Review of My Double Life 1: This Dark Wood, by Nigel West, 13 June 2016


Nigel West’s review of My Double Life 1: This Dark Wood, ‘The Diarist Spy’, in International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 13 June 2016



Nicholas Hagger: My Double Life I: This Dark Wood

O-Books, United Kingdom, 2015, 642 p., UK £25.99

Perhaps every case officer’s potential nightmare is an agent who keeps even better contact reports than his (or her) own. Worse, that the agent should be a diarist who intends to publish a detailed account of the relationship.

This is almost, but not quite, a true reflection of Nicholas Hagger’s experience, over four years from May 1969 when he was approached in Libya by the local Secret Intelligence Service (SIS–MI6) station commander, a man he identifies by the pseudonym of Andrew Mackenzie. Unknown to the intelligence officer, Hagger had kept a daily diary since 1963.


An academic, poet, and philosopher, Hagger had been attracted to the world of espionage as a means of fulfilling some youthful ambitions, especially to travel, and had gone through a recruitment procedure that will be familiar to many who have volunteered for a clandestine life. He was interviewed by Admiral Sir Charles Woodhouse at the SIS’s “front office” in Carlton Gardens, but declined a permanent post. Instead, he pursued his own independent career, and found himself in a teaching job in Tripoli where, fortuitously, he had access to some of the personalities who would dominate the country’s politics for the next three decades. He was also able to engineer the defection of a Czech colleague thought to have links with the Soviet KGB, and one of his early assignments was to locate a Soviet-delivered SAM-3 site in Egypt.

The reality of life as an SIS agent is very often unglamorous and lonely, though not without its dangers, and shared with no one. This existence is definitely more Ashenden than Bond, and Hagger knows it, as he is well versed in the literature. He was not expecting a Buchan adventure, and mentions the output of other SIS literary luminaries, among them Compton Mackenzie, Malcolm Muggeridge, Graham Greene, and his old friend Freddie Ayer.

After operating for the SIS and reporting on two local coups d’état, one planned, the other successfully executed hours earlier in September 1969 by Colonel Muamar Gaddafi, Hagger left his university post and returned to London where he acted as a freelance journalist, concentrating on the liberation movements across Africa. Evidently, the SIS found this topic of consuming interest and sponsored several missions for Hagger to visit guerrilla training camps, cultivate the leadership, and investigate their links to the Chinese. These assignments to UNITA, ZANU, ZAPU, and the MPLA were not without personal risk, and Hagger often placed himself in considerable jeopardy. He even associated with FRELIMO and SWAPO activists who would subsequently be assassinated. ZANU’s Herbert Chitepo was killed in a car bomb in March 1975, and Jason Moyo died when a parcel bomb detonated as it was unwrapped in the ANC’s office in Lusaka in January 1977.

At the time, when the Cold War was being conducted in warm climates by proxies, the Kremlin was keen to influence, exploit, and perhaps control the myriad liberation groups which intended to fill the vacuum left by the departing colonial powers. In retrospect, the Africans’ embrace of genuine Marxism was seemingly and largely cosmetic. The new rulers knew what model they did not want, but had not quite settled on a viable economic or political template that was entirely suited to their needs. This sometimes painful evolution was hard for outsiders to interpret, and Hagger’s role was to be a pair of eyes and ears on the ground, explaining to an uncomprehending Whitehall how the various competing personalities were coping with the challenge of exercising power on the Dark Continent.


Hagger believes that his covert role was betrayed at an early stage to the KGB which then spread the word in London, leading to the suspicion that he was a British agent or, as he preferred to see himself, as Prime Minister Edward (Ted) Heath’s “unofficial ambassador” to the emerging independent states that had rid themselves of their Portuguese and British colonial rulers. Nevertheless, Hagger’s many tasks, among them as a secondary school teacher in London, occasional Times of London correspondent, and unsuccessful manager of a dysfunctional and often harrowing domestic situation dominated by discord, desertion, and divorce consumed him. His therapy, certainly not endorsed by the SIS, was to continue to maintain a daily diary, recording everything, including espionage, disappointment, suspicions and, of course, his lively social life in Chelsea’s Kings Road.

What makes Hagger’s story so compelling to the intelligence community is its searing honesty, to the point where the memoir, the first of two, could be viewed as having been penned as part of some psychiatric treatment recommended by a misguided therapist unaware of the patient’s covert dimension. Far from narcissistic or self-aggrandizing, This Dark Wood reveals its author as a semi-transparent spy, who made little effort to deny accusations from others on the London revolutionary scene that he was really a Foreign Office stooge. Far from resembling a “wannabe 007,” he was beset by very ordinary preoccupations, trying to bond with his daughter after his failed marriage, and coping with a classroom of educational misfits.

Hagger’s credentials for his SIS employment date back to Oxford, where he was talent-spotted at Worcester College by the Provost, the redoubtable J.C. Masterman, best known for his wartime service in MI5 and his chairmanship of the Double-Cross XX Committee. Hagger is also very aware of the British intelligence community’s distinguished literary connections, with Rudyard Kipling, A. A. Milne, and Arthur Ransome, to name but three, and refers with admiration to his declared hero, T. E. Lawrence, who was an intelligence officer during the First World War. Thus, in line with convention, he has altered the names of his five case officers, but he did not submit his manuscript to Whitehall for pre-publication review, and in truth nothing in the detail of the narrative should cause anxiety at Vauxhall Cross, although This Dark Wood stands out as a very significant contribution to the literature on intelligence.


Hagger may not have intended to do so, but he is one of the very few SIS agents in the postwar era to have given a day-by-day factual account of his experience, and in so doing offers a very candid view of the way in which he was handled. To this extent he risks the SIS’s ire, mainly because he reveals the none-too-secret nuts and bolts of the organization’s tradecraft, meeting sources in hotels around Victoria or in anonymous West End pubs, and borrowing flats in Chelsea to hold a longer rendezvous.

No other first-hand, authentic account of collaborating with the SIS comes close to describing the institutional ingratitude and financial chiseling that Hagger endured. By my count, only Greville Wynne, and Paul Henderson amount to his competition, but Wynne (The Man from Moscow) turned out to be more of a fantasist than the access agent he was hired to be, while Henderson (The Unlikely Spy), the former MI5 source and director of the Matrix Churchill engineering company, proved to be the catalyst for 1996 Scott Enquiry which nearly ended Prime Minister John Major’s government. Neither really gives a flavor of what it is like to be tasked by the SIS to collect high-level political intelligence of the kind being produced by Hagger, who was granted time by Chinese diplomats, African despots, and so-called freedom fighters. An interview with Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, or Zanzibar’s Aboud Jumbe? Hagger’s newspaper articles, invariably sympathetic to the nationalist cause, gave him instant entrée.

To this extent The Dark Wood really should be required reading for potential SIS recruits, although Hagger would probably not recommend this particular career path. Certainly, he is unique in that most SIS agents do not reveal their role, unless something goes badly wrong, and this is especially true if they are denizens of Fleet Street, where there is a pretense that journalistic ethics prevent such behavior. Wynne was imprisoned in Soviet Union in 1962 when he had acted as a courier for SIS, and Henderson’s trial at the Old Bailey collapsed spectacularly when the prosecution was forced to admit that he had been an exceptionally brave agent who had been acting under SIS instructions when he had broken United Nations sanctions to sell dual-purpose machine tools to Saddam Hussein’s regime. In both examples, disclosure of their clandestine roles had ended in a degree of tragedy, whereas Hagger’s experience was apparently generally quite positive.

Neither of these two unedifying cases reflects well on the SIS which, for obvious professional reasons tried to disown Wynne and Henderson, whereas Hagger bears no resentment for the manner in which he was cut loose when his tangled domestic arrangements threatened to result in an embarrassing hearing in the family court. Indeed, Hagger was motivated by neither money or ideology, nor the lure of a Bond lifestyle, but feels the need to explain that his innate patriotism led him to keep SIS well-informed about the Cold War’s proxy conflict fought across Africa.

Nicholas Hagger’s This Dark Wood, the first of a two-volume set of recollections, may strike some as a trifle self-indulgent, but it reeks of honesty and authenticity. History, of course, has moved on, but to be reminded of how Libya fell, almost accidentally, into the hands of a Sandhurst-trained despot, and the challenges confronting those seeking to move their pawns around the African chessboard, is very useful.

Additional author information

Nigel West

Nigel West, one of the world’s most prolific commentators on intelligence matters, also lectures on the history of postwar intelligence at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, Alexandria, Virginia. The author of more than a dozen books on various aspects of intelligence, he has compiled several volumes of the Scarecrow Press series of Historical Dictionaries of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, including volumes on British counterintelligence, Cold War intelligence, World War II intelligence, naval intelligence, and signals intelligence. In 2003, he received the Lifetime Literature Achievement Award from the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). Under his given name, Rupert Allason, Mr. West was an elected Member of the British Parliament in London for a decade.

Nicholas Hagger