What kind of person do you have to be [to make a good spy]? Iím in Folkestone, on my way to meet John Symonds, who is now in his seventies and
trying to tell people about his spying days. It looks like a sort of
sea-side-dy retirement block. Iíll take off my sunglasses; I donít want him
to think that the KGB are back. Hello?
John Symonds: Hello there.
Jon Ronson: John!
Yeah. Hi, come in.
Jon Ronson: When you were a child, did you want to have
a life of adventure and intrigue?
John Symonds: Well, yes, I think so.
I was a very adventurous child, and I was often in trouble for that, and I
Jon Ronson: Thatís playground fighting?
John Symonds: Playground fighting,
and I was always in trouble because I became a sort of a gang leader. I set
up my own gang of small ruffians, and we used to chase other gangs and fight
Jon Ronson: Did you ever hurt anyone?
John Symonds: Yes, I did
Jon Ronson: Did you feel sort of bad
John Symonds: No, because what happened was, I was horribly bullied, and I
said to my father, you know, I donít want to go to school because this other
boy keeps hitting me, and twisting my arm, and poking me, and so what he
did, he showed me all the weak points of another small boy. You donít hit
him on the head; you hit him in the throat. Yeah? You donít kick him on the
shin; you kick him in the balls. So I went to school and sorted this boy
out, and it was a good feeling. I can still enjoy that feeling now. And then
I started going through the whole school.
Jon Ronson: But did you then become
John Symonds: Yeah, but not of innocent little children, I always went for a
bully. I loaded my school bag with a huge heavy solid oak pencil box, and as
he came past I took it out of my satchel, and bonk! And he was injured quite
Ronson: And how did that feel?
John Symonds: Good. Yeah. Good.
Jon Ronson: John grew up, left
school and became a Police officer in the Flying Squad. But then one day, in
the 1970s, he was accused of corruption. The newspapers said he took bribes
from gangsters like Charlie Richardson. John denied it, and he still does.
Symonds: I read in the paper one day that I was corrupt and Iíd been
demanding money off this poor little criminal -
completely untrue. I knew I
was fitted up and so I went abroad, and I thought well Iíll bring the whole
Jon Ronson: So John says he was bitter. He went to Morocco, and planned to
write a book about Police corruption in London in the 1970s. But he never
did wrote the book, instead he got involved with a bunch of shady former
British soldiers, and then one day he got chatting to a friend of one of
them who said he was a recruiter for the KGB. This could be an even better
way of getting back at the UK, John thought.
John Symonds: You donít just walk
into the KGB. It is a long sort of process, and they check up on everything.
How many children I had, and where were they now, and my own weaknesses.
Jon Ronson: In the midst of his KGB
try-out phase, he was in a bar chatting up a woman whose husband happened to
be high up in the West German Government. John told his KGB handler, whose
name was Nick, and he replied that maybe John could try to get some secrets
out of her. So you had to seduce her?
John Symonds: Yeah. They told me to
take her Berlin and gave me a hotel to stay in, which was obviously
completely rigged up as a sort of honey-trap nest, and of course we had some
mad passionate love, and everything went onto film and every word spoken was
Jon Ronson: Do you feel a bit embarrassed about that, or do you feel like you
have probably put on a good show and it was all OK
John Symonds: No, it was quite funny
in a way because I was always potent, high sex drive, but low in competence.
Jon Ronson: Right.
John Symonds: Because obviously I
wasnít bothering about her, apparently everybody was laughing
Jon Ronson: At KGB headquarters?
John Symonds: Yeah. So then they can
see if Iím going to be a ďromeo spyĒ I need to be taught.
Jon Ronson: Yes
John Symonds: Being a ďromeo spyĒ is
not the sex. Itís getting into the confidence, itís being gentle, treating
Jon Ronson: How long did these lessons go on for?
John Symonds: Well weeks. During the
day I was being taught secret writing, avoiding being followed, and stuff
like that. And then I went back to my room and there was this girl waiting
for me. In my room.
Jon Ronson: Giving you sex lessons?
John Symonds: Yeah. Just pure sexual
teaching. I was astonished, because I thought I was a man of the world, but
I was a babe in arms.
Jon Ronson: John was declared ďreadyĒ he says, and he
was sent out by the KGB to seduce women.
John Symonds: In nearly every case
they were from embassies. I went to most of the countries. The whole lot
really. Never Britain, but British girls in British embassies.
Jon Ronson: How did you chat them
Symonds: Well, I had to use my charm, and meet them casually somewhere.
Jon Ronson: You do have a kind of
John Symonds: Yeah, that was useful then.
Jon Ronson: Did you have kind of
chat up lines that always worked?
John Symonds: No, I made
friends with them. Decent manners as well. When they talk you listen
carefully. You remember what they were saying, and when you reply itís
relevant and to the point.
Jon Ronson: But then, once youíve got what you wanted
out of the women, you would just leave and go onto the next one.
John Symonds: Yes.
Jon Ronson: For John, being
inquisitive wasnít important at all, what was was being ruthless. He was
filled with ruthlessness and a righteous indignation; the need for revenge.
John didnít believe in anything bigger than himself, like spies are supposed
to, but he did believe very much in himself. So how many women did you have
sex with on behalf of the KGB?
John Symonds: I would say many, dozens. Ninety percent
of the women were as hard as nuts. Youíre working in an embassy, you know
sex running wild there, and in fact it got too much in the end. Theyíd burnt
me out. Thatís why I left them in the end.
Jon Ronson: Burnt you out, how so?
John Symonds: Well, because when they
found me I was a very virile young man, although I didnít realise just how
virile I was. Then they exploited me and my body. In other words they used
me as a prostitute, in a way. And it meant that in my forties I started, you
know, not getting erections to order.
Jon Ronson: You gave your erections
to the KGB?
John Symonds: Yeah, and now I want to sue them for
Jon Ronson: You want some erections back?
John Symonds: Yeah.
Jon Ronson: Were the women ever
blackmailed by the KGB after you gave them information?
John Symonds: Yes, some of them
were, yeah, which was sad. Some of the women werenít anything to do with
diplomacy, diplomatic corps, whatever, and there was one that Iím still a bit
sorry about - a Chinese girl - a lovely, lovely little Chinese girl, and she
was on holiday in Singapore. She was going on a tour bus every day, and I
ended up sitting next to her and making friends with her, and she was tiny
like a little porcelain statuette. And I was really fond of her, and thatís
good if you can make yourself fond of somebody, because it shows in your
manner, your attitude, your face, your eyes, everything. Anyway, I took her
out, complemented her, kept looking at her adoringly and what not. We slept
together, it was in a special room, and I knew that everything was being
Jon Ronson: You said that you felt sorry for her?
John Symonds: Sorry for her, yes,
because later on I found out, she was the daughter or only child of a hugely
rich Taiwanese business man, who had massive factories and were engaged in
making all sorts of secret stuff for the Americans.
Jon Ronson: And what happened to
her, did they go to her with the film?
John Symonds: No, they went to the
father with the film.
Jon Ronson: And do you know what happened as a result
Symonds: Yeah, he started handing over the American secrets. It was a huge
success. The threat to him was: ďhelp us with the plans for this latest
whatever it is, radar or whatever, or the meetings will be published and it
will go out", and thatís his life ruined and her life and the family
Jon Ronson: So what do you think when you look back on that now?
John Symonds: Iím very ashamed of
Ronson: Genuinely so?
John Symonds: Well, I didnít know what was going to
happen, did I? Broke her fatherís heart didnít it. And she was beautiful and
lovely, and she fell in love with me.
Jon Ronson: There will be some women
listening to this
John Symonds: Of course, yes.
Jon Ronson: Who will be furious
John Symonds: But youíll be
surprised. You can play that to women, yes, and you will be shocked. They
might throw something at me. No, there will be a lot of women wanting
instruction from me, or something like that.
Jon Ronson: Even though you sound so
terribly misogynist and callous and ruthless?
John Symonds: Yeah, yeah.
Jon Ronson: What do you think the
KGB saw in you that they thought that you would make a good ďromeo spyĒ? Do
you think you are quite good at being manipulative?
John Symonds: Yes, always have been.
Like you are manipulating me now.
Jon Ronson: Iím just asking you
questions. And things like empathy and remorse - you donít feel a huge
John Symonds: Shows you what a crank I am. The only
things I have remorse about are my dogs, a series of dogs who have all died,
because they gave me unconditional love their whole lives. And sometimes of
a night I feel sad about such and such a dog which probably died 20 years
ago. A scruffy little mongrel, you know, but theyíre the only creatures that
have got through to me like that. People Iíve harmed seriously or destroyed
- pooh. But I do feel sorry about that Chinese girl, one, and a few other
Ronson: In the end John says: he had enough, he came back to London and
turned himself in.
John Symonds: I didnít want to go to my grave, which
Iím apparently going to now anyway, on the record as a corrupt officer, who
was caught and fled the country.
Jon Ronson: But the British
authorities didnít prosecute, they sent John to jail for a year for the
original corruption charges. But when it came to the KGB honey-trap stuff
they said he was a fantasist, and that he had made the whole thing up. John
says that was their way of discrediting him, and they needed to discredit
him because he had too many secrets about corruption in the Home Office, and
so on. One person who does believe him is his wife Nelly.
Nelly Symonds: I have very mixed
feelings, and I prefer not to think about it. When I think I become sad.
Jon Ronson: Do you ever think about
the feelings of the other women?
Nelly Symonds: I think that one
thing which is missing - he has to offer an apology to all these women.
Jon Ronson: Maybe heís the sort of
person who just doesnít feel remorse?
Nelly Symonds: I donít know? He
must. I do for very small things.
Jon Ronson: Does he? Do you see him
feeling remorse about small things?
Nelly Symonds: I donít know. Not
Jon Ronson: And has he been a good husband, these last
- how many years - 20 years?
Nelly Symonds: Well, 10 years now. Interesting?
Jon Ronson: In what
Nelly Symonds: Life is always interesting with John. He has
a very nice sense of humour, and there is never a boring moment with him.
Jon Ronson: So more
like a roller coaster than a roundabout?
Nelly Symonds: Yeah
Jon Ronson: After I
left John, I had the creeping sense that maybe he was a fantasist. Maybe he
had made the whole story up? So I looked him up in the Mitrokhin Archive.
Vasili Mitrokhin was for 30 years an archivist working within the KGB. His
files have become the worldís most detailed and trustworthy record of KGB
life. Mitrokhin writes that a John Symonds spent 8 years as a
using seduction and romance to recruit or obtain classified information from
a series of female officers.
John Symonds: This was the best hotel
Jon Ronson: So thatís you being a spy?
John Symonds: Yeah,
I had a fabulous time. Can you imagine a "romeo spy" being sent all around the
world, to all these places with unlimited expense accounts. It was the best
time of my life.