I remember some years ago a gentleman who discovered he was going to be raided, suspected of 'activities incompatible with diplomatic status'. This was bureaucratic long-hand for spying, and the diplomat in question was thought to have been at it for some time before he got careless and attracted the attention of the security authorities.
It was at a time when spies who got caught with their fingers in the Top Secret information jar usually spent only a short term in prison followed by an exchange (one of ours for one of theirs). The logic was that anything they might have learned would be soon out of date, so why hold onto them?
It was also at a time when failure by members of certain intelligence gathering networks further east meant they did not receive a warm welcome on their return home. After being drained of everything they might have retained, they simply disappeared off the radar. If they were lucky.
This spy panicked, no doubt thinking of his next destination being somewhere very cold and inhospitable compared with the delights of London, and began setting fire to every scrap of paper he had amassed during the course of his activities. No proof equals no charge.
Two hours later he was still desperately trying to get rid of them when a knock at the door announced the arrival of Special Branch.
I was reminded of this today, after having a blitz on some 25 years of paperwork, none of which I felt able to consign to the nearest landfill site. There wasn't that much - about 2 boxes - but I duly carted them down to the bottom of the garden, and began to burn the contents. (I didn't use accelerant - a neighbour recently lost his eyebrows doing that - but took the patient route, piling on a few pages at a time.
Two hours later was still at it and wondering if the paper I'd been using had been treated with a fire retardant.
All this made me think about the unhappy spy - and about the films and books where a miscreant burns a ton of paper - usually on the open fire inside the house - in very short order before the heavy mob arrives.
It just ain't possible, people, not unless you have a huge bonfire to increase the burn (I used a standard family-size barbecue) and are prepared to go ballistic with a can of petrol (I wasn't - have you seen the price of the stuff here in the UK?) I also have respect for my neighbours, and didn't want to cover their washing with charred bits of my personal notes and stuff.
Although I suppose if I were a foreign spy, and wanted top get rid at any cost, I'd go all out. I'd burn down the house - it would be a lot quicker.
Still, I learned a lot today. Don't hoard stuff. Choose a non-windy day to burn it. Have the patience of a Bhuddist monk. Torching confidential documents is nowhere near as much fun as incinerating slabs of meat and chicken legs, because all you get to eat is dry ash.