After reading this book earlier this year, it surprised me to find that there’s hardly anything about it on the web. The book is therefore one of those rare secondhand treasures. I read it out of a mild interest implanted in me by borrowing a Le Carré. Despite his fiction being well-documented, this non-fiction title has a faint digital footprint; how strange, in that it was first published (in 1968) only a few years after Philby’s defection; and yet it’s also not so strange, in how quickly news topics can lose their vitality – a loss, here, that occurred long before the Internet (more about this in my final comment).
The enjoyable aspects to the book, apart from that 1970s newspaper edge of sensationalism, were in the way that Philby’s career and life ran in parallel with his fellow traitors Burgess and MacLean. Quite often this parallelism is overdone to the extent that the other two get in the way. Their overshadowing of Philby even suggests that his taciturn nature (apart from when drunk) was so effective that it left a void that the authors needed to fill. The portrayal of all three benefits from Philby’s absence. The sense that he is naturally covert is palpable: even his heavy drinking was unable to loosen his tongue in any way that compromised his undercover activities for the Soviets. By contrast, Burgess and Maclean let slip about themselves many times.
And yet, incredibly, they remained undetected for years, such was the trust in the ‘one-of-us’ness to the Oxbridge-educated intelligence services in the postwar period. Much is made of this. Controversially at the time, and to the annoyance of those involved, the evolution and failures of the intelligence services is described in unflattering terms. There was clearly a public anger and incomprehension at the time that moles could get away with betraying nuclear secrets and anti-communist networks so easily. The book makes for a kind of retribution or rebuke. A good thing too. Without the self-flagellation and national self-examination, the book would otherwise border on the tawdry with its repeated moralising about the traitors’ alcohol consumption, homosexuality (in Burgess’s and almost Maclean’s case), and of course, actions that will have led to deaths on their own side. A tricky aspect here is that, amid the moralising, few concrete charges are levelled at Philby (and, for that matter, his two partners in crime). Less still is revealed about what exactly their damage was. It all creates the impression that little was known about the nature of their treachery. This lack of evidence sits starkly alongside page after page of supposed character flaws.
Perhaps the moralising was an outlet for public outrage when there was little evidence and no trials? And perhaps the problem with undetected double-agents is that undetection inevitably continues because there’s little evidence?
The accused managed to defect ahead of interrogation or trial. Fascinatingly, Philby was interrogated. Once Burgess and Maclean fled, suspecting they were about to be unmasked, Philby found himself under suspicion due to his close associations with them. And the most remarkable part to the story is how he convinced the authorities of his innocence and even resumed his career.
Philby makes for an interesting companion to (the better known) Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin (see reviews by myself and recently by Sarah at Hard Book Habit as part of #germanlitmonth). Alone in Berlin is the novelisation of a German couple (Otto and Elise Hampel, fictionlised by Fallada as Otto and Anna Quangel) who, upon their son’s death at the front, start leaving anti-Nazi propaganda postcards lying around. The motivations were clearly very different to Philby’s. But both were secretly risking their lives for their political beliefs.
In Philby’s case, the deception was a life choice. The enigma of him is in how he managed to live a life that was a forgery. He effectively gave himself over to a doctrine. Not that he didn’t enjoy whatever he could from the hand he’d dealt himself; yet this too was artifice, an enjoyment set within a political system he opposed. Imagine, equivalently, living as a double-agent in the Soviet Union out of a revulsion for Communism. Imagine not being able to tell anyone.
Written by Sunday Times journalists, Philby is the kind of 1970s book that probably had a TV advertising campaign and newspaper serialisation. Remember those? Sensationalised stories about public figures appealed to wide audiences with current affairs and history. The nearest thing today is the celebrity autobiography. It’s a perverse thought that stories about people who secretly risked their lives for their beliefs are now less popular than members of the public confessing about their few weeks on a ‘reality’ show.
As with Fallada, another case of someone risking their life in secret for a cause, is that of Dorothy Reeder, a librarian who defied Nazi occupation – see the post at Lost and Found Books.