Marking the beginning of the 26th Arthur Miller International Literary Festival at the UEA, Christopher Bigsby was joined by intelligence historian Christopher Andrew on Wednesday October 3. Andrew is an Emeritus professor in Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Cambridge History Faculty. His publications include numerous papers and ‘doorsteps’ of books on the KGB and the MI5, amongst other matters of intelligence and international relations.
Bigsby opens the evening by informing the audience that the event has a ‘local dimension’, as Christopher Andrew was educated at the Norwich School, of which he also became the governor. It is an interesting coincidence, if not rather ironic, that another notable alumnus of the school happens to be Donald Maclean, a British diplomat and member of the Cambridge Five, who famously acted as spies for the Soviet Union. Bigsby humorously remarks that ‘it is things like that that make you proud to live in Norfolk.’
It is clear from the size of his books that Andrew is a very thorough historian. It is fitting, therefore, that the talk begins with the first ever intelligence operation in the history of the world: that of Moses sending out ‘a dozen spies to spy out the promised land’; an ‘intelligence failure’ at which ‘God is very angry’. Of course, Andrew is very quick to make clear that he does not say this ‘with any disrespect.’
He moves rapidly and with spectacular ease three thousand years onwards to the period when the CIA decided that they needed to assassinate Castro, and how their futile attempts with ‘poison pills and putting explosives in sea shells that they thought Castro might dive to’ led them to ask the mob for help. Laughter spreads as Andrew imitates the mob replying to the CIA: ‘If you can get Castro to Detroit, we can do it!’
Bigsby and Andrew also touch on the Salisbury attacks. Andrew outlines that the ‘people who were sent [to Salisbury] were professional assassins, but they had just done it in areas that were rather easy to operate in’, such as Afghanistan, but never in Salisbury. He explains that ‘the whole business of assassinating somebody in Salisbury is quite different from assassinating somebody in Kabul.’ He goes on to remind the audience that it is important to judge situations for what they are, and not to think that certain actions must be intelligent merely because they are executed by people in power.
At the beginning of the event, Andrew outlined how ‘the most extraordinary thing about intelligence is that it suffers from short-termism, more than any other profession. In response to this, Bigsby later points out that ‘because intelligence has been so secret, it’s past history has been so secret.’ This reason phenomenon becomes evident during various instances, throughout history, explaining why ‘there has been less learning from experience [in intelligence] …than in any other profession’
After a whole hour of what started out as an interview, and turned into a fascinating history lesson, the crowd had the opportunity to have their book signed at the Waterstones on campus with a glass of free wine.