In a recent interview, Matthew Dunn, an ex-MI6 operative who did undercover field work in countries across the world in the Nineties, spilled the beans about what it’s actually like to be a master spy.
First things first, how do you even land the job? Dunn says he was approached by talent-spotters in university. That’s the only way it’s done – no job applications – they come after you, not the other way round.
Speaking about what makes you rise up the ranks in a grueling job like this, Dunn says that the most important thing is to be confident. It’s all about crucial, split-second decision-making, so you have to be sure of yourself.
According to Dunn, ‘independence of thought is crucially tested’, and undercover agents are like generals without armies, they have to be ready to fight the battle alone.
In order to be a super-spy, you have to possess an exceptional, razor-sharp memory. There’s no question of taking notes, as that makes sources nervous. Also, secret agents sometimes have to maintain several identities, each alias having its own credible backstory – like school attended and teachers’ names – committed to memory, along with different passports, credit cards, and driving licenses.
Secret agents have to get used to working in grey areas. Unlike movies, the good and bad are never black and white in real life, and things are seldom what they seem, so ferreting out the truth can be a hazardous task, danger of discovery a constant threat. Dunn says horrendous criminals are often the most pleasant and charming.
A high intellect and great intrapersonal skills are part and parcel of a super-spy’s arsenal. His powers of persuasion have to be great, as does his judgement of people and situations. If the KGB counterpart has polished off a lot of vodka, he has to match him, otherwise there would be a credibility issue, yet he has to remain alert enough to catch the slightest nuance or slip of the tongue.
And if you’re thinking of big pay-offs and a James Bond-like lifestyle, forget it! MI6 agents don’t receive huge salaries. Your motives have to be altruistic, because essentially it’s a public service job.
For Dunn, the job took such a toll on his nerves that he says it took him ten years to adjust to normal life after quitting.
He’s an armchair detective now and author of the ‘Spycatcher’ novels.