Top positive review
Kim Philby and the Old Boys' Club
Reviewed in the United States on August 13, 2014
This excellent book by the London journalist, Ben Macintyre, is suspenseful and indeed reads almost like a novel. One has to keep reminding oneself that Kim Philby’s spying for the Soviet Union resulted in hundreds of deaths. Surprisingly, despite the opening of Soviet–era archives in recent years, the book contains no startling new revelations. It does, however, contain much new interesting information about such incidents as “Operation Valuable” (an attempted infiltration of Communist Albania) and Commander Crabb’s attempt to photograph the underside of a warship that brought Comrades Krushschev and Bulganin on a “goodwill” visit to the United Kingdom. Both projects ended in failure due to Kim Philby‘s passing on of information about them to his Soviet handlers.
I don’t think I have ever read such a damning indictment of the English upper class as emerges from this book. Even Gilbert and Sullivan could not have invented more eccentric characters. Their names alone are risible. We have, for example, Hester Harriet Marsden-Smedley, a journalist who first casually suggested to Philby that he might want to become involved with the Secret Services. Then there is Sarah Algeria Marjorie Maxse, a Conservative Party panjandrum and a member of MI6, who recruited Philby on the basis of a report from Valentine Vivian (also known as Vee-Vee), the deputy head of MI6, who knew Philby’s father. Vee-Vee gave the quintessential definition of England’s old boys’ network: “I was asked about him, and said I knew his people.”
We also encounter the grossly eccentric Hillary St. John Bridger Philby, Kim Philby’s father, who converted to Islam and became an advisor to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. One can add Helenus Patrick Joseph Milmo a barrister who interrogated Philby and who looks from his photograph like a character out of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury.” Then there is Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugesson, His Majesty’s Ambassador to Ankara, who developed the habit of bringing home official papers to the ambassadorial residence where his valet, an Albanian petty criminal by the name of Bazna, was able to copy the documents and pass them on to the Nazis.
This book differs from other books about Philby in that it tells the tale through Philby’s relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a Cambridge-educated British spy, who was Philby’s closest friend and strongest defender even after Philby came under suspicion following the flight to Moscow of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess after Maclean's exposure as a Soviet agent. Mr. Macintyre tries to make a kind of heroic figure out of Elliott. Elliott became Philby’s friend and began to worship him “with a powerful male adoration that was unrequited, unsexual and unstated.” However, it is clear that Elliott was a total dupe and just another eccentric member of the British old boys’ club who overindulged in alcohol and whose main pleasure was the telling of risqué jokes. I do not share Mr. Macintyre’s admiration of Elliott. He did not hesitate during bibulous lunches to relate confidential information to Philby who promptly passed it on to his Soviet handlers.
Mr. Macintyre drops only hints here and there as to why he thinks Philby did what he did. He indicates that Philby was not really an idealist who was committed to the Communist cause. For Philby spying was a kind of game and became in the long run a form of addiction. Mr. Macintyre suggests, correctly I think, that Philby’s famous escape to the Soviet Union from Beirut was no accident. He could easily have been prevented from escaping. However, the old boys were not all that anxious for one of their own to be tried publicly at the Old Bailey where their ineptitude would be displayed before the British public. They preferred the matter to remain concealed by the provisions of the Official Secrets Act. They therefore almost pushed Philby into making his escape.
It is somewhat galling that Philby went unpunished for his treachery. However, in some respects, his exile to the Soviet Union may have been the best punishment of all. Here was this bon vivant who loved champagne, haute cuisine and every other kind of luxury forced to live in the dull, gray and cheerless atmosphere of Moscow. Sadly for him, there were no posh watering spots such as he was accustomed to frequenting in London. Additionally, Philby was an unwelcome guest and was assigned a minder who was there nominally to protect him, but whose actual job was to monitor his every movement. Guy Burgess suffered a similar fate as amusingly depicted in the short BBC Television film “An Englishman Abroad” by Allan Bennett and starring Coral Browne and Alan Bates.
Ben Macintyre relates a story in which there were no good players. Only J. Edgar Hoover, who has a cameo role in the book, emerges as a person with any common sense and that says it all!