arms,” I authoritatively whispered to my wife. “The other you climb a tree or play dead.”

       ‘Which one do you do for a black bear?” she asked.

       “I don’t remember,” I replied.

       Quietly, so as not to disturb our new ursine chum, she gave me a dead arm.

       All I could really recall was that a black bear can run at 35mph. A rough calculation suggested this was about 30 mph that I could manage uphill, even with a bear on my tail. We were stuck on that path for the time being.

       I subsequently discovered that there are at least 8,000 black bears in New York State. The population is growing and interactions with humans are increasing. So this year the autumn hunting season was extended into what amounts to a cull. Until the end of September, hunters were allowed to kill bears with “bow, crossbow, muzzle-loader, shotgun or rifle” in areas designated by the Department of Environmental Conservation. But I didn’t have any of those particular weapons on me and, besides, the innocent bear was mostly minding its own business. Mostly. Every now and then it would wander onto the track then, as if catching an elusive fragrance, it would be drawn back to a particular tree and start inhaling and snorting loudly.

       We were standing there for close to twenty minutes, waiting for this tree-junkie of a bear to get bored. Eventually, it looked up into the branches of its favourite trunk and, with an ease I still can’t quite comprehend and a speed that was both impressive and terrifying, it began to climb. With the crack of claw on bark and the odd grunt, it was soon in the upper branches, swaying like an overgrown, swarthy koala.

       ‘Not the climb-a-tree-to-escape species, then,’ I offered to my wife, whose expression suggested she thought my zoology degree was a waste of three years.

      It was time to go. We set off using a speedy gait that was a combination of Olympic race-walking and Lee Evans at his most hyperactive. We warned those coming from the car park that there was a bear in the air. Several, who had encountered bears before, turned back. Others, including a pair with what looked to me like a tasty morsel of a dog, carried on regardless.

       Later, nursing a slightly unsteady beer in a bar in Woodstock, I asked my wife what she made of the experience. “I was wrong about the view,” she said. “It was the bear that was worth the price of the plane ticket.”


  • I travelled as a guest of Virgin Holidays (0844-573 0088, virginholidays.co.uk), which has a week’s fly-drive to New York from £929pp, including flights and Alamo car hire. Advice on what to do when you encounter a bear can be found on nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.htm. The best course of action is to back away slowly. Attacks are rare. If you are attacked, with brown and grizzly bears, you play dead. With black bears, you shout and make yourself seem as large as possible. Don’t climb a tree.




I have just returned from a week touring the Hudson Valley and the Catskills in upstate New York. Most of it was for a piece for The Times and it was a very successful trip – good food, dramatic modern art, fantastic scenery, Robber Baron’s grand historic homes, and some possibly too close encounters with local wildlife. But one standout was the hotel we stayed in on the last night, mainly because it was so unexpected (it was the result of a tip-off from a native New Yorker who said: ‘Don’t ask questions, just book in’).

If you read a lot of the US travel press you might think that the recent renaissance of the Catskills – which is a few hours’ drive from Manhattan, up I-87 or 90 – means it’s a Williamsburg with trees and mountains, with a farm-to-fork restaurant at every junction, an antique Americana collection on every porch, a cool bar beside every creek. This isn’t true, there is a lot of driving around (by our standards at least) to sample the best of, say, Delaware County.

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

The town of Andes in The Catskills is good for Americana

After a slightly disappointing first turn through district, the highlights being Andes (quaint, good vintage clothes, antiques, coffee and cookies) and Delhi (bookstores, covered bridges, more antiques) but not fly-blown Bloomville (Table on Ten restauarant and not much else), I thought maybe The Roxbury might not live up to its billing. However, there is often something about the typography and colour scheme of a place’s signboard that tells you that you are in safe hands. “Contemporary Catskill Lodgings” this one teased in limegreen and black and it delivered.

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury and backdrop

The Roxbury is a themed hotel, in that each of the 28 units is decorated to a particular brief, in this case a TV show or movie. Now, I’m not always a fan of themed rooms. Sometimes hoteliers think that all it takes is a hideous shagpile carpet, a lava lamp and a couple of DVDs and bam! The Austin Powers Suite. Or a bit of gold MDF and organza and you have the Arabian Nights room. That isn’t the case at The Roxbury Motel.

The owners, Greg Henderson and Joseph Massa both have theatrical backgrounds and it shows (Greg does concepts, Joseph is the craftsman) in the outlandish concoctions. What makes The Roxbury different is the attention to details – every room is done with passion and panache. Most are based on the sixties TV shows that were on constant re-run when the owners were growing up. So there is a Star Trek room, where the ceiling becomes the galaxy of dopplered stars as seen in warp drive, created by a massive coil of fibre optic lights in the roof space, and where the bathroom tiles glow to recreate the holodeck. For I Dream of Jeannie, the pair used an ancient Roman technique to create a perfect spherical space to represent the genie’s bottle. Gilligan’s Island is basically a huge inverted coconut cream pie as baked by Ginger and Mary Ann.

The understated Amadeus-themed room

The understated Amadeus-themed room

Best of all, though, is a three-bedroom stand-alone single-story house called The Digs. It was inspired by the purchase at auction of artifacts that were previously owned by a man who claimed to have worked for the Board of Education. Greg and Joseph discovered that they were from places such as Persia/Iran, the Far East and various destinations not open to the usual US tourist in the 50s and 60s. They decided the vendor had been a spy-cum-archeologist and so created a huge backstory which means The Digs is filled with the sort of items that might be boxed up at the end of Indiana Jones – and indeed there is a room with a ceiling full of bullwhips, snake wallpaper, a Mayan temple hiding a pull-down bed and a giant boulder above the lobby in homage to Indy. There’s also a fish tank so special it has featured on Animal Planet.

The Digs' ceiling lamps - from Cairo.

The Digs’ ceiling lamps – from Cairo.

But here’s the thing: despite all the frivolity, the hotel work – the products are excellent, there are bathtubs as opposed to mere showers, the fabrics, tiles, lamps, ceiling fixtures are sourced from the best suppliers in the world, there’s a two-part spa (hot tub and sauna in one wing, steam and treatments in another) and the sheets are as good as those in the Four Seasons.

As if this wasn’t enough, the pair have also bought a slightly sagging antebellum mansion down the road (see https://vimeo.com/105388223), which sits right next to a dramatic gorge and waterfall and they plan to do much the same with it (albeit more in keeping with the estate’s history than, say, The Jetsons room). Having toured the site, their plans are either insanely ambitious or just… No, I suspect The Roxbury at Stratton Falls will be ready within the two to three years they have allowed themselves. And I’ll be back.

The Digs living room

The Digs living room

See http://www.theroxburymotel.com for rates. I flew with Virgin Atlantic (http://www.virgin-atlantic.com) and hired a car through Alamo. The ins and outs of a Hudson Valley fly-drive will be dealt with  in The Times Travel piece.


This blog is actually about some “new” Arthur Conan Doyle stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. But stick with me for a while…

Back in 1998 Sony Records released Panthalassa, a sound collage of music made by Miles Davis between 1969-74, but given a radical reworking by Bill Laswell. Actually, it wasn’t that radical, he simply updated techniques used by Miles’ original producer, Teo Macero, who was the master of cut and splice and extracting a coherent shape from hours of studio jamming. Regardless of its honourable precedents, there was predictably some outrage from Miles Davis purists, claiming that what Laswell had done was sacrilege. These were the same people who, presumably, were happy to listen to the original In A Silent Way, with its whole section repeated verbatim (or whatever the musical equivalent is) – the last six minutes of the first track “Shhh” are actually the first six minutes of the same track repeated in identical form – the same performance, in fact. (To be fair, only a very few reviewers and listeners noticed this at the time).


     But there is another reason why the purists are wrong. Laswell did not destroy the originals of In A Silent Way, On The Corner or Get Up With It. Those are still there to enjoy. And in fact, I play the original and Laswell’s versions of In A Silent Way about equally (incidentally, the boxed set of IASW contains two killer unreleased tracks – the blues-soaked Ghetto Walk and Joe Zawinul’s wonderful Early Minor).

The reason I mention this is because today (September 3) sees the release of The Case of The Six Watsons where, like Laswell, I have taken something considered as a sacred text and tinkered around with it. I therefore expect similar opprobrium to rain down on me. For I have taken Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts and inserted some of my own words into them, this creating a collage of my own (although the majority of the text remains ACDs). The idea is to create “new” Holmes/Watson stories from the template of his non-Sherlock shorts which, let’s face it, are widely ignored compared to the 56 that make up the Holmes ‘canon’.

Case of the Six Watsons ebook cover

       Five of the six short stories I used are Conan Doyle stories that were among the hundreds (of variable quality) that he produced in addition the familiar Sherlock Holmes cases. Two of them actually make oblique reference to a famous detective, and in some countries are anthologised with the other 56 short stories (there are also the four novels, of course). The other three stories were the ones I thought could easily be transformed into Holmes tales (in fact, as the title suggests, it is mainly Watson who features in all of them) without disrupting the original text too much. The sixth is an original Watson short story by me, set in Egypt in 1915, when Watson would have been in the Royal Army Medical Corps. So the contents are as follows:

  1. The Beetle Lover. This immediately struck me as one of Conan Doyle’s short stories that most resembled a Holmes tale. It has a mysterious newspaper advertisement (as in ‘The Red-Headed League’), a job opportunity at a country house with some strange provisos (‘The Copper Beeches’) and the original narrator of ‘The Beetle Hunter’ (1898) was indeed a doctor, albeit somewhat younger than Watson. Until now. As with all the stories in this collection, I have changed the title slightly (from “Hunter” to “Lover”) so that there is no chance of confusion with the non-Watson original.
  1. 300px-Beetle-hunter-strand-juin-1898-5
  1. The Wrong Detective. This is the story that kick-started the whole idea of recasting ACD stories. In my Watson novel A Study in Murder (for which it formed an appendix), this was called ‘The Girl and the Gold Watches’, a slight twist on the original title, ‘The Man with the Gold Watches’. But I wanted to suggest that Holmes appears in this one, hence the new name. Holmes did get a mention in the version published by Conan Doyle in 1898, as an anonymous ‘well-known criminal investigator’ who offers some of the explanations that Holmes uses here.
  1. The Brazilian Wife. At its core this is an ACD story called ‘The Brazilian Cat’, originally published in 1908. My retelling is set during the Great Hiatus, when Holmes was assumed to have perished with Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. I have inserted various events and references from ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House’, the two short stories that bracket the Great Detective’s absence. This version sees Watson doubly bereft, with both Holmes and Mary Morstan gone from his life. Is it any wonder he acts irrationally?


  4. The Prisoner in B.24. Originally written in 1899 (under the title B.24) in the form of a  submission to the court of appeal, with no clear outcome. I have substituted Dr Watson for the court and given it a new ending.

5. The Missing Special. There are some anthologies of the Holmes stories, especially in translation,that include ‘The Lost Special’ (as it was originally called) in the ‘canon’ (or as apocrypha), becasue the celebrated detective who writes to The Times is clearly Sherlock. His identity is betrayed by he opening sentence of his letter – it is a classic Holmes maxim. So I have re-jigged this story to give the Great Detective and Dr Watson a more central role. Plus in the original (published in1898) there is a reference to a villainous Englishman at work, so I have taken the liberty of identifying him.


6. The Broken Crocodile. Having played fast and loose with some of Conan Doyle’s work, I thought it about time I gave myself a taste of my own medicine. This ‘samples’ a section of a novel I wrote about TE Lawrence (of Arabia) called Empire of Sand. The setting is from that book, but the mystery of the broken bowl is entirely new, although those who have read Dead Man’s Land – the first in the Dr Watson at War series – will recognise a character in the opening scene. It is set in the spring of 1915.

For a limited period these six stories are available to download for free as an e-book from the Amazon Kindle store.


And if you don’t approve, then I shall invoke the Laswell Defence, in that the original ACD stories are readily available, unsullied by me or anybody else, in the collections Tales of Unease and Round The Fire Stories.


On September 3rd Simon & Schuster will publish The Case of the Six Watsons (see http://tinyurl.com/pcouonn) as a free Kindle book. In it are five variations of non-canonical Arthur Conan Doyle Stories (such as The Lost Special), re-cast to include Holmes and (mainly) Watson. The sixth tale is entirely new and set in Cairo in 1915.


But there is a seventh story, based on The Adventure of the Sealed Room by ACD. I did not include it in the anthology because I thought Watson (and the original narrator) too passive. He merely observes, rather than deduces. Nevertheless, it is quite a fun tale and I am including a PDF below for anyone interested in the style of the Six Watsons. The illustrations are by Claude A Shepperson.

An original illustration from The Sealed Room

An original illustration from The Sealed Room

The re-imagined story begins…

A widower doctor of active habits with a busy practice must take what exercise he can in the evenings. Hence it was that I was in the habit of indulging in very long nocturnal excursions from my rooms in Mortimer Street, up towards Regent’s Park and, on occasion, to Baker Street itself. This was during those years when my friend was missing, thought dead, and that street and our old address always brought on an attack of melancholia. So, where possible, to preserve my sanity, I stayed to the east of the park. It was in the course of one of these rambles that I first met Felix Stanniford, and so embarked upon what has been the most extraordinary adventure of those lost years which many now call The Great Hiatus.

Read On:



I had lunch with a spy last week. A real one. It was part of my research for an article on the history of SIS/MI6 for OMEGA Lifetime magazine. I had heard many of his stories before, but I always liked this one. Unfortunately, when I came to look at the finished article it was almost 4,000 words long. SIS has a lot of history. Just to do justice to the grim Philby era eats up the words. So this story had to go but I thought it worth posting here as an example of the men who fought on the frontline of the real Cold War.  


The winter of 1947-8 in Berlin is particularly bleak. The city, under the combined occupation of Russia, France, America and Great Britain, still mostly consists of piles of rubble. Food and fuel are in short supply. The surviving occupants are scarred, physically and mentally, by the brutality shown by the Russian forces when they swept through the city. Now, it’s a wind from the East that is knifing down the wide streets and bringing misery. The bitter cold it delivers is killing the old and the weak. People are selling whatever they can to stay alive – their last possessions, their bodies and above all, information, for Berlin had been plunged straight into the front line of a new war, a clandestine conflict between the Soviet Bloc and the West. The front line of this battle runs right through the former capital (and, a city in a similar plight, Vienna). And the commodity everyone wants most is intelligence about what the other side is up to. James Fraser, not yet thirty but already a veteran of Britain’s various secrets services, is one of the warriors in this Cold War. He is sitting in a shabby café, overcoat and gloves on, his breath clouding the chill air as he sips an acrid cup of adulterated coffee and peers out into the street. Across the road is the Russian sector, marked at this juncture only by a virtual border – no wall, no barbed wire, just the agreed concept that one side of the street is the Red of oppression, the other, Fraser’s side, is the Red, White and Blue of liberty.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Fraser is, ostensibly, an administration officer with the Control Commission for Germany. In reality, he is a member of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Agency, sometimes known as MI6. And he is waiting for Otto, one of his ‘assets’ or agents in the east. As case officer, he is like father and brother to this young man, who is charged with watching train movements to and from the uranium mines of the SAG/SDAG Wismut mining company in Erzgebirge and Vogtland. A mundane job, but vital. The frequency of trains will tell someone, somewhere back in England, just how Russia’s nuclear programme is progressing. It is one of the tiny scraps of information that SIS uses to build a picture of what is happening in the East. Fraser has the madams of several high-end brothels over there in his pay, listening for pillow talk from Russian offers, and other assets working in the Red Army’s kitchens, for Napoleon was right, an army does march on its stomach, and if there is sudden increase in the amount of provisions ordered, it could be a sign that Soviet soldiers are about to move. Into the West, perhaps. Fraser lights a cigarette and checks his watch. Leo is late. That’s not necessarily a cause for concern. He has had to travel across an occupied country where military traffic always has priority. Across the road, a shadowy figure detaches from a doorway. Fraser is careful not to react. Like any good spy coming in from the cold, Otto has been observing the rendezvous, scanning for signs that the meet is compromised. As his prodigal son hurries towards the café, Fraser orders a second coffee for him from the owner. As he turns back, he catches an unexpected movement in the street from the corner of his eye.


Almost seven decades later and it is me sharing a beverage – tea, this time – with James Fraser at the Caxton Grill at St Ermin’s Hotel in London, not far from Broadway Buildings, once the home of his old ‘firm’. In fact, St Ermin’s is something of a ‘spy’s hotel’  – plenty of MI6 men used it and  it was once a favoured watering hole of Ian Fleming, who, of course, spent WW2 in Room 39 at the Admiralty as Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. During the war SIS and the Admiralty would have informal meetings at the Caxton, probabaly complaining about that noisy upstart, the Special Operations Executive.


Fraser, long retired but still sharp as a tack and with the impeccable manners of a trained diplomat (which is what he pretended to be for so many years), worked for SIS, and before that its sibling Special Operations Executive (SOE), from 1939 until the early 1990s. I have asked him to tell me the story of SIS from his perspective, given he dedicated so much of his life to the organization. He agrees, but with a number of provisos. He will not name names, unless that person is on public record as having been a member of SIS, and he will give no details of operations he was personally involved in (Otto is an exception, as he used him to make a more general point about the nature of intelligence gathering) or which remain sensitive in any way. What he did in postings to Asia, Europe and the USA must remain off the record. This is, he makes clear, deep background only. I agree. And so much of what follows comes from him.

[You can read this missing section in the next issue of OMEGA Lifetime]

Back at the Caxton Grill, James Fraser agrees that the world of spying has moved on since his day. And not always for the better. He misses the world of dead letter drops and seedy cafes. He isn’t alone – how else does one explain the remake of the Smiley books with Gary Oldman and the BBC’s recent The Game series, set in the 1970s, all muted browns and beiges and with more moles than Wind in the Willows? What about Otto? I ask as we finish up. Last seen heading for a cafe in West Berlin? A car pulled up, Fraser explains, a new Moskvitch 400 with Soviet Embassy plates. Otto was bundled inside by some hoods and driven off. A few days later, his belongings were delivered to the SIS HQ at the Olympic Stadium (the very same one where Jesse Owens triumphed in 1936) as a message. Otto was dead. Fraser blinks, drinks his tea and rises to go. He pauses. ‘You know’, he says wistfully, ‘despite computers, satellites and drones, I bet somewhere in the world, right now, there is an SIS agent sitting in a bar or café waiting for his contact to show.’ And somehow, like me, he clearly finds that thought oddly comforting.