Spies Like Us

It’s a while since I’ve read a book so unputdownable it compelled me to sit reading until lunchtime, but Ben Macintyre’s recently published ‘A Spy Among Friends’ did precisely that.  It comes as no surprise that it’s been optioned by Lionsgate.

Cover of A Spy Among Friends

As Macintyre himself notes, the world isn’t short of books about the Cambridge spies who betrayed their country on behalf of Stalin’s Russia. What’s novel about this particular contribution to the genre is that it focuses on the relationship between arch-traitor, Kim Philby and his colleague and closest friend, Nicholas Elliott. In doing so, Macintyre lays bare all the weaknesses of the upper-class old-school-tie establishment that dominated British society before and after WWII.

This approach also goes a long way towards giving a plausible answer to question of how, against all the odds, and a very great deal of evidence, Philby got away with it for so long. The simple explanation appears to be that nobody could actually believe that a man like Philby – archetypal insider, scion of a well-connected family, member of all the right clubs, loyal sporter of his old Westminster School scarf – could conceivably be batting for the other side.

The cricket metaphor is appropriate. Cricket provided a common bond for Elliott and Philby. Both had been born to severe but ambitious fathers, both had been through the particularly English form of torture represented by the public school system, neither had any inclination to discuss a matter as vulgar as politics, let alone their personal feelings. They took each other at face value. As far as Elliott was concerned, Philby was ‘one of us’ and no further questions need be asked.

The recruiters at MI6 took precisely the same view. According to Macintyre, Philby ‘sauntered’ into MI6 – reputed at the time to be the most daunting and effective espionage service in the world – with such ease that it provoked serious doubts among his Russian handlers. In a supreme irony,  Philby showered the KGB with cast-iron A-class intelligence, and they literally assumed it was too good to be true.

Kim Philby - double agent

Kim Philby – double agent

Philby avoided detection for an astonishing length of time. He was undeniably lucky. But even after his fellow traitors, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, were unmasked and defected to Russia, Philby managed to brazen it out with the top brass at MI6. His friend, Elliott, fell over backwards to protest his innocence and fight his corner.

Elliott’s unquestioning loyalty to his friend is, in the end, rather moving. He and Philby had been through the war together, brothers-in-arms in the great game of international espionage. It is entirely appropriate that it was Elliott who was chosen to confront Philby. The discussion that ensued was secretly recorded and Macintyre’s coup has been in drawing on this extraordinary archive, what he calls “one of the most important conversations of the Cold War”.

It starts with tea, naturally, and mutual enquiries about friends and family. Then Elliott hesitantly lays his cards on the table. Philby bluffs, lies, and calls repeatedly on the bond of friendship between them, but Elliott is having none of it. At last he allows himself to express the cold, direct anger that must have been building in him for many days. Philby, realising that all is lost, finally accepts the reality of his situation and agrees to provide a confession in exchange for immunity. With his signature came the end of a world ruled by gentleman’s agreement.

Much of the entertainment value of Macintyre’s book derives from his descriptions of the louche, cosmopolitan world of espionage that Elliott and Philby inhabited so enthusiastically. This was a world peopled by a gallery of cheerful rogues, most of whom were more than happy to pass on information in exchange for a little extra cash.

James Bond - closer to reality than you might think.

James Bond – closer to reality than you might think.

Elliott’s contacts while stationed in Istanbul included a belly-dancer from Bradford, a ferryman plying the route over the Bosphorus, a former Tsarist guards officer with contacts in Russian intelligence who became his best man, a club-owner who “accepted bribes from everyone without favour and endeavoured to place rival spies at adjacent tables”, an assistant to the papal legate apprehended for operating a wireless set on behalf of Italian fascists and many, many more.

It was a world where chance, luck and bravado were celebrated and where the daring gentleman amateur reigned supreme. Both Graham Greene and Ian Fleming worked for British intelligence during WWII. It isn’t hard to see where they, and indeed John le Carre, who provides an afterword to Macintyre’s book, found their inspiration and source material. What emerges from this account is how little exaggeration their fictional spy novels contain.




Filed under Writing

3 responses to “Spies Like Us

  1. A review that kept me reading till the end. Thank you.

  2. I loved A Spy Among Friends – it’s probably the best non-fiction book I’ve read so far this year.

    • I thought it was absolutely fascinating – I’d never really considered the social dimension to the story at all in terms of what it must have meant to their friends and family. The lives the people of that generation led were extraordinary, with the war and everything that followed.

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