Tinker, tailor, punter, spy: the everyday deceptions of worklife

At a very young age, when I realised my dream of becoming a steam train driver was unrealisable, I turned my attention to becoming a spy. I wanted to be a spy when the Cold War was still going. I wanted to be a spy after the Cold War ended. I still want to be a spy now.

Maybe I am a spy and I send coded messages in this column matchstick Santiago violet.

But even if I’m not, I still get to engage in the basics of espionage daily. We all do. I’m not just saying that; none other than John le Carré believes it to be true.

He recently gave an interview in which he talked about the “universality of the secret world”, a world which he thinks of as a “theatre” or “microcosm” of human behaviour.

“[A]ll of us,” he said, “deceive ourselves and other people in our daily lives in small, harmless ways… sometimes harmful ways. We deceive our bosses…

“Everybody lives in some kind of condition of secrecy, out of politeness to a great extent. If you’re living with somebody, you swallow your emotions and you control yourself and you watch yourself…”

It’s incontrovertibly true. Workaday life is just spying for punters, layabouts and battlers. There may not be any ricin-tipped umbrellas or scarred men waiting with knives around dark corners, but there’s intrigue and two-facedness and entrapment and prevarication.

We organise shadowy rendezvous. We whisper down phones in stairwells. We might even wear a fedora if that works for us. We relish our lives as only-a-bit-secret secret agents.

[NAME REDACTED] blogs at He’s a freelance writer at

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