Squadratomagico has an interesting post about her current research in London at the “Secret Agent Archive“–no specifics, because she doesn’t want to give away her identity in her day job, but she finds the location of the current object of her research exciting. (And it sounds like an opening scene to an Austin Powers movie.):
I enter Secret Agent Archive through modern steel-and-glass doors that whisk open automatically, then submit to a bag search. I proceed to a room in the back, where I stash my personal belongings in the modern lockers with frosted glass fronts. Here’s where it really starts to get interesting: up two flights of gleaming marble stairs, through another set of modern steel-and-glass doors; then I swipe my magnetized I.D. card through a reader, which buzzes and flashes a green light. That is my go-ahead to pass through the turnstile surrounded by a metal detector.
Now I’m in the restricted sanctum.
Then it’s a turn down a corridor, through a pair of massive wooden doors into a reading room populated by a scattering of folk absorbed in their researches. Now, I ascend more marble steps, then walk back along a brightly-lit catwalk lined with books, heading way, way to the back and through a fire door into a very small, short passageway. Then, penetrating ever deeper into the bowels of this place, I immediately push through yet another completely unmarked, solid wooden door that looks like part of the paneling in this narrow space.
That door opens onto more corridors, more cases of books, and in the end leads to a brightly-lit seating arrangement of 60’s-modern style furniture on shiny white plastic bases. They look Aalto- or Saarinen-esque. Next to this seating arrangement is my final goal: another pair of gleaming glass-and-steel doors etched with sans-serif letters: Rare Books and Manuscript Room. Behind these doors lie modern desks and ancient books.
On the wall to the left is another magnetic card reader. I swipe my card a second time, watch for the green light, and push open the entrance to the true sanctum sanctorum. I will not be able to leave, reversing my steps, without two more card-swipes on the way out.
I don’t think I’ve ever gone through this elaborate series of stairways, turns, hallways, doors and card-swipes without Johnny Rivers playing in my head…
Click the link to refresh your memory of Johnny Rivers’s “Secret Agent Man. . . they’ve given you a number, and taken away your name.”
Then on a related note, I’m enjoying my coffee in the fresh Rocky Mountain air this morning, when I read that Anthony Blunt wrote a 30,000 word memior/confession/apologia before his death in 1983, which has just been released by the British Library today.
Anthony Blunt — English gentleman, art adviser to Queen Elizabeth II and Soviet spy — felt the decision to give British secrets to the Kremlin was “the biggest mistake of my life.”
Blunt wrote of his remorse in a 30,000-word memoir completed shortly before his death in 1983 and released Thursday by the British Library. It was given to the library in 1984 on condition it not be made public for 25 years.
. . . . . . . . . . .
During World War II, Blunt worked for the MI5 intelligence agency — and handed over secret documents to the Soviets. The memoir gives few details about Blunt’s espionage, and does not reveal the names of his Russian contacts.
Blunt wrote that after the war he tried to put spying behind him, resuming his career as an art historian and becoming Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, a job he held under King George VI and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.
“In fact I was disillusioned about Marxism as well as about Russia. What I personally hoped to do was to hear no more of my Russian friends, to return to my normal academic life,” he wrote.
So much intrigue! I suppose it makes the “normal academic life” look pretty good. (As I always say, “thank goodness for my perfectly boring life! Boring is good.”) Well, I’ve never had the pleasure of working in such an exciting environment as either Squadratomagico or Blunt. In fact, I had to laugh when I read this description of a fine archive in which I’ve logged an impressive number of hours. Sarah Vowell writes in The Wordy Shipmates (2008) that the Massachusetts Historical Society is “like a cartoon of East Coast finery: dark wood paneling, oil paintings on the wall of illustrious, staring Bostonians whose eyes accuse visitors who went to state schools west of the Mississippi, ‘You’re not from around here, are you?'”
(Hey Sarah–forget west of the Mississippi–try west of the Hudson River!) I now teach at a state school west of the Mississippi, but I’ve always really liked that gorgeous painting of Mercy Otis Warren by John Singleton Copley that used to hang in the main reading room. (It may still–I haven’t been there for years.) Such a prim and stiff visage for such a radical revolutionary! Secret agent, indeed.
What’s the most exciting or interesting or most exotic place you’ve ever been in the course of doing your job?