Anthony Horowitz: Joan Bright Astley’s Inner Circle

Anthony Horowitz: Joan Bright Astley’s Inner Circle

How long could you keep a secret? In the case of Joan Bright Astley, the answer was ‘To the grave.’ Acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz and host Alice Loxton offer up a gift from the real-life Miss Moneypenny - a formidable woman who protected the secrets of the notorious Special Operations Executive for as long as she lived.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects, Episode 4 - Anthony Horowitz: Joan Bright Astley’s Inner Circle

 NARRATOR: What are the objects that define espionage? What secrets lie hiding in plain sight? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects from SPYSCAPE Studios. Anthony Horowitz is a British novelist and screenwriter. His acclaimed TV drama series, Foyle’s War, tells the story of a Second World War detective. Writing it has taken Anthony into some of the most clandestine corners of Britain’s wartime government but sniffing out all the facts can sometimes prove impossible. His entry to this archive of espionage ephemera illustrates that impossibility.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: The object that I’ve chosen is a rather old book, which is now I have to say rather musty, where the paper has gone just a little bit blotchy and spongy and thick. And there’s a sort of dust clinging to it, so although the cover is in good condition it is a little frayed at the edges, rather like me when I think of it. It’s called The Inner Circle. On the cover is a picture of Churchill and Stalin. And it’s written by a woman called Joan Bright Astley, of whom you probably haven’t heard, but she was a very important and significant person in her time, that time being the Second World War. And the reason this is not just a book but an object is that she gave it to me and signed it for me literally a few months before she died.

NARRATOR: Joan Bright Astley died on Christmas Eve, 2008, just shy of her 100th birthday. She had been a widow for 50 years but was never lonely. She had plenty of friends, many from her time working for the Special Operations Executive.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: Now this was a remarkable organization. It was formed by Churchill at the beginning of the war with the famous instructions: ‘Go out and set Europe ablaze’. And what the SOE was effectively, I suppose, really a terrorist organization because its aim was to fight behind the lines, to commit sabotage and murder, and to generally damage the Nazi war effort behind the lines. It was also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. 

NARRATOR: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. A very genteel description. Agents of the SOE - both men and women - were parachuted into occupied Europe and Asia to blow up trains, bridges, energy plants, and factories. They armed resistance groups and rebels, and created chaos wherever they could. For the SOE, nothing was off limits - from pouring itching powder on German uniforms to kidnapping a Nazi general. 

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: The head of the SOE was a brilliant man called Sir Colin McVean Gubbins, and that brings us very neatly to Joan Bright Astley who was his assistant and, if you’re thinking ‘M’, then you go immediately to Miss Moneypenny and curiously enough in real life Joan Bright Astley was, for a time, going out with Ian Fleming - and it’s almost certain she was the inspiration for that character. So this inner circle, this little clique of people, all remarkable, existed to fight a secret war.

NARRATOR: To the privileged few who knew of their existence, they were known as the Baker Street Irregulars. Major General Gubbins organized the saboteurs who would stay behind German lines in case the Nazis invaded England. Meanwhile, outside London, Station IX created equipment for the operations, including an electric submersible canoe called Sleeping Beauty.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: I had the idea some years ago of doing a TV series based on the SOE and I really wanted to write about this man, Major-General Gubbins. And I discovered to my surprise that Joan Bright Astley was still alive.

NARRATOR: Anthony wrote to Joan via the Special Forces Club, a discreet meeting spot for ex-intelligence personnel, located behind Harrods department store in West London. To his surprise, she agreed to a meeting and invited him to visit her.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: I went to a house in South Kensington. It was in a mansion block of flats. And I remember there was a narrow door which led to a corridor and a flight of steps and then a door that led into this tiny, tiny flat with a very, very elderly lady in there surrounded by documents and books and papers and souvenirs of this or that, and bric-a-brac of one sort or another.

NARRATOR: So Anthony clambers through, trying his hardest to make a good impression. 

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: I remember thinking to myself, “Tread carefully. This is an elderly lady. You don’t want to upset her. You don’t want to confuse her, or whatever. And all you need to do is persuade her to give you her papers, documents, memories, whatever she may have of Major-General Gubbins.”

NARRATOR: Everything is going relatively smoothly. Joan makes Anthony a cup of coffee and offers him a seat. They sit down almost knee to knee in her small flat and he starts to explain more about what he wants: to mine her memories for material for his screenplay. 

ANTHONY HOROWITZ:  And this is the thing, I am the young brash professional TV screenwriter very much in the prime of my career and she is this elderly lady. But as the meeting went on, I began to realize she knew everything about me. I mean, she had researched me whether on the Internet or through contacts or whatever, but she was in total command of this meeting. That was the first realization. She knew everything I had written. She had the dates of my birth, my marriage, and the number of children I had. Everything was in her head. Not, incidentally in notes, but in her head. That was the first thing. The second thing was - and this slowly dawned on me - she had absolutely no intention of allowing me to write this television series. Her job was actually to be the gatekeeper and to make sure that the gate remained very securely fastened. And so, although she was totally friendly and pleasant and very compos mentis, she was also completely and resolutely unhelpful. 

NARRATOR: You have to feel for Anthony. He goes into a meeting expecting to have the upper hand and the rug’s pulled from under his feet by a 98-year-old. Joan was formidable.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ: So we talked for about an hour and then I took her out for lunch. And it really was like going out for lunch with a sort of aged aunt - although quite a menacing one, now I think about it. And we had a very nice lunch. She had a glass of wine with it and we chatted about Foyle’s War and about my work on TV and at the end of the lunch she said to me, “It isn’t going to happen. I’m not going to help you.” And I sort of accepted that but she said with a little smile, “But I have a little present for you.” And she took out this book which, incidentally, is now very, very hard to find. I mean, the book has a value quite beyond its sentimental value to me. If you wanted to get a copy of it, I noticed this morning - trying to see if I could get another copy on the Internet - you’re going to have to pay £600 or £700 pounds to get a copy of it, but that book and that meeting is so much in my mind... And it really was a very formative moment for me because, having written Foyle for so long, and having been such a huge admirer of the Special Operations Executive, to this day I would still like to write this series. This was my one moment where I actually met one of them and this book is a wonderful souvenir of just that.

NARRATOR: Joan Bright Astley may have passed away soon after their meeting, taking so many of the secrets of the Special Operations Executive with her, but the encounter lives on in the memory of Anthony Horowitz and in the precious pages that she pressed into his hands. I’m Alice Loxton. More clandestine secrets await in the next episode of A History of the World in Spy Objects from SPYSCAPE Studios. If you like this podcast, please give it a five-star rating, or leave a review. Ratings and reviews help other people discover the series and help us bring you more episodes like this one. Or why not forward the podcast to a friend? And thank you for listening!

Guest Bio

Anthony John Horowitz CBE is an English novelist and screenwriter specializing in mystery and suspense. He is best known for his television work including the series Foyle's War and his acclaimed young adult fiction including the Alex Rider series.

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