A good story to tell is a precious thing. I wish you could give them to kids for Christmas, because a good story lasts longer than anything you can wrap up and put under a tree. A really good story will last a lifetime, whether you like it or not. I have such a story. It tends to come up when I am being interviewed to promote a TV programme I’ve made or, as has been the case recently, a book. Whoever is preparing for the interview casts around for something to ask, about anything – in their view – more interesting than the book. I imagine the production office conversation about my prospective appearance goes something like: “What, 10 minutes with him? How am I supposed to make that interesting?” It is at this point that someone, with the help of a search engine, will find a passing reference to the following story.
It was 1991. I was 24, just out of university, with a slow to heal, badly broken leg – a football injury. I didn’t have a clue what to do with my life but happened upon the idea of becoming a diplomat. Accordingly, I did the civil service entrance exams, the standard one and the fast-track test for graduates. I failed them both. And that was the end of that, until a short letter arrived in the post informing me that there was other government work for which I might be considered. I could only assume they needed cleaners or something. The address for a response was given as the director of establishments, Ministry of Defence. OK, so the MoD needed cleaners. Whatever. I ticked the box. Beggars can’t be choosers. I had a mediocre degree, a decidedly gammy leg and I was wildly overweight having been immobile for six months at my parents’ house with my mum providing a running buffet. The director of establishments, whoever that might be, was informed of my interest.
Two weeks later, I was sitting in a bare office in a nondescript building on Tottenham Court Road in London being asked searching questions about my life by a courteous if severe woman who wore her hair in a neat bob. I still hadn’t a clue for what job I was being considered, although as this interview went into its third hour, I did start to suspect it might be white-collar work of some kind.
At about the two-and-a-half-hour mark, she brought proceedings to a close and asked me to take a seat in the waiting room. I still didn’t know what this was all about, and it was only now the thought occurred to me that I might never find out. Bewildered, I got on to my crutches, hobbled out of the room and sat there waiting for something to happen. For a good while, nothing did. I considered the sight of myself: totally out of shape, barely able to get about, and shambolically dressed: tracksuit bottoms were all I could get over the plaster cast encasing my leg. Who on earth would hire me to do anything? It was all so strange that I wouldn’t have been greatly surprised if this was the last I saw or heard of her or anyone else; I would be left alone here for hours until I eventually gave up and limped away, utterly baffled.
As it was, my inquisitor did eventually emerge with a command to rejoin her. Up I got on to my crutches and made my way back into the interview room. She told me that she had decided she could now tell me for what job I was being considered. I nodded dumbly. What she said next will stay with me for ever.
“As you may have suspected, I’m not from the Ministry of Defence.”
Unsure of what the correct response to this was, I kind of nodded and shook my head at the same time; I had no idea what she was on about.
Glancing down at a file on her lap, she said: “I’m from the Security Service.”
I looked at her, dumbfounded.
Fixing her eyes on me, she said: “That’s MI5.”
While my mouth opened and closed without anything coming out of it, she handed over the file she was holding and said she would leave me alone to read it. As the door closed, I silently screamed, slapped myself on the head several times, stood up and sat down, and then tried to read the thing. It was stamped either CLASSIFIED or TOP SECRET or possibly both, just like in the films. She came back in, watched me sign it, and told me not very much about what the work entailed. She also said that whether or not it went any further, my parents were the only people to whom I could breathe a word.
It was the following day when I told them this whole story, at the conclusion of which my dad was suitably astounded, while my mum looked utterly nonplussed. It later transpired that after the bit when the woman had told me she wasn’t from the Ministry of Defence, my mum understood that she’d gone on to say not that she was from MI5, but from MFI.
Sadly, that once-ubiquitous furniture retailer is no longer with us; MI5, however, is. And it has prospered without my services. I got a note a week or so later saying they didn’t think I was suitable, which plainly was an excellent decision on their part. I recall the woman saying at one point during the interview that she sensed I had “a need for affirmation; for recognition of whatever I achieved”. And this, she thought, could be a problem. I often wonder if she has ever seen me on the TV or in print banging on about something or other and patted herself on the back. Yes, I got his number all right, she would be quite entitled to conclude.
Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist