Time: July 1968 Place: Intourist Office, National Hotel, Moscow, just off Red Square
Intourist Guide: “So you wish to visit friend in Moscow?“
IG: “Is Russian friend or is English friend?”
HC.” English friend.”
IG: “Do you have address or anything?”
HC.” No, sorry, I only know that he is in prison.”
A long interval followed, during which the rather worried guide disappeared. After several minutes she ushered me into an empty office and urged me to speak on a telephone. She pointedly left the room before she could hear any part of the conversation.
Posh voice: “To whom am I speaking?”
HC: “ My name is Hamish Carlisle.”
PV: “Mr Carlisle, are you a very close relative of Michael Parsons?”
HC: “ No. In fact I’m not related to him at all. Actually I only met him a couple of times.”
PV: “Mr Carlisle, I am a senior member of staff at Her Majesty’s Embassy in Moscow. I have been trying to get permission to visit Michael Parsons for several months. So far I have been unsuccessful. I suggest you just get on with your holiday and stop wasting everyone’s time.”
Michael Parsons had been to Pakistan three times. Curiously he had been encouraged to go there by an old school friend of mine rom Edinburgh, who had in fact funded his visit.
The first time he went he bought as much cannabis as he could sensibly carry, then transported it to Sweden, where he sold it at huge profit. He and the aforementioned school friend then split the proceeds.
The second trip was similar. On the third trip the unfortunate Parsons looked at a map of the world and decided to take a short cut to Sweden via Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. After a flight from Kabul to Tashkent, Uzbekhistan the Soviet authorities unsurprisingly checked his bags.
He did not have many personal effects, but a great deal of cannabis. He was sentenced to four years in a labour camp.
Several months later I set out on a low budget minibus tour of the Soviet bloc. Passing through London I met some old friends. “Moscow, Hamish? You must go and visit poor old Mick!” Foolishly I agreed to try.
The story might easily have ended here, but took a curious turn. Let us scroll back several years.
In 1957 Rudolf Abel, of Bridge of Spies fame, was arrested in the USA. Among his contacts had been Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and another American couple, Morris and Lona Cohen.
The Cohens got wind of this and were clearly concerned that they might end up in the electric chair like the Rosenbergs. They promptly disappeared, only to resurface in suburban Ruislip as Peter and Helen Kroger. Here they passed key information on British nuclear submarines to their KGB handlers with considerable success.
In 1961 what became known as the Portland Spy Ring was broken in the UK. All members, including the Krogers were arrested and received lengthy prison sentences.
The mastermind, Konon Trofimovich Molody, aka Gordon Lonsdale, was exchanged for the British spy Greville Wynn two years later.
Soviet intelligence badly wanted the Krogers back but they had no further British spies in custody to swap them for.
In 1965 the Soviets arrested a British lecturer named Gerald Brooke. Brooke was not a spy, but a rather naive bible smuggler. He was charged with importing anti Soviet materials and given a stiff sentence.
Much press coverage was devoted to his plight and the Wilson government came under pressure to help. The idea of exchanging two senior spies for a bible smuggler was clearly absurd.
But during the negotiations the Soviets very generously offered to release Michael Parsons and Antony Lorraine, two drug smugglers, to sweeten the deal. Also they offered to allow several Russian women to marry British men and leave the Soviet Union.
Rather bizarrely the UK government caved in and agreed to this improbable scenario. So in 1969 Michael Parsons arrived back in the UK, sporting an impressive black moustache. We never did catch up.