‘don’t worry, they’re just private intelligence’: a tea party in Hove

The previous night, the rendezvous had been moved from 11am at Brighton Pier to 12pm at an oyster bar. Fifteen minutes from Brighton, I got a message: they were going to be late; and they had decided to take the car instead of the train; and could we meet at the Pier instead of the restaurant? When I had arranged the meeting, I had reassured people, ‘don’t worry, they’re just private intelligence’; but I was beginning to get nervous…

When it began to be clear just how late they were going to be, they told me that I should find somewhere to meet and that they would find me there. I relaxed a little – after all, they had given me control, and Brighton was more my home turf than theirs – but I did not get complacent. I searched the Lanes for a cafe with a table outside, or at least right by the door; but I did not like the look of any of them.

I doubled back and headed off towards Hove. It was not as easy to disappear there; but I knew it better than the boutique district, and I knew people there. They were going to be later still. I reassured people that I was only quiet because nothing had happened yet, not because something had. Then, (over-)confident(?) that this was no set-up, I settled into a cafe on a crossroads and waited.

They arrived. And finally, all was revealed; or, at least, enough was revealed. They did ‘investigations’ into commodities (but not antiquities). So, they were private intelligence/corporate security. They were a small outfit, but they each had good CVs – the senior one’s employment history included military intelligence in international operations.

They wanted to discuss the practicalities and possibilities of work in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean. That was fun. They wanted to know what kind of information and contacts I had. That was fine.

Why? They wanted to develop a database of information and contacts to sell. I suspected they were torn. I explained that I tried to make all of my data publicly-accessible; the only stuff that was private was material that I could not publish (for the sake of my sources), and material that I had not published yet. They would not need to buy my information; but they could not sell it either.

We did not discuss it in these terms, however: I would conduct or assist in investigations for states and cultural institutions; and I would withhold information in order not to damage or endanger professional and police investigations; nevertheless, I would not withhold information in order to sell it to clients (who, in my field, would be governments, police, and museums and other cultural bodies).

I also detailed how I had – either deliberately or incidentally – burned my bridges by doing my research. If I had cut myself off from some informants because I was under surveillance, and if I could not even get a “fuck off” out of other colleagues because of what I had said or done, I did not have an enviable list of contacts, either. And there were a couple of places I had been strongly encouraged not to work again. I was a tough sell.

I pointed out to them that they were a tough buy too. I need to preserve my privacy as much as they do; but there is a difference between being reassuringly discreet and worryingly secretive. The junior told me that even their use of the organisation’s e-mail account was a mistake; but I told them that, if they had not made that mistake, I would never have agreed to meet them. They seemed genuinely surprised; and that left me genuinely surprised.

The empty gesture of providing the (alleged) full name of someone who was anyway ‘electronically undetectable’ did not compensate for not providing any other information. In the end, I could not resist providing some information of my own. ‘And you work with D [the director]?’ The reaction was a picture.

Appy-polly-loggies

Everyone who reads this will be aware that they will read it too, and that I was aware of that when I wrote it. I cannot do anything about that, but I cannot fail to acknowledge it either.

I don’t know how they will feel about being blogged about; but hopefully they will understand.

Hopefully they will understand my trepidation about the meeting when they learn that other illicit antiquities researchers, the Chasing Aphrodite team, read my post about the agreement to meet at Brighton Pier (or not) and thought it was a ‘meeting with shadowy representatives of the illicit trade’.

Friends and colleagues who spoke less elegantly wanted to know what the fuck I was doing; and made me promise to keep them up-to-date with what the fuck I was doing, and not to get in any cars…

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