i'm at scotland yard, help me
Wednesday, 16 November 2015 in Central London. I look up at Scotland Yard’s old headquarters. I want to know where Mata Hari was questioned exactly 99 years ago by the head of the Special Branch, Sir Basil Thomson.
Cars race along Victoria Embankment, sirens blare every other minute, the sounds of a big city. She was incarcerated up there somewhere. In one of those two large Victorian buildings. Red bricks, the Queen’s coat of arms above the gate, a walkway linking one building to the other.
A little further along, in the Houses of Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on terrorism, the intelligence services, jihadists. He announces UK bombings of ISIS. It's a week after the attacks in Paris.
New Scotland Yard has long disappeared from this street. For nearly 40 years parliamentarians have occupied the rooms that were once the domain of police officers and members of the secret service, MI5. The buildings are heavily guarded, the iron fences chained shut. Here and there lights burn behind windows. Besides four heavily armed police officers, the street between the buildings is empty. They look friendly, but are also grim so soon after Paris.
Looking around inside is out of the question. You’re looking for the room where Mata Hari was held and interrogated by the Yard? ‘We’re unable to provide public or press tours or visits’, declares Laura from the press office firmly. And anyway, she adds, any traces of Mata Hari, if they ever existed, have long been eliminated by all the rebuilding over the years.
Back to November 1916. The First World War has been raging for two years, but Mata Hari, with her passport from the neutral Netherlands, travels nonchalantly through Europe. She is aboard a ship heading from Spain to the Netherlands when things go wrong. She is detained at Falmouth, on the southern English coast. The English suspect her of spying for the Germans.
She is transferred to the British capital, where she is intensively cross-examined twice by Scotland Yard’s Intelligence Service during the three days she is detained.Thomson and his colleagues think that Mata Hari is Clara Benedix, a German spy. ‘Just look’, Thomson says as he waves a photo of Benedix in front of her. ‘That’s not me,’ she insists, ‘this is not my photograph, sir.’
She spends the evenings alone in Cannon Row police station, across the street, writing letters, including one to the Dutch envoy: ‘Could you come to London to identify me. I’m at my wits’ end in Scotland Yard. Help me.’
The records of Mata Hari’s interrogations are kept in the National Archives in London, in a yellow folder with the following stickers: 'Produce on SPECIAL INSTRUCTION ONLY. Document to be seen only under supervision.’ But nowadays they can easily be downloaded from the Internet. It's exciting to read all those documents, telegrams, notes and court records, even if you're just sitting at your desk at home: ‘I swear it's a mistake… I'm not Clara Benedix.’
On my iPad I read the book Queer People by Basil Thomson. In terms of scope, Mata Hari's case surpassed all the other cases he ever investigated, he writes. But he had to let her go: the Yard couldn’t prove she was spying and apparently she wasn’t Clara Benedix. She was sent back to Spain, but in the meantime was allowed to stay at a hotel in London while waiting for a ship to take her to Vigo.
I walk the ten minutes from Scotland Yard to the nearby Savoy Hotel. Mata Hari undoubtedly took a taxi after she had retrieved her ten (!) suitcases from the police. She stayed in this luxury hotel for more than a week. Room 261 no longer exists; it’s been converted into a private apartment.
We stroll to the American Bar, where portraits of famous guests, including David Bowie, Jerry Hall, Marlene Dietrich, and Mick Jagger, line the walls. She isn’t there. I ask the bartender if he knows who Mata Hari is. He stares vacantly: Bada Harry? Famous dancer and also a spy? First arrested in London? He shakes his head and brings extra nuts and olives to accompany our glasses of Chablis, which set us back 9 Pounds apiece.
Her detention in London was the beginning of the end for Mata Hari. Eleven months later, she stood before a firing squad on the outskirts of Paris and was shot dead. We take the bus back and pass the current New Scotland Yard building. Newspapers report that MI5 needs hundreds of employees and spies. Anyone can apply.