How can you tell if you're being followed? Don't bother looking for men with turned-up collars who peer round corners, says Alan Judd. The secret to identifying the tail is all in the shoes
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Spring 2008
So, you think you're being followed. Two questions: first, who do you think you are? Are you really so secret and important that someone is prepared to spend time and money watching where you're going? During the 1980s miners' strikes the press reported that an associate of Arthur Scargill fled the United Kingdom, convinced that the British "secret police" were following him. Why should they? It would have been perfectly obvious where he was and what he was doing: organising strikes is hardly clandestine. (He took refuge in East Germany, of all places.)
Second, is there someone out there who very badly wants to know what you're doing, who believes that surveillance is the only way to find out, and who is able to follow you themselves or pay someone else to? Unless such a person or organisation exists, forget it.
But if all that does apply to you, how might you tell you're being followed? Don't bother looking for men with turned-up collars, who peer round corners or keep tying their shoelaces. Real surveillants will never be seen doing anything odd; they are chameleons who strive to look ordinary, matching whatever environment they're in. At Ascot they'd look smart, in King's Lynn they'd look like Norfolk shoppers. They won't dawdle or stare, but will move purposefully as if hurrying about their business. Anyone who draws attention to himself is almost certainly innocent. It's ordinary people who do strange things. Take 15 minutes to watch a street and you'll see people go in and out of the same shop three times, pausing at an empty road then crossing when it's busy, retracing their steps, catching buses at the last second, dropping things, listening to "War and Peace" on their MP3 players, staring about as if they've just fallen off the moon and gazing for ever at a hairbrush in a shop window.
If you must check for surveillance, don't keep glancing over your shoulder. Appearing to suspect you're being followed suggests you're doing something to merit it. Anyway, if you're being tailed by a serious outfit they won't only be behind you, but ahead and to the side as well; there won't just be one or two people on your case, but a whole team, with others in reserve. Maybe the whole street is following you. And your followers will keep changing their appearances in ways you won't notice—women particularly can use a scarf, a shopping bag or a coat to alter themselves in seconds.
If you want to identify a tail, look at their shoes: they are hard to change. Move frequently between crowded and empty places: this forces them to keep closing for fear of losing you, drawing back, then closing again. This makes them conspicuous. But don't jump on or off trains just before the doors close—that's for the movies; and anyway, a good surveillance team will already have someone on the train, as well as on the platform. Remember they're not trying to catch or chase you, just to "house" you—to see where you live, where you're going, or whom you're meeting.
The same principles apply on the road. That solitary black Mondeo following you doggedly round the M25 (assuming you're moving at all) is not a tail; instead, your followers will be in many different cars, some near you, some ahead, some behind and out of sight—and some not on the motorway at all. Don't try to shake them off by speeding—they're better drivers than you. In fact, you cause them more problems by going slowly because anyone else proceeding at your snail's pace will be conspicuous.
The exception to all this is the stalker. He'll be a loner, and he'll almost certainly stay behind you. If you suspect you're being stalked, use the crowd-space-crowd trick until you find a place (a shop with more than one exit, say) where you can observe if he tries to close in. Note everything—shoes again—and tell the police. Or, if you're confident, become the hunter: follow him and house him. You might find you enjoy it.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
Even professionals are fallible. After the second world war, new recruits to MI5 were trained by a martinet who took justified pride in his invisibility. When the martinet died, his followers decided to attend his funeral—secretly, of course. One of them told me how their cars joined the procession at a distance—not easy because slow vehicles, like slow people, are hard to follow discreetly. Sometimes they had to overtake, at others drop back or take a parallel road. They performed these manoeuvres with a professionalism they were sure he'd have been proud of. But they lost the cortege, missing the funeral entirely and leaving—they imagined—the old boy raging in his coffin.
Alan Judd is a novelist, biographer, and former soldier and diplomat. His latest book is "The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the Secret Service"