There wasn’t a plan. It was a town on a map, heading west, with a funny looking building in a car park that you passed on the way in. Look closely and you would spot the razor wired perimeters. If you had lived in Brazil where barb wire is a feature of everyday life, then its significance may have escaped you.
I’d first visited the town by accident. We were on our way to a Literary Festival where my brother-in-law was scheduled to appear on a discussion panel, What next for the world?, when we took a wrong turn.
The streets were deserted. Where was everybody? Then it hit me. Spooks.
‘What does GCHQ stand for,’ I said.
‘Government Communication Headquarters,’ said my brother-in-law as we quickly motored through.
It wouldn’t be long, just a few childbearing years, before I’d find myself back in this Regency town. I’d learn that the building in the car park was the listening arm of M16, known locally as the doughnut because of its circular design, and that GCHQ was the largest employer in town, employing five and a half thousand people, depending on the security threat. It was a well observed tradition never to talk about the nerve centre of Britain’s communications surveillance operations. Moreover, in 1932 the Cheltenham Flyer, promoted as ‘Speed to the West’, could get you to Cheltenham from Paddington in under an hour whereas today’s commuter was forced to stop in Twyford, Didcot, Reading and Swindon before embarking on a scenic crawl through Kemble, Stonehouse, Stroud and Gloucester where you sat for fifteen minutes (an invitation to reconsider your decision?) before limping backwards into Cheltenham Spa station. Two hours and ten minutes later.
According to Gavin Lambert in Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, his biography of Cheltenham educated film director Lindsay Anderson, Cheltenham was, ‘a modest spa town until the middle of the eighteenth century, when George III, whose daughters were tormented by constipation found the waters relieved it.’ Lambert met Anderson at Cheltenham College in 1939 when, ‘it was a bit lower down the social ladder than Eton or Harrow.’ Anderson would return there almost thirty years later to film If…, a satire of minor public school life, assuring the headmaster that the film would be sympathetic by the use of a 40-page fake script. Malcolm McDowell as disaffected school boy Mick Travis, opens fire on the rank and file of the establishment from the roof of the school in a nihilistic climax that secured the film’s success at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Palm d’Or.
Cheltenham College, a Victorian gothic pile, reared up from the cricket pitch on the way to the Lido. Here, at the Lido, began my trail of clues. Disguised as a shopping destination in the heart of the Cotswolds (bridal shops and antique jewellers galore), Cheltenham was a government town. Through the summer months, a team of Lycra-clad men appeared at 5.30 each day to lower themselves into the largest pool in the West Midlands (est. 1935) Watching them through the gap in the privet hedge, marooned beside the kids pool, it was hard not to speculate on which bit of the world the men had tuned into that day. When later on it became necessary to try and recall if Gareth Williams – the disappeared M16 code breaker or ‘Spy in the bag’ – had been one of these triathletes-in-training, I could only remember the men’s Herculean butterfly stroke.
We were raised to suspect everyone of being a spy. There was the Great Uncle who rowed Second World War spies across the Channel in the dead of night; a Grandfather, a diplomat in the colonies and visiting Russian scientists who drank too much. Antony Blunt and the Trinity traitors were part of family folklore, my father having occupied the adjacent Neville Court staircase, decades later.
Before long the whispers of GCHQ began to reach me. Nigel at number eight did ‘secret squirrel’. A friend of a friend, from Islamabad, was an expert in ancient tribal dialects spoken in the AfPak border territories. Driving the babysitter home, stuck behind a white Honda civic with Maryland plates, I learned that her entire family worked at the doughnut (Clearance to be a secretary took six months) Every member had signed the Official Secrets Act so there was no point asking, How was your day? Was this the secret to happy families, I wondered.
That autumn the former director of GCHQ began a round of lectures as part of the local Literature Festival. The auditorium was filled with silver haired men and women whose conversation died as the former director appeared on stage. More Q than 007.
‘Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. Well, can I start off with a reminder that those of us who are unplugged remain covered by the Official Secrets Act, and will be until we’re in the ground.’
Laughter tinkled across the room.
‘Our challenge is to piece together a story from lots of fragments. It’s like trying to do a jigsaw when you have only half the pieces.’
His story spanned the post-war years, the end of the Cold War before the beginning of that new threat, Al Qaeda. Happy days.
I put up my hand.
‘What can secret intelligence tell me about life in Cheltenham?’
The speaker smiled: ‘I suppose there are a lot of us living in Cheltenham and it is a very nice town.’
That summer I joined a book group. My husband suggested a book, the 70’s classic, The Stepford Wives. To recap: Joanna Eberhardt, a New York photographer, wife to Walter and mother of two, is transplanted to the village of Stepford in suburban Connecticut. Walter joins the Men’s Association run by the mysterious Dis who used to work in ‘audioanimatronics’ at Disneyland. Joanna meets Bobbie, another recent Stepford arrival, and together they plan to revive a local women’s club.
‘Jee-zus!’ Bobbie said, ramming her Volvo viciously up Short Ridge Hill. ‘Something fishy is going on here! We’re in the Town that Time Forgot.’
As the novel hurries towards its terrifying end, ‘I’m not crazy, ..I’m not crazy..,’ Joanna is caught in the crush of history.
‘(Bobbie) couldn’t be a robot, she simply couldn’t be, and that was all there was to it…’
In the film, scripted by William Goldman, Joanna (played by a startled Katharine Ross) tries to escape the Men’s Association and stumbles, breathlessly, into a mock-up of her marital bedroom in which the robotic Joanna now stands, stocking in hand, ready to strangle her real-life counterpart. Joanna in the book is taken to see Bobbie who has offered to cut herself with a knife to prove she bleeds.
‘It’ll ease your mind,’ Bobbie said.
In a world of grisly endings, it was hard to know which was worse. Joanna had to die. The book went down well with the Mums.
The next morning at home I answered the door to a lady with a suitcase on wheels.
‘Hi, honey.’ She had a deep Southern accent. ‘Is this 20 Suffolk Crescent?”
‘Suffolk Parade. You’re close. Suffolk Crescent is next left. Are you here on holiday?’
‘No. My son’s at …’
‘Spy school. I’m here to look after the kids.’