The spy who went into the cold
PHILBY: KGB MASTERSPY by Philip Knightley
Deutsch, £14.95, pp. 291
Dressed in his check shirt and cash- mere pullover, copies of Dick Francis and the Times on the table beside him, the ruggedly good-looking man staring out from both the front and back cover is the sort of retired gentleman to be found at any golf club in the Home Counties. Yet he spent the last 25 years in Moscow and for over 50 years had been a Soviet agent, for the man is Kim Philby.
Philip Knightley's first book on Philby was published in 1967. He has remained fascinated by the man he calls 'the most remarkable spy in the history of espionage' and for the last 20 years corresponded with Philby in Moscow. His patience paid off when earlier this year he was invited by Philby to interview him and it was perhaps inevitable, with Philby's death shortly af- ter, that Knightley should have turned his material, much already used in the Sunday Times, into a book.
A plethora of books about Philby have been published in the last two decades. These include biographies by former col- leagues Hugh Trevor-Roper and Patrick Seale as well as various books on the `Cambridge Commintern'. He, however, continues to fascinate writers and presum- ably readers. I know of at least three other Philby books in production at a time when Burgess has had only one biography, and that by Tom Driberg, himself a Soviet agent, and the first book on Donald Maclean was only published last week.
Sadly Philby: KGB Masterspy adds little to what is known already about perhaps the highest ranking defector to the Soviet Union from the West. Knightley asks many of the right questions about how and why Philby became a Soviet agent, how he escaped in 1963 and whether or not he hpped off Maclean in 1951. Philby, on the other hand, is rather economical with the truth and refuses to be drawn on various operational details'.
What does emerge is a picture of a man who yearns for Colman's mustard, Lea & Perrins sauce and France, who, on parting from his third wife forever, gives her his old school scarf and who each day looks forward to the 'Times obits, the funny
letters, the court circular and the cross- word (15-20 minutes with my morning tea to crank up cerebration)'. It is a sympathe- tic portrait and it is only in the 1967 interview with the journalist Murray Sayle, which Knightley quotes in full, that a more comprehensible Philby seems to emerge:
'I suppose I am really two people', he said. 'I am a private person and a political person. Of course, if there is a conflict, the political person comes first.' I said this sounded one of the bleakest, saddest things I had heard anyone say for a long time. He shrugged his shoulders. I asked how he reacted to the charge that he was a traitor. 'To betray, you must first belong', he said. 'I never be- longed'.
And yet the attraction of Philby is surely that he did belong. Though he now denies it, Kim's revolt resembles that of his father, the Arabian explorer, Harry St John Philby who left the Indian Civil Service, became a Muslim, married a Saudi slave girl, spoke Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Pushtu and Punjabi. 'But he never gave up being an Englishman. He stood twice for Parliament . . . tried never to miss a Test match, and was a member of the Athe- naeum'.
Knightley's book is fluently written but, even given the speed with which it was brought out, rather superficial. All too often it reads like the series of newspaper articles it was originally intended to be. There is little attempt to place Philby in a broader context or analyse why such an apparently conventional Englishman should devote his life to Soviet Russia. Much of what he writes has been super- seded by recent research on the subject. Instead, we are treated to the tired old story of how Burgess begat Philby and Blunt, who begat Straight. It is a tale that does not ring true for it is difficult to believe that the irresponsible and indis- creet Burgess should recruit the cold and calculating Blunt who was four years older, already a Fellow of Trinity and who had brought him into the Apostles. The accepted view now is that Blunt was the Managing Director of the Cambridge Spy Ring and operated through acolytes like Burgess. Equally, while it is true that Burgess, Blunt, Maclean and Philby were influenced by Marxism, their rebellion was essentially a personal and not a political one. Knightley seems to place too much stress on Philby's political motivation when, as Sayle has suggested, it stemmed more from his 'love of deceit'.
Knightley is a great believer in the spontaneous theory of espionage, that suddenly at the beginning of the 1930s a generation of Cambridge undergraduates opted for a career in the KGB instead of the BBC. The fact is that immediately after the 1917 revolution the Soviets targetted Britain for their intelligence activities. Cambridge was chosen because of its im- portance as a scientific centre but Oxford, London and Birmingham were targetted as well. 'The Oxford Connection' has still to be properly investigated but would include Goronwy Rees, Jennifer Williams, Tom Driberg and the brothers Peter and Ber- nard Floud, the latter a Labour MP.
The so-called 'Cambridge Commintern' was by no means the first wave of spies. A Downing undergraduate Philip Spratt was dispatched in 1924 in order to foment rebellion in India. E. H. Oldham, a Fore- ign Office clerk, walked into the Soviet Embassy in Paris in 1929 and passed information to the Russians until his appa- rent 'suicide' in 1933. Oldham drew in another cipher clerk John Herbert King who was eventually arrested in 1939 and sent to prison.
It is surprising that when Knightley discusses Burgess he makes no mention of the important role Burgess played in radio propaganda while on the secret Joint Broadcasting Committee or to explain why such an economic illiterate should be advis- ing Victor Rothschild's mother on invest- ments; in fact Burgess was used to keep an eye on various pro-German groups that were potentially a threat to the Rothschild family and fortune. It is true that Burgess was instrumental in bringing Philby into the Intelligence Services but he was helped by an existing MI6 officer David Footman who, according to a wartime colleague, was never 'given a completely clean bill of health'. This is all essential background and it has been largely ignored.
Knightley does, however, shed new light on Philby's recruitment after Cambridge, his betrayal of the Soviet defector Volkov and the various missions into Albania after the war, his escape from Beirut and life in Moscow with his fourth wife Rufa. And, as always, Knightley is provocative, speculat- ing, for example, that in any case Volkov may have been a plant, suggesting that Philby was deliberately run as a double agent by the MI6 Head of Station in Turkey after the war, hence the initial support from his colleagues in MI6 against the entreaties of those in MI5; and that the spy 'ELLI' who, according to Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher, was Roger Hollis was probably only a figment of the Soviet defector Gouzenko's imagination. He also makes an interesting case for Philby being encouraged by MI6 to flee Beirut, either to save the embarrassment of having to prose- cute him or to trap him into incriminating himself.
There is a fascinating story of how Philby was supported by his former Intelligence colleague Thomas Harris when the former was drummed out of MI6 after the flight of Burgess and Maclean in 1951. Philby had originally approached Deutsch offering to write about his experiences in the Intelli- gence Services and a contract had been drawn up. What Philby did not know was that when a large part of the advance had to be repaid for non-delivery, Harris did so himself.
Harris is an intriguing character. Origi- nally trained as an artist he had made a fortune as an art dealer. The parties he and his wife Hilda gave were lavish affairs regularly attended by Blunt, Burgess and Philby. Together with Flora Solomon, who later denounced Philby, he was a witness when Philby married his second wife Ai- leen and one of Philby's prized possessions in Moscow was the antique table given by Harris.
What Knightley does not say is that there is now growing evidence that Harris was another Soviet mole and that his fortune was made as a middleman selling the Spanish artworks looted by Soviet agents during the Spanish Civil War. Nor does he mention the strange cir- cumstances in which Harris died. One afternoon driving along a familiar stretch of road in Majorca, where he lived, Harris' new Citroen inexplicably veered off the road. He had not been drinking or speed- ing and the suspicion has always been that someone had tampered with the car.
Philby certainly was an important agent, running for a time the very section in MI6 responsible for Soviet counter-espionage, but it is unlikely that he would ever have become head of MI6. While it is true that Maurice Oldfield did become 'C' in spite of his known homosexuality, Philby's record had too many question marks against it. He was known to have been a communist at Cambridge, his first wife was a recorded Soviet agent, he had lived in sin through- out the war and his drinking and philander- ing were legendary.
The fascination with Philby does not concern what he did but why and how he continued to his dying day to stand by the decision made at the age of 21. As he admitted, he may have chosen 'the wrong side. Only history can tell'. That history continues to be written, especially after this book.