Mrs Nor­wood’s ‘Ker­fuf­fle’

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - David Burke

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.

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