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 you know more than you would have gathered from a studio portrait.
We still need a portrait. Blunt’s very success as a scholar, his gift of winning admiration from friends and pupils, his distinction of mind and bearing in public, the fact that he was second in reputation only to Kenneth Clark among English-born art historians, and the irony of his position at court as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, combine to make one want to know about him. He had too much hauteur to be a charmer. He was a fascinator. He fascinated people with his quick, engaging, cool, and assured talk. He baited his conversation with gossip, inside gossip, gossip to which only he had access. When he had gone, it dawned on you with what skill he had faintly denigrated those about whom he talked. They would be humbled by a flick of the whip here and a twist of the knife there.
He was not only a fascinator. He was a manipulator. He wanted more than most people in academic life to have his own way, appoint his protégés and rule the roost. Since the Courtauld Institute was for years the only major center in Britain where the history of art was taught he nearly always got his own way. When new departments teaching the history of art were formed he expected other universities to appoint his nominees and was huffy if they did not. But despite his public position he preserved the privacy and dislike of worldliness that was characteristic of his generation at Cambridge. Not for him the social life of the Kenneth Clarks. Many regarded Clark as a friend but he had no intimate friends. Intimacy was as natural to Blunt as privacy.
Of course some serving officers or officials disliked him. They thought him a cold fish and sensed at once that he was homosexual. Maxwell Knight, a highly successful and unpleasant officer in M15 who disguised his own homosexuality, would have nothing to do with him. A few of his students also disliked him, disliked his autocracy, disliked the spite he displayed against those who offended him, disliked his habit of teaching from photographs and neglecting the need to look at the actual painting itself, the brushwork, the pentimenti, and the way the painter achieved his effect. But most of his students admired him and to many and to younger colleagues he was unwearyingly kind. When he fell, it was a far greater shock than the exposure of the true professional Philby or the drunken Maclean.
Many people fell under suspicion when Blunt confessed, and two of the best chapters in Penrose and Freeman’s book deal with the horde of innocent, as well as suspect, characters who became entangled in Blunt’s treachery and were confronted by the “maverick conspirator” as they call Peter Wright. But they also confirm Wright’s contention that despite the grant of immunity from prosecution Blunt gave as little away as possible. Blunt knew that the evidence in the hands of M15—including Michael Straight’s recollection of Blunt trying to recruit him1—would not be adequate to secure a conviction in a court of law.
That was why the authorities were forced to give him immunity. Despite his protestations when he was exposed, he never repented or intended to keep his side of the bargain and help his interrogators. He had, one might say, an obsession that he should be seen to be right in all he did or said. Of the four Cambridge spies he was the least dedicated to the Soviet cause and probably regarded what he did as justifiable at the time and a matter of no consequence afterward. It fitted the atmosphere of mild intrigue and manipulation that he enjoyed in his personal and academic life. He was someone who early in his life lost touch with reality in personal relations as well as in political life. He was loyal not to his friends but to his own image of himself. That was always important to him. People were right to think him arrogant. His interrogators found him unwilling to admit he was wrong. But it was an arrogance that is well known in the academic world and is often inseparable from success in scholarship. Keynes was arrogant. He disliked Blunt and thought little of him as a young Marxist scholar when Blunt tried unsuccessfully for a fellowship at King’s.
And yet though Blunt had the most distinguished mind of all the Cambridge spies, it is interesting to see how often he is elbowed off the page by the irrepressible Guy Burgess. Burgess has won a place in the black comedy of our times, lurching onto the stage of history for a few weeks before slouching off again. He had special gifts. Those who knew him only in postwar years, drunken, dirty, and repetitive, should realize that once he radiated charm and vitality. He was merry, with a mind like quicksilver, and quite unlike the undergraduate Marxists of those days. His Marxism was not a lesson learned and regurgitated, it emerged as a genuine vision of life. He never talked or thought in the jargon. He had a real passion for general ideas and understood the springs of political action relating them to the personalities of the day in a way that made his conversation attractive and gave politics a depth which his listeners had not grasped until then.
His judgments were original in the Thirties. He thought George Eliot to be the greatest of English novelists because she showed how her characters were held in the powerful grasp of the morality of their class, which in turn was dictated by economic forces beyond their control. He wanted the class conflict brought out as it is in productions today, in his favorite opera, The Marriage of Figaro. At the height of Lytton Strachey’s fame Burgess pronounced him inferior to the Eminent Victorians whom he pilloried. Paradoxical as it may sound he was the one patriot among the Cambridge spies. For him Britain’s imperial past and the Royal Navy were being betrayed by decadent aristocrats like Halifax. The ruling class was behaving with all the folly born of those inner contradictions that Marx had predicted. He was a true Stalinist in hating liberalism more than imperialism, and in admiring ruthlessness and denouncing scruples as sentimentalism. In a dotty, quixotic way he retained a romantic notion of his country whereas to Blunt patriotism was a meaningless concept. Burgess believed Britain’s future lay with Russia not America, and only by a revolution could Britain regain her place in the world.
Burgess never made any secret of his strange brew of Tory-Marxism, although he knew when to strengthen the malt at the expense of the hops. In 1938 when he went to Chartwell to urge Churchill to take part in a BBC series of talks on aggression in the Mediterranean by the fascist powers, he did not raise his glass and toast Stalin as he used to do with his stepfather in order to infuriate him. Churchill gave him a copy of his speeches and wrote on the flyleaf praise for “his admirable sentiments.” Some eminent people like to recall how they saw through him at once and found him so unkempt and unreliable that they are amazed at his success in taking people in. But many other people as eminent were intrigued by his intelligence and power of instant analysis, and Burgess knew how to exploit the old-boy network. Goronwy Rees, a Communist in the 1930s and fellow of All Souls, was among those who fell under his spell. How far he did—Rees left an unforgettable portrait of Burgess—is a moot point.2
Penrose and Freeman, who have a keen nose for deceit among their informants, put a question mark over Rees. He changed his story several times. Before the war, so he said, Burgess blurted out one evening that he was a Comintern agent and tried to recruit him; and in order to persuade him, Burgess told Rees that Blunt was also an agent. Rees rejected the offer to join them, and it was only years later that Burgess’s behavior, eccentric even by his standards, convinced Rees that Burgess had been telling the truth. So knowing that Blunt had served in M15 during the war, he unburdened himself to Blunt only to be told that his suspicions were absurd. Even if this was true, should he not put friendship before such dubious concepts as treachery and treason? Nevertheless, Rees went to M15. There he learned that Burgess had decamped with Maclean and the mysterious message Burgess had sent him was indeed, as he suspected, a farewell before he escaped to Moscow. There is something odd here. If Burgess did indeed name Blunt as an accomplice before the war, why did Rees consult Blunt?
Michael Straight, After Long Silence (Norton, 1984).↩
Goronwy Rees, A Chapter of Accidents (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972).↩