Alan Judd reviews Paddy Hayes's biography of 'Queen of Spies', the remarkable Daphne Park. In 1933, the eleven year old was plucked from poverty in Africa to live with her grand-aunts in London; seven years later she had won two scholarships to Oxford.

DaphneQueen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain's Cold War Spy Master, by Paddy Hayes, Duckwork, £20, 328 pages

By Alan Judd

Daphne Park, Baroness Park of Monmouth, served during the Second World War with SOE and afterwards with MI6 before becoming principal of Somerville College.  She spent her early childhood in what was then Southern Tanganyika, 500 hundred miles south-west of Dar-es-Salaam (not north, as stated in the blurb).  Like many white settlers then and for decades afterwards, she was brought up under a tin roof without electricity or running water. She was educated via a correspondence course run by the Anglican church until, in 1932, aged 11, she was sent to school in London, living with two great aunts.  Her father and brother died and she did not see her mother again until after the Second World War.

She won two scholarships to Oxford, gaining 100% in her history entrance paper, and in 1939 went up to Somerville to read French.  She became secretary and president of the OU Liberal Club and was only the second woman to address the Union – ‘primarily due to the wartime shortage of men’, she later said.  In 1943 she contrived to get into SOE, the Special Operations Executive charged with sabotage in occupied Europe.  When the war finished SOE was disbanded and she tried to join MI6.  She was rejected but refused to take no for an answer (a theme of her life) and was later accepted.  During the next thirty years she served in Moscow, the Congo, Hanoi and Zambia, becoming the most senior woman in MI6 and first ever female controller, which in her case meant she was in charge of all operations and liaisons in North and South America and the Caribbean.  On leaving she became principal of Somerville 1980-89.  Thus nearly a quarter of her working life was spent in Oxford, although that period occupies only five pages of this 328 page account.  The greater part is an attempt to describe her career in MI6.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to write about people in the intelligence agencies without recourse to unverifiable gossip, faulty or partial recollection, received opinion or speculation – she/he/could have/must have/would have/might have/known/done/seen/been aware of whatever.  The problem is that the meat of their careers, the daily realities, were recorded on paper and without access to files it is not possible to achieve informed judgements about whether, for instance, someone was a good agent recruiter or runner (not always the same thing), an acute intelligence analyst, a watchful operational security officer or a first-class administrator who helped others perform better.  In Daphne’s case you would need to read the letters, telegrams and contact notes she wrote about cases she was involved in, to read the intelligence she produced and the comments made on it by the Whitehall assessment machinery and to read the annual confidential reports written on her by her bosses (including those comments – which she would not have seen – by her boss’s boss).  Ditto reports she wrote on those who worked for her.  On top of this you would also need to have been a fly on the wall in numerous (often un-minuted) meetings during which casework and wider issues were decided. said, Paddy Hayes probably does as good a job as can be done by drawing on the National Archive, on Daphne’s public pronouncements (exceptionally, she was licensed by MI6 to talk about aspects of her career), on memorial service addresses, on the recollections of friends and a few named colleagues and on the opinions of un-named former MI6 officers.  The result is a book that tells you more about life in rat-infested Hanoi or Cold War Moscow or the disintegrating Belgian Congo than what Daphne actually did in those places, which is largely speculation.  However, the many anecdotes – verifiable or not – create an accurate impression of personality which Hayes does well to convey.  The description of her disgrace and demotion in SOE for complaining about her incompetent superior, a man called Spooner, is memorable and typical:  She was paraded in front of all the instructing staff, where [Spooner] treated her to a diatribe of abuse….During the torrent of invective Park, who had been standing, decided to sit down.  When roared at by the RSM to stand to attention, she refused on the grounds that the manner in which Spooner was addressing her was inappropriate for an officer and she would remain seated until he did.  She was subsequently reinstated and promoted and her superior removed.

This episode is of a piece with others in her career when she demonstrated courage, bloody-mindedness, integrity and essential rightness, whether it was smuggling people over borders in the boot of her car or standing up to (and winning over) ambassadors, ministers and the occasional head of state.  Asked what she wished for her Somerville girls, she unconsciously described herself: ‘the qualities I would wish them (which I am not sure I can give) are courage, stamina, intellectual curiosity, the desire for excellence, an adventurous spirit and above all an abiding belief in the decency of human beings.’  She was trenchant in her opinions: John le Carre I would gladly hang, draw and quarter.  He dares to say that it is a world of cold betrayal.  It’s not.  It’s a world of trust.  You can’t run an agent without trust on both sides.  She had equally little time for women who complained of glass ceilings: The only time I experienced sexism is when an African chief gave me a special gift of a hoe, instead of a spear. 

A Somerville dining room in the early twentieth century 

Daphne’s years at Somerville were difficult at first, partly because she was caring for her ailing mother but also because college culture was as great a shock to her as she to it.  She was beloved by students throughout but the dons were initially a different matter.  ‘They live in a thermos flask.  They can behave just like MPs….If confronted by a piece of paper their instinct is to analyse it, to take it to bits, but not to be constructive about it.  They want to look at so many sides of the question that it is sometimes difficult to get decisions.  Here as head of house you have total responsibility and absolutely no power.’  But both sides adjusted and by the time she left Daphne had radically improved the college finances and restored its self-belief and sense of purpose to the extent that the college commissioned a second portrait of her.

Almost everyone who worked with Daphne admired and liked her.  The professional verdict of one who knew her well (not quoted in this book) is that ‘her forte was intelligence diplomacy at which she was very good and also her ability to inspire younger members of the office.’  Wherever she went, whatever she did, she made a contribution that made a difference.         

Alan Judd (Keble, 1972) is the authorised biographer of Mansfield Cumming, founder of MI6, and served in the Foreign Office with Daphne Park. In Oxford he was known as Alan Petty. His novels include an espionage trilogy (shortly to become a tetralogy). His latest, ‘Out of the Blue’, is a Simon&Schuster ebook.     

Read more at Oxford Today:

A Short Literary History of Vampires

Images © Oxford University Images, Duckworth