Transcription, by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, 337 pp, £13 99, ISBN: 978-085725895
Kate Atkinson is playing games again: this time war games and games of deception. Transcription opens in 1981, with its principal character having been struck by a car while crossing Wigmore Street in central London and finding herself lying on the pavement with the salient facts of her life running through her head. “What an odd thing existence was.” The next minute we are into the story. The year 1981 acts simply as a framing device: it’s the past that’s important to Atkinson’s narrative, the early postwar past (1950), when her protagonist, Juliet Armstrong, then aged twenty-eight or -nine, is working as a producer of children’s radio programmes at the BBC; and the slightly more distant past (1940), when the exigencies of wartime are imposing new ways of living and operating on the entire population.
Some of these ways are more cloak-and-dagger than others. Newly orphaned Juliet has secured employment as a typist with MI5, working from a converted cell in Wormwood Scrubs prison. From this tedious situation she is plucked by the dashing head of an ultra-secret division of the secret service, B5(b). “I need a girl,” this person announces without preamble; and Juliet is it. Her new boss is the insouciant and enigmatic Perry Gibbons; and her new job, not very exciting to begin with, is to transcribe conversations overheard by means of a listening device, not always reliable (‘‘‘Bugger,” Cyril said.’), between a group of Fifth Columnists and their supposed leader, who is actually, of course, an agent of MI5. His name is Godfrey Toby ‑ or it is not ‑ and he is adept at dissolving his various identities in a fog of obfuscation (as well as receding, when necessary, into an actual fog: the London peasouper works effectively here as an aid to apparent dematerialisation).
This is a novel about double-dealing, about honourable and dishonourable forms of duplicity, about multiple impersonations, about lies and secrets and their ultimate consequences. Juliet is soon provided with an alternative identity ‑ Iris Carter-Jenkins is her bogus name ‑ and sent to infiltrate a fascist organisation known as the Right Club. This club holds its meetings in a flat above a cafe in South Kensington called the Russian Tea Rooms, which is run by an Admiral Wolkoff and his daughter Anna. The young transcriber has been upgraded to a full-blown MI5 agent, and adopts a mettlesome personality to go with her new role. “She had already decided that Iris Carter-Jenkins was a gutsy kind of girl.” Gutsy enough to carry a small gun in her handbag, and keep her nerve in the face of imminent unmasking.
There’s a touch of high jinks about Juliet’s anti-Right-Club activities, and indeed about all her doings at this point, not excluding her romantic interest in her mentor Perry Gibbons, whom she fails to suspect of homosexual leanings, even when these are paraded under her nose. She feels at times as if she’s been caught up in “a Girls’ Own adventure” (actually, a Schoolfriend adventure would be nearer the mark; the Girls’ Own Paper was a rather staid publication); and Buchan and Erskine Childers are never far from her thoughts. What is paramount here is the blithe side of espionage, with such arresting details as a body in the coal hole of the Carlton Club, a death by strangulation with a Hermes scarf, a significant newspaper discarded on a park bench, to be picked up by prearrangement, and an over-crowded burial place. (The Contents of the Coffin, a 1928 detective novel by JS Fletcher, comes to mind here.) All tongue-in-cheek, of course, on the part of the author, and enormously diverting, even while the darker reality of Blitz, annihilation, murder, machination and treachery is not eschewed.
As well as contributing to the spy, adventure and mystery genres, then, Transcription at one level keeps up a continuous commentary on the flavour and conventions of all of these. The effect is more subtle than parody, more in the line of deconstruction than homage (though homage comes into it too). Unspoken presences in the novel might include Edgar Wallace, Patricia Wentworth, Eric Ambler, Nancy Mitford, even Beryl Bainbridge (the Bainbridge of The Bottle Factory Outing of 1974 that is). Two works, however, are crucial to the Atkinson undertaking as a whole. One is Penelope Fitzgerald’s sharp and engaging novel Human Voices (1980), dated precisely to 1940 and set in and around Broadcasting House in Langham Place (“The air seemed alive with urgency and worry.”) The other … but here I have to get personal and declare an interest, a considerable interest.
In 1982 I was commissioned by Weidenfeld & Nicolson to “ghost” the memoirs of a one-time MI5 agent, Joan Miller, to be published under the title One Girl’s War. It did not prove to be a trouble-free project. Joan Miller had an interesting story to tell, but her recollection was imperfect, and her version of events not only included contradictory assertions but often made no sense at all. Add to this difficulty a clash of personalities ‑ hers and mine ‑ and it seems a miracle that the book ever came into existence. (I am sorry to say that it might not have done so had Joan Miller not died before it was completed. This allowed me the freedom to go back and try to rescue from chaos the areas of major interest in the narrative, as well as stopping up holes in the text.) However, I was intrigued by the bare bones of the story, as these were conveyed to me, by the overwhelming atmosphere of London in wartime, and by Joan Miller’s part in overturning the activities of the crypto-fascist, antisemitic Right Club (among other things). I should add that Joan Miller had many good qualities. She could be entertaining and generous ‑ she gave me the hat she had worn to the christening of her daughter Jonquil in 1947. She showed a considerable talent for subversion, and this was spotted and nurtured by a distinguished intelligence officer in the counter-espionage, or “B” division of MI5, the head of B5(b). His name was Maxwell Knight.
Like Kate Atkinson’s heroine Juliet Armstrong, Joan Miller is rescued from routine work at the Scrubs, taken under the wing of Maxwell Knight, and after minimal training sent out to ingratiate herself with Russian Tea Rooms habitués. As Atkinson says in the end notes to her novel: “Joan Miller is not Juliet Armstrong, but they have certainly shared some of the same experiences.” (She also, with perhaps unconscious understatement, classifies Joan Miller as “not the most reliable of narrators”). Juliet is not Joan, indeed, being more agreeable, cleverer, more amusing, and possessed of a dry wit which the real-life agent lacked. For this and other reasons, Transcription is a much better book than One Girl’s War. But at the same time, it is worth considering the extent to which Miller’s and Armstrong’s stories actually coincide, and why some names have been changed, but not others. (Really, they seem to have been changed or not changed at random.) Perry Gibbons, for example, is clearly Maxwell Knight with his idiosyncrasies and particulars intact, down to his skill as a naturalist (“‘Kites,’ he said.”) and a wife in his background dead by suicide (Perry’s found hanged in a wardrobe, Maxwell Knight’s less colourfully dead from an overdose). Knight’s advice to Joan ‑ “If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a good one and above all, stick to it” ‑ is transferred verbatim to Perry Gibbons. When it comes to the Right Club ‑ the founder of this obnoxious organisation, Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, has as his stand-in in Transcription a Rear Admiral Ellory Scaife (in 1940, both of these are interned under Regulation 18B), while his wife, Mrs Ramsay/Scaife, is properly taken in, for the good of the country, by Joan/Juliet. Another agent, Mrs Amos, becomes, in the novel, a Mrs Ambrose who plays exactly the same part as the original; while a third, a Belgian recruit called Helene de Monck, is re-created as the glamorous and sexually active Giselle. These, Kate Atkinson says, were her “ghostly inspirations”.
Then we have the affair of the code and cypher clerk at the American embassy ‑ Tyler Kent in reality, Chester Vanderkamp in the fictional account ‑ who spends a lot of his time decoding highly confidential telegrams passing between Churchill and Roosevelt, and getting these into enemy hands via the Russian Tea Rooms conspirators. Juliet is conscripted to set a trap for the American embassy traitor, just as Joan Miller was; and both stratagems result in a satisfactory outcome for the security service. Kate Atkinson then shows herself to be adept at creative appropriation; and the invigorating intermixture of invention and transcription (the title is well chosen) adds a touch of complexity and a self-mocking undertone to the plot. (It’s not the first time a Joan Miller-like character has featured in a work of fiction: one, called Diana Calthrop, makes an appearance in the 2007 Stratton’s War by Laura Wilson; and Simon Gray’s 1991 television drama They Never Slept was certainly inspired by the Joan Miller story, even if it departed quite radically from it in the end.)
What is baffling is that in her list of sources at the end of Transcription, Kate Atkinson dates the “original” publication of One Girl’s War to 1945; I can assure her that this is not the case. It was first published in 1986 by Brandon Books in Ireland, and how that came about is another story. The completion of Joan Miller’s memoir was not the end of the matter, as far as I was concerned. Indeed, during part of the three-year period it took to research and write the book I felt as if I too had somehow strayed into a world of clandestine activity, even while I was doing my best to bring an imaginative understanding to bear on the part of it connected to wartime. Strange things began to happen. By chance ‑ I think ‑ I met the MI6 historian and one-time SOE operative MRD Foot at a party, and the very next day he turned up unannounced at my front door in Blackheath, which he “just happened” to be passing. We kept in touch thereafter, and I have to say the association proved beneficial, since he drove me on several occasions into the depths of the English countryside to visit long-retired security service personnel (from whom I might have gleaned some valuable information had I known the right questions to ask). These old military/MI5 buffers must have wondered how an Irish girl living in London, with not the slightest experience of Intelligence circles, had got herself entangled in bygone counter-espionage business. It was something of a puzzle to me too. However, by immersing myself in the literature of the period, including all the security service histories and speculative tomes I could lay my hands on, and by talking to anyone willing to talk to me, I acquired a certain ‑ temporary ‑ expertise in what had previously been uncharted territory. (When I’d taken on the commission, I believed it would simply entail knocking into shape an already existing manuscript. As my grandmother might have put it, I didn’t realise I was bringing an old house down on my head.)
Some time in 1985 I think, it became apparent that the process of publication was not going to run any more smoothly than the course of composition. The Joan Miller memoir was finished and delivered to Weidenfeld, who promptly reneged on the agreement. By signing the Official Secrets Act more than forty years earlier, Joan Miller had effectively debarred herself from making any future disclosure relating to her wartime employment. The publisher was therefore hit by a governmental D-Notice forbidding publication. (Before this point, no one had mentioned the likelihood of such a thing happening.) Quite laughably, One Girl’s War was held to constitute a danger to national security ‑ or at least, the ban was enforced to discourage others (which it didn’t). The book was then taken on by Steve McDonogh of Brandon Books and published in 1986, whereupon the British attorney general, Sir Michael Havers, attempted to block its distribution in Ireland as well as in England. The attempt failed when a High Court judge in Dublin ruled in favour of Brandon; but the UK ban remained in force.
What has the publishing history of One Girl’s War to do with Transcription? Nothing, indeed, but I believe it’s worth recounting here to set the record straight, and also because the latter could not have been written without the former. However, after the central MI5 events in Kate Atkinson’s novel, the two part company altogether. (There’s an interesting twist in the novel’s tail.) The integrity of Transcription transcends its elements derived from different sources ‑ and the sources are conscientiously listed. (An aside: when Kate Atkinson mentions in her end notes “the spectres of the Cambridge spies” which have lodged in her consciousness and played a tiny role, I can’t help remarking that the Co Antrim house I have lived in for twenty years was the birthplace, in 1855, of Donald Maclean’s grandmother Jane Morrison.) The author has praise, for example, for the aforementioned Human Voices, which has minimally affected the quirky BBC atmosphere enveloping Juliet Armstrong after the war. This, in the novel, is a time of repercussions following on from the wartime imbroglios: mysterious threatening communications arriving for Juliet (“You will pay for what you did”), and the apparent resurrection of people long thought to be dead, are not the half of it. All the enticing subterfuge and intricacy of the plot is handled with a knowing authorial alacrity and a light touch ‑ like the “light and heartless hand” perhaps, beloved of Fleur Talbot in Muriel Spark’s novel Loitering with Intent (1981), the events of which take place in the winter of 1949/50. Transcription, alert to every nuance of subversion and counter-subversion, goes on its way rejoicing in the freedom to mix and match exuberantly, to tamper with tones, traditions and angles of vision, and to keep through it all a sparkling effect.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.