I read today that Jonathan Evans the current head of MI5, in an interview given to Iris magazine in support of a campaign to promote the return of Latin and classical Greek to state schools, said that education in the classical languages is an ideal preparation for employment in the intelligence services. No-one mentioned this to me when I was looking for my post-graduate start, though at the time the existence of MI5 was denied by everyone so it would have been difficult to know where to have sent my CV. There were rumours, of course, but rumour also had it that the way involved an intimate relationship with one of several gay dons quietly smoking their pipes in Cambridge colleges and influencing. Bristol graduates were unlikely to get to the starting blocks.
I suppose that teaching of the classics in state schools went into decline in the sixties, particularly Greek – I was the last boy at my grammar school to learn it – and got a serious kicking when inverted snobbery swept through the educational establishment from about that time. I remember at the opening of a huge comprehensive school in Hull, on a playing field only a few yards from my home, the new headmaster gave an interview in which he said, when asked if Latin would be taught there, “I’m not having that snob subject in my school!” His outrage was clearly genuine and could not have been warmer had it been suggested that he might be accepting applications from convicted paedophiles for the post of caretaker. I was a relatively unshockable 20 year old at the time, but I was taken aback that an educated man could take such a position. Perhaps he had failed his Latin O Level, and was bitter. The Chief Education Officer should have sent for him and given him six of the best, but he too had probably signed up to the same orthodoxy as the head, and appointed him into the bargain. Equality was the new shibboleth.
Anyway, all this set me thinking – am I too late? Ageism is illegal, and although retired I am more or less intact, so why don’t I dust down my CV and pop it in the post with an offer of my services? I notice that Mr Evans also studied at Bristol, which might give me an edge. He was a bit after my time, was still sleeping on a rubber sheet when I went up, but it’s still a bond. I wonder what changed during the fifteen years between us? Did a feverish rush of dons pile in from Cambridge and snap up all the best jobs during Bristol’s expansion in the seventies and, once settled, take a fancy to the then young Evans and take a chance on him? I don’t know, and Evans isn’t saying.
I would be the ideal spook; a slightly Pooterish figure, unfit and with failing hearing – practically undetectable. My hearing aids would provide excellent cover, cleverly adapted by Q, for sending me vital messages, and my training in Africa in the use of firearms would be useful if ever they needed someone to shoot the Prime Minister disliked. But my sterling quality is my deteriorating memory – who better to trust with secrets than a man who remembers nothing? Even under torture I could not reveal the location of my car on Morrison’s car park. I think I’ll compose my letter of application in classical Greek, and write it out with invisible ink (see The Dangerous Book for Boys). I’ll let you know how I get on. Do you think they’ll make me sleep with beautiful Russian women, to demonstrate my loyalty? Perhaps, perhaps, but surely not at the interview. You never know with these dons.
I’m happy to tell you – you will have been wondering – that the school in Hull, the David Lister School by the way, closed down a few years ago and its buildings demolished. Sic transit Gloria Swanson, I say.