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There's nothing like a good spy story.
This summer, in the sad absence of a fresh Le Carre novel, my nose was buried in Jack Beaumont's Dark Agenda, the second ripping yarn from the former French intelligence officer.
But another espionage tale - this one fact, not fiction, and certainly much stranger - has me really intrigued.
In 2010, after he failed to turn up at a scheduled meeting, Gareth Williams, a Government Communication Headquarters analyst seconded to MI6, was found dead, naked and decomposing, inside a padlocked North Face bag in his London flat. The keys to the padlock were with him inside the bag, which was in the bathtub. No fingerprints were found on the bag, padlock or bathtub.
The speculation was immediate. Williams was either murdered by a foreign spy agency or, worse, by his own side. He was a victim of a bizarre sex game gone horribly wrong, a theory given weight by the discovery of thousands of dollars worth of women's clothes in his flat. The sex theory - went another theory - was being floated and fanned by MI6 covering its tracks.
A rescue expert weighed in, saying it would have been impossible for Williams to have got himself into the bag, lock it from the inside and retrieve the keys. Peter Faulding tried 300 times to do it and failed every attempt. Not even Houdini could have managed it, Faulding said.
The makers of the long-running BBC drama series Spooks would have struggled to write a better script.
In 2021, the Westminster coroner ruled Williams died unlawfully at the hands of someone unknown. But last week, a Scotland Yard investigation found that apart from traces from another person on a towel in a kitchen cupboard, no DNA other than Williams's was present in the flat. Scotland Yard said the 31 year old most likely died alone and by accident.
The fact is, we'll probably never know, which will keep the mystery alive. It's the largely unknown and shadowy world of espionage that keeps us fascinated by spy stories. Whether it's the glamorised James Bond or the dishevelled and foulmouthed Jackson Lamb of the excellent Slow Horses (you can almost smell yesterday's corned beef sandwiches), we're drawn to the shadowlands of spying because so much of the real thing is necessarily hidden from us.
I've had two encounters that I know of - one official and one off the books - with spying, both of which occurred in the 1980s. The official encounter was a visit to what was then the new ASIO headquarters in Canberra. Working for the 7.30 Report, we were given an inside look at the new building.
The off-the-books encounter was a graduation party for what I was led to believe were trainee public servants. Invited by the brother of a housemate, I had no idea until much later I'd been drinking Harvey Wallbangers with freshly minted ASIO officers. They all looked so ordinary. (The brother was Alasdair Putt, who went on to have a successful career with the domestic spy agency before becoming a prosecutor and war crimes investigator. Alasdair died in January while competing in a rowing race across the Atlantic.)
Gareth Williams would not have stood out in a crowd. He was pale, his hairline retreating into pattern baldness. But he was a brilliant mathematician and that's what caught the eye of GCHQ, most famous for its code breaking work at Bletchley Park.
Had he not been found in a bag all those years ago, most of us would never have been aware of his existence. Like all good spies, really.
HAVE YOUR SAY: Are you a fan of spy stories? What's the best spy novel you've read or film you've seen? Do you have a theory about the death of Gareth Williams? Email us: email@example.com
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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
- As widely predicted, the Reserve Bank has kept the cash rate steady at 4.35 per cent. The decision came at the end of the RBA's first two-day meeting.
- Peter Dutton has confirmed the federal opposition will walk away from the Morrison-era stage three tax cuts, saying it will support Labor's changes as the Coalition is "not going to stand in the way" of providing support to Australians doing it tough.
- The Australian government will throw its weight behind supporting writer Yang Hengjun who received a suspended death sentence in China, but the prospect of a successful appeal has been described as unlikely.
THEY SAID IT: "It is essential to seek out enemy agents who have come to conduct espionage against you and to bribe them to serve you. Give them instructions and care for them. Thus doubled agents are recruited and used." - Sun Tzu
YOU SAID IT: Australia finally moves to introduce fuel efficiency standards but the opposition is not happy, claiming it's a move to drive utes off our roads.
Rob writes: "I suggest that any significant emissions reduction would come from emissions testing on all vehicles as part of the annual registration process. Emission testing equipment exists in every workshop as part of their engine diagnostic computers. There are 19 million passenger and light commercial second-hand vehicles on our roads. How many are running poorly? Motors on their last legs? Not tuned up for years? Modified outside manufacturer specs? It's these old and not so old clunkers that are spitting out the fumes and chewing up more fuel than they should."
"Emissions standards will not lead to the end of utes and four-wheel-drives," writes Arthur. "Utes are an essential farm vehicle. The alternative is a car pulling a trailer. That combination is far less fuel efficient let alone the possibility of being stuck on rough terrain. One thing we have in common with Russia is the long distances involved in travelling. It is hardly a surprise but once again we see the totally negative attitude of the Coalition instead of something constructive."
Bruce writes: "A total no brainer! Frydenberg had ample opportunity to introduce standards when he was in a position to do so but like just about everything else he was responsible for, he squibbed it. And the Libs want to bring him back: what a wasted space!"
Chris doesn't believe fuel efficiency standards will spell the end of the ute, given the US experience: "Unfortunately, the LNP opposition are just doing what seems to come naturally to them - oppose something. Considering their long terms in government they had and have little thoughtful policy to offer. So it is about time that we caught up with the rest of the world in applying appropriate and better standards."
"I do not think the new fuel standards will drive utes off the road," writes Lee. "Those who want them will still have them. I would love to see it cull some of those huge monsters that are used to try and intimidate car drivers, but I won't hold my breath for that either. Personally, I think this is a great idea. Not just for the planet but also for people's hip pockets."
Phil writes: "Thanks for your comments. It reminds me of a time when there were laws in place for the first cars. So as not to scare the horses, the first cars were not allowed to go faster than 5mph and a person had to walk in front of the vehicle with a red flag. Should we refer to the Nationals as the Red Flag Brigade? Talk about being stuck in the past."
"Twenty years ago, after filling up my car with petrol the engine started pinging," writes Graham. "It was a pretty old car. Checked with the government about the standards for our petrol and was told there were none. This was after we had been to the UK and noticed that the cars there had more get-up-and-go than ours."