When “Skyfall” – the latest James Bond movie – recaptured the number one spot in the North American Box Office roles this past week, it became the first film ever to open at number one for two weeks, fall out of that top spot (for the evil that is “Twilight”), only to return to number one again.
Along the way, it also became the highest grossing film ever in the UK. So, even in this era of ultra-hyped “Bourne” movies, James Bond is still king.
That’s making everything Bond and spies hot in London, even in the midst of early winter and the Christmas season.
Mr. X, the mysterious expert leading the the Intelligence Trail tour through Central London, is an expert in espionage history. Tourists visiting the UK can join Mr. X (… Yes, I have his real name. But what fun would that be? …) on a visit to a couple hours of history in the steps of very real cloak and dagger heroes and villains.
Stretching from Trafalgar Square and Pall Mall, through St. James’s Park toward Whitehall, the tour concerns itself with the world of Cold War surveillance and double agents. While visiting the various stately buildings studding the tour, Gray shines a light on the ugly escapades of traitors like Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross (The Cambridge Spy Ring).
As Gray points out the various Gentlemen’s Clubs abutting White Hall – as in London’s classic leather and mahogany-appointed centers of cigars and brandy, and not the sleazy hustle pits of Las Vegas – he especially lamented the dark deeds of George Blake, easily MI6’s deadliest traitor.
A devout Communist and a double agent for the KGB, Blake single-handedly betrayed more than 400 British agents during the Cold War. After being ratted out by a Polish defector, Blake was convicted of treason – only to escape prison and flee to Moscow. Once back in the USSR, he divorced his wife and abandoned his children in the UK to start a new life. He lives there comfortably under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin to this very day.
A highlight of the Intelligence Trail is a visit to the St. Ermin’s Hotel – elegant and recently remodeled accommodations across the street from New Scotland Yard and a short walk to Westminster Abby and the Houses of Parliament. While it’s now a bright, welcoming and modern home away for savvy tourists, the St Ermin’s location smack in the middle of the St. James’s Park, Whitehall, Parliament Square neighborhood made it a popular meeting point and drop spot for London spies.
But it’s role in World War II is the hotel’s most stunning claim to fame. From 1938 and well into the war, the SIS Department D (for Destruction) occupied the top floors of the hotel. While guests came and went below, British demolition agents would slink up to the penthouse levels to plan their next bash against the Bosh.
Unbeknownst to the guests below, Department D kept the tools of its trade in the same building – meaning a goodly amount of explosives slept just a few floors above weary visitors every night.
As Gray winds his tour down, he manages to tip a black hat to Ian Fleming – pointing out the former offices of Naval Intelligence where 007’s creator learned the finer points of the spy game.
It’s Fleming that offers another way into the tactile realms of British spying. An easy stroll through nearby Mayfair allows Bond fans a chance to walk in Fleming’s footsteps – exploring how the man lived as he worked for British Intelligence and while he created the most iconic spy in fiction.
The son of a Parliamentary Minister and the grandson of a Scottish financier, Fleming grew up in a wealthy London family. Educated in prestigious military schools and at Eton College, Fleming worked as a journalist and junior editor for Reuters, stationed in Moscow.
Prior to World War II, Fleming returned to London to work as a stockbroker. But, with the global conflict looming, Read Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, recruited Fleming to serve as his personal assistant. During his intelligence carer, Fleming would rise to the rank of Commander (a rank he’d share with Bond), planning operations for an elite team of British commandos, the 30th Assault Unit.
Though his desk-bound duties laid the foundation for his espionage fiction, they kept Fleming out of the field. When he turned to writing after the war, he poured that frustration into his fictional alter ego — making sure Bond was always in on the action. Since Bond was essentially Fleming, 007’s tastes in clothes, alcohol and other accouterments are rooted in very real establishments still in business today.
And that brings us back around to James Bond and his 50th anniversary in “Skyfall.” James Bond will return to screens in a couple years, and the Intelligence Trail will be running along the London streets as long as we love to hear tales of spies.