Spies Like Us – How A Man In A Brightly Coloured Jumper Trained Me In The Art Of Espionage


When I was nine years old, I wanted to be a spy. Hell, I’m 46 now and I still want to be a spy. Sadly, the arena for my boyhood dreams of being a secret agent no longer exists. The cold war is over. There is no square-jawed and deadly man called Yuri for me to tie to a chair and beat information out of. There is no beautiful but equally deadly woman called Natasha for me to seduce information out of before some nutcase inevitably paints her gold or throws her into a tank of piranhas or something,

Most spying nowadays happens in cyberspace. So even if I did manage to wangle the gig as secret agent, I would probably be spending most of my time sitting on my arse and titting about on the internet.  And I can do that any time I like. I’m doing it now in fact. There’s no more cold war, ergo there is no more proper spying.

Back when I was nine, however, it was 1978. The cold war was at its height and Roger Moore’s adventures as James Bond were entertaining us all every Bank Holiday weekend. Every nine year old boy wanted to be a spy. At least, every nine year old boy in my class did. The problem was that we had no idea how to go about it. We’d watched James Bond of course, but your average nine year old’s access to specially modified Aston Martins and rocket firing cigarettes tends to be a bit limited. So we couldn’t really emulate 007 very effectively.

Then came “The Book”.

We had a book club at school where you could buy really cheap paperback books at knock down prices from a regularly published list. We’re talking forty pence a book here. Mind you the average paperback only cost about seventy pence back then. It was still a bargain though.

One glorious day, there on the list, was the book I had been looking for. It was called “The Big Book Of Secrets” and it taught you how to be a spy. Surprisingly, only four of us in the class ordered the book. I think there was another book on the list about football or something that grabbed the other boys’ attention first.

The four of us who ordered “The Big Book Of Secrets” could not wait for it to arrive. And when arrive it did, it did not disappoint. It was chock-full of information about ciphers and codes and dead letter drops and invisible ink and how to disguise yourself. Pretty much  everything we wanted to know. Well, almost. I’d have liked a section on firearms and hand-to-hand combat, but the book was aimed at primary school children so, understandably, there wasn’t one.

However, despite the lack of information on handguns and rear naked choke holds, “The Big Book Of Secrets” was still pretty awesome. And for a while, me and the other three lads who’d bought it had a little club going. We used ciphers and invisible inks and suchlike to pass messages to each other. Confident in the knowledge that, even if anyone found them, no-one would have the foggiest idea what they meant. It was great fun, even though most of the messages were about secret spying missions that only actually existed in our heads,

Then, one fateful morning, I walked into the school library and my heart froze. There it was, standing up on the little round table. “The Book”.  The school library had acquired a copy of “The Big Book Of Secrets”.  Anyone could just stroll in and read it. Our exclusive secret society was now pointless and redundant. We stopped sending each other messages that very day.

It took me quite a long time to get over that. I still kept my copy of “The Big Book Of Secrets” though. Occasionally I would flick through it to try and remember the good times we had passing each other those secret messages before the school librarian ruined it all.

Eventually I made peace with my brief but exciting spying days. Then, a few years later, I got another shock that froze my heart. I found out who wrote “The Big Book Of Secrets”.

I already knew who wrote it, of course. It had the author’s name on the front cover. Quite a common feature in books, that. But when I had first read “The Big Book Of Secrets”, the name of the author meant nothing to me.

It was quite a posh sounding name, but remember that my childhood James Bond was Roger Moore. An achingly posh man with an achingly posh sounding name. So I assumed that the man who had written my treasured spy manual was just a posh James Bond type. Public school educated probably but lots of spies were Public School educated. Though these spies had a tendency to be double agents for the Russians.

Then one day, when I was watching breakfast television, my jaw dropped as I recognised the name of one of the presenters. It was the author of “The Big Book Of Secrets”. And it was this man:


Gyles Brandreth.

That’s right, my childhood mentor – the master spy who taught me the nefarious arts of espionage- was actually a breakfast telly presenter with appalling taste in jumpers. It knocked me for six that revelation, I don’t mind telling you. My entire career as a secret agent, as brief and imaginary as it may have been, was a lie.

I’ve devised a way of coping with this though. I keep telling myself this. If I was a chief spy- a true master of espionage- and I wanted an absolutely unbreakable cover, I can’t think of a better one than disguising myself as Gyles Brandreth.

I’m going to keep on telling myself that too. That way, the nine year old would-be spy that still lives somewhere inside me has a fighting chance of not crying himself to sleep every night. And he won’t wake up involuntarily shaking his little fists and screaming “Damn you Brandreth!”

© Copyright Michael Grimes 2016



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About thedailygrime

At that awkward age - too young to be a grumpy old man, but just acerbic and downtrodden enough to have an opinion. Read it here.

2 responses to “Spies Like Us – How A Man In A Brightly Coloured Jumper Trained Me In The Art Of Espionage”

  1. eden baylee says :

    I howled when I saw the picture of the author! But yes … I’m sure he’s in disguise.

    I hate to make the comparison, but there’s another celebrity who … umm … wore ugly sweaters and made himself appear innocent and likeable for years and years. He was honoured, lauded for his achievements, perceived as an all-around wonderful man. Need I say, Bill Cosby?

    Hope I’ve restored your faith in Gyles Brandreth. 😉


    • thedailygrime says :

      That’s a very old photo of Gyles from the early eighties. He’s still on the telly now. He’s actually a very witty and erudite man. But he is very posh. And he ain’t no master spy. And he definitely ain’t no Bill Cosby.

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