Charterhouse

Nick Thomas: My fiction was stranger than the truth

In 1986 Jeremy Corbyn was just a backbencher with no access to state secrets (Getty)

In 2001 I enjoyed modest success on the London Fringe with my first play, Dancing Bears, a comedy in which a (fictionalised Old Labour) retired foreign secretary of little brain is honey-trapped into boasting of a treasonable association with an Eastern Bloc diplomat during the Cold War.

Actors are generally not very good at keeping up with the news, which, judging by the opinions they voice when they do, is just as well, but if any of my super cast from back then has been following the story of Jeremy Corbyn and the Czech spy they might indulge in a little snigger at the unwitting prescience of the piece.

It’s not a perfect fit, of course. In 1986 Mr Corbyn was just an Opposition back-bencher who, far from having access to state secrets, was probably the last to know what was going on even in his own local party. But my fictional traitor is presented to the audience as an object not of righteous patriotic loathing but of ridicule; his crime is just being a vain, thick lefty. That makes the comparison rather more apt.

By the way, when I say “modest success”, I mean that the show didn’t lose money, and that Time Out plugged it as a “critics’ choice”, which still amazes me, given the content.

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In his dramatic works about real British traitors the great Alan Bennett explored this subject in greater depth, as well as with greater aplomb, making the habit of secrecy and hypocrisy for such gay men as Burgess and Blunt, and the laws of the repressive establishment that drove them to it, inseparable from their treachery.

Bennett himself was famous some years before legalisation, yet there is no tub-thumping bitterness in these plays. The nuanced interpretation of the spies’ characters and behaviour, as though of a priceless and overpainted Old Master’s canvas, is what makes A Question of Attribution itself a masterpiece.

My own contribution to the genre was just a heartless satire full of gags, and the sexual metaphor I employed was that of straight adultery. For I had observed that, just as married men who stray often do so less out of passion for the mistress than from a self-loathing projected onto the wife, so traitors hate their country far more than they love its enemies. Ideological contempt for some abstraction like “the West” is not enough to make someone a traitor. They have to want to burn down the family home, and revel in its destruction.

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‘Traitor”, of course, should be a technical term applicable only to someone whose treason – knowingly abetting a hostile country – has been established by due process or their own admission. Even then it only really works in clear-cut cases, when someone in possession of secrets has passed them to the enemy. During the Cold War the term was debased somewhat by the mob of hippy half-wits who did their bumbling useless best to promote the interests of the Soviet Union in Britain, but were both too numerous and too pathetic to be worth prosecuting.

Now, though, the term is being lobbed back and forth across the Brexit/Remain divide on social media by people who should know better. Who really wants to see Britain destroyed, by absorption into a power-mad superstate or by debilitating poverty in isolation? Almost nobody. Who really thinks these are widespread desires? Again, almost nobody. But the very use of social media seems to make the most rational souls angry and intemperate in their language, just as emailing and texting make them semi-literate. What used to be harmless, if gimmicky, toys for telling your old college friends what you had for lunch have become vehicles of vilification.

Furthermore, many of the messages of hatred and intolerance therein are generated by Russian trolls and designed to help de-civilise our public discourse and undermine our national identity. Sadly it is unlikely to become a treasonable offence to use Facebook, Twitter et al; but soon it must become the mainstream view that nobody with any sense believes anything they read, or buys anything they see advertised, on social media. When that happens the trolls can have their ugly little world all to themselves, and be switched off along with it when the money runs out:#AdsDon’tWork#StopFundingDrivel#CloseYourAccounts.

Nick Thomas is a freelance writer based in Amsterdam