Sunday, June 21, 2015

A spy among friends

Kim Philby was the real third man you don’t meet every day. He went to all the right schools, loved cricket, with some like-minded friends secretly joined the Communist movement on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, rose to the top ranks of British intelligence, and enjoyed a catbird seat through World War II and much of the Cold War that allowed him to uncover for the Soviet dozens if not hundreds of opposition agents they could then debrief, imprison and liquidate.

He was in a position to tip off friends Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean just before their escapades had caught up with them (they fled to U.S.S.R.) and, despite enormously suspicious circumstances, he was subsequently able to hang on more than 10 more years before likewise fleeing Beirut, a wife, and a journalist's job on the Dolmatova, a Soviet freighter bound for Odessa. By then he'd cast a pale of paranoia that lingered over U.S. and British intelligence for many years.

His story is told ably in A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre. Not a word is wasted in this taut tome. The author looks to forge his narrative around Philby’s long friendship with - and treacherous betrayal of - Nicholas Elliot, a somewhat similarly upperclass Cambridge student who joined the intelligence service about the time Philby did, and who rose with him - and who seems finally – with some tacit approval from superiors – to have let him get away.

I haven’t read other books on this topic, so I can't vouch for the history here. An afterword by John LeCarre seems to second MacIntyre's basic characterizations of Philby and Elliot. While MacIntyre tries to form the story as an interplay between Elliot and Philby, he himself the latter is just too dynamic and enigmatic to leave air in the room for others.

It seems life was an endless round of drinking in those days for people in those circles. They hobnobbed their way through the run up to World War II, the war, and the Cold War. You feel at times as if you are watching Madmen - other times as if you are in the middle of a Hitchcock film or Grahame Greene novel. In fact, Greene and Ian Fleming both make appearances in this story, as does Anthony Blunt, the Queen's art historian, who's nefarious past become public shortly before his death. For Philby the party ended in 1988 in U.S.S.R. and, two years later, with communism in a crumble, his visage made it to a postage stamp there. It occurred to him he was allowed to do a fade instead of face a trial that would have rocked the establishment of the U.K (much as the establishment in US was briefly rocked by Watergate).

He went undetected, and then unpunished, it seems, because he was such a darn well placed good fellow. His father, St. John Philby, had been in the Indian Civil Service, and was an expert on the Middle East, who, rather like T.E. Lawrence, assumed the garb of the Arab. True to form, he was a bit of a cold duck. Maybe Philby Jr. wanted to out-rebel him or pay him back for parental indifference. The book focuses on Philby from the college years on, and drops the chase once he is Moscow for good. Some history fans would want a deeper drenching of detail and analysis. Others like me would rather a nice fast paced story like this one.

Philby largely shielded family and friends from his true self – and you walk away with the notion that this fact was his consuming objective, and source of kicks. To be someone else. He hid his intentions so that some might say there is not a whole lot of evidence to show that he really had very much zeal for communism.

While there are people sympathetic to Philby in apartments still with posters of Uncle Joe over the table in the kitchen and the army men's choir vinyl playing, most people would categorize him a dirty bastard. But a bastard worth a book treatment as lively as MacIntyre's. - Jack Vaughan

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