A searching and easily readable biography of MI6’s real life ‘M’

When your uncle is Britain’s best known ‘real’ spy – probably the world’s – it’s fair to expect a complimentary biography, but what is surprising with Spymaster is firstly the quality and extent of research, and secondly the professionalism of the writing.
Martin Pearce’s debut book defies his upbringing as the son of a farmer, as does the quietly achieved rise to secret stardom of his illustrious uncle, Maurice Oldfield. Little did I know that during my years at school in Buxton, Derbyshire, just down the road was a frequent visitor – the real life ‘M’ of MI6!
We Buxton College lads would frequently climb Topley Pike on the A6 on our bikes at the weekend (I had a Raleigh Blue Streak – wow) and then glide speedily down to Bakewell, up through Over Haddon and Monyash for the race back along the Ashbourne Road. Yes, we saw the police cars, but we never realised the importance of the man they were protecting.
Let’s be clear: this book is not about an Ian Fleming-style character. The sex is pretty much non-existent, and James Bond’s smart, snugly-fitting suits are, in fact, a bit more like potato sacks. It is, however, noteworthy that when the author of Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy, John Le Carre, who is becoming better known by his real name, David Cornwell, wanted to introduce the film’s lead to a real spy, Oldfield acceded. The result of that dinner was that Alec Guinness based his Smiley character on the real life Sir Maurice Oldfield.
Oldfield, with his round shape, Billy Bunter specs, and brain the size of Iceland, was naturally destined for academic greatness. But he never really left Derbyshire. Perhaps his natural bon homie and ability to listen, assess and come to startlingly prescient conclusions were nurtured by the countryside of Over Haddon in Derbyshire’s wonderful Peak District?
The key question I asked of Spymaster was what was being a spy all about. The answer, it appears from Pearce’s deep digging was not the derring-do of popular fiction, but it did involve clandestine meetings, surreptitiously and secretly handing over documents, treachery and violent deaths. Spymaster spans an era when the battle to beat Nazism was followed immediately by the Cold War and the fight against Communism. Maurice Oldfield was feared by master-traitor Kim Philby, who knew that the Derbyshire farmer’s son was on to him. The author examines the personalities of some of the main spies of the Cold War – Burgess, Maclean, Philby and the gung-ho Americans – and comes to some clear conclusions. In the 1960s, we in Britain feared World War 3; in America they were making plans to strike back when it happened; but Oldfield knew that in communist Russia (then the USSR) there was no appetite for war.
Spymaster could have been an academic tome of sludge-like seriousness: the need to examine every snippet of research and put it in the reader’s sight could have overpowered the story-telling. In fact the book has a balanced pitch and sometimes a cantering pace. It holds the reader’s concentration and imagination like a novel as it pushes onwards to more and more revelations of clearly a great man’s professional career.
Sir Maurice Oldfield’s nephew and author of this biography, Martin Pearce, has a writing style that borrows from fiction rather than the rigidity, and possibly more tedious academia of purely fact-led biographies. As a relation, he can have opinions and he can write about family relationships from first-hand experience.
I won’t divulge any more spoilers, but I was profoundly disappointed that the PM at the time, Margaret Thatcher, who admired and respected Sir Maurice, went to see him on his deathbed, at the end of a comparatively short, but amazingly full, life. Here was an opportunity for her to hear his final words of advice and guidance at a time of frightening and threatening physical attack from Northern Ireland. So what did she ask him? ‘Are you a homosexual?’ Was that woman obsessed with other people’s sex lives? It was a sad, disrespectful and unfair end to the life of a true hero.
Biographies are works of non-fiction, obviously, but Spymaster ticks every box under the category of ‘thriller’. I eagerly await the next work from this redoubtable author.

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