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The post-war Cambridge spy ring holds an endless and rather strange fascination – a group of men who betrayed their country and its allies to the Soviet regime for the most nebulous of reasons and whose actions are considered to have cost many lives. And yet somehow they are held up as anti-heroes, a bit like the Great Train Robbers or Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a strange phenomenon and one that always leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. So it was with a mix of anticipation and apprehension that I started to read this one about the infamous ‘Third Man’, Kim Philby (the inspiration behind Graham Greene’s screenplay for the film of that name). Ben Macintyre is a journalist by trade and has written several books about real-life spies. In this one he has approached his subject by looking at the friendships that to a large extent shielded Philby from discovery for years, even after suspicions had become aroused.
Philby had already become a Soviet agent before he joined MI6. Like all the spies, he would claim this was because he was convinced by the arguments of communism – but, again like them all, that didn’t stop him living as lavish and hedonistic a lifestyle as he possibly could. Rather than making him stand out, his heavy drinking and constant partying meant that he fitted in perfectly to the overgrown-boys’ club that was MI6 at that time. (Oh, how I wish I believed it was different now…) And this is really the point that Macintyre is making in this book – that MI6 in particular was filled by the upper-classes, selected not so much for their characters as their families and old school ties, and living in a kind of closed community where they didn’t talk to outsiders but revealed secrets casually to each other on the grounds that of course they could all trust each other.
Macintyre tells the parallel story of Nicholas Elliott, a loyal servant of the Crown, who was (or thought he was) Philby’s closest friend and confidant. As they both rose in their careers, Elliott admired Philby’s charm as much as his skills as a fellow spy. Philby was also particularly close to the flamboyant and outrageously behaved Guy Burgess, and won over James Jesus Angleton, who was on a simultaneous rise through the ranks of the newly formed CIA, and would later become Chief of its Counterintelligence branch. When Burgess was finally outed as a double-agent and fled to Moscow along with Donald Maclean, Elliott and Angleton were pivotal in deflecting suspicion from Philby as a possibility for the ‘third man’ known to still be operating. When the truth finally became unavoidable, Elliott was given the task of trying to get a confession from Philby – a task complicated by his conflicting feelings of friendship and betrayal.
I found the first few chapters of the book a bit tedious, as Macintyre would stray from the main thrust of the book to describe some of the exploits of various spies not really directly involved in the Philby story. I suspect however that these bits would appeal to someone with more interest in spying games than I have. But once the story focused on the path towards Philby’s eventual downfall I found myself gripped by it. Macintyre is a good storyteller and the book felt well researched. By the time he got to the crux of the matter, I felt that I knew the major participants well and this meant that I could sympathise with Elliott in his anger and disappointment. I was pleased that Macintyre didn’t try to show Philby as any kind of hero – he made it clear that his actions had led to many deaths, not just of spies on both sides, but of other people caught up in the games he played. He showed Philby as a curiously amoral character, whose charm gave him an appearance of warmth belied by the coldness of his actions. I didn’t feel, however, that Macintyre gave a particularly plausible reason for Philby’s seeming loyalty to the Soviet regime – perhaps there isn’t one. It seemed that he perhaps just liked the excitement of fooling everyone.
An interesting story that tells as much about the class-ridden power structures of British society as it does about Philby and Elliott – a class that sometimes puts loyalty to its own members above all other considerations, including patriotism. Have things changed since then? I guess it might be another fifty years before we really find out the answer to that question…
Thanks again to Lady Fancifull, whose great review brought this book to my attention. You can also see her review of another of Macintyre’s books, Double Cross – The True Story Of The D-Day Spies, here.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing.