'We had an infiltrator already' (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

June 13, 2023   5 mins

Prince Harry isn’t the only one who has been having trouble with his phone. About 40 years ago, I began to hear strange clicking sounds when I picked up the receiver; being of a rational cast of mind, I put this down to acute paranoia. Then I read somewhere that the British intelligence service phone-taps Left-wing academics as well as the usual suspects. I also noticed that the clicks grew more frequent whenever I was involved in some political controversy.

On one occasion, I was part of a picket line and was kicked on the shin by a police officer, who I suppose was only doing his job. A few days later, being a firm believer in preaching to the unconverted, I gave a talk on socialism to the sixth form at Eton, and entered the classroom limping. I told the boys that I had been kicked on a picket line by a copper and they laughed politely, assuming that I was joking. Presumably they believed neither that the police could be violent nor that Oxford dons could be picketers. By this point, the clickings had begun to sound like a pair of mad castanets.

I took to chatting to the silent listener at the other end of the line, asking whether it was true that spies were trained to kill with a matchbox and why they had allowed MI5 to be run for some years by a Soviet agent. Was this really the way to protect us from socialist slavery?

These one-sided conversations were rather like prayer. They were addressed to an immensely powerful, almost omniscient being who had the power to inflict torture on you, but also who may or may not have existed and whose reality one had to take on faith. It is said that one such professional eavesdropper resigned from the service in protest at being required to spend his days listening to the phone conversations between a well-known British Leftist and his seven-year-old daughter. The Leftist in question also had regular political discussions over the phone with a friend throughout the Seventies; a few years later, since neither of them could remember what they had said, they considered asking M15 for transcripts.

Finally, I got to meet a couple of spooks face to face, though probably not those who were bugging my phone. Two men claiming to be journalists turned up at my door and began to quiz me about a Left-wing group of which I was then a member. When I made to shut the door on the pair, one of them dangled before my eyes a highly confidential document I had written for the group and foolishly entrusted to the post.

One of these men might well have been a journalist, but the other almost certainly wasn’t. Burly and slow of speech, he looked more like a detective, and seemed remarkably well-informed about the history of Marxism. He was particularly interested in discovering the exact doctrinal differences between my group and a rival outfit on a highly technical issue in Marxist economics, and before long the two of us had launched into a deep scholarly discussion of these matters, full of erudite allusions and elaborate digressions, while the “real journalist” stared miserably at his notebook and waited for it to stop.

When I congratulated the disguised cop, a touch sarcastically, on his impressive knowledge of these issues, he muttered that he had been studying them for 20 years. It was poignant to imagine him joining the police as a young man eager to chase criminals through docklands and council estates and instead being given a pile of volumes by Lenin and Trotsky and told to work his way through them. Maybe that’s what took him 20 years. But he had clearly developed some zest for the subject, and after a while I began to wonder whether he might not make a suitable recruit to our group. Should I ask him to call back by himself sometime later? There would be dangers of course in recruiting a police officer, but not because he would act as an infiltrator and report everything back to his masters. After all, we had an infiltrator already, who was faithfully reporting everything the group said or did to the authorities.

It was proving impossible, however, to establish who this fifth columnist was. There would be private conversations between three or four senior members of the organisation, all of whom would probably have sacrificed their lives to the cause, and who were already in the process of sacrificing their partners, children, finances, leisure time and sanity to it. Yet whatever had been said among them still managed to reach the ears of the police. In the end, the villain turned out to be a young man who was unrivalled for his devotion to the socialist cause but also unrivalled for the fact that he had a criminal record as a paedophile and was being blackmailed over it by the police.

While I was dealing with the phone-tapping, I was also receiving the kind of letters which most people in the public eye are likely to attract. In fact, I received one only the other day, from someone claiming to know that I was an undercover Colonel in the Israeli Defence Force, and that he would reveal this secret to the world unless I placed a rather large amount of money in his bank account. Another correspondent sent me a letter to be passed on to my relatives to let them know that I had been killed in a camp for political prisoners in Columbia. It isn’t clear how the writer expected me to forward this news to my family from six feet under the soil. He added in a rather nonchalant postscript that his girlfriend had been killed in the camp as well.

Other letters continue to arrive from people claiming to be distant relatives or even illegitimate children of mine, all of them sadly reporting that they are in financial distress. In fact, the slightest association with me seems to spell disaster for people’s material well-being. Perhaps on account of some family curse, my second and third cousins are afflicted without exception with dire poverty, while alleged sons and daughters are prevented from working by incurable medical conditions. A benign Nature, however, has so ordered human affairs that people who write this stuff almost all have the same kind of handwriting — huge, erratic, flamboyant — so that you are braced for what lies within by the address on the envelope.

Since my days of political activism now lie mostly behind me, my phone has resumed its normal behaviour — or so I thought. About a year ago, however, I rang a friend in Zurich only for her to hear the whole conversation played back as she was putting down the phone. This, I imagine, is more cock-up than conspiracy; someone had forgotten to switch something off. Or there was simply some kind of glitch, as the new head of my old Oxford college suggested to me. The fact that he was previously the director of GCHQ doesn’t inspire me with absolute faith in this hypothesis.

My tutor at Cambridge was a recruiter for this underworld. From time to time, some third-year undergraduate notable for combining high intelligence with athletic prowess, a rare enough synthesis, would disappear into what was euphemistically called the Foreign Office, where he was no doubt trained in how to kill people with a matchbox. My tutor never tried to recruit me, given that he was aware of my politics, but he did have a go at my room-mate, who was both clever and sturdy. The conversation went like this:

Tutor: What are you thinking of doing after Cambridge?
Room-mate: I really don’t know, sir.
Tutor: Have you considered espionage?
Room-mate (chucking at what he took to be a joke): I suppose that might be a bit dangerous.
Tutor (unsmiling): Yes, it would.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.