THE exciting world of espionage with its sexy double agents, would-be world rulers and high-tech gadgetry could not be further removed from the down-to-earth demands of running a school. But for the past 20 years, headteacher Andrew Cook has been immersed in the shady workings of British and foreign intelligence.
A historian and former defence specialist, he has just completed the definitive biography of the real-life spy on whom Ian Fleming's James Bond character was based.
On His Majesty's Secret Service tells the story of Sidney Reilly, a Russian Jew who passed himself off as an English aristocrat. He was recruited by MI6 but mysteriously vanished in 1925 after being lured back to Russia by Stalin's secret police. The suspicion is that he was executed.
At the same time as looking after 350 pupils at Moorlands prep school in Leagrave, Bedfordshire, Mr Cook has conducted a huge international research project to get to the bottom of the life and death of this flamboyant gentleman spy.
The 42-year-old said: "I became fascinated by the subject after seeing the UK mini-series Reilly: The Ace of Spies starring Sam Neill in the 1980s. I found out the series was based on the exploits of Sidney Reilly, but there were so many theories surrounding the real character that I wanted to find out the truth."
Before moving into teaching in 1987, Mr Cook worked as a foreign affairs and defence specialist, and was aide to George Robertson, former Secretary of State for Defence, and John Spellar, former armed forces minister. The contacts he made during that time enabled him to gain access to classified intelligence services archives.
He worked with colleagues in 14 countries and gained privileged access to more than 2,000 previously closed or unpublished documents, including those from British and foreign intelligence agencies.
He said: "Writing a 100,000-word book could not have been more of a contrast to the day job. Running a school is like being in a constant whirlwind, whereas finishing the book has been a solitary exercise that has allowed me to explore another world altogether."
But Mr Cook said his staff and pupils had been involved in the research. "Most of the school had not heard of Sidney Reilly. But as soon as I told them he was the character behind James Bond they were fascinated and wanted to get involved. It's been a big team effort."
www.sidneyreilly.com. 'On His Majesty's Secret Service' is published by Tempus on October 7