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  • tonyauffret

Is Big Brother Still Watching Me?

Is Big Brother still watching me, or am I paranoid? Why should I think Big Brother was ever watching me?

Those really dedicated readers of The Death of a Smoker, and by ‘really dedicated’ I mean those who went so far as to read the acknowledgments, will have noticed that I thank ‘the unknown person who took seven minutes to read and retransmit that fax’. In the novel, much about the small biotech start-up’s situation, and events surrounding it, is based on occurrences that happened whilst I was working in a small biotech start-up in the early 1990s. Thankfully, the death of a ‘smoker’ was not one of them. There was, however, a fax that arrived at the company’s head office in Essex, seven minutes after it was transmitted from the Cambridge laboratory. I won’t bore you with the details about how we discovered this, but, for those who don’t remember faxes, these were direct telephone line to telephone line transmissions – as long as the connection was live, there was no delay. Just as in the book, I had indeed applied for a licence to import a live chicken viral vaccine unaware that both it and its country of origin were matters of concern.

A few months later I was attending a reception at the BioIndustry Association in London and the chief executive told me an interesting tale. A lady had turned up one day asking to see him; her business card bore only the crown logo and her name. He was intrigued so her wish was granted. She was from the Security Service, MI5, and was asking about the activities of the association’s manufacturing advisory committee. I was being told the tale because I was a member of that committee.

It jarred a memory of my own from a few years earlier, when I was still an aspiring academic research scientist. The gentleman I worked for told a tale about how, within minutes of leaving the exam room after the last final exam for his degree, he was approached by a stranger who, more or less asked him if he would be interested in a joining the intelligence services. The reason being that my boss’s father had been a plantation manager in central/south America and, one assumes, the political situation in the area was of concern. If the tale were true, it meant that the intelligence services had been an eye on my boss’s younger self, to the extent that they knew the time and place of his last final examination. So given a number of events that had happened at the small biotech company I worked for, maybe Big Brother was keeping an eye on me too.

If so, I am sure it had nothing to do with the fact that as a callow youth I belonged briefly to an organisation called Revolutionary Socialist Youth. It was a small and short lived organisation which lasted all of three weeks. The venue for our weekly revolutionary gathering was the local Co-op meeting rooms. Clearly the organisers of the group felt that the Co-operative movement had sold out to the prevailing capitalist economy and did not feel it was appropriate to pay for the room hire. Come week three, the caretaker of the building, who was of greater stature than the organisers, made it clear, no money, no meeting.

Fast forward a few years, post my small biotech start-up career, and I met a communications specialist, who claimed he had been seconded to GCHQ for a while. I relayed the story of the delayed fax. ‘Hmm,’ he said, ‘not many people know we do that.’

I am describing events that happened more or less thirty years ago, and I am confident that the intelligence services, having been impressed by my impeccable behaviour since, have long lost interest. Surely? Then again I have recently published The Death of a Smoker, which describes events that I am sure involved the security service.

Over Christmas, I spent the holiday with my youngest son and his family in Sweden. Moments after being dropped off at Gatwick airport, I was approached by a stranger. A charming lady who asked if I knew where to go to check in. I replied that it had been a while since I had last flown but I was sure I could follow the signs. She then asked if she could follow me, as she did not see too well. I was hardly going to say no. The lady concerned was very personable and, as we chatted, it turned out we were flying with the same airline, to the same destination, on the same flight. Coincidences happen! Even after completing check in and security formalities, we whiled away the time before our flight in very pleasant conversation. I learnt that, before retiring, she had worked for the MOD, and NATO, and I wondered if she could give me some useful pointers for another outing of Harry Nevile and the Tufton Street team.

It was, of course, entirely coincidental that she was also booked on the same return flight home a week later. As if Big Brother would still be keeping tabs on me!

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