The Spy Who Came In From the Co-Op: Interview with Ely Author

PUBLISHED: 12:22 12 March 2009 | UPDATED: 10:46 04 May 2010

ELY-based author David Burke spent Sunday lunches with a frail lady in her 80s. But these were no Age Concern visits - the lady he was sharing fish fingers with none other than Melita Lettie Norwood, a Cold War spy who hid her true profession until she

ELY-based author David Burke spent Sunday lunches with a frail lady in her 80s.

But these were no Age Concern visits - the lady he was sharing fish fingers with none other than Melita "Lettie" Norwood, a Cold War spy who hid her true profession until she was 87 and was one of the most significant players in passing nuclear secrets to the Russians.

When Burke visited her innocuously suburban South London home there were a few clues - Norwood's insistence on sharing tea out of Che Guevara mugs, her admission that members of her family had spied for the Russians and the fact she always shopped at the local co-operative- but Burke was oblivious to the fact that this arthritic, principled lady had been a spy of the greatest significance.

When Mr Burke was first introduced to Norwood by a Brixton librarian, he met nothing more than a lively, staunch Communist with an interesting father.

Having put the final touches to a doctoral thesis on Lenin's use of Russian émigré spies in Britain, Burke decided to co-author a book with Melita Norwood about the exploits of her father, who she revered.

Alexander Sirnis had been the first person to translate Tolstoy's diaries into English and was a close associate of Theodore Rosstein - Lenin's first British resident spy.

Sirnis died of TB when Norwood was six, but her mother Gertrude - who also passed information to Moscow - ensured her daughter fully adopted her father's Communist idealism.

Burke was fascinated by Norwood's recollections of her father and continued to visit his eccentric friend regularly.

Then, in 1999, a bombshell struck. Travelling down from his teaching job in Leeds to visit Norwood on the bus, a familiar face stared out at Burke from the front page of The Times, under the huge headline "Spy Who Came in from the Co-op" [a reference to Norwood's insistence on only shopping at stores with a socialist ethos].

"I thought Christ, I don't believe this," Burke said. "I was so shocked I forgot to get back on the bus, and when I got down to London, I rang her straight away."

But by that time, fearful of press intrusion, Norwood's calls were being screened by friends. Eventually, once she realised it was Burke, she came to the phone and said: "I've been a very naughty girl. Come and see me next week."

He duly did, and from that time on, she slowly unravelled her past exclusively to her friend. Burke's recently published book, The Spy Who Came in From the Co-op, was constructed from notes taken during these talks.

Outside the confines of her suburban idyll, the New Labour government tried to play down Norwood's significance - painting her a frail old granny. The left leaning magazine New Statesman ran a story headlined "A spy? Give her a medal" but Tory politicians, led by the vociferous Ann Widdecombe - called for Norwood to be prosecuted. She eventually died a natural death in 2005, aged 93, after Home Secretary Jack Straw deemed a prosecution "inappropriate."

As a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association from 1941, Norwood took minutes and technical notes on the developing atomic bomb project, then passed them straight to the Russians, often via a series of "dead-drops" at Bexleyheath station, close to her home. (This earnt Norwood the nickname 'The Bolshevik of Bexleyheath.')

Her daughter, who had no idea her mother was a spy until the press came knocking, asked Burke not to publish the book during Norwood's lifetime. True to his word, Burke published this year.

The resulting book is worth the wait. Trawling through the minutes of British Non-Ferrous Research Association Metals meetings from 1941 to 1943 can't have been a riot, yet Burke manages to pull out quirky anecdotes that focus on people rather than procedures. It's easy to think that adding the word Russian, spy and granny together in a book will automatically be a pacy read - but it is Burke's admiration for Melita Norwood's ideology, unstinting loyalty to her cause, and her insistence that fish fingers and broccoli constitutes a Sunday lunch, which makes the book come alive. By visiting Melita Norwood, Burke truly was in the right place at the right time.

The security services had primed newspaper journalists ready to present Norwood in a role they had pre-determined for her, but Burke, rather than exploiting the memory of his late friend, has produced a book that she would be proud of.

Burke's next book is on the seemingly innocent suburb of the Lawn Flats in Hampstead - where in a modernist designed complex, Agatha Christie, Russian spies and Bauhaus artists mingled in a custom-built underground club. You couldn't make it up.

It is a great shame that the book has only been reviewed by the Communist outfit The Morning Star, up until this point. The Spy Who Came in From the Co-op is a fascinating read from start to finish - for those who lived through the Cold War, and everyone who feels their suburban lifestyle needs an injection of excitement - and certainly not just those on the far left.

INFO: The Spy Who Came in from the Co-op by David Burke is available in hardback from Topping and Company Booksellers, High Street, Ely.

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