Monday, 23 June 2014

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre

Cricket enthusiast, bon viveur, tireless party-thrower and ace undercover agent … Kim Philby. Photograph: Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – review
With the panache of a born storyteller, Ben Macintyre explores what drove Kim Philby, the charming master of duplicity
 John Banville   
The man with a secret is the man with power, Aristotle observes, and no life could illustrate the truth of the maxim more emphatically than that of Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby, pupil of Westminster School and Cambridge graduate, clubman, cricket enthusiast, bon viveur and tireless party-thrower, ace undercover agent and, as Ben Macintyre would have it, great betrayer. Not only did he condemn many people, perhaps hundreds, to cruel and ignominious deaths, he also clandestinely manipulated some of the leading figures in western security services for decades, charming out of them all manner of the most sensitive information and passing it on to the KGB. As more than one of his dupes ruefully observed, he fooled them all.
Yet what kind of power is it that the double agent enjoys? Of the people Philby moved among – wives, lovers, children, friends, fond colleagues – not a single one was taken into his confidence. He hugged his secret to him and, one presumes, fed his ego on it. That is a kind of power, certainly. "Philby enjoyed deception," Macintyre writes. "Like secrecy, the erotic charge of infidelity can be hard to renounce. Some men like to parade their knowledge. Others revel in the possession of information that they decline to share, and the private sense of superiority that this brings."
Even his Russian handler, the suave and sophisticated Yuri Modin, who ran the Cambridge spy network, found Philby to be an enigma. Modin wrote of him: "He never revealed his true self. Neither the British, nor the women he lived with, nor ourselves [the KGB] ever managed to pierce the armour of mystery that clad him … in the end I suspect that Philby made a mockery of everyone, particularly ourselves."
This is surely right, but only to a point. Philby would have hotly denied the charge of mockery. In an interview with the journalist Phillip Knightley in Moscow in 1988, he was adamant: "I don't like deceiving people, especially friends, and contrary to what others think, I feel very badly about it." Bad he may have felt, but he never faltered. After his defection to Moscow he was joined by his third wife, Eleanor, who one day asked him what was more important in his life, her and their children, or the Communist party. "The party, of course," he answered. One reads this exchange with a shiver, yet with a certain admiration, too. How many of us would have the steel to give ourselves over so unwaveringly to a cause?

In all the books, articles and memoirs in which Philby has figured it is striking how little attention, indeed, how much credence, is given to his belief in the communist revolution. The question is asked over and over: how could he do it? How could he deceive his family, friends and colleagues? How could he betray so many agents in the field, to be shot at border posts or sent into the Lubyanka to face torture and execution? The answer, at one level, is simple. He had a faith, and he never lost it.

For those whom he deceived, Philby had to be made into a grandmaster of duplicity, a great and terrible genius; if he were anything less, they would seem even more careless, gullible and plain stupid than they were. The fact is, however, Philby was a perfectly ordinary product of his time and milieu, except for one thing, the ferocity of his commitment to a cause. "What Philby's enemies described as betrayal," Macintyre writes, "he saw as loyalty." For all his clubbability, for all the drinks parties he gave and the cricket matches he attended, Philby was a fanatic, and fanaticism is something that we in the secular and more or less democratic west find almost impossible to understand.

Simply put, we have forgotten what it is to be seized by the force of an idea. Isaiah Berlin, contemplating the "ideological storms" that swept through the 20th century, cautioned that "it is as well to realise that these great movements began with ideas in people's heads: ideas about what relations between men have been, are, might be, and should be; and to realise how they came to be transformed in the name of a vision of some supreme goal in the minds of the leaders, above all of the prophets with armies at their backs."

For all that we might marvel at Philby's unwavering loyalty to the party, it is easy to sympathise with the wounded bafflement of the people who were closest to him professionally, or who thought themselves closest to him, such as his MI6 colleague Nicholas Elliott and the CIA chief James Jesus Angleton, both of whom he took in, chewed on, and spat out with not a moment's hesitation or, for all his protestations, real remorse.

Philby's friend and fellow spy, the novelist Graham Greene, famously remarked that "in the lost childhood of Judas Christ was betrayed". In the case of Philby, commentators reach back into his earliest days in search of a solution to the conundrum that he represents. There are those who point to the love-hate relations between him and his doughty father, the Arabist St John Philby, as the source of a violent drive towards duplicity and betrayal. It seems a dubious proposition.
In this context it is useful to turn to Kim Philby: The Unknown Story of the KGB's Master Spy, the late Tim Milne's finely written and refreshingly unhysterical book. He and Philby were pupils together at Westminster, where Milne's first and peculiarly apposite memory of his friend is of "a very small boy happily trying to squash a bigger boy behind a cupboard door". Milne, nephew of the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, would later serve in MI6 – was there anyone in that circle who did not do his and sometimes even her stint as a spy? – and is sceptical of the Oedipal theory as an explanation of Philby's betrayals. St John Philby had been a popular success at Westminster, but "Kim was uninterested in trying to emulate … these successes, nor did he give the impression of having turned his back on them because he knew he would fall short of his father's achievement: it was merely that he thought he had better things to do."

Philby travelled in Germany as a student – Milne gives fascinating and revealing accounts of his friend's behaviour and attitudes at this time – and later he worked as a journalist in Spain, where, thanks to his cover as a Nationalist sympathiser, he was decorated by Franco himself; it was one of the many ironies of Philby's extraordinary life that besides this signal honour he was also awarded medals by both Britain and the Soviet Union.

As with many young Englishmen of his generation, the spectacle of the Nazi takeover in Germany, and then of the atrocities of the Spanish civil war, drove him to communism. Unlike most of the others, however, he dedicated his life to the overthrow of capitalism. But did he truly believe in the cause? Milne writes, "To become a communist is one thing; to remain a communist is quite another" and goes on to quote Philby's own account of the Pascalian wager that he made: "It cannot be so very surprising that I adopted a Communist viewpoint in the 1930s; so many of my contemporaries made the same choice. But many of those who made that choice in those days changed sides when some of the worst features of Stalinism became apparent. I stayed the course." With that mixture of candour and what Greene called Philby's "chilling certainty" there is no arguing.

Yet we must beware of being lulled into accepting Philby's own estimate of himself and his motives. Nothing in life is simple, and in Philby's life in particular every layer gave on to other, deeper layers. There is the fact that for all his leftwing convictions he was also a snob. "In some ways," Macintyre shrewdly suggests, "Philby's story is that of a man in pursuit of ever more exclusive clubs," and what could be more exclusive than a club that has only one member?

And then there is the performance itself, in which a move was never missed or a line fluffed. Nietzsche recognised that to be truly convincing to others a man must learn to impersonate himself; as one of his closest friends observed of Philby, "he was the greatest actor in the world". And at the start of each day's performance he must pray, along with Samuel Butler: "Vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without being found out."

It might seem that by now Philby as a subject had been done to death, but as these two books amply illustrate, he is still a source of fascination and wonderment. Macintyre writes with the diligence and insight of a journalist, and the panache of a born storyteller, concentrating on Philby's friendship with and betrayal of Elliott and of Angleton, his pathetically dedicated admirer at the top of the CIA. Macintyre's account of the verbal duel between Elliott and Philby in their final confrontation in Beirut in 1963 is worthy of John le Carré at his best – and indeed, Le Carré contributes an afterword, which is as eloquent in what it does not say as in what it does. Milne, for his part, treats his old friend and deceiver with surprising tenderness. "I do not regret knowing him," he writes. "He enriched my world for many years and I owed a lot to him." The Philby charm held good to the bitter end.

And speaking of ends, have we learned all there is to know about Philby the master spy? What exactly did Yuri Modin mean when he spoke of Philby having made "a mockery of everyone, particularly ourselves"? When it comes to spying, Jim Angleton used to say, we are in a hall of mirrors, in which everything is reflected doubly, triply, endlessly…

• John Banville's The Black-Eyed Blonde (written as Benjamin Black) is published by Mantle. To order A Spy Among Friends or Kim Philby, each at £14.99 with free UK p&p, call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

• This article was amended on 31 March 2014. An earlier version referred to Tim Milne as the grandson, rather than nephew, of the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Traitor: Kim Philby before his defection to the Soviet Union in 1963

The smiling spy

By John Preston

As a pupil at Westminster School in the mid Twenties, Kim Philby became obsessed with cricket; an obsession he retained all his life. He was a good bowler - ‘with a distant air of meditation, even at the moment of releasing the ball’ - as well as a useful fielder, whose favourite position was Deep Cover.

Third Man might have been even better, I suppose, but Deep Cover still seems remarkably apt. The most successful Soviet spy in history, Philby spent most of his adult life hidden beneath thick layers of subterfuge. For almost 30 years, during which time he rose almost to the top of MI6, Philby dutifully passed every interesting nugget of information straight on to his bosses in Moscow.

All spies engage in deceit, of course, but none with quite such relish as Philby. Ben Macintyre prefaces his new book with E.M Forster’s famous quote about betrayal - ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’

Philby, though, betrayed both his friends and his country. Indeed, he betrayed, or spied on, just about everyone of any importance in his life, including his father and his wife. But perhaps his greatest personal betrayal was that of his closest friend Nicholas Elliott.

The two men were peculiarly alike, in background as well as temperament. Both had distant fathers who they tried desperately to impress; both were brought up by nannies; both struggled to conceal their shyness, both went to public school - Elliott was at Eton - and both became spies.

Elliott was so smitten with Philby that he even took to dressing like him - in the same patched tweed jackets and cravats. Not that he was alone here.

Almost everyone who met Philby was won over by his charm. One of the few who held out was the historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, who recalled, ‘There was something mysterious about him. He never engaged you in serious conversation - it was always irony.’

Philby rose swiftly up the ranks of MI6 with Elliott not far behind.

Alma mater: Westminster School
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, a young anglophile called James Jesus Angleton - his mother was a very devout Catholic - was making a big impression at the CIA. Whenever he was in London, the three of them would meet for astonishingly boozy dinners. Soon Philby became the MI6 bureau chief in Washington, a job that brought him and Angleton into even closer contact. It was only years later that Angleton realised that Philby had ‘picked him clean’ during their late-night chats.

While all was unruffled charm on Philby’s surface, occasionally there were glimpses of something much darker going on beneath. His second wife, Aileen, had a nervous breakdown - she took to injecting herself with her own urine which caused her skin to erupt in boils. Far from being sympathetic, Philby was furious that she’d managed to hide her emotional state from him for so long. The Great Deceiver had had the wool pulled over his own eyes.

In retrospect, Aileen must have guessed that something fishy was going on. She wasn’t the only one. One of Angleton’s CIA colleagues also had his suspicions, and passed them on to MI6. Over the next four years, Philby was interrogated four times. On each occasion, though, he managed to convince his interrogators that their suspicions were groundless.

Not taken in: Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper
But eventually he was forced to resign after another close friend - and fellow spy - Guy Burgess defected to Moscow. Ever loyal, Nicholas Elliott paid Philby’s children’s school fees and eventually managed to get his old chum reinstated. Philby was posted to Beirut, but the strain of living a lie was starting to take its toll. His booze consumption soared upwards, reaching barely imaginable heights. He also became a social embarrassment - once, Philby went to a party and loudly congratulated his hostess on having the best breasts in Beirut.

Even so, Elliott’s support never wavered - not until the day when an old female friend of Philby’s came forward with an account of how he had tried to recruit her as a Soviet spy. Here was confirmation of the CIA’s worst suspicions.

All at once Elliott’s illusions crumbled. ‘Once, he would have died for Philby; now, as he told his son, he would have “happily killed him.”’

Elliott insisted that he should be the one to confront Philby. Flying to Beirut in July 1963, he set himself up in a hotel room that was bugged with a hidden microphone under the sofa. Then a colleague phoned Philby and suggested he come over for a drink.

However blotto he was, Philby must have known the game was up. When he saw Elliott, he said simply, ‘I rather thought it would be you.’

If Nicholas Elliott was deeply shocked by Philby’s treachery, so too was Tim Milne who, like Elliott, had worked with him at MI6. Indeed, Milne, the nephew of Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne, had known Philby even longer - they were at Westminster together.

When he retired, Milne wrote a memoir about his friendship with Philby. However, MI6 blocked publication and it’s only now, four years after his death, that it is appearing for the first time.

There are some good anecdotes here - the cricketing recollections are Milne’s - and some interesting suggestions that Philby wasn’t such a big boozer as he’s usually cracked up to be. Was this a pretence too?

Yet what stands out above all is just how little bitterness Milne felt. Philby, he wrote, ‘enriched my world for many years’, and Milne clearly didn’t want anything, not even treachery, to soil the memory of that: ‘I do not feel bitterness towards him, only sadness.’

While Milne’s book is a thing of shreds and patches, Macintyre’s is an absolute humdinger. As he has proved before - recently with Double Cross: the True Story of the D-Day Spies - no one writes about deceit and subterfuge so dramatically, authoritatively or  perceptively.

To read A Spy Among Friends is a bit like climbing aboard a runaway train in terms of speed and excitement - except that Macintyre knows exactly where he is going and is in total control of his material.

Fellow defector: Philby, left, with George Blake at Blake's home in Russia
After being interrogated by Elliott in Beirut, Philby fled to Moscow. Towards the end of his life - he died in 1988 - he declared to a visitor, ‘Friendship is the most important thing of all.’

Under the circumstances, this sounds like breathtaking humbug. Yet could there, just possibly, be another explanation - that he really meant it? In which case maybe the person Kim Philby deceived even more than Nicholas Elliott was himself.

A Spy Among Friends review: Kim Philby's treacherous friendship with Nicholas Elliott
Ben Macintyre's account of Kim Philby's long friendship with the MI6 spy Nicholas Elliott is a riveting read
  Robert McCrum            
In January 1963, two middle-aged Englishmen took tea together in the Christian quarter of Beirut. An eavesdropper might have mistaken their references to Eton, the Observer, and a nasty flu bug for genteel chit-chat. In fact, this exquisitely English encounter was the terrible end to a 30-year friendship corrupted and finally broken by the private and public betrayals of two lives devoted to espionage.

The transcript of this rendezvous is Ben Macintyre's scoop: the motor of an unputdownable postwar thriller whose every incredible detail is fact not fiction. In dramatic terms, what Macintyre calls "one of the most important conversations in the history of the cold war", bugged by MI5, marked the moment when one charming spy, Nicholas Elliott, began finally to extract a confession from another, his old friend Kim Philby.

For more than 50 years, the career of Harold Adrian Russell Philby – "Kim" to friends and family – has been the dark mirror in which we have read the bleakest episodes of Britain's postwar history. As Macintyre wisely acknowledges, Philby has inspired a voluminous bibliography that sometimes approaches literature, for instance in the novels of John le Carré.

Philby, codenamed "Sonny" by the Soviets, was the archetype of treachery. In 1951, his two co-agents, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, rumbled by the Americans, fled to the USSR. Philby's position seemed hopelessly compromised, but the establishment exonerated him. In 1955 the foreign secretary Harold Macmillan told the Commons that he had "no reason to conclude that Mr Philby has betrayed the interests of his country, or to identify him with the so-called 'third man', if indeed there was one." Soon after, "Sonny" landed a job as the Observer's Middle East correspondent. Once in Beirut, he resumed his career as a Soviet spy.

When he finally defected in 1963 – the climax to Macintyre's spellbinding narrative – the aftershocks of his ruthless treachery sent shudders through the establishment of which he had been so seamlessly a part. At first, he was – in Phillip Knightley's phrase – "the spy who betrayed a generation". Now, with most of that generation dead or in retirement, the Philby story has begun to morph into myth, slipping from history into psychodrama.

Enter Ben Macintyre, the author of Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat, bestselling accounts of high-octane, covert capers from wartime Britain. Macintyre, the witty elegist of class-conscious, late-empire Britain, is the supreme pontiff of the "What larks" school of popular history. His challenge here, moving to the shady side of the post-imperial slope, is to unfold a harrowing tale while simultaneously entertaining his devoted readers with his customary galère of twits, alcoholics, transvestites, and fantasists. A Spy Among Friends, a classic spookfest, is also a brilliant reconciliation of history and entertainment.

At the heart of the Philby story, as Macintyre reports it, is a unique, and tragic, friendship between two public schoolboys, both spies. The children of cold and unreachable fathers, Elliott and Philby found in the secret world a comforting fraternity in which they could refashion their damaged selves.

Elliott, the younger man, became an MI6 high-flyer; Philby a KGB double agent. Bizarrely, each was spoken of as a possible "C", or head of the secret service. In keeping with the code of the club, they anaesthetised their lives with elaborate jokes, pink gin, and a passion for cricket. "They spoke the same language," Elliott's son told Macintyre. "Kim was as close a friend as my father ever had."

This relationship scaled Olympic heights of denial. Elliott said of his friend that "he did not strike me as a political animal". Such skewed intuition would come as no surprise to John le Carré, whose enthralling Afterword is one of the special pleasures of A Spy Among Friends. He remembers Elliott, who interviewed him for a job in the secret state, as a character from PG Wodehouse, "a quiet smile on his face, and the elbow cocked for the martini glass". Philby would not have had to work too hard to conceal his secret life from this Old Etonian bloodhound.

Astonishingly, Elliott never discovered that Philby had married an Austrian communist spy, or that his friend was a "penetration agent" for the KGB. Most dreadful of all, at the human level, he never knew that everything he confided to Philby in the bars of London's clubland, went straight back to Sonny's spymasters in Moscow. Part of the archetypal grip this story holds for the reader is as a case study in the existential truth that, in human relations, the Other is never really knowable. For both, the mask became indistinguishable from reality.

There are many deeper Philby-Elliott mysteries, judiciously anatomised by Macintyre. Why, for instance, did Philby resume his career as a spy once he had been set up in Beirut as the Observer's Middle East correspondent? The answer goes to the marrow of this astounding story.

For Philby, as much as Elliott, the secret life had become an addiction, a game of Russian roulette. With his friend Graham Greene, he could never wean himself from the thrill of risk, and like Macbeth became "in blood stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er".

Back home, the mole-hunters nailed Philby's lies. Finally, the evidence was incontrovertible. In a cruel twist, MI5 decided that only one man could confront Philby. His best friend was sent to Beirut to extract the all-important confession. "I rather thought it would be you," said Philby, when Elliott turned up.

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend," declared EM Forster, in a famous credo, "I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." Elliott's interrogation led inexorably to Philby's precipitate defection. In that high noon among the teacups, each sacrificed everything: friendship, country and future. A Spy Among Friends is not just an elegy, it is an unforgettable requiem.

Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal, TV review: Deadly cunning of a gentleman spy exposed
Will Dean

Will Dean is Editor of The Independent Magazine

A couple of years ago, a friend of a friend was going through the selection process to join one of the British intelligence agencies. Part of a vetting process that lasted a couple of months involved a man in a black suit interviewing their friends at their workplaces and asking questions about what they get up to and what they talk about after a night on the jars. Very thorough stuff.
Back in the Forties, when Kim Philby, one of the 20th-century's most notorious double agents was recruited, things were much simpler. Prep school? Westminster? Cambridge? Nice chap? You're in! Now where do you fancy being posted, old boy?

In Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal (BBC2) we learned that this was the rigour that allowed Philby to infiltrate the highest ranks of UK intelligence.

Of course, this country is now an absolute meritocracy so we probably won't have our era's Kim Philby. Alas, Kim Philby's generation did have its generation's Kim Philby in, er, Kim Philby, who in the words of journalist and historian Ben Macintyre was “the most famous double agent in history”. And Macintyre is in a good place to judge, having spent the last couple of years researching and writing his recent bestselling book of how Philby betrayed his best friend and colleague Nicholas Elliott in A Spy Among Friends.

It is that story that forms the spine of this two-part tie-in. The tale of the Cambridge spy ring is well told by now – perhaps best of all in Peter Moffat's 2003 mini-series Cambridge Spies with Toby Stephens as Philby and Tom Hollander as a wonderfully grotesque Guy Burgess – so it is a relief that Donald Maclean, Blunt and co are mere supporting characters here.

Macintyre concentrates on the deceits of Philby, the most effective of the Cantab spies, and his relationship with Elliott, another intelligence officer whose vetting procedure appeared to consist of being able to explain the rules of the Eton wall game.

We were told this story in an odd smorgasbord of formats. There were reconstructions of Philby and Elliott's conversations played by actors. Then there were other sort-of reconstructions in which Macintyre himself performed the roles of various characters. In one, Macintyre, appeared as a mole-hunting colonel, sitting opposite another Macintyre, playing Nicholas Elliott, before a third Macintyre popped up to explain what was going on. A bit like Multiplicity if Michael Keaton had Jon Ronson's specs and Malcolm Gladwell's hair.

Thankfully, Macintyre's narrative was precise enough that even seeing three versions of him dissembling a vividly complicated spot of counterintelligence skulduggery wasn't enough to throw you from what was going on. His taut, succinct dialogue did the work of several paragraphs. Like worker ants lugging a slice of Warburtons back to their queen.

Describing Philby's vicious betrayal of a group of anti-communist agents he sent into Eastern European countries where they – and many of their family members – met with grisly fates, Macintyre simply stated: “Philby found the work fascinating, and so did Moscow.”

As such, even those who have done exhaustive research (ie watched Cambridge Spies on YouTube three years ago) learned a great deal about the legacy of Philby's crimes in the first of two parts. It is not just the le Carré-inspiring hum of spy drama intrigue, but actual, innocent, people lost their lives because of his lies.

Philby may have been a gentleman spy, but Macintyre's work paints him – thoroughly – as a very English traitor.

 Kim Philby: His Most Intimate Betrayal (BBC2)

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