I studied interrogation arts with Alan Bennett and Dennis Potterby Paul Barker / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: Secret Classrooms Author: Harold Shukman and Geoffrey Elliott Price: (St Ermin’s, ?18.99)
The cold war was like a ramshackle building, with many odd corners. I found myself in one of them when I arrived in an army pick-up truck in the mid-Cornwall town of Bodmin, one grey 1950s November. With a batch of other national service conscripts, I was joining the joint services school for linguists (JSSL), usually called “the Russian course,” at a windswept camp behind the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry barracks.
The ministry of defence had decided it needed more Russian speakers to monitor Soviet signals and, if need be, interrogate prisoners. JSSL was set up, and between 1951-60 taught Russian to about 5,000 conscripts. The repeated testing was ferocious. After a few weeks, we were divided. Potential signal monitors lingered at Bodmin for nine months. Potential interpreters were rewarded with an 18-month course (conscription was for two years). A year of this was spent attached to the universities of London or, like me, Cambridge.
It still amazes me that, at the end, I could tackle simultaneous interpretation. Not any more. But it shows what full-time teaching can achieve, backed by sanctions. The threat of a return to the real army was waved at me when I disappeared to the cinema one afternoon to see Huston’s parody thriller, Beat the Devil. By then I knew the Russian for every part of the T34 tank, and even for capercailzie, a bird I had never heard of in English.
The Russian course became one of those “invisible colleges” which permeate this country’s life: a kind of continuing bond. The stringently meritocratic course trawled very widely for its recruits. (It wasn’t at all secret; Pravda even mailed a subscription copy direct to Bodmin.) The army and RAF conscripts were usually ex-grammar school; the navy leaned towards public schools. I was never conscious of any class, educational or regional distinctions, though I remember fondly a Glaswegian with three pairs of socks which he never washed, but just rested and rotated.
The best-known Russian course people must be Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett. In Secret Classrooms, the first history of JSSL, Frayn is quoted describing JSSL graduates as “corpuscles of vodka along the aorta of British cultural life.” He went on to translate and adapt Chekhov; one of his novels is called The Russian Interpreter. Alan Bennett put on stage two of the Cambridge (pre-JSSL) spies, Burgess and Blunt.
The ex-governor of the Bank of England, Eddie George, the painter Patrick Procktor, the novelist and poet DM Thomas, the political analyst David Marquand, the former Radio 3 and Proms boss John Drummond, the opera conductor David Lloyd-Jones, the historian Martin Gilbert: all these learned their Russian this way. At Bodmin, the future television playwright Dennis Potter was in the next camp-hut to mine. In my hut was his long-time producer Kenith Trodd, a rebel against a Plymouth Brethren upbringing, who one evening shyly confessed his love of deeply unfashionable 1930s bands like Lew Stone’s and singers like Al Bowlly. See any lip-synched Potter play for evidence.
Curiously, in those days between the 1948-49 Berlin airlift and the 1961 Berlin wall, nuclear attack wasn’t mentioned. The thought was that the Russians might come over the Elbe one night with fixed bayonets. We’d talk to any that were caught. I remember only one short lecture about how to interrogate. After a Geneva convention request for name, rank and number, further revelations might be encouraged, it was suggested, by shining a strong light, refusing pleas to go to the lavatory, and keeping on and on questioning.
No one mentioned actual spying, though some Russian course graduates were tempted into MI6 afterwards. The Times and Telegraph journalist Jeremy Wolfenden, profiled in Sebastian Faulks’s The Fatal Englishman and a godfather to my oldest son, fell into the hands of both MI6 and the KGB. This helped to kill him at 31. But many JSSL graduates went on to became academics or teachers.
The Russian course bequeathed me two convictions. The first is a belief in meritocracy. As with democracy, for all both systems’ shortcomings, the alternatives seem worse. The second is the near certainty that many people were taken for a ride about the real nature of Soviet society because they never knew the language. When I became a magazine editor, I seldom printed anything about the USSR or China by writers who knew no Russian or Chinese. Fewer articles but, I reckoned, less bullshit. (And now Arabic?)
Last autumn I went, for the first time, to St Petersburg. I’d tried to brush up my atrophied Russian. A sailor begged a cigarette from me as he went on his morning shift. I managed to say I didn’t smoke, and I could at least understand his response. He told me to go to hell.