The Communist Table Tennis Conspiracy
On the 8th of November 1932, Major Valentine Vivian, head of MI6’s counter-espionage unit, received a curious message from his subordinates. The reason for the message, his staff noted, ‘will appear to you rather quaint.’ However quaint it may have seemed, it soon became clear that a communist plot was afoot; they were simply informing their commanding officer so that he could forestall the impending revolution. The message was concerning a certain Ivor Montagu: an eccentric member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Montagu was engaged in a lengthy correspondence with two suspicious Hungarians, who referred to themselves as ‘Mechlovits’ and ‘Bodansky.’ The singularly bizarre nature of the surveillance merits an extended quotation:
“They write interminably to Ivor Montagu about Table Tennis and the trying out of Table Tennis balls. The exercise of this occupation over a period of months has so eaten into Meschlovits’ time that he has informed Montagu that he cannot go on with it. Montagu, is, of course, known as a Ping Pong enthusiast well at the heart of the Table Tennis International, but even in England, which is not noted for sanity in this respect, we find it hard to believe that a gentleman can spend weeks upon weeks testing Table Tennis balls.”
Researching radical movements has led me to use the surveillance files of a number of intelligence agencies, operating both in the UK and in Ireland. The grand conspiracies so often proclaimed in these documents, reveal the drawbacks in using intelligence documents as sources. Surveillance materials are a treasure trove for historians – particularly those with a transnational focus. We can use them to study international connections, using the seemingly limitless resources and skills of security services as our guide. In addition, surveillance documents are a sketch of the person in question, enabling us to gage their character. In the case of the communist table tennis conspiracy, we can also appreciate the humour of the secret police, who mock Montagu’s Marxist enthusiasm and membership of the Communist International by replacing the phrases ‘Marxist’ and ‘Communist’ with ‘Ping Pong’ and ‘Table Tennis.’ Still, these documents have their limitations located precisely in the narratives they do not reveal.
MI6 refused to believe that Montagu, who was at the heart of Britain’s most feared revolutionary movement, was engrossed in something so benign as table tennis. The testing of ping pong balls simply had to be a code for something else – something threatening the very security of Her Majesty’s Government. Accordingly, M16 set out to find the answer. An MI6 agent operating in Budapest was ordered to hunt down Meschlovits and Bodansky. Through the Hungarian police, the agent was able to uncover their safe-houses (their actual homes) and thus began his stake-out. Rather than uncovering a secret communist plot, the Hungarian police and MI6 were forced to conclude:
‘One would judge from the documents that we have seen that Mechlovits and Bodansky are perfectly solid individuals, who spend their time testing table tennis balls.”
Frustrated, but still determined to uncover the nefarious Montagu’s ping-pong conspiracy, MI6 caught wind of a letter from Germany, written on paper printed with the ‘Deutscher Tisch-Tennis-Bund’ header. From then on, they surveilled all future correspondences. At one point, they intercepted a package, which seemed promising. However, rather than containing a revolutionary’s toolkit, they discovered it was ‘a shipment of Table tennis net-stretchers.’ Indeed, the secretive nature of surveillance material provokes curiosity and excitement, which can sometimes lead to hilarious ends. For that same reason, however, historians must be cautious when using these documents as sources. They almost always over-emphasise the gravity and conspiratorial nature of events.
If we are unable to contextualise surveillance documents, we run the risk of overplaying the import of radical movements. Furthermore, we may misinterpret historical events by falling prey to the distortions created in the contemporary moment. There were cases, particularly during the interwar period, when intelligence agencies stumbled upon the revolutionary machinations of radical groups. However, there were also moments where agents were skulking around, only to uncover one man’s obsessive love for table tennis.