The Literary Spy

Those of you old enough to remember the Far Eastern Economic Review in its heyday would no doubt have remembered Derek Davies, the larger than life figure behind the Travelers Tale column who was the basis of one of Le Carre’s fictional characters.

It now turns out that art was indeed imitating life. Derek Davies was, according to old time Asia Hand and writer Anthony Paul at The Malaysian Insider, actually a spook.





A Traveller’s Tale filled with intrigue by Anthony Paul

NOV 26 — The Far Eastern Economic Review, a magazine sometimes justifiably credited with breaking major regional news, missed reporting some riveting tales about itself.

A secret file held by MI5, Britain's counter-intelligence agency, that was recently released reveals that Eric Halpern, the man who founded the Hong Kong journal, had so dubious a reputation that London was highly reluctant to issue him with an entry visa to the territory.

After spending the World War II years as a Jewish refugee in Shanghai, Halpern had sought to settle in Hong Kong in 1946. But Sir Percy Sillitoe, then the newly appointed head of MI5, strongly disliked the idea.

Noting that Halpern had had close wartime dealings with the Japanese, possibly the Soviet and, briefly after the war, the United States' intelligence services, MI5's London headquarters asked the Hong Kong colonial authorities to “take some action to remove him from Hong Kong”.

Said a note from London: “He looks to us as if he is the kind of person who, as long as he remains, will be a perpetual and rather nagging security headache.”

The Review — or Feer, as it was also known — appears for the last time next month, a victim of the advertising downturn and new owner Rupert Murdoch's lack of interest in low profits. Many will miss the magazine, despite its often erratic editing and frequently turgid writing. Most readers might also be surprised to learn that at least two of its former editors had once been spies.

John Le Carre, author of espionage novels and himself as former British spy, has summarised a spy's life thus: “Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, cross and doublecross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel…” MI5's files suggest that the Review's first editor was no stranger to this sort of life. Halpern was evidently involved in espionage for Japan, Kuomintang China, the United States and possibly the Soviet Union.

But he was not alone in his spying connections among Review editors. One of his successors, Derek Davies, an Englishman who edited the magazine for 25 years, was also a refugee from espionage — in this instance, MI6, Britain's external secret intelligence service

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