1. I learned that there is a secret spy training centre in Soho.
This is a slight exaggeration. These are the offices of a PR company, who wanted to plug a new series that’s out on DVD and Blu-Ray, and to do so they hired in some ex-spies and soldiers to teach journalists how to be James Bond. I thought I’d spotted a gem of an opportunity and took them up on this.
It turned out pretty much every other publication, all the way from the Sunday Sport to Vice to the Telegraph - had also taken up the offer. What I assumed was going to be intimate, personalised training was actually going to be a sort of corporate away day for hacks who wanted to laugh at each other.
2. I learned that a new TV series about spies contains a scene involving oral sex.
To warm us up, they showed us some clips from the series this was all in aid of. Not only would it get us excited about the DVD release, it would give us a flavour of the day.
The two clips featured a man walking down the street, which we were pretty confident we could do, and a woman giving a guy a blowjob, which as you can see from the above picture we were less confident about.
3. I learned about the Cold War and industrial surveillance.
This is Dave, who used to be in the SAS and operated undercover in East Berlin before the wall came down before moving into the world of corporate security and industrial espionage and suchforth.
When I grow up, I want to be Dave.
4. I learned about all these gadgets.
You think they look like ordinary household objects, don’t you? WRONG, fools!
Here are some tiny bugs which can be stashed in things and will transmit audio. When Dave began his career he’d have to do ludicrous things like secrete a huge dictaphone under a chair and retrieve it a week later. These are small bugs but they’re not even modern ones. Things have got a lot cleverer - like…
Cameras in pens…
Cameras in PIRs and plug sockets (the plug socket is particularly devious since it never runs out of battery as it’s charged from the mains).
And really clever stuff like (left to right) a microphone so tiny you can put it behind wallpaper, a whole load of mobile cameras all viewable on your iPad, and a magnetic tracking device for cars (which is a bit more old school, but very cool).
5. I learned you should always keep your wits about you.
Then Dave rocked our world. He’d been spying on us, all the time, while we were watching his talk. And his camera was hidden in…
This coffee cup behind him.
6. I learned about the subtle art of honey trapping.
Dave sent us into this bar in central London to extract information from strangers. We had to strike up a relationship with them, and somehow find out their full name, age, date of birth, birthplace, pets, marital status, favourite place in the world, obscure details about them and anything else we could find.
7. I learned that the subtle art of honey trapping is much harder to pull off when there’s a photographer taking pictures of you in the bar.
And he’s taking pictures for the features all the journalists will later write.
Fortunately I don’t think I blew my cover.
8. I learned tabloid journalists are surprisingly bad at honey trapping.
The two women in this clip have just given up trying to extract information from the barman. Their cover was that they were visiting London “from the North”. You’ll also see that there was also a full film crew operating in the bar now, so it’s very unlikely any of its patrons were thinking anything was up.
9. I learned you should always keep your wits about you (again).
Aha! Would you believe it? When we got back to base it turned out everyone in the bar had been planted by Dave and his team! We were the ones being spied on, not vice versa.
EXCEPT they hadn’t legislated for a family with some small children coming in the bar. And naturally, being a bad person, they were the ones I’d decided to target. Which meant…
10. I learned that a small child didn’t have any pets but wanted some (and other details).
Yes. Here is a photo of me extracting personal information from a toddler (out of shot). It’s good I have an in-no-way creepy look on my face as I do it.
Anyway, we then broke for sandwiches, just like Jason Bourne wouldn’t.
11. I learned about the vital skill of the “Dead Drop.”
This is about exchanging material without other people finding out. It would require our teacher to take us to Leicester Square with all these briefcases. So he walked through Soho with all these briefcases, which frankly looked a bit odd.
Here is a journalist successfully pulling off a dead drop. You’ll see his contact has sat down on a bench and left his brief case just beside him. Our man approaches…
13. I learned that Dead Dropping is much harder when you’re trying to record the whole thing so you can make funny GIFs.
Still, at least my SpyCam POV filming produced this compelling footage.
But the exchange is made, and I subtly leave with my contact’s case. Except no, because I was concentrating on filming the whole thing I accidentally left with the case I came with. I have literally failed to pick up a briefcase. I’m quite possibly the worst spy in the world.
Still. Onwards and upwards. Self defence!
14. I learned that you learn about knife fighting in a place with posters like this on the walls.
Might make one of them my new email sign off.
15. I learned many terrifying things about knives from this man.
Who was simultaneously the hardest and nicest man in the world.
He even has a happy look on his face as he’s breaking a guy’s wrist.
And he told us many fascinating things. Including:
- He has God-knows-how-many black belts and has been doing this kind of stuff for years. But if someone came at him with a knife, the best he could hope for is to limit the damage done to him. Do not attempt to fight someone with a knife. You will most likely get stabbed.
- Over 20 yards, a knife is better than a gun. Assuming the guy with the gun doesn’t have it drawn, by the time he’s got it out and cocked it, he’ll have been stabbed. Our man has worked wth U.S. law enforcement on this issue to try to make them better equipped when attacked by knife-wielding criminals. He did a test where a cop came into a room and he attacked them with a knife to see if they could get to their gun in time: 19 times out of 20, the knife won.
- If you get stabbed in the artery running down the back of your leg, you can bleed to death in a minute. That’s a very bad place to get stabbed.
- The way they slit throats in the films is wrong. You actually want to stick the blade in from the side and then rip it out so the wound’s impossible to close.
I know. But he really was very nice.
16. I learned to beat up an invisible man.
By way of a warm up.
17. I learned to block this guy’s punches.
Basically it helps to deflect their blows to the blindside, because it means they can’t then attack you with their other arm. Here you can see me completely failing to do this and blocking his attack the wrong way, while having a stupid grin on my face.
18. I learned to disarm someone attacking me with a knife.
Here are two journalists showing you how. (Don’t worry, the knives were all made of rubber). By the end we were all quite good, as it happens, but then we were being taught by possibly the hardest man on earth.
The only downside is that at one point when I attacked someone I did it so badly and they disarmed me so comprehensively that I took an elbow in my eye socket.
But the real moral of the lesson was: if someone attacks you with a knife, RUN THE FUCK AWAY.
19. I learned I would be a rubbish spy.
I then went home and watched some of this series, The Americans, which they were plugging and came to several conclusions:
- It’s actually really good and I’m not just saying that because I got to do this.
- But at no point does anyone emotionally manipulate a toddler
- Or fail to pick up a briefcase
- Or nearly get knocked out while trying to learn a very basic self-defence move.
In summary, if I was a spy, I’d be Roger Moore in Octopussy.