A 15 Minute Trip Around the World via the Internet

Prehistoric footprints preserved in the wake of volcanic activity. Image from Pinterest (http://www.pinterest.com/pin/21884748161583647/)

Prehistoric footprints preserved in the wake of volcanic activity. Image from Pinterest (http://www.pinterest.com/pin/21884748161583647/)

Weekly Web Links:

Historical Book Review for the Week:

Spooks: The Unofficial History of MI-5 From ‘M’ to Miss X 1909-39 by Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas

Spooks: the History of MI-5 by Thomas Hennessey


I would love to be a spy; seriously, how cool would that be? But like the type of spy who got to play with all the cool gadgets but not actually be put into any sort of dangerous situation because, quite frankly, I’d probably be pretty useless under that type of pressure. Honestly though, I would be an absolutely rubbish spy.  The first thing I would probably do is go running down the street shouting ‘I’m a spy! I’m a spy!’ which (shockingly) wouldn’t be the most useful action for a spy…
But even though I’d love to be a spy I actually didn’t know a whole lot about the various secret service organizations other than what various TV shows, movies, and books tell me about them. Which, you know, totally authentic and accurate all the time; no exaggeration whatsoever; all spies look that good all the time (I hope all spies look that good all the time…)

This particular book is the first one in a series three and covers the years from the very beginnings of MI-5 up until the beginning of the second world war with focus on the establishment of the organization, the uncovering of German espionage during WWI in England, the emergence of communism following 1918, and the preparations that were made as it became clear that the world was moving towards WWII.  In addition to this, it also introduces many of the figures who were central to the organization from its founders, including Maxwell Knight and Vernon Kell, up to the mysterious characters of ‘M’, Miss X, Joan Miller, and Miss Z.

The most remarkable part of this book is seeing just how much struggle there was in the beginning in establishing both the organization as well as the activities it would go on to carry out.  At this point in time both in the act of espionage itself as well as in the detection and prevention of enemy spying activities were incredibly rudimentary to modern ideas of espionage.  In the beginning, spies rarely had cover stories of any form other than claiming that they were visiting a region as a tourist or student.  On the occasions where there was a cover story created, there was typically little to no effort made to maintain them and they quickly fell apart with any investigation or questioning.  It is also fascinating to see how those tropes of spy fiction which are seen as obvious and lazy stereotypes today, such as writing with invisible ink (typically lemon juice) or hiding documents in the false bottom of a case, were actually incredibly innovative in their time and, in fact, gave opposing organizations a great deal of trouble.

The sheer number of times that MI-5 nearly got shut down due to a general lack of belief in its importance as well as the extremely common problem of budget cuts really drives home just how impressive it is that the organization is still operating today let alone seen as an elite and essential service.


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