John Alexander Symonds

ďI'd say: Ďjoin the KGB and see the worldí - first class. I went to all over the world on these jobs and I had a marvellous time. I stayed in the best hotels, I visited all the best beaches, I've had access to beautiful women, unlimited food, champagne, caviar whatever you like and I had a wonderful time. That was my KGB experience. I don't regret a minute of it ...Ē


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Jon Ronson on Spying

John Alexander Symonds
Codename SKOT

The writer and documentary maker Jon Ronson interviewed me for his BBC Radio 4 programme Jon Ronson on Spying. The programme was broadcast on 3 May 2011. You can listen to the part of the programme about me by downloading the MP3 file by clicking on this link (11.8 MB zipped).


Below is a transcript of my interview.


Jon Ronson: 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!

John Symonds: 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 liked fighting.

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 with them.

Jon Ronson: Did you ever hurt anyone?

John Symonds: Yes, I did

Jon Ronson: Did you feel sort of bad about it?

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 "the bully"?

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 badly.

Jon 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.

John 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 ship down.

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 on there.

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 them nicely.

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 up?

John Symonds: Well, I had to use my charm, and meet them casually somewhere.

Jon Ronson: You do have a kind of twinkle-eyed charm.

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 damages.

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 photographed.

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 of it?

John 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 disgraced.

Jon Ronson: So what do you think when you look back on that now?

John Symonds: Iím very ashamed of it.

Jon 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 amount of?

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 cases.

Jon 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 very often.

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 way?

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 "romeo spy", using seduction and romance to recruit or obtain classified information from a series of female officers.

John Symonds: This was the best hotel in Delhi

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.


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