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Posted by Timothy J. Bazzett on 8/15/2008
I read this book immediately after finishing another book which gave a very human and detailed description of the Joint Services School for Linguists, from its beginning to end, spanning the decade of the fifties. That book was called SECRET CLASSROOMS, written by Geoffrey Elliott and Harold Shukman, two other distinguished alumni of that so-called "school for spies." I found that book especially fascinating and an excellent primer on the JSSL. Woodhead's book, MY LIFE AS A SPY, was a much more personal kind of record, a story of a young British lad and how he became a man. Although Woodhead is several years my senior, the experiences all rang so very true, from his early years in which his parents' music shop sparked his interest in music, particularly American west coast jazz. But there's a bit of everything here - the early days of TV, the birth of rock and roll, the austerity of post-war England, and, of course, that dreaded rite of male passage - National Service. After enduring the initial terrors of basic training with its screaming in-your-face drill sergeants and other odd characters you meet in that oh-so leveling experience of military service (and, being an introspective only child, basic was probably a bit more of a shock to young Leslie than it might have been to someone from a large family - like me, for instance), our hero got lucky. He was picked for JSSL. Although Woodhead did reasonably well in his Russian studies at Crail, on a remote Scottish coast, he was restless and impatient with it all. He already had a place waiting at Cambridge, and he wanted his service time to be over. Later, he was often bored and unhappy in his "spy" work at RAF Gatow in Berlin, copying mostly routine and formulaic air-to-ground traffic. He tells of his first cautious trips into the intrigue-ridden divided city, including a depressing bus tour into the eastern Communist sector. Then, gradually gaining confidence, he ventures further and deeper into the city - often to music venues, to hear artists like the Modern Jazz Quartet or the Jazz West Coast Show. Even so, Woodhead chafes at what seems an endless chain of boring days, and jumps at the chance to finally take leave with a friend to Berchtesgaden and Salzburg where, "for a few days, the Cold War faded." But finally his "sentence" is completed. Back in England he is discharged -
"I knew with a rush that I had never been as happy in my life. I had the summer ahead of me, I was going to Cambridge, I would learn to drive, I would sleep late, I would see how things stood with the girlfriend ... I was free."
All those same feelings came rushing back to me when I read those words and recalled my own release from the army, back in the summer of '65. Woodhead's descriptions of military life are spot on. Equally intriguing is the last third of his book, when, nearly fifty years later, he retraces his path in many of those same places and reflects on his life and his time there and learns a bit more of "the big picture" of intelligence that was denied to him so many years ago. If you did your time in the service, particularly in military intelligence, then you will find much to relate to here. This is simply one heck of a good story from a JSSL graduate who went on to become a much acclaimed and award-winning documentary film-maker. Thanks, Leslie. - Tim Bazzett, author of Soldier Boy: At Play in the ASA
Posted by Midwest Book Review on 11/6/2006
Written by RAF veteran and former Cold War-era spy Leslie Woodhead, My Life as a Spy is a life story of the author's coming of age in trying times. Summoned to serve Her Majesty at the tender age of eighteen, Woodhead was trained in the Joint Services School for Linguistics on the East coast of Scotland, taught a course of total immersion in Russian, and posted to an ex-Luftwaffe base in Berlin, which still bore the marks of World War II. Serving as a clandestine informer amid the ruins of a city immersed in paranoia, Woodhead's true story tells of darkness, deception, imprisonment, brutal interrogation, and the harsh reality of daily life as a spy that was nothing like the fantasies of his boyhood. Highly recommended.