More on Philby
Philby: The Long Road to Moscow Patrick, Seale and Maureen McConville (Hamish Hamilton £3.50)
What, another book on Philby? Yes, and a good one. The reader must make concessions at once to the point of view: "Kim Philby now has his place in Western demonology . . . . it is time to take Philby out of his niche in the rogues' gallery.' A purist might object to this that he has seen no such niche or even heard of it. Mention Philby in any average company from the village pub to the clubs of Pall Mall and some man of the left will arise to defend him or a psychiatrist start to air his theories. Kim Philby must have been hard to live with. Did he "sacrifice his women to the imperatives of his career or did he simply treat them abominably? Were the political charades of Cambridge in the 'thirties so important in shaping the way of life of a man with an evident itch for power but unequipped to gain this end through the conventional channels he liked to despise? Finally, can a book be trusted which calls St John Philby, Philby's father, an" upper-middle-class elitist "?
The reader who feels that he cannot do so should skip the introductory chapters with all of Kim Philby's astonishing ruthlessness. They have been done before and equally well, but the book then takes powerful wings and flies. Once Philby has come down from. Cambridge — its detractors might say escaped from Cambridge — and completed his stint with the Spanish War, which at that time was a compulsory proving ground for any young man with communist leanings, there is a story based on well-researched facts. Philby was wholly committed now and also some way on the long road to training.
This part of the book is very good, displaying all the solid virtues of the formidable talents which wrote it. There is the journalist's respect for facts once the mists of surmise are left behind, the academic's elegance in putting the facts into simple order. Through the. jungle of these troubled times the animals stalk their prey and each other, Burgess and Maclean and the others, and they sometimes trip over each others' feet. In the light of this finely constructed story they are almost too obvious. Why weren't they dealt with very much earlier?
The book offers no formal judgement, and
rightly, but is sceptical of that other jungle, the vast muddle of post-war British Intelligence. Here the animals were less exotic, but alas they were not less well adapted. SIS as an operational body was in process of having its wings clipped severely, for Whitehall was far from sympathetic to the ethos of the • CIA and the Bay of Pigs had scared it badly; ,and that part of the Intelligence complex which reported to the Foreign Office was not so much suspect of harbouring traitors as an object of almost public contempt. Ministers and certainly journalists who had need of more than cocktail gossip would go anywhere else in the world to get it than to the Permanent Under-Secretary of State. But the authors put the problem fairly: " So a suspected man poses a dilemma: security demands that relations with him be severed, but the need for controlled contact with the enemy tempts counter-espionage to keep in touch with him. In Kim's case the urge to help an old and valued employee was inseparable from the wish to trap him into confession, if indeed he had anything to confess. The only way to achieve the second was to try the first." A lapidary and flawless statement of how to handle a double agent. Unhappily the men who were doing so could hardly have written these splendid sentences. No doubt they knew the well-tried theory but their judgement was hamstrung by law and by politics. " The more the Americans damned Philby, the more the British instinct was to give him the benefit of the doubt." Only MI5 emerges blameless, since it stuck to its established Principle that spies were to be destroyed, not Played with. And how was Philby faring himself while his two masters worked out their too-clever moves? He was drinking himself near to death in Beirut as a stringer ' for two English newspapers. The Russians could have pulled him out at almost any time they wished, but they pushed their agents right up to their limits, The British were being extremely British, especially the man whom the authors call "Charles," Since he couldn't pull Philby in and torture him he went on interrogating, persistent but courteous. He never broke Philby, he wasn't allowed to. In the end Philby cracked with a suspicion of melodrama. Ever since Dolnystin's defection he had known that he was more than suspect, and he couldn't be sure that his Russian masters still regarded him with an absolute confidence. What finally broke him was seemingly tension — tension and an excess of alcohol. He ran and received a hero's welcome. A sad story, no doubt, but hardly great tragedy. Kim Philby hadn't the stature to carry it. The book strikes occasional sparks of annoyance with its air of being judicial at all costs, but if the judge's summing up can be tedious his facts are beyond any sort of challenge. It can be read more than once and always with pleasure.
William Haggard is the well known thriller writer whose latest book is The Old Masters.