Invasion on the Radio

I am a committed Radio 4 listener (to the extent that I am the proud owner of Today Programme egg cups which immortalise Jim Naughtie, Sarah Montague and John Humphreys in pottery-form). I was nonetheless surprised to learn recently that Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America and Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time have covered British invasion-scare fiction. Having accessed both on the BBC IPlayer archive, it is interesting to reflect on how these prominent cultural commentary programmes have contextualised and interpreted the invasion literature phenomenon.

Broadcast on 13th May 1988, ‘The Forgotten William Le Queux’ edition of Letter from America was responding to the death of the British spy and double agent Kim Philby. The programme considers Le Queux’s role in the emergence of the British Intelligence Service. This is a debatable legacy linked to the novel Spies of the Kaiser, and one that has been discussed at length by Nicholas Hiley and David French.[1] After the publication of the book in 1909 Le Queux received a significant number of letters from concerned readers, “telling him of the suspicious behaviour of German waiters, barbers and tourists in the vicinity of telephone, telegraph, and railway lines, bridges, and water-mains on the east coast and near London”.[2] Le Queux sent his portfolio of letters on to the director of the military operations counter-insurgency section Lieutenant-Colonel James Edmonds, a fellow Germanophobe who readily accepted the veracity of this highly-questionable evidence. Compelled into acting “if only to remedy its own ignorance”, in March 1909 the cabinet established a sub-committee to investigate the situation, a development which led, albeit circuitously, to the establishment of the Secret Service Bureau.[3] Labelled “the improbable founding father of modern espionage, Cooke describes Le Queux’s fiction as “early spy melodrama of the most lurid, preposterous sort, a good deal less credible than the incredible exploits of James Bond”.

Delivered with Cooke’s trademark eloquence, the crux of the episode is an extraordinary anecdote about U Thant, the Burmese diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations for most of the 1960s. In an interview conducted towards the end of his tenure, Cooke recalls asking U Thant about his reading habits as a child. He had bashfully replied that he was “the only boy in the class who did not read Charles Garvice and William Le Queux”. Cooke dwells on his astonishment at the popular reach of these now obscure Edwardian authors. “The incredible thing about U Thant’s remark”, he thought, “was that it came from a Burmese, way off there a million miles away from our life”. It was surely true, Cooke went on to muse by paraphrasing Rupert Brooke, that there is “some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”.

14975-U_Thant

U Thant – Not a Le Queux man

The extent of Le Queux’s popularity with the reading public remains difficult to judge, as Ailise Bulfin’s recent bibliographical article explores in detail. Yet this anecdote points to the global nature of Le Queux’s audience, an author as popular in the public schools of colonial Burma as he was among Daily Mail subscribers. As for In Our Time…all in good time.

 

[1] N. Hiley, ‘Decoding German Spies: British Spy Fiction 1908-18’, Intelligence and National Security, 5.4 (1990), 61, D. French, ‘Spy Fever in Britain, 1900-1915’, Historical Journal, 21.2 (1978), 357.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 358.

‘The Forgotten William Le Queux’ is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00yds45

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