Have you ever been oâ€™er the hills and far away? I have. I flew oâ€™er the hills in a spy plane. And yes, before you ask, I was a spy. The plane flew very low oâ€™er the hills, not to avoid radar, for this was before radar, in the early days of aviation. The pilot flew very low oâ€™er the hills so I could spy on them more clearly, peering over the side of the plane, my gummy eye fitted with a monocle the better to aid my vision. My scarf flapped in the wind. Those were the days.
Beyond the hills, far away, was the airfield where we came into land. A person with a couple of flags guided us down. Inside the hangar, I made my report to Control. I never did know Controlâ€™s name, nor what he or she looked like. There was a desk in a dark corner of the hangar, and Control sat behind it, engulfed in shadow, smoking. I had to remove my monocle before sitting down. Then I spilled the beans.
My report was simply a list of all the things I had seen while flying low oâ€™er the hills. Farmyards, barns, cows, duckponds, charcoal burners, goats, bracken, tarns, lime pits, those sorts of things. I tried to arrange my list in alphabetical order for Control, off the top of my head. I had no idea what was going to be done with all this information. I wasnâ€™t even clear which side I was working for, but that is the nature of the trade. We creep about in shadows, literally and metaphorically.
While I was giving my report, the pilot went off to the canteen for a cup of tea. In the early days of aviation every airfield had a canteen with a big tea urn. This may have been a Soviet influence, for these were also the early days of the Bolshevik revolution. I did not go to this particular canteen myself, so I canâ€™t say if the tea urn resembled a Russian samovar. I could have asked the pilot, later, had the question occurred to me at the time. I donâ€™t know if airfield canteens still have big tea urns, because it is a world I have left behind. My flying and spying days are long past.
I consider myself lucky that I did not end up shot in a ditch. That happened to quite a number of my fellow spies. Well, actually, I was shot while huddled in a ditch, but I was only wounded, and they didnâ€™t finish me off, whoever â€œtheyâ€ were. They may have been the enemy, or they may have been on the same side as me. The ditch in which I was shot happened to be at the edge of the airfield where I landed after flying oâ€™er the hills and far away, so it was a very, very long walk home, with blood pouring out of my wounded head, across the hills instead of oâ€™er them. I passed by all those farmyards and barns and cows and duckponds and charcoal burners and goats and bracken and tarns and lime pits and whatever else on foot this time. At ground level everything looked different, but that may have been because I no longer had my monocle. One of the bullets had smashed it to smithereens, and I left each smithereen where it lay scattered in the ditch.
That is my story of going oâ€™er the hills and far away, and I returned to tell it. Not everyone does.
Dear Mr Frank Key
Your stories are funny and make me and my best friend laugh.
I want to be a spy when I am older, and Theo wants to be an inventor.
From Michael, age nearly 10.
Michael : Are you planning to spy for SMERSH, or for some other shadowy organisation?
Dear Frank Key,
I would like to be James Bond.
I also think he is a spy in the golden compass, which is my favourite film.
Daddy agrees but Mummy doesn’t wasnt me to kill anyone and thinks I should have a cinema insead.
Michael : I think Mummy is probably correct. Did you know that the real James Bond was an ornithologist? Perhaps you could use your spying binoculars to spot peewits, starlings, and cassowaries.
Dear Mr Key,
No I didn’t.
PS We like the grizzled old fool