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A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal Paperback – May 12, 2015
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I don’t think I have ever read such a damning indictment of the English upper class as emerges from this book. Even Gilbert and Sullivan could not have invented more eccentric characters. Their names alone are risible. We have, for example, Hester Harriet Marsden-Smedley, a journalist who first casually suggested to Philby that he might want to become involved with the Secret Services. Then there is Sarah Algeria Marjorie Maxse, a Conservative Party panjandrum and a member of MI6, who recruited Philby on the basis of a report from Valentine Vivian (also known as Vee-Vee), the deputy head of MI6, who knew Philby’s father. Vee-Vee gave the quintessential definition of England’s old boys’ network: “I was asked about him, and said I knew his people.”
We also encounter the grossly eccentric Hillary St. John Bridger Philby, Kim Philby’s father, who converted to Islam and became an advisor to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. One can add Helenus Patrick Joseph Milmo a barrister who interrogated Philby and who looks from his photograph like a character out of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury.” Then there is Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugesson, His Majesty’s Ambassador to Ankara, who developed the habit of bringing home official papers to the ambassadorial residence where his valet, an Albanian petty criminal by the name of Bazna, was able to copy the documents and pass them on to the Nazis.
This book differs from other books about Philby in that it tells the tale through Philby’s relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a Cambridge-educated British spy, who was Philby’s closest friend and strongest defender even after Philby came under suspicion following the flight to Moscow of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess after Maclean's exposure as a Soviet agent. Mr. Macintyre tries to make a kind of heroic figure out of Elliott. Elliott became Philby’s friend and began to worship him “with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated.” However, it is clear that Elliott was a total dupe and just another eccentric member of the British old boys’ club who overindulged in alcohol and whose main pleasure was the telling of risqué jokes. I do not share Mr. Macintyre’s admiration of Elliott. He did not hesitate during bibulous lunches to relate confidential information to Philby who promptly passed it on to his Soviet handlers.
Mr. Macintyre drops only hints here and there as to why he thinks Philby did what he did. He indicates that Philby was not really an idealist who was committed to the Communist cause. For Philby spying was a kind of game and became in the long run a form of addiction. Mr. Macintyre suggests, correctly I think, that Philby’s famous escape to the Soviet Union from Beirut was no accident. He could easily have been prevented from escaping. However, the old boys were not all that anxious for one of their own to be tried publicly at the Old Bailey where their ineptitude would be displayed before the British public. They preferred the matter to remain concealed by the provisions of the Official Secrets Act. They therefore almost pushed Philby into making his escape.
It is somewhat galling that Philby went unpunished for his treachery. However, in some respects, his exile to the Soviet Union may have been the best punishment of all. Here was this bon vivant who loved champagne, haute cuisine and every other kind of luxury forced to live in the dull, gray and cheerless atmosphere of Moscow. Sadly for him, there were no posh watering spots such as he was accustomed to frequenting in London. Additionally, Philby was an unwelcome guest and was assigned a minder who was there nominally to protect him, but whose actual job was to monitor his every movement. Guy Burgess suffered a similar fate as amusingly depicted in the short BBC Television film “An Englishman Abroad” by Allan Bennett and starring Crystal Browne and Alan Bates.
Ben Macintyre relates a story in which there were no good players. Only J. Edgar Hoover, who has a cameo role in the book, emerges as a person with any common sense and that says it all!
Macintyre does highlight one thing perhaps not widely appreciated, though it was previously pointed out by Graham Greene: Philby was among other things an effective manager, a leader who inspired loyalty in his team because he repeatedly demonstrated loyalty to them. While it's true that he came from the right social background, that alone does not explain why for decades he was protected by the solidarity of "a chosen brotherhood." (pg. 185) What's more telling is that he seems to have been genuinely liked by everyone at MI6, even though they separately loathed each other.
Philby may at times have suffered from having chosen to lead a double life, but I suspect he also took some pleasure in disguising himself without resorting to make-up or masks, simply relying on having the right background, a winning personality and conversational skills. A risk-taker without remotely being a Bond-like adventurer, he enjoyed deciding who would get to know how much of the truth, and which version of it. He must also have relished the opportunity to play God, determining who lived or died without his victims ever suspecting that he was the ultimate arbiter. "Victims?" one imagines Philby saying with Harry Lime – "don't be melodramatic."
Macintyre's new angle comes from his refocusing our attention on Philby's relationship with his closest friend – and fellow intelligence officer – Nicholas Elliott. Elliott was perhaps the most likeable member of the well-connected set who enabled Philby to remain undetected, if not entirely unsuspected. Whatever it was that finally convinced Elliott of Philby's treachery (the theory offered here is not entirely believable), it came as a severe shock to his system. Macintyre describes well how shaken he must have felt at suddenly confronting a truth he had so long and so confidently denied. The title of this book is "A Spy Among Friends," but a more accurate one might have been, "Intelligence Agents Have No Friends."
For a more detailed version of this review, see my blog: hamiltonbeck.wordpress.com
Kim Philby lives through this book as an enigmatic yet charismatic double agent whose exploits over many years astound.
If you like spy thrillers give this book a try. Ben Macintyre writes great accounts of things that happened but in a way that engages and persuades you to draw in closer. Try his other books too.
My only moan (directed at Amazon not the author) is that if you like to read the notes on each Chapter (as I do) in Kindle this totally messes up the process of tracking your last page read. Something they could no doubt correct but choose not to.
Great book - good read!