Great Games



by Manik Sharma

Spies, you are lights in state, but of base stuff,
Who, when you’ve burnt yourselves down to the snuff,
Stink and are thrown away. End fair enough.

—Ben Johnson

When did we go from listening to, to listening in? Intelligence – the military kind – has existed since Prussian times; Ben Johnson was moved to write about the spies who had infiltrated every cordon of Queen Elizabeth’s empire; Francis Walsingham, minister and principal secretary to the Queen was proprietor of the spy club that kept the Queen on the throne; Machiavelli had predicted the residence of power to be cognitive years before the “spymaster” got into his act. The nature of cognizance, however, remained personal in those times. It was limited to the idea of one’s back, more than anything. With the advent of everyone’s unique idea of democracy as a pseudonym for selective equality, militaries began to dress, salute, and work for the protection of a greater idea. Before it hit the heights of the twenty-first century, Intelligence was still a foreword to a friend you may know, and want to help, on occasion in exchange for a favour.

Biographical fiction by ‘intelligencers’ since is plenty, but it rarely comments on the state of what we now believe is inevitable, if not essential – the keyword being ‘comment’. From the master of espionage fiction himself: John le Carré has continued to claim for the better half of a century that his work was approved of by the secret agencies for whom he worked – because it wasn’t ‘authentic’. Had it been, he says in an article he wrote for The Guardian in 2013, it would have never gotten published. By way of le Carré’s admission, it is safe to assume that not all accounts of Intelligencers are as close to the truth as they may seem by way of the revelatory hype they create. Can we then ever see the ‘light’, as Johnson proclaimed they were, before dissecting them over the precipice of his suffering intellect?

The earliest roots of the intelligence agency, as having a bone and mortar identity, began with the establishment of the British Intelligence Bureau, in Shimla, in 1878. Back in the Empire’s India days, the fear of Russian insurgence, and the irresolvable Tibetan conflict with China were paramount concerns. In light of imminent conflict, one man – as Lord Varys from Game of Thrones puts it – believed ‘intelligence (information) was key’. In an age where information was still word of mouth, Major-General Sir Charles Metcalfe MacGregor had the intuition that is now accepted Phantasia – that information is the be all and end all of everything security. MacGregor was made Quartermaster General and headed the Intelligence Bureau in Shimla, which, though established, had according to him suffered neglect. Such was the General’s faith in the idea of an agency – of which he writes in his part-biography part-diary compiled by his wife Lady MacGregor – that he wanted to invest his own money in setting up a personal intelligence department. But to MacGregor, the lure of intelligence was not limited to eavesdropping on enemies, but also as a pathway to attaining knowledge as well. He writes in his journal:

The work of the quartermaster-general consists in procuring intelligence of the enemy and information regarding the country. What can be more interesting than this? for in doing this you naturally become acquainted with the history, the manners and customs, of the people ; you see a great deal of the country ; you know all that is going on. But so absurdly has this been neglected by my predecessors…

MacGregor goes on at length to describe the perils of neglecting the criticality of Intelligence, in his better-known work – The Defence of India (1884). For a man writing to his wife, he can be trusted for not exaggerating his summation of the potential he saw in the idea. To MacGregor, the prospect of having a dedicated intelligence agency was also a way of discovery; elsewhere, in the journal, MacGregor writes about his wish to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese, so he can communicate better with informants from the Chinese front – perhaps also in part a literary exercise. MacGregor’s innocent protraction of his intentions can momentarily mislead us into believing that intelligence is equivalent to exploration. The disinterest of the General’s peers in undertaking his voyage and sharing his vision of an agency, and doing nothing but collecting intelligence is only today, perplexing. He notes in a letter to his wife that he wishes for his peers to listen to him. Bring that sentiment forward by a century and the perplexity seems outmoded; learning on the cusp of borderlines, aren’t even the settled and sane, too indulgent in their own tailspin?

The changes in machinery have been most apparent. What was before a direct reproduction of word and action, is now categorized into links, websites, numbers, downloads, views, interests – a decentralization of identity. An attempt to superimpose MacGregor’s generic definition of intelligence, as being a study, bodes only frivolously correct of modern times; while the material has changed, the premises of intelligence is far more psychological and largely independent of geo-political scenarios – for reconstruction. While for a Quartermaster General operating in the wake of imminent war (Afghanistan), the prospect of intelligence subtended to his inner curiosity; anything but can be said of the sleuths operating today.


The Oxford English Dictionary dates the origin of ‘intelligence’ back to the 14th century. The derived meaning, however, is supposed to have originated in the mid-1550s, around the time of political turmoil in England. The etymology, as always symptomatic, does enough to underline the curve, which is now approaching wishful thresholds; where does intelligence come from? Is it meta-only? Or has it become meta-only since the birth of postmodern communication channels (call them spaces now)? By calling it meta-information we probably run the risk of undermining its significance – meta-thought seems accurate but it obscures the most important part, the collection.

Intel, as it is now referred to, and the men who are pall-bearers to its decadent deposition, have been perused symptomatically in the literature of the time; in the espionage novels of the first half of the 21st century, the spy is part-megalomaniac, part-mercenary; He penetrates circles of trust and almost always reacts, rather than acts (orders are never his thing). Joseph Conrad left his protagonist embroiled in a scheme to blow up an observatory, while Somerset Maugham has performed all the parlour-tricks and patented an archetype for the masses of immediate spy-fiction to follow (in Ian Fleming most of all); and common to them all was the belief that interference is more important than interjection. In modern times though, the spy has become watcher. The nature of spying itself has been removed from the potency of intimacy. Spies, by way of this postmodern disconnect, can now be considered as being incapable of landing themselves into lovelorn, doomed relationships with members of the enemy – aka the Bond Girl – and has been made to look conveniently eloquent of their dilemmas – the torn-between-woman-and-country-spy. In this way, intelligence has marked its movement from modern to postmodern skepticism; the window of objectivity has been shut.

Troubled as the times of postmodern warfare are – a colder than cold, cold war – the emphasis has shifted to pluralism; the pluralism that is internal to most post-modern literature and has now suffocated the global conscience. Extremism and terrorism are often overlaid with each other’s passing shadow. And in this shadow lurk the meanings of what intelligence seeks to accomplish: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” says the CIA. Truth is variable, as is the light – capitalism – that has given birth to these shadows; and in between these shadows we are inclined to doubt our identity, and simultaneously have faith in our ability to find it again, maybe over the Internet, maybe on YouTube or Facebook.

For MacGregor, the semiotic spread of what intelligence stood for was broader, and the importance of not getting lost. In his journal he writes “I shall spend my extra cash in an ‘Intelligence Department’ of my own, instead of in beer and cheroots”. Over the years since, the vitality of the agency – a project, an institution – has been acknowledged the world over. Akin to the progress of literary discourse, postmodern soft-sucking of palpable feeding lines has become common to all these institutions. The production is larger, the gamut of confidence greater. The black cats are bigger than ever, and in the eye of the observer, your deprivation is as much a symptom as your rise. To go back to the only man – apparently – bent on serving the ‘Realm’ in Game of Thrones, Lord Varys puts a riddle to Tyrion – which is now Internet legend; his extrapolation of the riddle reads, “A small man can cast a very large shadow”. Today, intelligence watches the shadow more than it watches the small man. Intelligence is therefore, an illustration of information arising from thought, an x-ray of the human brain, unaware of its own becoming.

About the Author:

Manik Sharma is a freelance journalist and published poet based in Shimla.