|Hradčany Castle, Prague|
It’s London in the early nineteen seventies. I’m 22 years old and a senior member of the International Marxist Group. I’ve been invited to an unexpected meeting with a leader of the IMG, a member of the Political Committee.
I have no idea why.
We’re a Trotskyist organisation, as opposed to the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe as to the capitalist West. It turns out that the IMG has been running a secret project with the Czech opposition in exile; ‘subversive’ books are being smuggled to groups within the country. They need volunteer drivers – would I be interested?
The IMG’s part in all this is to provide a team of two to share the driving. I’m given the impression that my co-conspirator will be the blond, vivacious Anna, so I’m pretty keen. It later transpires that I’m to be paired up with a bespectacled, public school educated comrade I'll call 'Mark'.
I reflect: what happens if the secret police catch you? How would the interrogation go? How many years would you spend in jail?
Our mission starts with a visit to a Czech dissident’s mansion in Hampstead. The émigré organisation supports several groups with different political orientations in-country. Each group has its own tailored bundle which must be delivered correctly. On no account must any of the groups get the idea that other organisations are also being supported – each apparently believes they are the unique, chosen ones.
We’re shown the white transit van we’ll be driving. The rear has two benches along the sides: the packages will be hidden in secret compartments beneath them. There are boards and mattresses to assemble beds in the back. At the border this will create additional barriers to a thorough search. We practice assembling and disassembling the back of the transit, and commit to memory which package is going to which group, the rendezvous locations, procedures and codes. A cover story for colleagues and parents is concocted, as we’ll be away for two or three weeks (hopefully!).
A few days later we’re off, driving the transit from London to a ferry port, and then along the motorways of northern Europe towards the safe house in Vienna. Only two moments of drama occur in this initial phase of the mission.
Driving at speed along a motorway in the fast lane the bonnet of the van, which hadn’t been fastened properly, suddenly flips up under the force of the airflow, blocking my view (I’m driving). I don’t panic, use the wing mirrors to steer across the lanes and stop on the hard shoulder.
The second incident is much more serious. Mark and I realise we’ve forgotten which package goes to which group – as per instructions, we never wrote anything down. We find a phone box and make a call to the Hampstead house. A man answers and has to repeat – in clear – the detailed delivery instructions. He is deeply unamused. Whatever security this mission might have had, it is surely compromised. We proceed regardless.
A day or two later, we arrive at the safe house in Vienna in the late afternoon. The plan is that we drive north to cross the Czech border shortly before dawn, just before the shift changes. The concentration of the border guards should be minimal at this time (but don’t border guards ever see through this ploy?). Both Mark and I are making frequent visits to the toilet – we’re rather ‘apprehensive’.
We leave in the small hours of the morning. Mark is driving, we have the bed down and I’m in it – more cover. It’s been decided that Mark will be the one who deals with the security police while I pretend to be asleep. I think the mission organisers are placing a lot of trust in Mark’s accent and general breeding; it may help that Mark’s public persona is that of an upper class bumbling idiot. I am not wholly aware that Mark is carrying on his person a bunch of letters which need to be posted in-country: we are not privy to their contents.
The guards do what guards do. They come out of their warm control room – it’s winter and very cold – and open up the back of the transit. I do a convincing rubbing of the eyes, stretch and yawn. They poke around and consider our story – we’re students taking a vacation, en route to Prague. Bored, they let us proceed.
Mark, back in the driving seat, tells me that he’d put the secret letters in his underpants, thinking they’d be safest there. Unfortunately, while he was being questioned by the border guards, the letters had slipped out and fallen down his trouser leg. He’d been terrified they’d fall onto the floor but somehow the top of a sock had halted their progress.
We continue through the snowy wilderness of southern Czechoslovakia. Soon we have a problem: there is something very wrong with the engine. We have to stop in a small town and in some combination of English and German find a garage. We sip at sweet black coffees while the mechanics fix the gasket or whatever. We worry about the time, mindful of our rendezvous timetable.
Once we’re on the road again, we find a quiet spot. Mark keeps watch while I disassemble the back of the van, restoring the two bench seats and contorting myself to reach into the hidden compartments to retrieve the packages. They’re placed on the floor and covered with spare bedding. From now on, even the most cursory search will find them. Finally we reach Prague, where we have been told to check into a certain hotel. We’ll be rooming together, writing notes to forestall eavesdroppers.
Our immediate assignment is to meet with a teacher who is the first group's contact. She lives in a high-rise apartment a few miles west of the centre of town. We drive out early next day, well before the working day starts. Everything goes well: we find her and deliver the goods. Then she says, “It’s getting late and I have classes. Could you give me a lift?”
Having grown up with a juvenile fascination for tradecraft, I do a double-take at this. She joins the two of us in the front of the transit and we navigate the rush-hour traffic back into town. We drop her a block away from her school, just around the corner - very casual.
The next part of the mission is more complex because we have to split up. Mark has to take a train to meet his contact in a cafe-bar at the end of the line, far out in the suburbs. At the same time, I have a brush contact with someone at Hradčany Castle which overlooks the centre of Prague. We will meet back at the hotel (everything is timed).
I drop Mark off at the station and wend my way through the dense, narrow, inner city streets to park near the castle entrance. I have studied the layout: there is a cobblestone square near the castle walls. I am to sit on a bench with the bag. There is a recognition phrase and a required response.
I sit on the bench with the bag at my feet and shiver. It’s early and the square is deserted – no sign of surveillance. I see a man, mid-thirties, bearded and dressed against the cold shuffling towards me. He stops and says “Is that it?” I nod helplessly; no one had explained what to do if the person doesn’t use the right codes. He continues, laughing dismissively, “Sure it’s the one for me, not one for the other lot?” (So much for the groups being in ignorance of each other).
Without more ado he picks up the bag and walks off. I return to the transit and drive back to the hotel, relieved that the mission is almost over. I sit alone in the hotel room. The time allocated for Mark to return comes and goes. The clock measures out the slow hours; I’m in an agony of indecision. Surely Mark has been picked up? Again, no one had told us what to do in this eventuality but surely it’s madness to just sit here, just wait for the arrival of the secret police?
At last I hear footsteps in the corridor and the door opens. I fear the worst, curse myself for being an idiot, nothing like the resourceful heroes of espionage fiction. But it’s Mark. He was held up, he says, by his contact, who wanted to drink with him and regale him with stories. He just couldn’t get away. We have seen so much atrocious security that this does not seem impossible.
So now we’re done. Next day we leave Prague and eventually cross the western border into Germany. Mark turns to me and says something which strikes me as odd: “What a relief to be back in bourgeois democracy.”
In the decades since, I have had several thoughts.
I was, of course, sorry that I hadn’t been partnered with Anna (she tragically died in 2006).
I took so much on trust in my naiveté: were those packages really full of books, and books alone, as we were so convincingly told?
I was never sure about Mark: so many of his actions make just a little more sense if he was, in fact, working for MI5.
I guess I’ll never know.