If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time — a tremendous whack.
– Sir Winston Churchill, on direct advertising.
Major-General Sir Anthony Fletcher-Christie, KCB, MC, DSO – and, not that it was yet public knowledge, soon to be raised to General Fletcher-Christie (rtd) – was unimpressed. He was also furious. Mainly though, he was unimpressed.
Very unimpressed. He made this evident to the field officer accompanying him by his choice of words.
He did not attempt to be ambiguous.
“I shan’t be ambiguous, Colonel Hawkins. It’s fair to say, in fact, Hawkins, at this stage in the proceedings, I’m very unimpressed.”
The Major-General was not a man to mince words. If he said something, he meant it. A man of action, Sir Anthony. He spoke softly, but with conviction, meaning, and not a small amount of heartfelt menace.
“I’m not a man to mince words, Hawkins, and when I say something, I mean it. And what I’m saying now, Hawkins” – and here the Major-General took a step towards the younger officer, who, to his credit, did not step back, but stood his ground, and met his superior’s eye (even if he did feel a cold prickle of perspiration down between the starch of his collar, and his suddenly rather naked neck) – “is this.
“What the bloody hell is going on, and rather more to the point, Hawkins” -
(And here the voice got quieter, and in it Colonel Hawkins heard generations of blood; the steel of a thousand sabres being drawn, hundreds upon hundreds of tanks rolling into battle, and armies marching, marching, marching)
“What. Are. You. Doing. To. Fix. It.”
Sir Anthony stepped back, and returned to his seat behind his desk. He gestured to the colonel, rather irritably, to do the same. “Sit down, man. You look as though you’ve been punched in the bollocks, for the love of God!”
Hawkins for a mad, irrational second felt like saying “well, actually, sir, that’s the effect one of your ‘little chats’ has on a chap” – as the CO liked to call his er, instructional conversations – before coming to his senses and saying “of course. Thank you, sir” and simply sitting down. The CO wasn’t to know his little chats were known as the Great Ice Bucket of Death, was he?
Worked a treat when the mind wandered in the wrong direction whilst on duty, mind you. Thinking of anything remotely interesting, such as the smashing young lady one met last week at Freddie’s dinner party, lose concentration, get a bit, well, preoccupied – all one had to do was think of Major-General Fletcher-Christie leaning in with a purposeful look and the starting sentence of “I shan’t mince words”, and thoughts of women, long legs in black stockings, or anything remotely sultry were firmly banished.
Possibly for life.
Colonel Hawkins had only been working with the Major-General in this new sub-section within Section 6 of Military Intelligence for about six weeks, and what with the murmurs starting around what Eden was intending to get into with the Israelis and the Canal, and trying to convince the chaps at the Home Office to keep their few strands of hair on, he’d not had time to think straight. He’d heard of him, of course – who hadn’t? Fletcher-Christie was legendary within the British Army, let alone MI5 and MI6. Hawkins was too young to have been part of much of the early action of World War Two, but he’d heard the stories of the work the Major-General had done infiltrating the SS in the ‘30s in Berlin and Munich, and his involvement later on at Bletchley and beyond its walls. He’d killed at least four double agents by snapping their necks, it was rumoured. Then of course there was his earlier work, in the last days of the First World War, as the SOE was just really coming into its own, stopping being a bunch of college chums farting around.
Hawkins could believe anything of the Major-General. Despite his advancing years, Fletcher-Christie was one of the hardest looking men he’d ever met. And having made full colonel in Military Intelligence by the age of 40, Hawkins was not exactly a slowpoke himself. It was whispered around the halls that he was being groomed for big things in the future.
The only big thing Colonel Hawkins could currently see in his future started with “f” and ended in “iring squad” at this present point in time, unless he could sort this bloody mess out.
The trouble was, he wasn’t awfully sure what this bloody mess was. Well, there was the obvious mess going on with Suez – but he didn’t think, despite his continuous demands for excellence, the CO expected him to solve that single-handed. Not at his rank and pay scale, at least. No… this was something else. It seemed – to be absolutely honest, it seemed personal. Sir Anthony was angry; not strategically cold, snap their necks because they’re betraying our country angry, but personally angry. As if someone were attacking him, rather than Britain.
Hawkins took a deep breath. And plunged in. Ours but to do or die, and all that.
“Sir, I realise I may sound rather stupid, and you may feel justified in calling me a complete clod, but I do need to ask one quick question.”
“Well?” snapped the Major-General.
Here Colonel Hawkins showed why, perhaps, he was a full colonel at the age of just 40, and how, by the time the war ended in 1945, he had lead thirteen successful escape runs from German prison camps. He was, to put typical British understatement on it, quite brave.
“Sir. You haven’t actually said what, exactly, the problem is you’re unimpressed about – or what it is you want fixed. So unless it is ha, ha, that you’d like me to infiltrate all of Mossad’s and Nasser’s upper echelon staff at the same time by myself, and I do assure you we are doing our best on that level, it would assist me if you filled me in.
“Just a little.”
Sir Anthony looked at him. Hawkins looked back. Neither man flinched. When the older man blinked, Hawkins felt a tiny little bump in his chest, and was relieved at the realisation his heart had, in fact, restarted, and decided not to go into cardiac arrest after all.
“Ah. Well. Yes. Some clarification, may, perhaps, assist on this particular mission, due to its sensitive and highly confidential nature. TS1, Colonel. More than hush hush. It’s absolutely vital this stays between us.”
“Of course, sir!” replied Hawkins. He couldn’t help but feel a little chuffed – and started to imagine – what could possibly be bigger than the situation in the Middle East at the moment. Russia? The US? East Berlin? Something in South America?
The CO leaned forward, and handed over a plain, buff, folder. Just like all the other plain, buff, folders constantly whizzing around Six, smothered in various levels of security warnings. Except for one thing.
This one didn’t have any warnings on it at all. It was – well, it was just a plain, buff, folder.
Colonel Hawkins knew this was, as his American friend at the CIA called it, the goddamn bigtime.
This was the top ass shit.
“May I, sir?”
Major-General Fletcher-Christie nodded. Silently.
Hawkins opened the folder…
…and couldn’t believe what met his eyes.
“Oh. Oh bloody hell, sir.” He couldn’t help it. The words came out involuntarily.
There, before his eyes, was an entire pile of unopened, pristine white envelopes, smothered in sigils, images, and glaring warnings of doom.
We’re watching you. Our eyes are on you. You’re in our sights.We’re targeting YOU… (and he slowly, slowly opened the first envelope, his mind racing a million miles an hour, trying frantically to think of some kind of solution to the horror lying before him)
…for the SAVINGS OF A LIFETIME!
Junk mail, his Yank friend, Richard, called it. Coupons, offers from department stores – good grief, there was one here from Harrods. Harrods! When did they lose their dignity? Next thing you knew, they’d be owned by – by bloody foreigners!
Hawkins tried to think, wildly, icily aware of the CO’s eyes on him. Why the bloody hell would Fletcher-Christie think this was real? Why hadn’t he just opened the bloody hellish rubbish? Why hadn’t he understood it was bumph – utter garbage from shops, catalogues, rot and tomfoolery, trying to get him to buy things, now that, with rationing finally easing, there were things to actually buy?
Then he spotted the one glaring, obvious inconsistency in all this, and realised why every piece of mail was in its virgin state.
He turned the junk mail slowly over in his hands, and out loud said “hmmm… I see what you mean, sir. Understandable. Yes. Quite. I am thinking on my feet, of course, but I feel there is a way forward with this. May I consult with one of the civvy chaps, and report back to you in half an hour?” Please, he added silently in his head, please, give me some breathing space, to work out something.
He looked the CO squarely in the eye as he said this, and saw – saw the relief. It was there for no more than a second, and then gone, but it added to the clarity that the inconsistent consistency, which he knew in his grammatically minded brain made absolutely no sense whatsoever, the front of the envelopes had provided.
Fletcher-Christie said crisply, “I expect you back here in twenty minutes, Colonel, am I understood?”
“Yes sir! Understood, sir. Perfectly.”
Colonel Hawkins sat in his office, a new, plain, buff folder open in front of him. He carefully stamped it precisely with a TS1 stamp, and wrote on it: for the following eyes only – and added his own name, that of Major-General Fletcher-Christie, and for good measure, a name made up on the spot of a civilian operative, with, after it, in brackets, [FS], for Field Staff. He knew there was no chance the CO would check said person’s identity. It would compromise them, and he wouldn’t risk their safety.
Into this folder, he put a large envelope, containing all of the junk mail, and a mail redirection request receipt, and stamped that on the back with a statute of limitations stamp. 2056 – one hundred years, that should cover it.
Then he rolled a triplicate into his typewriter, blew out a big breath, and started typing rapidly and with great precision.
When he’d finished he pulled the triplicate out, ripped the bottom two copies up, and put them in his pocket to destroy later. The top one he affixed to the inside of the buff folder. Then, with a second deep breath, he stood up, and got ready to tell the biggest lie of his entire professional life, reflecting as he walked to the CO’s office, that if he got away with this, then he might resign his commission, and work for one of those advertising agencies this bloody junk mail had come from, because only they seemed to be on a whopper level with what he was about to come out with.
Well, them and Churchill. That man was capable of, and had of course proven this on an international stage on several occasions, lying for Great Britain.
“… and in conclusion, you were right sir, to be er, unimpressed. To see this needed fixing, and at once. Personal target, and why wouldn’t they – you are, and forgive me sir, if I sound as though I’m, well, blowing a bit of smoke here, as they say, sir, somewhat of a legendary figure within the department. It’s unsurprising they’d wish to remove your associations, so to speak. So, I’m sending in this chap to sort it out. Very hush hush, naturally. Wouldn’t want anything to derail the possibility of Suez not becoming a complete shambles, that sort of thing.”
He closed the folder with a snap, and looked at Fletcher-Christie. Please, he thought, please, just buy this. Please. Don’t make me tell you the truth.
The Major-General narrowed his eyes. Hawkins felt his heart threaten to send him to an early grave once more. Then, to his infinite relief, the CO started to nod. Hawkins promised his heart, and his entire body, an enormous double Scotch the minute work was over.
Sod the double – he’d be having a bottle. No glass necessary.
“Yes. Well. Quite fiendish really. Cut off the head of the snake, eh? That’s the trouble with these bloody cell operatives, they don’t understand we’re like a hydra – cut off one head, and eight more will pop up in its place, eh, Hawkins? And you’re certain this – what’s his name – Bond?”
“Yes, sir. Bond. Er, James Bond. Ex RAN chap, I believe. Solid chap”, said Hawkins, inventing wildly.
“Yes. He’s definitely capable of handling it?”
“Absolutely sir. I’ve put the best person I could possibly think of on it. There is nobody else I would trust to handle a situation like this”, he replied, with complete yet totally misleading truth, the sincerity ringing through his tone.
“In that case, Hawkins, carry on. Oh, and Colonel” – Fletcher-Christie paused, as he returned Hawkins’ ferociously efficient salute –
“Yes, sir?”, said the younger man, his hands tightening on the file, as he got ready to leave.
“Well done, Colonel. Damn well done. Don’t think I won’t be mentioning your effective handling of a sensitive situation in your next promotion review. I’m – we are both grateful. I’m sure I’m echoed in this by Cordelia, even if she’ll never hear of the outcome of this vicious attack.”
Colonel Hawkins thanked his commanding officer, and went back to his office.
He sat down in his chair, and put his head in his hands. Then, he put the buff folder in the classified filing chute, picked up his briefcase, his cap, and got ready to go home.
As he quietly walked through the halls, absentmindedly returning salutes from junior officers, saying good evening to civilian peers, he thought of the name on those envelopes.
Lady Cordelia Fletcher-Christie.
He’d heard rumours that Sir Anthony hadn’t dealt at well with his wife’s death six months before (who would?), but he hadn’t realised the truth; it seemed he didn’t even understand she had gone. And, naturally, he didn’t know what the junk mail was – he’d never seen junk mail before. He’d probably never dealt with domestic mail in their entire marriage. And he wouldn’t open his wife’s mail; why on earth would he? He was a sodding Major-General. In MI6, for God’s sake. No – he’d bring it in, have someone assess the threat it posed, and they’d sort it out.
Sort out the non-existent threat to his dead wife. Posed by a bunch of 20 percent off coupons, and some free lipstick with purchase.
And as Colonel Hawkins went through the outer perimeter between the secure area and general working, ready for his normal brisk walk towards his anonymous flat, where no doubt a large pile of junk mail awaited him, and very little else, he felt both saddened and envious.
Saddened at the realisation a legend had overtaken and buried a man, who needed to be allowed his humanity rather than his hero status, if only to grieve. Saddened he would no longer be able to look at a figure he had respected with every fibre of his being, and see anything other than the roaring lion of past glories, rather than a pragmatic, real person, capable of understanding how the present and future worked.
And envious; deeply envious, which was a strange emotion, he knew – of a husband, who loved so much, and so deeply, his mind refused to process a death, and instead went into fight and flight mode – through seeing a pile of junk mail as death threats against his beloved, heroic wife, who had withstood the horrors of torture in the Resistance, only to die at the hands of a careless drunk driver on a sunny afternoon in the English countryside.
He saluted the young private on duty, and left, as the wind whipped a coupon towards his feet, notifying him of a special offer.
For his eyes only, of course.
An historical junk note, or two:
Webster’s records the first known usage of the term ‘junk mail’ as occurring in 1954.
The Suez Crisis, variously known as the Tripartite Aggression and the Kadesh Operation, took place in October, 1956, when Israel, and later the United Kingdom and France, invaded Egypt with the aim of retaking control of the Suez Canal and removing Gamal Abdel Nasser from power. It was a farce, with the three eventually forced to withdraw by the USA, the USSR, and the UN. It resulted amongst other things in the humiliation of Great Britain, in then Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigning, and is widely agreed by historians and strategists to be the beginning of the end of Great Britain’s role as one of the global political powers.
Ian Fleming, who whilst not a member of MI6, served within Naval Intelligence during and just after World War Two, published the first of his James Bond stories – Casino Royale – in 1953. All devotees of Commander James Bond, RNVR, of whom I am one, though not at all of a fan of Fleming himself, forgive me for the artistic licence. It was just a sly little poke.
Oh – and just like Sir Winnie the Pooh, I may have told a porky. That was his quote, true; but whether or not it was about advertising?
I couldn’t possibly comment.