Every year at my village in Derbyshire, we have a crime fiction event to celebrate writers and the wonderful books they produce. Previous authors who’ve appeared include John Lawton, Steven Dunne and Zoe Sharp. This years event is entitled ‘Dark Peaks and Strange Shores’ and features Derbyshire writers Stephen Booth and Roz Watkins, Quentin Bates who sets his books in Iceland and Martin Pearce. Martin will be the first non-fiction at the Chelmorton Festival and he’s written a fascinating biography, Spymaster, of his uncle Sir Maurice Oldfield.
Oldfield was the first head of MI6 who didn’t come to the role via the traditional public school and Oxbridge route. He was a farmer’s son from Over Haddon in Derbyshire (where Pearce and the Oldfield family still live), educated at the local grammar school and studied mediaeval history at Manchester university under AJP Taylor. Recruited to intelligence during the Second World War while in Cairo, following the end of the war he joined the Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6. To try to summarise Oldfield’s spying career in a review is a near impossible feat. He was in the organisation at the height of the Cold War and during the unmasking of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Spies, the Cuban missile crisis and the Profumo affair. After his retirement in 1978 he was asked by Margaret Thatcher, to coordinate security and intelligence in Northern Ireland.
Oldfield was a complex figure and his humanity comes across strongly in the book. Intelligent, religious and principled, he inspired extreme loyalty in many of those around him. David Owen, on being appointed Foreign Secretary remembers the awestruck excitement he felt that he’d get to meet Oldfield and Spymaster abounds with tales of Oldfield’s network of friendships nurtured throughout his lifetime.
Oldfield’s Derbyshire background was at the heart of everything he was. He returned to the family farm at weekends, collected works of writers affiliated to the area and fiercely protected the barrier between his personal and private life. Pearce deals fairly and, at times, movingly about Oldfield’s sexuality which came under scrutiny while he was heading security in Northern Ireland and the subsequent damage to his reputation.
Pearce’s research is admirable and many contacts have been extremely open about sharing information about the cold war years. I think the books greatest achievement that it takes a man remembered as the prototype for Alec Guinness’s George Smiley and shows us the talent and humanity of the outsider Oldfield, ‘the most remarkable man to ever have held the post’ of chief of MI6.