Conspiracy of Silence: The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt
by Barrie Penrose, by Simon Freeman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 616 pp., $22.95
The Cambridge spies—their character, youth, acquaintances, and deeds—have cast a spell over the British and a cloud over their contemporaries. Beside them the other spies look shabby. Fuchs was a German refugee, Nunn May an obscure physicist, the rest men without features. The only glamour that George Blake evoked was his sensational escape from prison. It was organized by the KGB who did not miss their chance of taking advantage of the humane conditions under which Blake had begun to serve his sentence of forty-two years for being a mole in M16.
But the Cambridge spies provided a dream story for journalists. These men had moved at ease among the establishment. “Everybody” knew them. They belonged to that world of privilege and power symbolized by Oxford and Cambridge which those outside it resent and suspect. Did the establishment protect them, connive at their escape, or condone their treachery? Who among the Cambridge dons had sown the seeds of their corruption or possibly recruited them? Who else were traitors?
When Anthony Blunt’s guilt finally became public every adjective of turpitude was deployed from Fleet Street’s vocabulary. The journalists kept on repeating the phrase that he “was stripped of his knighthood by the Queen”—a trope that conjured up an improbable spectacle of his Sovereign at Buckingham Palace ordering his sword to be snapped and his spurs bent double while personally divesting Blunt of articles of clothing. There was in the air a sense of outrage that these pampered public school boys who had betrayed their country had managed to evade the long prison sentences that lesser fry were serving. Cheated of their prey in the case of three of them, the press swooped on Blunt like carrion crows; and when Blunt’s lawyer arranged that only the Times and the Guardian and the two television news services should interview him, the popular press raged that it was typical of the establishment press to protect him and, worse still, to give him lunch.
Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman, a team of investigative journalists on the Sunday Times, have tried to look at Blunt and his background in a new way. Hitherto books on the spies by Rebecca West, Alan Moorehead, Andrew Boyle, and Chapman Pincher had been written in a tone of indignant contempt for these intellectuals. Penrose and Freeman thought that the public might like to hear the evidence and form their own judgment. They accordingly dug up the dead and phoned up the living, then set down the raw material just as it came from the mouths of those they interviewed and the documents they found. The reader is left to make up his own mind. It’s like a photo album in which the same people are taken now from this angle and now from that so that, in the end, you are left with a pile of snapshots on the floor, some of which seem hardly to be of the same man. And yet …
Leaks December 3, 1987