My life changed when, aged 7 or 8, I found a photograph in an envelope my grandmother had kept from World War II. It featured a slim British officer with a peaked cap and open shirt riding in the mountains of what looked like a hidden African empire. I turned the photograph over to see a pencil scrawl: ‘Ethiopia 1941.’ The photograph was of my grandfather, Geoffrey Curran, who I discovered was a decorated airman. The photograph was to have a profound influence.

My grandfather died when I was small, but I later pieced together ‘his war’. He was just not an RAF officer. He was also a ‘special duties’ intelligence officer sent to Ethiopia to help eject the Italian Army from the capital and restore Emperor Haile Selassie, a British ally, to the throne. Given Ethiopia’s proximity to the Arabian oilfields, securing Addis Ababa was critical. While attached to ‘Gideon Force’, a British-Ethiopian-Sudenese Special Forces group, my grandfather met Emperor Haile Selassie. The emperor asked him, in addition to his military and intelligence duties, to help restore the imperial polo stable! The following year my grandfather travelled on to Aden (now Yemen) where he was doing intelligence work for the Special Operations Executive (more in a moment). There is a family rumour that this work might also have included acquiring Arab ponies for the emperor’s polo stable...

My grandfather ended the war a Squadron Leader. He remained in contact with Haile Selassie. When the Emperor was on an official visit to England in 1954 he took a detour, unannounced, to open my grandfather’s pottery in a village near Cambridge. Residents of a Fenland backwater were surprised to discover that the diminutive, quietly spoken Ethiopian was a ‘King of Kings’ who kept two pet cheetahs with ruby collars and whose signet ring bore the emblem of the Lion of Judah.

I maintained a fascination for Ethiopia – land of the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon’s Mines and the subterranean rock churches of Lalibela (each boasting the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant). Years later I followed my grandfather’s footsteps to Ethiopia, travelling to Addis, Lalibela and across Lake Tana whose islands are scattered with monasteries. My third trip was most special. It was to adopt a boy (Firo), then six months, from an orphanage in Addis. I returned from Ethiopia with a son. Firo is now a tall, handsome stripling; a violinist, surfer and emerging actor.

While staying in Addis for the adoption proceedings I started reading more widely into the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The more I read, the more intrigued I became. SOE was flung together in 1940 with a vague brief to ‘set Europe ablaze’. It went on to run highly dangerous espionage and sabotage operations in Occupied Europe and beyond, as well as arming and motivating resistance groups. It became known as the ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ – ironic since SOE was the only wartime department to deploy women as frontline agents. Female agents were often wireless operators facing the added danger of having their signals tracked. Male or female, captured agents were liable to be summarily executed.

As intriguing as its operations were the people SOE recruited: saboteurs, safe-breakers, forgers, academics, actors, racing-drivers, chess masters, cryptographers and at least one stage illusionist. SOE also boasted its own in-house Hungarian astrologer. It also had strong legal connections. Partners from Slaughter & May were instrumental in setting up SOE covertly within the Ministry of Economic Warfare. A senior SOE instructor once told a class of SOE agents about to be deployed: ‘I want a little less May and a little more Slaughter.’ SOE went on to claim one of the great legal heroes of WWII: Francis Suttill, barrister of Lincoln’s Inn who went on to head the main SOE-backed Resistance network in Paris.

Agents were sent into the field with ‘Poem Codes’. Part of a pre-selected poem would be used as the key for encrypting transmissions. SOE’s head cryptographer, Leo Marks, composed some of the poems himself. His short poem The Life that I Have, given to the SOE agent Violet Szabo before her fateful mission to France, became one of the most famous of World War Two.

I come from a family of writers, and the more I looked into SOE the more it caught my imagination for a novel. So began, around six years ago, the writing of what is now the first novel in ‘The Resistance’ series (CODENAME: MADELEINE). It focuses ultimately on the most unlikely of all SOE agents: Noor Inayat Khan, a mystic’s daughter, harpist and writer of children’s stories. Her mission to Occupied Paris in 1943 as a wireless operator was considered one of the most dangerous of WWII. ‘Madeleine’ became one of the bravest and most effective of all SOE agents. The book also features the barrister-spy Francis Suttill, poet-cryptographer Leo Marks, and other SOE agents including Bugatti racing-driver, William Grover-Williams.

Before converting to law I studied history, though my career as a historian was (to say the least) patchy. I once took a history exam which involved answering 100 questions extending from the Romans to the Vietnam War. I gave each question my best shot – though each answer was necessarily brief. It was when I handed in the paper that I saw the instructions: Answer only TWO questions. (Salutary lesson: always read the brief.) The examiner marked my first two questions alone – one point for each. I achieved an unparalleled 2% in a history exam. My study of history at Cambridge was not much of an improvement, but it did give me some skill in handling primary and secondary source material.

The challenge was crafting real events into fiction, known sometimes as ‘historical fiction’. As a writer I have been influenced by Sebastian Faulkes (Birdsong, Charlotte Gray) as well as American authors (Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald: I am half-American). Perhaps my favourite book is Anna Karenina which, like CODENAME: MADELEINE, has a female protagonist. The original manuscript was Tolstoy-esque in size has since been divided into a series. The next will be CODENAME: GOD-GIVEN which follows another SOE agent: a washed-up B-Movie actor struggling with his ‘bachelor’ tendencies who goes on to become an unlikely, and extraordinarily brave, agent.

In my day-to-day work as barrister, I prosecute in terrorist cases. I learned to prosecute Islamic terrorist cases at the knee of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill QC. Since taking silk I have led in a series of Neo-Nazi terrorist cases – one linked to a plot to assassinate an MP. The cases often involve expert evidence on Nazi and Neo-Nazi aims and ideology. The Neo-Nazi agenda is no less chilling than the genocidal aims of the original Nazis. It is perhaps strange to think of grandfather and grandson both fighting different forms of Nazism and both drawn inexorably to Ethiopia.

CODENAME: MADELEINE is dedicated to my son, Firo.

Above: ‘Big Wig’ and ‘Little Wig’ pictured on Silks’ Day, February 2018. Firo has allowed his adoption to be mentioned in this article. Pictured top: (L) Noor Inayat Khan, the Special Operations Executive agent whose mission to Occupied Paris in 1943 as a wireless operator was considered one of the most dangerous of WWII; (C) A statute to Noor unveiled in Gordon Square, London in 2012; (R) CODENAME: MADELEINE by Barnaby Jameson QC (whitefox: July 2022).