Mrs Norwood’s ‘Kerfuffle’
On 11 September 1999 Mrs. Norwood, an eighty-seven year old grandmother, woke up to find the world’s press occupying her front garden. ‘The game’s up,’ she thought, as she made her way downstairs to put the kettle on and fry her customary bacon. That morning The Times newspaper carried the banner headline, ‘The Spy Who Came In from The Co-op’. The longest serving KGB agent in Britain had been exposed. The notorious great granny spy, who had passed Top Secret material on Britain’s atomic bomb programme to the Soviet Union, prepared for her comeuppance.
I had been introduced to Mrs. Norwood two years earlier by the librarian of the Russian library at Brixton where I consulted Russian newspapers in a dingy atmosphere reminiscent of an episode of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. My interest in Mrs. Norwood was sparked by research into the Tsarist political emigration to Britain at the turn of the last century and, in particular the activities of her Latvian-born father, Alexander Sirnis. Sirnis, a disciple of Tolstoy who became a Bolshevik, had lived in a Russian colony at Tuckton House, Pokesdown, on the outskirts of Bournemouth where under the guidance of Tolstoy’s literary executor, Vladimir Chertkov, he translated Tolstoy’s diaries into English. He also made the acquaintance of the philosophe of anarchism, Peter Kropotkin, and worked with two of Lenin’s most successful spies, Theodore Rothstein and Jacob Peters, the latter an accomplished executioner. In 1919 Peters told the American journalist, Louise Bryant, that:
It was his duty to see that prisoners were quickly and humanely disposed of. He performed this grim task with a dispatch and an efficiency for which even the condemned must have been grateful, in that nothing is more horrible than an executioner whose hand trembles and whose heart wavers.
As a child Melita Norwood played happily with two of Tolstoy’s grandchildren, Sonya and ‘Lulu’, in surroundings as idyllic as Peter’s was efficient. The trees were so tall, she told me, although her mother remembered them as small. Gertrude Stedman, an English suffragette, took to cobbling and repairing the boots of Tuckton’s Russian colony where she met her husband-to-be, Alexander, their eyes presumably meeting over a cobbler’s anvil.
The Brixton librarian insisted I took Mrs. Norwood’s telephone number and I was told to make contact with her. On phoning I received an invitation to Sunday lunch at her home in Bexleyheath. When I arrived I was struck by the well-kept rose bushes in her front garden and the CND poster in her living-room window. It was a frugal lunch, fish fingers and greens from her kitchen garden washed down by tea served in Che Guevara mugs. Over the coming weeks I enjoyed many such lunches where Melita reminisced about her enchanting seaside childhood spent among a band of dedicated Russian revolutionaries. At the time I was teaching in Leeds and would travel to London once a month to enjoy a Sunday lunch of fish fingers and greens (or the occasional kipper) and read through Melita Norwood’s private papers. They were enjoyable outings. Melita Norwood had a good sense of humour, and kept up with current affairs. Her favourite television personality was Jeremy Paxman, and she rarely missed an edition of Newsnight.
On 11 September, the morning that Mrs. Norwood woke to find that her ‘kerfuffle’, as she called it, had caught up with her, I discovered for the first time that she had been a major Russian spy. It happened at Milton Keynes coach station (in those days an isolated bus stop next to a smoke-filled cafeteria). I was on my way to visit Mrs. Norwood when the National Express bus from Leeds to London pulled up at the Milton Keynes stop to drop off and pick up passengers. It was a routine event and there wasn’t anything unusual about the day. I had five minutes before the coach continued on its way to Victoria. I got off the bus and went into the shop and cafeteria by the bus shelter to buy a newspaper and there, to my astonishment, I came face to face with Melita Norwood staring at me from the front page of The Times newspaper. She had been accused of passing on
Britain’s atomic secrets to the Russians, the longest-serving female Soviet agent in the West, the spy who came in from The Co-op. I was a little shocked, to say the least. When I got to London I immediately telephoned her. She sounded a little vague:
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s me. Lunch, remember?’
‘Oh, yes! You’d better come next week. The world’s press has found its way to my doorstep. You see, I have been rather a naughty girl. Never mind. Come next week.’
When I arrived the following Sunday Melita came to the door positively beaming, looking very relaxed and mischievous. She was wearing a long, tatty, old-fashioned brown woollen man’s overcoat. A hat of sorts was perched precariously on her head, and she clutched a knife in one hand and sprouting broccoli in the other. She ushered me into the backroom next to the kitchen. For the first time I noticed the spartan nature of her surroundings which, to be honest, took me aback somewhat. It was rather a bare room consisting of a large kitchen table, an armchair, a television set and a Utility sideboard. French windows looked out on what was still an attractive garden. Lying on the kitchen table were copies of the Communist Party’s newspaper The Morning Star. At the age of eighty-nine, every Saturday she still delivered thirty-two copies of the paper to friends and supporters of the Party alike. I picked up the one she saved for me and read. The tin kettle on the stove began to whistle, increasing in shrillness as she reached down the two Che Guevara mugs she used for serving up Co-op tea. She shuffled back into the room, put the mugs down unsteadily and began. I asked her if I could record the interview but she said that she’d rather I didn’t although I could take notes if I liked. It was a strange interview. It was obvious that she was still in a state of shock, and her eccentric, mischievous manner was her way of coping. I just listened. I hadn’t prepared any questions, so I just let her talk, jotting down notes as quickly as I could. It was fascinating. As she spoke she became more animated, younger even, the mischievous
woman that she once was, her confidence regained. When I left she told me I was to come back in a couple of weeks.
‘I thought I’d got away with it,’ she kept muttering to herself as she led me to the door. ‘What a kerfuffle.’
Her ‘kerfuffle’ began in the South East London borough of Woolwich where she assisted a communist spy ring working inside the Woolwich Arsenal. Her security depended on a parallel agent network centred upon the Lawn Road Flats in well-heeled Belsize Park. Inside the Flats, the first modernist block of flats to use reinforced concrete in domestic architecture, Austrian and German Jewish Communists, escapees from Fascism, recruited and controlled an assortment of leading spies, including Kim Philby and the atom bomb spy Klaus Fuchs. Among the Flats more respectable creative inhabitants were Agatha Christie, Walter Gropius, Moholy Nagy, Marcel Breuer and Henry Moore, to name but a few. The residents had their own bar and restaurant situated on the ground floor presided over by Philip Harben, who would become TV’s first celebrity chef. Here Agatha Christie dined with known German communists and wrote her best spy novel N or M? Mrs. Norwood’s ‘kerfuffle’ kept good company.
The recruitment of spies is no easy matter as Jeffrey Meyers made plain in his essay on John Le Carré and Graham Greene in the February/March edition of this magazine. Discussing the spying careers of Philby and Le Carré, Meyers emphasised the influence of both men’s essentially eccentric and overbearing fathers in preparing them for the secret world. Melita Norwood’s father, the first person in England to translate Lenin into English, was a member of the Russian Social-Democratic Party (Bolshevik). At a time when the socialist press was continuously raided by the authorities, its machinery dismantled and access to paper denied, Alexander Sirnis supplied both from the printing presses housed at Tuckton House. An avowed Bolshevik, he taught his young daughter the following maxim: that ‘socialism meant down with everything that’s up and up with everything that’s down.’ A phrase she often repeated during her conversations with me. Following his death from TB on Armistice Day 1918 Melita kept the
memory of her father alive, and told me that his teachings had guided her principles throughout her life. The influence of her mother, Gertrude Sirnis, was no less memorable for its persistent utopianism and communist idealism, finding an outlet in the world of espionage. Gertrude’s home address became a secret contact point between Moscow Centre and British communist party headquarters in King Street, and it was used to recruit British communists wanting to train as wireless operators at the Wilson School in Moscow. It was Gertrude who groomed Melita for a career in intelligence, making the arrangements for, and accompanying her to, her first meeting with her agent recruiter, Andrew Rothstein.
Following Melita Norwood’s outing as a spy on 11 September 1999 the British Government and the Security Service, MI5, devised a media strategy to handle the fallout from Mrs. Norwood’s ‘kerfuffle’, and decided to portray her as rather a daft old lady. The fact that she was first outed as a spy in The Times newspaper came about as a result of that paper buying the serialisation rights on a book written by Cambridge academic Christopher Andrew and ex-KGB archivist, Vasili Mitrokhin. The Mitrokhin Archive, as the book was entitled, was to be serialised in The Times over the coming week and Melita Norwood was to be its lead-in story. The ‘grandmother spy’ from Bexleyheath who spied for the Soviet Union from 1934 until her retirement in 1973 had topped master spy Kim Philby when it came to length of service. She was not only excellent headline material but she seemed to be enjoying herself. Her fellow spy, who worked with her controller Ursula Kuczynski (codename Sonya), Alexander Foote, had concluded in his autobiography that: ‘The only excitement that a spy is likely to have is his last, when he is finally run to earth – a similar emotion to that experienced by the fox.’ On the morning of 11 September Mrs. Norwood decided that this was her ‘fox-like’ moment and sat down after her breakfast and penned a few lines explaining why she had spied for the Soviet Union over a thirtynine year period. The Soviet Union she portrayed would be little more than the embodiment of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour Government; atomic espionage analogous facing up to New Labour or Conservative Party attacks on benefit scroungers, illegal immigrants and the National Health Service. Then kitted out spotlessly in a white blouse and beige skirt
she carefully applied her lipstick before making a dramatic entry into her cherished rose garden resplendent in its second autumnal bloom. The gasp from the assembled press crew emboldened her. You could have heard a pin drop when she read her statement to the press:
I’m eighty-seven, and unfortunately my memory is not what it was. I did what I did not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had, at great cost, given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, given them education and a health service. . . . In general I do not agree with spying against one’s country. My late husband did not agree with what I did.
She smiled graciously before posing for the cameras, sniffing her roses and looking very much the bee’s knees, as images on Google verify. ‘The Mole Who Came Into The Garden’ was the headline chosen by The Independent. The Sunday Telegraph quoted her as saying ‘I would do everything again.’ One Sunday newspaper told the story of a recent spy convention at the former NATO listening station on Teufelsberg, near Berlin, where retired members of the CIA, KGB and MI5 raised their glasses to the little old lady from Bexleyheath. ‘Cold War Club Welcomes A New Member,’ smiled the headline:
To absent friends they raised their glasses: to George Blake, who sent greetings from Moscow, and then to the pensioner whose name they didn’t know, unmasked as one of their own for more than forty years.
‘I never had heard of this lady before’, Major General Oleg Kalugin, formerly of the KGB and creator of a computer game called Spycraft, told the Independent on Sunday:
But I knew from some sources that there was a lady involved in atomic espionage. I think there is a tendency here to overstate the efficiency of Western intelligence, and underestimate the achievements of the KGB. Certainly in the late 1940s, we were the
best outfit in the world.
Clearly the British Government and MI5’s media strategy was not working and was in danger of spinning out of control. The British have an ambivalent attitude towards spies oscillating between fascination and approval to extreme horror. The day after Melita’s outing as a spy an editorial in The Independent on Sunday described her story as ‘classically British in more ways than one’.
The eighty-seven year old great-grandmother, whose wispy grey-haired exterior masks a life of studied betrayal, was for forty years one of Russia’s most effective Cold War spies. There has been a characteristically British touch of ambivalence in the reaction to the news: the old lady is simultaneously dubbed a ‘great’ spy to rank with the ‘Magnificent Five’ of Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, and yet there are calls for her prosecution on the grounds that ‘treachery is never forgivable.’
The Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdicombe led the charge. Comparisons were made between Mrs. Norwood’s spying activities and the atrocities committed by the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, then being held in Britain pending a claim for extradition to Spain for crimes against humanity. If Mrs. Norwood was too old to be prosecuted, then so too was the kindly old General. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, was accused of double standards. Others asked why she had been allowed to get away with it for so long. Had the security services no inkling of her activities or even of her existence over the four decades that she spied for the Soviet Union? Yes, they did. Mrs. Norwood had been investigated by MI5 on no less than six occasions, including an extended investigation in 1965. Her “kerfuffle” had obviously ruffled more feathers than MI5 was prepared to admit in 1999; nor was she simply a dotty old lady. ‘I thought I’d got away with it,’ she would often repeat shaking her head. The truth of the matter was she had.