- Security TWENTY
- Women in Security Awards
Author Ian Withers
ISBN No 9781 914078 81 1 (hardback)
Review date 03/07/2022
No of pages 356
Publisher URL https://www.amazon.co.uk/Private-Eye-Secret-Spy-Controversial-ebook/dp/B091CXKW7M
Year of publication 24/11/2021
Private Eye, Secret Spy: My Life as Britain’s most controversial PI, by Ian D Withers (2021).
This memoir by the long-time private investigator and founder of the association WAPI, Ian Withers, I bought for a fiver in a second-hand bookshop in Belfast city centre, while I was in the city for the ST21 event. In fact, as it was a signed copy, it could be a case for Ian to find out how the book came to be there.
While I bought it automatically, I have to confess that I put off and put off reading it. On glancing at the beginning, it seemed so unpromising. It’s self-published, it was originally a 250,000 word manuscript. In the prologue, Ian is arrested one morning in 2018 (he’s by then in his late 70s) ‘on suspicion of conspiracy to murder Gerard Hoarau in November 1985 in London’. Police go over his house and garden for clues. As Ian explains: “I’d been national security adviser to the Republic of Seychelles …. Hoarau led a hard-core dissident faction. It hired mercenaries over and over to oust the left-wing government and seize power. My job was to derail his efforts and I did so. Over and over.”
Hoarau got ‘raked with automatic gunfire on his doorstep’ of his lodgings in Edgware. As if that is not off-putting enough, on page 8 Ian’s arrested and put in hand-cuffs in Hong Kong, in 1974; on page 71, he and his brother Stuart and employees are charged with ‘conspiring to evade the purposes of the Wireless Telegraphy Act’. Another arrest by the Met follows in 1971, and he and his brother and others are charged with having ‘conspired to effect a public mischief’. After a trial they are found guilty and sent to HM Prison Brixton. Later in 1973 they are arrested and extradited to the Republic of Ireland (page 132). Ian does have a knack for experiencing and retaining the memory of the absurdities of life (‘it was the only time I have been in police custody and been offered … some whiskey’). In the end (page 135) the case – of ‘a public mischief’ - reaches the House of Lords. The law lords duly give a verdict that there is no such offence in English law.
I had, then, my fears of anything untoward explained by Ian, although the sub-title had not helped. Ian records his ‘complete disgust at the way the Metropolitan Police irrationally drove forward this ultimately ludicrous case’. A police squad was guilty, Ian asserts, of planting evidence and committing perjury: “We complained a number of times about it all but it was a case of the Met investigating the Met so, funnily enough, nothing ever happened.”
As has been well documented, the Met in that era had its bent coppers. Ian mentions the later, 1987 ‘most disturbing murder’ of the London PI Daniel Morgan that remains unsolved and that in 2021 (after Ian’s book came out) saw publication (eventually) of a damning inquiry report. Readers of Graham Satchwell’s Rot at the Core and other books about corrupt police will know who they believe out of Ian or the police.
The only fault of this book is hardly Ian’s fault; most of the pages are given over to his starting out in the 1960s, various cases – and that harassing treatment by the police – into the 1970s, and his years from 1980 as part of the Seychelles Security Service, that state’s equivalent of the CIA or MI6. Although as the population of the Seychelles was about the same as Loughborough, the internal intelligence unit amounted to him (and agents). While nine of the book’s 41 chapters are about his time in and working for the Seychelles regime, most of the earlier, first 25 are about the years before 1980. Like so many memoirs about life and work then, even though it’s still well within living memory, it does sound like another world.
That said, if you do remember such fixtures of 1970s TV as Charlie’s Angels and the Six Million Dollar Man, you will find fascinating the chapter when Ian met Farrah Fawcett – for work reasons. If like me you see a chapter is about the Fastnet Disaster – yachts in a race were caught in a storm in 1979 – and wonder what there was to investigate, it’s not to do with work but Ian’s love of sailing (‘we were lucky to survive’).
As that may suggest, the life of a PI was good to Ian financially, even in the 1960s when he was an employee of Barry Quartermain ('BQ'). Other names may be familiar to older PIs, such as Peter Heims (I regret that I never did return the book on lie detection that Peter lent me).
Even though the 1960s and 1970s seem a far-away place – no computers, or rather no personal computers; the PI’s job was analogue, all face to face conversations, phone calls and phone books – there’s much that still rings true about the trade of private investigation. A sense of humour helps, at the time and when looking back on it all (‘hanging around outside a strip club for hours on end gets you noticed’ – page 87). From the start, working for BQ, the agency’s work was commercial – tracing debtors – and for the press (‘chasing up leads’ – page 24).
The work can be dangerous – on an early visit to the United States, which Ian likes, chasing a debt for a top-class London hotel, Ian has a gun pointed at him (‘it was hardly worth shooting me over’).
Because he is good at his work, and because PIs are in such demand – by the legal profession, businesses chasing debts, newspapers after news – Ian’s memoir has some involvement in some seriously historic affairs, such as the blackmailing of Jeremy Thorpe (page 43). A short chapter near the end is about Sir Mark Thatcher and the ‘Wonga Coup’ from the 2000s.
Having enjoyed the book so much after overcoming my unfounded doubts, what of Ian Withers the man? He was apolitical, as he says. He worked in the late 1960s for the apartheid South African regime that was going after its enemies in Britain; and for the left-wing (or at least not in thrall to the west in the pre-1990 Cold War) president of the Seychelles, the sort of man who didn’t hold elections.
Ian was, as he admits, ambitious; he understood there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and used the press and TV accordingly. They were glad to be used, because PIs are so interesting. Clients would turn to Ian’s firm, and pay well, ‘because they had heard we got results’. He admits that his firm – he broke with BQ – had a ‘mixed’ reputation, ‘of notorious, mysterious and effective’. It didn’t help, and yet at the same time it did, that (as Ian points out) there was no such thing as data protection law and PIs could routinely seek and gain personal information in ways that are shockingly easy and unlawful now.
Like PIs before and since, Ian justified any corners cut, personal data harvested, because ‘we were the guys chasing the bad guys …. We were the good guys’ (page 102). Besides, precisely because of his success (‘we’d meet clients in top-class restaurants, be joined at the table by celebrities, influencers and key journalists of the period’ – page 48), you suspect that police disliked such PIs, and tried to land them to court, because PIs were competition; police were jealous?
There’s no getting around the fact that, like the police, PIs are tasked with work that the rest of society doesn’t want to touch – shading into security work (getting squatters out of houses – page 144) and collecting debts (while Ian recalls it was best to stay calm and polite, the debtor when traced had to understand that Ian ‘could be a hard man to get rid of’ – page 27).
It’s messy, in a word, because that is the nature of some of the work that PIs choose to pick up. And Ian closes his book in that vein, by returning to the police’s re-opening of that murder case of the Seychelles dissident. Quite apart from the lack of evidence that Ian was involved; if you were in charge of spying for a president, would you arrange to shoot his enemy in public, in daylight, in London?! Police let Ian go (‘for now … but they tell me I remain under investigation’ – page 356). Ian’s solicitor asks: why arrest Ian, 33 years after? No answer.