Herpes, I fink it is.

A true (more or less) story of espionage and Kango hammers

Addressing her companion in a kosher south-bank accent, a women sitting opposite my partner and me on the 10.45 to New Cross Gate suddenly declared: “Very pleased wiv ‘erself, she is, my daw’er. ‘Er fancy man’s givin ‘er one of them there posh ‘an’ bags. Herpes, I fink it is. Costa mint, that much I do know.” Replying in a voice that could have brought an entire platoon to attention, her companion barked: “I dunno what they see in all this forrin’ stuff. Wassa matta wivvem?  You can buy a decent ‘an’ bag from Izzy Wotsit’s in Deppford ‘Igh for nomorannna fiver; anna lot biggeranawl.”

More accustomed to the softer tones spoken in the foothills of Elmers End, I doubt my partner would have fully understood the exchange. Which is just as well, otherwise Deptford would have been on our next shopping itinerary: she’s a sucker for large handbags.

Indeed, no handbag is too large for her: the present one came from the Screwfix catalogue. On one occasion, when she was searching in it for a house brick, I can recall her discovering in its depths a trade tin of Max Factor tile grout, three bottles of Merlot, and a Kango hammer, remarking as she did so: ”I wondered where that’d gone.”

But even a Kango hammer couldn’t match the discovery, in 1961, of the entire specification of a British nuclear submarine in the handbag of a woman arrested in Ruislip. And more incriminating still, her handbag also contained a report about the stalling speed specifications of a Borg Warner torque converter. Bedtime reading no doubt – it couldn’t have been any more boring and incomprehensible than a novel by James Joyce.

It turns out that the friendly Helen Kroger, and her book-dealing husband, Peter, were none other than the Russian-trained master spies Morris and Lona Cohen, who were an integral part of the so-called Portland Spy Ring (nothing to do with cement). The house in Cranley Drive, Ruislip, remains privately owned and shows no signs of its infamous past – although a blue plaque might be amusing. When told of the whereabouts of the submarine plans, a senior MI5 officer was heard to exclaim: “A haaandbag!!”


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