Art Kavanagh

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A fabulist’s adventure: Kate Atkinson, Transcription

Paperback cover

As she lies dying on the street outside the Wigmore Hall, having been hit by a car, Juliet Armstrong’s thoughts are all with her son, Matteo, and what she’d like to say to him:

Tell him that nothing mattered and that that was a freedom, not a burden. (p. 327)

It’s an untruth, though a comforting, if potentially dangerous, one. Does Juliet believe it herself? She would probably like to. We learn, almost from the beginning of the novel, that she is a ready, habitual and convincing liar.

The collision in Wigmore Street happens in 1981, when Juliet is “just sixty years old” (p. 4), but the main action of the novel is divided between 1940, near the beginning of the Second World War, and ten years later, when Juliet is working for the BBC as a producer in Schools radio.

Recruited at the age of 18 into the Security Service — she says she would have preferred the ATS — she lies to the officer who interviews her about her taste in art, falsely claiming to admire Rembrandt: “She liked Vermeer, but she wasn’t going to share that with a stranger” (p. 14). Perhaps more relevantly, she lies about the secretarial college she attended and about what she’d do if forced to choose between becoming a fascist or a communist. She is offered the job.

Her new role doesn’t involve parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe, making contact with partisan resistance fighters or assassinating senior SS officers. Instead, she’s given the task of transcribing recordings of bugged conversations between British Nazi sympathizers and the man they fondly believe to be their link to the Gestapo, but who really works for MI5. Juliet is also sometimes asked to make the tea and tidy up.

The recordings that Juliet has to work from are often indistinct or incomplete: the fifth columnists may talk over each other, mumble or let their sentences trail off, and one of them has a dog whose barking is liable to drown out what’s being said. Juliet’s talent for invention and fabrication helps her to produce from this unpromising source material a transcript that is more coherent than perhaps it ought to be:

… she had to concentrate so hard to understand what the informants were saying. Quite a bit of it was guesswork. Sometimes she wondered if she wasn’t just making things up, filling in the gaps to make sense of it. Not that anyone would notice. And if she didn’t, she would look like an idiot and Perry might go looking for another girl — although whoever he found would need to have the hearing of a bat. (p. 60)

It’s not at all clear that it matters whether her transcripts are accurate or reliable. So far as she knows, nobody ever looks at them, and the degree of importance that the authorities attach to the activities of the “informants” seems to vary depending on what else is going on. But even if the fifth columnists are not taken seriously as a threat, the man running them is regarded as something special.

He’s known as Godfrey Toby (real name John Hazeldine), to all appearances a bank clerk who leads a very ordinary life in Finchley. On first meeting him, Juliet is unimpressed:

… he cut an unassuming, Pooterish figure. With his bashed trilby and old trench coat, Godfrey Toby had a slightly used air about him. (p. 45)

Once the operation against the fifth columnists has finished, he is reported to have been sent to various places around the world, at least in part to protect him against reprisals. Towards the end of the story, we learn that he has been “recalled” (p. 316) to London to lead a mole hunt, following which he “stepped back into the shadows” (p. 322).

Juliet has originally wondered if his unremarkable persona conceals some secret:

Julia used to think that someone who seemed as ordinary as Godfrey Toby must be harbouring a secret — a thrilling past, a dreadful tragedy — but as time had gone by she’d realized that being ordinary was his secret. It was the best disguise of all really, wasn’t it? (p. 21)

Later, she and Toby would come to share a secret that was dangerous to both of them — and that would make it difficult for her to interpret his later behaviour. This is perhaps one of the gaps in Juliet’s perspicacity, which otherwise serves her well in the world of spying.

In her early days in the Service, she was inclined to fantasize about being seduced by her immediate boss, Perry Gibbons, and failed to notice the signs — perhaps not yet so obvious in 1940 as they would shortly become — that he was gay, and tormented by the fact. When Perry, like Godfrey Toby, behaves unexpectedly in a way that saves her skin, she wonders if he too might have been a double agent, overlooking the likelihood that he is acting out of personal loyalty — and a sense of responsibility — to her.

As well as being a skilled liar, Juliet gets away with several thefts, though this aspect of her character is revealed to the reader more slowly and later than her mendacity. At a crucial moment Perry lets drop that he’s known all along that she hadn’t really “lost” some expensive diamond earrings that she had worn as part of a disguise.

I assumed I had so many secrets, Juliet thought, and yet everyone seems to have known them.
“I’m little better than a common thief, I’m afraid.”
“Not common. Most uncommon, in fact.” (p. 320)

Early in her career, Juliet resolved to be the hunter — always Diana, never the stag. Later, she will adopt another classical role:

I am Ariadne, mistress of the maze, Juliet thought. (p. 187)

This leads her, via Daedalus, to Icarus, who

… had flown too high and fallen. It was the perfect plot. In some ways it was the only plot. (p. 187)

Ultimately, she is forced to acknowledge that being Diana in some contexts does not necessarily offer any protection against being the stag in others. It’s possible, probably not even unusual, to be in pursuit of one target, while becoming the prey of someone else, in much the same way as it’s possible to be at once boss and underling: she is momentarily caught off guard when Oliver Alleyne tells her that he’s the boss. She had been thinking of Perry as the boss, but Alleyne (who later turns out to have been one of several Soviet moles in the Service) is in turn Perry’s superior.

She had been happy enough to be known as “Perry’s girl”; she’s much less happy when other parties say things like “You’re my girl now” (p. 317) and “One is never free. It’s never finished” (p. 311).

Obviously, Godfrey Toby — “My mother always said not to trust a man with two Christian names” (p. 47) — has quite a bit in common with George Smiley, and there are other echos of le Carré’s fiction in Transcription. It’s also set at a time when the Cambridge spy ring was active, but not yet unmasked. Juliet reads a newspaper report of Klaus Fuchs’s sentencing (p. 187), and “persistent rumours about ‘a fifth man’” follow Alleyne’s exposure in 1954 (p. 322).

Like the other fiction by Kate Atkinson that I’ve written about — her first novel and the Jackson Brodie series — Transcription is appealing and entertaining on first reading and is found to contain partly hidden depths and complexity when examined more closely. It’s Atkinson’s only work of spy fiction, and its genesis was a release of MI5 records to the National Archives concerning an agent (codenamed “Jack King”) who acted in real life much as Toby does in the novel: pretending to be a Gestapo spy and monitoring disaffected fascist sympathizers.

The National Archive contains “hundreds of pages” of typed transcripts of Jack King’s conversations with his network of would-be traitors. The real-life transcriber remains unnamed but, “on the odd occasion, her own personality breaks suddenly through” (Author’s Note, p. 330)

There’s a perception that that genre has been coming back into fashion in recent years, with the emergence of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series and Charles Cumming’s Box 88 and its sequel. But the truth is it never entirely faded away. When Soviet communism ended, and with it the Cold War, some commentators wondered what on earth could spy writers find to do with their time in the posthistoric era. But, as Cumming’s work in particular shows, Russia still needs to be closely watched even when no longer communist. I was never persuaded that spy stories had become irrelevant; the notion is looking increasingly misconceived.

Edition: references above are to the Transworld trade paperback, 2018.


I’ve already written a post about novels by Graham Greene and John le Carré, and I intend soon to write a third spy fiction post, this time on the subject of two of Ian McEwan’s novels, The Innocent (in which George Blake plays a major role) and Sweet Tooth (touching on attempts by the Security Service to influence literary and cultural life). But writing about Smiley’s People brought it home to me that I still haven’t “dealt with” that novel to my own satisfaction. There was more that I wanted to say on the subject. So, since sending out the email version of this issue, I’ve posted a further note about it on my personal site: “A preferable technique to bribery”: The nature of coercion in Smiley’s People


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