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Spycatcher

September 21st to the 27th 2014 is international banned books week. I thought I would dedicate a couple of blogs to this.

My first memory of a book being banned, or rather an attempt to ban a book, was ‘Spycatcher’ in 1985. The book was written by Peter Wright a former assistant director of MI5 with the help of then journalist Paul Greengrass (who is now best known as a film director).

Wright wrote the book in his retirement home in Tasmania. Initially the book was to be published in 1985 however the UK government managed to get an injunction. This was done hastily and clumsily as the injunction only applied under English law. The book was freely available in Scotland.

Not even the government of Margaret Thatcher could justify searching every car leaving Scotland. However random searches at Euston Station did see copies confiscated. But for the most part everyone who wanted one had a copy of ‘Spycatcher’.

Here is the real issue with banning books. Everyone wanted a copy of ‘Spycatcher’ not for the content but because it was banned. Had the book not been banned it would have sold well in places like Politicos Bookshop, been discussed by people who discuss politics and would have gone unnoticed by anyone who read a tabloid newspaper. But due to being banned in England and having to be smuggled in from Scotland it was on display in every house.

How many people actually read ‘Spycatcher’ is another issue. The people who frequent places like Politicos Bookshop and those who discuss politics would have read it. The vast majority of copies remained unread. They are still unread today sat on shelves next a copy of the equally unread ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawking. ‘Spycatcher’ was a must have not a must read. It was interior design, it went with the other accessories of early yuppiedom, red braces, Pierrot dolls, aluminum briefcases, Filofaxs and life sized china dogs. It goes without saying that Derek Trotter was selling copies in an early ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

What was all the fuss about what did ‘Spycatcher’ actually reveal? Very little. In fact by the time the legal cases were all over in 1992 the European Court stated it contained no information that was not freely available elsewhere. It told of a plot by MI6 to assassinate President Nasser during the Suez Crisis in 1956. This was widely reported in the 70’s although never confirmed. It also told of plots against Harold Wilson by MI5 and the CIA all of which were known to Wilson himself and previously published. Plus some information about how MI5 secretly recorded Commonwealth meetings and the equipment used.

All of the technical information was a decade out of date. Most of the technology described was by 1985 available in branches of Tandy.

‘Spycatcher’ is most notable by what it didn’t include. There are no real details of the alleged plot against Wilson. Many had assumed that senior government figures would be named. They were not. In fact the sort of people who frequent Politicos Bookshop and those who discuss politics found nothing new in it. Just a different perspective.

‘Spycatcher’ is out of print however it is available from online second hand book retailers for prices from £0.01p to £2499.99p.

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