Espionage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the practice of spying or of using spies, typically by governments to obtain political and military information.” Within our popular culture, this has been crystalised into either the macho braggadocio of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, or the hypnotic mundanity of John Le Carré’s George Smiley. Yet, while both these iconic characters cast their shadows across this latest spoken word event from Illicit Ink, it’s fair to report that the eight writers who performed this evening ably demonstrated that there are more subtle-shadings to the world of espionage than you might expect.
Jennifer Bryce kicked things off amusingly with a Bond-kicking lecture for female KGB agents who must nevertheless “seduce on a budget”. However, any audience members thinking they were in for an evening of super-spy satire were swiftly pulled back by Matt Macdonald’s restrained reportage of conspiracies, paranoia and betrayal in a tale of a fear-torn imperial court and Harrigan, “the greatest assassin who might never have lived”.
Not that espionage is just something that happens between nations. Caroline von Schmalensee focused on the degree of industrial espionage taking place within Whitby’s tea shops, and what one woman would do to find the world’s greatest recipe for a Victoria Sponge. In contrast, Tom Moore focused the audience’s attention on the poor guy left to look after all the objects — such as Hitler’s brain, the rifle used to shoot JFK, alien bodies from Roswell, etc — that are kept safely hidden away from the public’s prying eyes.
Spies are expected to be naturally duplicitous, fighting a secret, low-level cold war amusingly echoed by Ariadne Cass-Maran’s in the particularly vicious undercurrents during a dinner party. By necessity outsiders, this can lead to a genuine sense of detachment, as in Jonathan Whiteside channelling of a drained George Smiley trying to remain unnoticed at a wake, reminiscing about the changes in his profession among “drunken bores and widows”.
Yet if some of Illicit Ink’s spies had lost any sense of moral direction in their lives, Mairi Campbell-Jack, in her excellent story “Laid Bare”, showed that the means and methods used in espionage can certainly contribute to a sense of personal justice and self-realisation.
But what about the bigger picture? The award-winning novelist, playwright and spoken word performer Alan Bissett teased the audience with the opening 10 minutes of his new show, The Red Hourglass (running at the National Library of Scotland during this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe). Given the various hints of metaphorical spiders’ webs of deceit and confusion spun by all kinds of spy-masters and spy-catchers, it seemed only right that the evening’s stories closed with an imagined arachnid’s view of the world.
Spiders, it would seem, are engaged in an unending, vicious war against the world’s insects — their mantra being “Whatever walks on six legs will die. Painfully.” Clearly, there are parallels with our own history, which may well be the single-most important thing to say about espionage — as a species, the duplicity and betrayals at its heart ensure that we’re nowhere near the moral high ground.