Category Archives: Literature/Academia


The main purpose of my visit to the U.K. this month was to attend the degree ceremony at the University of Buckingham and to receive formally my doctoral award. As many readers will recall (wake up at the back, there!), my thesis covered the subversion of MI5 by communist agents and influences at the beginning of WW II. A symptom of this institutional failure was the later indulgence shown to the Soviet spy Leo Long after he was caught red-handed passing military secrets from MI14 in 1943, my claim being that this ‘Sixth Man’ may have been even more dangerous than the pentad of Cambridge graduates that has gained practically all the publicity. (The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, the alumni magazine of my Oxford college, contains an article about my research, titled ‘The Moscow Plot’, and it can be viewed here.) Followers of my subsequent research on ‘Sonia’s Radio’ may also have noticed that I have hinted at the remote possibility that the 1956 death of Alexander Foote may have been faked by MI5 (with the connivance of SIS) to prevent his assassination by Soviet military intelligence. The relevance of these two items will become clear by the end of this blog entry.

On the first evening of my trip, after I had arrived early in the morning at the Battersea residence of my brother, Michael, and his wife, Susanna (who has courageously and gratifyingly recovered from her cancer treatment), Michael and I went to the Instituto Cervantes  near the Strand to attend an interview with Professor Sebastian Balfour, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics. Professor Balfour and Michael had become friends when they were both in hospital, and the Professor had very kindly ensured that Michael received special attention when he was in dire straits. I had met the Professor and his wife, Grainne, at Michael’s house on my previous visit, and was eager to learn what the Professor had to say about Spanish matters in the last century, and later even, right up to the secession attempts now being made by Catalonia. What with Philby’s association with Franco, Spender’s mission on behalf of the Comintern, Foote’s action with the International Brigades, as well as the whole sorry story of the Soviet-directed elimination of the anarchists, and the orchestration of the stealing of Spain’s gold by Orlov on Stalin’s behalf, the events of the Spanish Civil War were very relevant to my research area.

Professor Balfour offered us some excellent insights, skillfully weaving the experiences of Spain in the twentieth century into the fabric of today’s cultural and ideological dynamics. Moreover, at the party after the event, I was pleased to meet Mark Ezra and his wife, who were neighbours of the Professor. Mark turned out to be a film-producer, and I was happy to take his address as a possible contact for arranging a deal for the script (based on the central event of my thesis) that my friend and colleague Grant Eustace has been trying to place. Moreover, in one of those strange coincidences that tend to aggregate as one gets older, I discovered later that Mr Ezra had attended Ampleforth College, and had been educated both by Susanna’s father (Haughton) as well as by her first (deceased) husband (Dammann).

After the Spanish event, Michael and I took a taxi to Chelsea, where Susanna was winding down a dinner with four long-standing friends, all outstandingly bright professional women, and wonderful company.

Nicola, Nemeen, Mo, Janie & Susanna

The conversation was lively, and one of the friends (Mo, who is a psychotherapist) decided to issue nicknames to us all. I was given the cryptonym POLARBEAR, (surely in ignorance of my austere reputation as COLDSPUR), which prompted me to respond that my times must be numbered, as the beast ran the risk of soon becoming extinct. This was a highly enjoyable and lively end to the day, which had started by seeing me deplane at Heathrow at what was in fact 3 am in Southport, North Carolina (already on summer time), and which closed by my collapsing into bed at midnight local time.

I had arranged to meet Grant Eustace for lunch in Victoria the following day (Friday 10th), and was able to pass him the lead. Grant and I exchanged sympathies over the struggles with making headway in the worlds of publishing and the media, but maybe something will become of this opportunity. In any case, Grant is always working on some stimulating project, and I enjoy learning about his new ventures. On Saturday morning, I had to catch a train to Newcastle, in the North of England, since I was attending, as my more impulsive alter ego of HOTSPUR, the annual Listener Crossword Setters’ Dinner in Gateshead. I had not attended this event for ten years, but the opportunity was too great to pass up, even though I was a bit embarrassed by the mistake in my centennial Alan Turing puzzle of five years ago. I need not have worried: I was not booed on arrival. It was an excellent occasion, where I re-encountered some old friends, and established new ones. The pseudonyms of the setters often resemble the cryptonyms of agents working for Soviet Intelligence: thus my friend Ian Simpson (who was one of my testers) bears the same sobriquet (HOMER) as the Cambridge Spy Donald Maclean. The photo below shows Ian sitting next to Richard Heald, a renowned solver. THIRD MAN (Richard England, not Kim Philby), who holds the current record of most consecutive Listener puzzles correctly solved (103, I believe, and still active), was supposed to be in the photo, but he, who remembered me as a fellow London Society Rugby Football referee, somehow was recorded only in a short video-clip. (‘Third men’ customarily prefer being airbrushed out of history.) I was honoured to be sitting next to SHACKLETON (John Guiver), who won the prize for the best puzzle of 2016. This event is a very British affair, and a great institution, populated by smart, inventive and congenial people, who love words, and crosswords, and all the cultural trappings that accompany the Listener puzzle. But 2017 will probably be my last dinner.

Ian Simpson & Richard Heald

The Elusive Third Man (Richard England) (video not yet displayable)

Hotspur & John Guiver

I took the return train to London the following morning, arriving back in Battersea in mid-afternoon. That evening I was fortunate enough to meet the philosopher John Hyman, Professor in Aesthetics at the University of Oxford, who is also a friend of Michael’s and Susanna’s, and had been invited to dinner. John had expressed interest in my thesis since he knew Isaiah Berlin (indeed he had once been on a bus with him, and thus considered Isaiah and himself ‘fellow-travellers’) and asked me several penetrating questions. I was happy to discuss the implications of Berlin’s friendship with such as Guy Burgess, Lord Rothschild, and, most of all, Jenifer and Herbert Hart, since Jenifer had been Berlin’s lover, and Herbert had been a most important influence on jurisprudential philosophy, being acknowledged several times in Hyman’s recent Action, Knowledge and Will, a volume I might perhaps not have picked up otherwise. I prepared for the occasion by reading the most relevant chapters on the train from Gateshead, but (perhaps fortunately) we ran out of time before I could be questioned on the arguments. (I regret I am a bit slow on these matters: I am still trying to come to grips with ‘Freddie’ Ayer’s 1936 Language, Truth and Logic.) But again, a most enjoyable evening.

Monday saw me meeting my old friend David Earl, who picked me up at East Croydon Station, whence we repaired to a pub for lunch and caught up with each other’s news. David has always shown a solicitous interest in my research, and asked me again whether I had been ‘tapped on the shoulder’ over my subversive line of inquiry. I suggested to him that it might be a bit late for that, and that any such warnings would now only aid publicity for my forthcoming book. Later that afternoon, I went to Whitgift School, where I was able to see two long-standing friends, Tia Afghan, the Head Librarian, and Bill Wood, the Archivist, before preparing to attend the AGM and Annual Dinner of the Old Whitgiftian Golf Society, a group I had joined on a previous visit to the U.K.  Some of the gentlemen attending I had never met before, a few I had played golf with, but I was delighted to see again some old colleagues from the rugby and cricket fields, such as Mike Wilkinson, Paul Champness, Alan Cowing, Howard Morton, and Jeremy Stanyard. It was another highly enjoyable evening: golf is thriving at the School, and while the Headmaster chose the occasion to give a rather supererogatory motivational speech, it did not detract from the sense of fellowship. Howard Morton kindly drove me home to Battersea.

Messrs. Stanyard, Wilkinson & Champness (centre)

Peter Abel (left) et alii

Work followed on Tuesday. I went to the National Archives at Kew, where I had to wait to get my Reader’s ticket renewed, and then hung around while my requested files were retrieved. My goal that day was to dig around in the records of the Radio Security Service to discover what attempts had been made to intercept unfamiliar and unauthorised radio traffic either being received or transmitted within the UK’s shores in the 1940s. I also managed to inspect the missing volume of the files on the Rote Kapelle: for some reason, the third volume of biographical information on RK members and affiliates had not been digitised, and thus I had been unable to download it from my home in Southport. When I brought this oversight to the attention of the Kew authorities a few weeks ago, they could not explain it, and committed to rectify the problem, but were in no rush to do so, especially as I was about to visit the Archives. I discovered several nuggets, some that addressed enigmas, some that provoked new ones.

The next day saw Michael, Susannna and me driving to Oxford, where we were scheduled to be shown round the exhibition on Volcanoes at the new Weston Library of the Bodleian by its lead curator, David Pyle, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University. This visit had been arranged by another coincidence: I have been a Friend of the Bodleian for some years, and when I met Jessica Brown of the Development Office last summer, I had happened to mention that my wife Sylvia had been born in St. Vincent. A few weeks later, astutely recalling the connection, Jessica contacted me about the Volcanoes plans, saying that the eruptions of La Soufrière on the island constituted an important part of the coming exhibition, and would I be interested in it? I was able to inform her that Sylvia and I had trekked up to the top of the mountain in the autumn of 1978, whereupon our guide – who had never seen smoke emanating from the base  ̶  wanted immediately to dash back down the mountain for fear it were about to erupt again. Moreover, I was able to extract from my files a report on the adventure that I had written back in May 1979, after the major eruption that occurred on Easter Friday. (See here.) The long and short of it was that I agreed to help fund a video and audio display about the Caribbean volcanoes in the transept space at the exhibition, and the personal attention of the kind and expert volcanologist, Professor Pyle, was our reward. The exhibition contained a remarkable set of accounts, illustrations, and maps from the Bodleian Libraries, as well some items borrowed from outside. I heartily recommend a tour: the exhibition closes on May 21.

La Soufrière at the Bodleian

Michael, Susanna & I on the roof of the Weston Library

We then moved on to Christ Church, my alma mater, where I had arranged a visit to the Library. Dr Cristina Neagu, who is keeper of the Special Collections, was able to show us a rich and assorted set of documents, from commentaries by Maimonides to recently discovered notebooks and publications by Lewis Carroll, as well as the remarkable Graz camera that is contributing to an exciting digitisation project at the Bodleian. The wealth of the Special Collections is extraordinary, and is being made more broadly available through the interpretation of scholars, and the efforts of Cristina and her team, supported by innovative digitisation techniques. This was another very fascinating experience, and we returned to our hotel at Peartree Road well stimulated, ready for some excellent refreshment and dinner at the Trout at Godstow.

No relaxation! The next day (Thursday), Susanna was seeing a friend in Oxford, so Michael drove us to Bletchley to spend a day at Bletchley Park, the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School (renamed Government Communications Headquarters at some stage during the war). While I knew a fair amount about GC&CS from my reading (especially about the analysis of ENIGMA traffic), I had never visited the place itself. For me, much of the inspection of the various huts was less than overwhelming, but the experience was enhanced by a brief tour of Bletchley Park House itself (in which the office of its chief, Alastair Denniston, stood), and capped by a remarkable exhibition in Block B, where a moving account of Alan Turing’s life and tragic end was given, as well as a crisp and articulate demonstration of a reconstructed ‘Bombe’ at work. An ENIGMA message was decrypted with the help of a ‘crib’ that relied on the fact that no letter could ever be encoded as itself, the multiple wheels rotating until a trial set of complete matches was made. The (volunteer) demonstrators performed a superlative job: one of them told us that her father had worked at Bletchley Park during the war, and then, after learning Russian, had moved on to manage English Accessions at the Bodleian. But the exhibition was also a little coy about the controversies that still surround wartime security and management. For example, in the Visitor Centre, three plaques show Stewart Menzies (head of SIS, to whom GC&CS reported), Alastair Denniston (who led GC&CS from 1921 to 1942), and Edward Travis (director from 1942 to 1952). Menzies is graced with his ‘Sir’, but with no dates. Denniston and Travis are both given their years of birth and death, but no titles, although Travis was given his knighthood a few months after his appointment, while Denniston was shamefully never given one. Maybe embarrassment over this snub still lingers.

Susanna took the bus from Oxford to Buckingham to join us on Thursday evening, where we were staying in preparation for the degree ceremony on Friday. Friday turned out to be the coldest day of my stay: I had to pick up my cap and gown in good time before setting off for a meeting with Christopher Woodhead, the editor at Buckingham University Press. We had not met in person, so it was good to discuss across the table plans for the book based on my thesis  ̶  indexing, illustrations, cover, launch. We appear to be on target for a September publication. And then   ̶  off to the Church of St Peter and St Paul for the secular Convocation for the Conferment of Degrees. This was a very well planned and executed ceremony, one of five held over two days, so that each graduand could receive a personal introduction. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University (and also my internal examiner) gave a bravura performance in orchestrating the ceremony, which was enhanced by a wise and amusing speech by Lord (Mervyn) King, former Governor of the Bank of England, and honorary graduand for the School of Humanities. It was followed by an excellent buffet, where we were pleased to be joined by my supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, and Sir Anthony Seldon, as well as by the MP for Buckingham (and Speaker of the House) John Bercow. The whole event was a grand example of British pluralism: persons of many countries, creeds, colours and cultures (and ages) coming together (in a Protestant church) to celebrate academic achievement and to be individually recognised, before dispersing to their different groups and associations. Pluralism, not multi-culturalism, in the spirit of the endorsements in my thesis. A very satisfactory day, and I am proud to be associated with the sole independent university in Britain with its motto  ̶  Alis Volans Propriis (‘Flying On Our Own Wings’). I was sorry that Sylvia and Julia could not be there to witness it, but the support of Michael and Susanna meant a lot.

Sir Anthony Seldon & Michael

Susanna & John Bercow

So then back to London, and champagne. The next day I had a reunion of the 1965 School Prefects at Whitgift, held at a pub near Hyde Park Corner. On my way there, I saw Howard Morton, who lives in Chelsea, and I was introduced to his charming Rwandan-born wife, Yvonne, and son, James. Twelve prefects attended the lunch: three of them I had not seen in over fifty years. Of course we each had perfect memories of what happened all that time ago, even if they did not all coincide, but Peter Kelly had brought along a few artifacts to provide documentary evidence, and to provoke lively discussion. We all fondly remembered our former leader and Head Prefect, John Knightly, who had sadly succumbed to cancer a couple of years before. I was sorry that not all could make the event, but Peter kindly arranged it at fairly short notice, and it was good to see so many old friends again. One remarkable fact that arose from the occasion was that Andrew Jukes (one of those whom I had not seen for fifty years) told me that he was in Washington (where his father worked in the Embassy) at the time that Burgess and Maclean absconded in 1951  . . .

Percy, Earl, Flood, Stewart, Hislop & New

Kelly, Rawlings. McCombie, Jukes, Kirk & Singleton

Sunday was a day off. I needed a rest, and to catch up. On Monday morning, I took the train to Minster  ̶  between Canterbury and Ramsgate  ̶  to have lunch with Nigel West (Rupert Allason), the doyen of writers on intelligence and espionage matters. I have read (and own) several of his books, but I keep encountering vital titles that I have overlooked and need to read. Nigel had attended the seminar I held at Buckingham a few years ago, so I was able to update him on the progress of my research and conclusions. We covered a lot of ground, including ELLI’s identity, Sedlacek and Roessler, Alexander Foote and Claude Dansey, the mistreatment of Denniston, the ISCOT program, and Sonia’s broadcasts. (Nigel once interviewed Sonia.) Nigel is not surprised by Denniston’s lack of a knighthood, pointing out that neither R. V. Jones nor Commander Godfrey was thus honored, but I continue to maintain that there is a deeper, murkier story behind the insult. Nigel also explained to me the reason why one’s effects are checked before entering the Archives at Kew: an academic had been detected inserting falsified documents into files, and then claiming breakthrough ‘findings’ some time later. (Not in my field, I hope.) That story can be inspected in West’s latest book, Cold War Counterfeit Spies. I was also very happy to meet Nigel’s charming wife, Nicola, a professional violinist, and the time went all too quickly before I had to catch the train back to London.

I needed one more day at Kew, so on Tuesday I caught the train from Clapham Junction to Richmond, switching to the ‘Underground’ to Kew Gardens, with an easy walk to the National Archives. I had a few files I needed to re-inspect, namely Dick White’s apologia to the Cabinet Office, the records of Leo Long, as well as the Kuczynski files that are not available on-line, in order to catch any details I had overlooked beforehand. I also discovered another intriguing RSS file, which included a highly provocative 1943 letter from Richard Gambier-Parry (head of Section VIII in SIS) to Claude Dansey, requesting his support in an attempt to tighten up radio security in the light of unauthorized foreign traffic from England. This was interesting, since Guy Liddell of MI5 Counter-Espionage frequently complains about Gambier-Parry’s lack of concern for such matters, while Dansey has never been known as showing much interest in wireless technology. Gambier-Parry also wrote, alongside SOE, about a unit named ‘P5’, which I had not encountered before. (The structure of wartime SIS is a highly confusing topic: the authorised historian of SIS Colin Jeffery suggests that P5 was a group liaising with Vichy France, while Phillip Davies indicates it dealt with the Polish government-in-exile and the Free French, which is a much more likely scenario.)

Before I left Kew, I bought a copy of West’s Cold War Counterfeit Spies, as well as Peter Matthews’ SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-1945, which appears to fill an important gap in the literature by concentrating on German interception and decryption techniques.  From a quick scan, I noticed that Matthews makes the confident assertion (on p 196, though curiously without providing a reference or source, or even listing Foote in the index) that Alexander Foote was working for SIS in Switzerland, and passing on to the Soviets the valuable ULTRA information. (This is a hypothesis I am attempting to prove in ‘Sonia’s Radio’.) Thus casually do narratives get confirmed in the historical record, so I was naturally intrigued in the evidence after which he came to this conclusion, which directly contradicts what Professor Hinsley, the authorised historian of British Intelligence in WWII, has written about the release of ULTRA information to the Soviets. I look forward to reading the work from cover to cover, but have already succeeded in making contact with Mr. Matthews, and he has just informed me that he was actually with the Army in Berlin when Foote defected there in 1947! (He also carried out at that time several interviews with German radio intelligence officers.) He has promised to inspect his files to find out what sources confirm the impression he had at the time. But I certainly agree with him in one respect: Foote’s life story ‘could fill another book’.

Time to come home. I left Battersea for Heathrow at 5:30 on Wednesday in order to catch my 8:50 plane to Charlotte. It left at 9:30, and arrived half an hour early, which can be explained only by extraordinary tailwinds, or a padded schedule that leads to improved on-time arrival records. So I had plenty of time for my connection to Wilmington – too much, in fact. The plane coming in from Columbia, SC, was delayed because of maintenance problems, so that, instead of leaving at 4:10, it taxied off to the runway at about 7:00. As we were about to take off, the pilot announced that we would have to return to the gate since one of the flight attendants would otherwise exceed her working time for the day. This was doubly ridiculous: American Airlines should have known what was happening and made a decision beforehand, and the policy that a flight attendant would be dangerously overworked, having spent three hours in Columbia presumably doing nothing, and when the 30-minute flight to Wilmington does not even allow for serving drinks in cabin class, is an example of regulation at its most absurd. Furthermore, we then waited another half an hour until the replacement crew member arrived, while American Airlines told us nothing. What about regulations helping passengers? By the time I arrived home, I had been travelling for twenty and a half hours – something my doctor has advised me not to do. Of course, I do not seek expensive regulations to support frustrated passengers. I want choice of airlines, and less government interference when safety is not an issue. But the options are currently few without even longer flights and journey segments.

Lastly, a strange coincidence. On the train to Newcastle on March 11, I had started reading Charles Cummings’s The Trinity Six, an intelligence thriller about an academic, Sam Gaddis, who chases down a story about a notorious ‘Sixth Man’, and even encounters, at the National Archives, a beautiful SIS officer disguised as a helpful employee. The death of the Sixth Man turns out to have been faked by MI5/SIS, so that his existence can be concealed from the Soviets, who have even more interest than SIS in shielding the public and press from the real story behind his betrayal. I recommend the book wholeheartedly. What is noteworthy, however, is that Chapter 26 begins with the following sentence: “Forty minutes earlier, Tanya Acocella had been passed a note informing her that Dr. Sam Gaddis – now known by the cryptonym POLARBEAR because, as Brennan had observed, ‘he’ll soon be extinct’ – had visited an Internet café on the Uxbridge Road and purchased an easyJet flight to Berlin.” Is this art imitating life, or vice versa, or simply a normal occurrence in the world of spooks? I had never met Susanna’s friend Mo before, she knew nothing about me, and I had not opened a page of Cummings’ book at that time. Gaddis does not fall victim to the multiple murders being carried out by the Russians, which is a good sign, I suppose: on the other hand, no sultry temptresses welcomed me at Kew.  Yet I suspect that it will be MI5 who may not be very happy with me when my revisionist history of that institution comes out this autumn. Is POLARBEAR a marked man? My friend David may think so. I arrived in Britain, however, on my UK passport, and left on my American one. This highly sophisticated ruse   ̶  one learned from my handlers  ̶  may have thrown them off the scent. POLARBEAR landed, but never took off again.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.

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Revisiting Smiley & Co.

Last month I re-read John le Carré’s classic story of betrayal in Britain’s security services, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It must be almost forty years since I first picked it up, since my Pan paperback edition came out in 1978. I do not believe I completely understood what was going on at the time, although the television serial produced by the BBC a year later made things a little easier. Now, with my deep background reading into espionage and intelligence, it was much easier to understand the plot, and pick up the threads and references.

A now obvious theme that had not made much impression on me earlier was the veiled introduction into the plot of real-life incidents and characters. Thus Rikki Tarr’s involvement with the Soviet agent Irina, and her sudden extraction back to the Soviet Union, echo the Volkov incident, where the would-be Soviet defector and his wife were spirited out of Turkey to be killed in Moscow, after Philby had betrayed them. The Arabist father of Bill Haydon (‘our latter-day Lawrence of Arabia’) is a clear pointer to the political persuasions of Kim Philby’s own father, Harry St. John.  The Oxford club of ‘Optimates’ (‘an upper-class Christ Church club, mainly old Etonian’ – Chapter 29) while of conservative leanings, is a clear analog of the Apostles, based at Trinity College, Cambridge, where most of the Cambridge Spies were recruited. The formidable Connie Sachs was probably based on the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, who maintained scrupulous records on Communist suspects for MI5, and had a phenomenal memory. Under-Secretary Oliver Lacon, with his ‘tight-lipped moral complacency’, has all the patrician smoothness of Gladwyn Jebb, who was indeed responsible for liaising between the Foreign Office and the security services. Even the workname of Jim Prideaux, Ellis, is a sharp pointer to the infamous Soviet mole, ELLI, never accurately identified, but whose brief syllables provide eerie hints to the various characters who have been at one time or another suspected of being the person behind the cryptonym: Guy Liddell, Graham Mitchell, Roger Hollis, and the undeservedly overlooked Leo Long (‘LL’). Le Carré even introduces a naval intelligence officer named ‘Lilley’ (Chapter 16) to extend the joke and enrich the pageant.

But one aspect that newly impressed me was Le Carré’s skills in characterization, especially his use of different speech registers both to describe and distinguish the intelligence officers. This was a strength that I had picked up in the last Le Carré novel that I read, The Russia House. The idioms and manners of speaking that anyone uses are influenced by many factors: family, locality, education, friends, associations, interests, etc. If taken to extremes, such registers become mere caricature, or may be applied for humorous affect if out of character (for instance, if I started using Cockney rhyming-slang in an exaggerated manner, or used Bertie Wooster vernacular). If deployed subtly, however, they can add much credibility and distinctiveness. Hence Ricky Tarr’s cheeky-chappie sub-American slang makes him instantly memorable and situates him somewhat out of his element among the refined bosses of the Circus; Toby Esterhase’s struggles with British idioms plant him carefully as an anglicised mid-European intellectual, and thus an outsider; Percy Alleline’s sarcastic and pompous banter ( his ‘one instrument of communication’) sharply sets him up as the boss who keeps control by reminding his underlings of their inferior status; Roy Bland’s ‘caustic cockney voice’ incorporates disrespect; Bill Haydon’s sharp-witted barbs and lively images can be seen as a screen to conceal his real character and actions.

And then there is Smiley himself.  His character comes through not so much in his idiom, but more in his manner of speaking, understated, with well-placed silences, and tentative questions, all encouraging his interlocutor to speak more. Perhaps, when most intelligence officers are represented by Le Carré as having all the traditional human failings of ambition, jealousy, and disloyalty, he is everything we should expect in an intelligence officer responsible for guarding the realm – solid, dry-witted, pragmatic, apolitical, dogged, analytical – and a little boring. Those plodding and unspectacular attributes are what enable him to solve the problem. Yet Smiley’s triumph in uncovering the mole Bill Haydon is undermined by Le Carré in a discomforting – and, to me, unconvincing  ̶  way. Even though Smiley has been cuckolded by Haydon, on the disclosure of the latter’s treachery, he still harbours doubts about Haydon’s guilt:  ‘Yet there was a part of him that rose already in Haydon’s defence. Was not Bill also betrayed?’ (Chapter 36)  Le Carré continues: ‘Thus Smiley felt not only disgust; but, despite all that the moment meant to him, a surge of resentment against the institutions he was supposed to be protecting.’ But Le Carré presents those institutions as being the officers of the Circus: ‘such men invalidate any contract: why should anyone be loyal to them?’ To portray a traitor as someone who has inexplicably been betrayed by the survival of decent life after the ruins of war and the onslaughts of two varieties of totalitarianism, yet somehow because of that succumbs to a bankrupt and cruel creed, is a bit rich. Haydon was no hero for the communist cause, no purist like Milovan Djilas, carping at the obtuseness of Stalin and the extravagances of Tito.

Not only that. For it is part of Le Carré’s grudge (as is clear from some of his later works, as well as from Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography of him) that the Western system was as essentially corrupt as was Communism, and their security services thus equally at fault. And here the author falls into the familiar territory of moral equivalence, providing the false contrast of ‘capitalism’ with ‘communism’, and suggesting that there is really nothing to choose between them. As he has Haydon say: ‘In capitalist America economic repression of the masses is institutionalised to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen’, something that simply sounds absurd coming from someone as cultured and intelligent as Haydon. ‘He had often wondered which side he would be on if the test ever came; after prolonged reflection he had finally to admit that if either monolith [sic!] had to win the day, he would prefer it to be the East.’ What nonsense! It is a very unconvincing portrait: on the one hand suggesting Haydon is a victim, and then giving him the most vapid ideological reasons for staying with Stalinism. The logic is as sophistical as one of the main reasons that Kim Philby, Le Carré’s model for Haydon, gave for his own loyalty, and clearly echoes it. Despite ‘some things going badly wrong in the Soviet Union’, as Philby wrote in My Secret War, ‘finally, it is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito.’ It is as if Le Carré (who declared that he blamed Philby for his premature exit from SIS), unconvinced by Philby’s feeble defence of Communism, was unable to come up with any better rationale to explain Haydon’s treachery, and had to resort to a message of Haydon as someone with a justifiable chip on his shoulder, over which Smiley is taken in.

Moreover, Le Carré falls for that familiar Marxist-Leninist dogma, weakly adopting the terminology of that argument. The struggle was not between capitalism and communism, but between totalitarianism and liberal democracy, with its pluralist instincts and necessarily messy approach to making policy. The West was no ‘monolith’. The problem with resisting dogmatic and pernicious creeds is that liberal democracies struggle to defend themselves confidently, as it is difficult to make an ideological virtue out of such fragmentation, out of pluralism itself. But it was the defence of such liberal institutions as parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, regular open elections, an independent press, freedom of religion and conscience, trial by jury, etc. that Smiley was supposed to be guarding – not the transient careers and reputation of the officers of an intelligence service. In fact it was a misguided loyalty to MI5 that encouraged Liddell, Hollis and Dick White to attempt to cover up their mistakes – not only about the discovery of moles in their midst – but also (for example) over Klaus Fuchs, and force their boss, Percy Sillitoe, to lie to the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, over their surveillance of the atom spy, a deception that has not been properly revealed to this day.

Some of the brave defectors from the Soviet Union realised this self-delusion better than their emancipated cousins resident in the West. One of these, Ismail Akhmedov, in his memoir In and Out of Stalin’s GRU wrote, of Philby: ‘To completely close the circle he will pass into oblivion, into an empty abyss during one of his drunken hours, as did Burgess, and join the company of butchers, henchmen, headhunters – call them what you will – the despised enemies of the unfortunate Soviet people still yearning for their freedom.’  Philby’s hypocrisy was revealed in a video recording discovered and broadcast a few weeks ago. He was recorded giving a lecture on spycraft to some STASI (East German secret police) officers in 1981 (see . His final lesson for them? ‘Never admit to anything if you are caught.’ But Philby never had to undergo torture, or threats to his family of he did not admit his guilt, or the prospect of a shot in the back of the head without trial. If MI5 and Special Branch had found convincing proof of his guilt, he probably would not have been prosecuted successfully without a confession and an embarrassing trial, and would likely have been told instead (as was Anthony Blunt, in effect): ‘Why don’t you quietly retire, old boy, as we don’t want any nasty mess and bad publicity for the service, do we?’.

Yet this bias of indulgence towards Stalin’s despotism is well-entrenched in Western intellectual life. I have just read David Lodge’s ingenious, but bizarre and ultimately unfulfilling, ‘novel’ about the love-life of H. G. Wells, A Man of Parts, where Lodge offers the following observation: ‘It took him [Wells] a long time, for instance, to recognize how completely Stalin’s police state had betrayed the ideals [sic] of the Russian Revolution. But at least he was never taken in by Mussolini and Hitler, as many British pundits and politicians were.’ ‘At least’?? Who was ever taken in by that strutting Italian socialist-cum-fascist showman? As for Hitler, the number of intellectuals (or pundits or politicians) truly taken in by his ideology was dwarfed by the number of useful idiots and fellow-travellers who were duped by Stalin. Certainly, the odious message of Mein Kampf was a dire warning of worse to come, and the persecution of Jews was well under way, but, at the outset of WWII, the quantity of massacres and murders perpetrated by Stalin was orders of magnitude greater than that for which Hitler had thus far been responsible.

A strong residue of sympathy endures for the great Communist ‘experiment’, and Marxist apologists are still all too ready to overlook the famines, the purges, the Gulag – and the Maoist Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge . . .  In fact, wherever the communist attempt to make a ‘new man’ has taken root, it has meant the elimination of millions who either chose the wrong parents, or defied the new ideology, or who were simply innocent victims caught up in the terror. Unfortunately, it appears that John le Carré, who, while having welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall, continues to rail against capitalism as he maximises his substantial royalty cheques, did not, and still fails to, understand the relationship between free enterprise and liberal democracy. But he tells a rattling good yarn, and has a great ear for the registers of speech.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.  (May 31, 2016)


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, Literature/Academia

Hey Big Spender!

‘So let me get right to the point
I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see
Hey, big spender!
spend a little time with me’                                                                                                                     (from Sweet Charity, 1966: lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

Shortly after it was released in 1977, I saw the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Based on a memoir by the American playwright Lillian Hellman, it tells the story of a close friendship between Hellman and the mysterious ‘Julia’, a rich American girl who had gone to Europe, studied at Oxford, and then moved to Vienna in the hope of being treated by Freud. Having involved herself in rescue operations of Jews and Communists from under the noses of the Fascists, Julia is severely crippled by the latter. Hellman, struggling with her writing in the summer of 1934, goes off to Europe to try to find her friend, and a few years later undertakes a dangerous mission of smuggling money into Berlin to help save more souls. Later, she learns that her friend had been attacked and was near to death in Frankfurt, but had been spirited out of the country to London, where she died. Hellman tries to discover what happened, and attempts to contact Julia’s grandparents, but finds instead a wall of silence.

I thought the film rather overwrought and unlikely at the time, but knew next to nothing about Hellman (or even Dashiell Hammett, of Maltese Falcon fame, with whom she was living on Long Island), and had only a vague understanding about Austrian politics in the mid-1930s. So I put it to the back of my mind, thinking it was a harmless vehicle for Hanoi Jane and the ambassadress for the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Ms. Redgrave, and concluded that the luvvies at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences must have seen something I didn’t when it was nominated for eleven awards, and won three.

My interest in Julia was sparked a year or two ago as I was performing research for my thesis on communist subversion. The name of Muriel Gardiner came up, and I learned that she had been the model for Hellman’s Julia, who had featured in an eponymous chapter in Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento, and had also appeared in embryonic form in her 1969 memoir An Unfinished Woman. Muriel Gardiner was indeed a rich American who from 1922 to 1924 had spent time at Oxford performing graduate work in English Literature, had moved to Vienna to seek out Freud and be psychoanalysed by him, and had become involved with the communist movement there. But the coincidence ended at that point, as Muriel Gardiner was in fact very much alive when she brought out her own autobiography, Code Name ‘Mary’ in 1983. What is more, she wrote that she had never met Lillian Hellman.

Gardiner explains in her memoir that she had been prompted to write her account to set the record straight, several of her friends having pointed out to her the resemblance between her and Hellman’s Julia. She apparently read Hellman’s book soon after it came out: Sheila Isenberg (Gardiner’s biographer) says that she paid ‘little heed’ to it at first, as her time was consumed with looking after her husband, apparently stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and her interest was not stirred until the movie was released. But Isenberg then represents the chronology very awkwardly, suggesting that Gardiner had discussions with her friends about the movie, but ‘at first refused to say anything directly to Hellman’. Isenberg next reports, however, that ‘in 1976, she did finally write a letter to Hellman’. But since Julia was not released until 1977, the timetable does not make sense.

So what about the letter? It is an extraordinary compilation, a mixture of deference and polite puzzlement. Gardiner starts by describing Pentimento as ‘a beautiful book’  – a somewhat unfortunate choice of words, as later paragraphs will show. She wonders whether the character Julia could be a composite of several persons: “I do not at all think so, but cannot help wondering that I never – as far as I know – met Julia. Nor have I met you, though I heard of you often from our good friend, Wolf Schwabacher  . . .”  (Schwabacher was a lawyer, with whom Muriel and her husband, Joe Buttinger, shared a large house in Pennington, New Jersey, when she returned to the USA in 1940.)   Why would Gardiner bother to point out to Hellman that they had never met, and, even more to the point, why would she not have tried to arrange a meeting to discuss the topic first? An introduction would surely have been easy.

Gardiner’s biographer adds that Hellman had ‘first borrowed Muriel’s life’ late in 1940, when she created ‘the wealthy American Sara Muller, the wife of a European resistance leader’, in The Watch on the Rhine.  But Gardiner had missed the play and the film. Now her tactful approach gave Hellman an opportunity to explain all. Yet she signed off her letter by saying even that there was no need for Hellman to answer it. Why? If she was genuinely interested in what had happened, why give Hellman the out? Instead, Gardiner studiously avoided pinning Hellman down, and when she came to research her own memoir a few years later, she even made contact with the head of the Documentary Archives of the Austrian Resistance, in Vienna (a Dr. Herbert Steiner), to confirm that no other resistance fighter with the same profile had existed. Instead of pursuing Hellman a little more energetically, behavior that would have been much more conventional and acceptable, she went chasing hares.

Hellman accordingly took advantage of the invitation, and did not answer the letter, yet continued to lie about the person of Julia. Anyone interested in more details on this part of the saga can read Sheila Isenberg’s biography of Gardiner (Muriel’s War), or William Wright’s biography of Hellman (Lillian Hellman), or such articles as the New York Times review of Code Name ‘Mary’, at What is certain is that Hellman was not only a Stalinist, but an inveterate liar, and was called out as such. She died before her famous lawsuit against Mary McCarthy came to court. McCarthy had famously said of Hellman on the Dick Cavett Show on October 18, 1979 that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’ Hellman’s mendacity is made perfectly clear in a volume of conversations she had with the media between 1974 and 1979 (i.e. before and after the movie was made), published as Conversations with Hellman (1986), where she confidently begins by boasting of her memory, and swears to the truth of her story, and the strength of her friendship with Julia, but by the end is resorting to awkward equivocations as some of the inconsistencies come to light.

This February, I at last read Pentimento, and also rented the movie Julia from the University Library. The memoir is pure hokum. For example, Hellman describes Hammett and herself spending the summer of 1934 on Long Island, until Hammett agrees to pay her fare to go to Europe for two-and-half months, so that she can finish her play The Children’s Hour, and see Julia. She arrives in Paris, where she calls Julia in Vienna, and tells her she will join her. As Hellman tells it: “Then, two weeks after my phone call, the newspaper headlines said that Austrian government troops, aided by local Nazis, had bombarded the Karl Marx Hof in the Floridsdorf district of Vienna.” Hellman arrives there to find Julia in hospital, having been severely wounded in the fracas surrounding Floridsdorf. Yet the storming of the Karl Marx Hof (the worker community constructed by the Viennese socialist administration) had occurred in February 1934! And the first night of The Children’s Hour was on November 20, 1934, which made the whole construction a nonsense. It was hardly worth my reading on. (Hellman’s biographer Wright notes the first anomaly, but how come nobody else did at the time?)

The movie was even worse, second time around. True, the producers did try to fix some of the obvious problems in the original story  ̶  such as correcting the oversight that, when she returned to Europe in 1937 on a mission to go to a conference in the Soviet Union, Hellman was able to change, while in Paris, her itinerary to Moscow to go via Berlin without gaining permission from the Soviet consulate, and the plugging of some other obvious gaps. But the character ‘Julia’ drew such attention to herself with her nervous mannerisms, and flamboyant outfits, that it defied credibility. As Gardiner herself said to friends (Isenberg, p 378): “How absurd to think that the likes of Jane Fonda could have sat unobserved, wearing that ridiculous hat, waiting for Vanessa Redgrave in the middle of a restaurant in broad daylight in Nazi Berlin!” And why select a Jew for the dangerous job? Wright lists other anomalies, such as the fact that the whole premise of having to smuggle in dollars to Berlin was false. Why some researcher did not investigate all this before the film was made is astonishing. (One irony, to me, was that it would have made better casting sense to have had Julia, i.e. Muriel Gardiner, who was a very attractive woman, played by Fonda, while Redgrave’s – ahem  ̶  more austere beauty would have suited better the less than stellar features of Hellman. But the producers no doubt had to have an American playing Hellman.) As for Redgrave’s Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, it was a joke. She doesn’t appear much, and is swathed in bandages for half the time. Otherwise, she just sits there, looking saintly, peering devotedly into Fonda’s eyes.

The main focus of this piece, however, is on Gardiner, who has always been presented as a very honest person compared to the monster Hellman. Yet a careful examination of her memoir, and of other accounts of her adventures, indicates that she could be parsimonious with the truth as well. This pattern is reflected in three key incidents in her life: her first marriage, her voyage to Moscow in 1932, and her romantic encounter with an English poet, which events together suggest that her account of her dealings with Lillian Hellman may also be unreliable.

In her memoir, Gardiner completely overlooks what one would think would have been an important episode in her life  ̶  her first marriage. While in England, she had met, at the British Museum, an American, Harold Abramson, whom she had known from Ithaca, New York. A passionate affair led to an apparently reluctant marriage in London on November 25, 1925, and it was the failure of that marriage that led her to psychoanalysis. Abramson accompanied her to Vienna, where she failed to see Freud, but underwent analysis with one of his pupils, Dr. Mack. She then had a tempestuous affair with a Welsh artist named Richard Hughes during a trip to England, and divorced Abramson in the spring of 1929. By then she had met an English musician, Jonathan Gardiner, in Vienna, and married him on May 20, 1930. Gardiner glides over this period of her life, which must have been very painful. Yet in the Introduction to her memoir, she writes, while explaining her decision to write the autobiography in the first person: “I decided I would rather risk a lack of modesty than questionable honesty.” Admittedly, the lie was more one of omission than commission, but it was still an extraordinary failing by someone purportedly aiming to set the record straight.

The Gardiners had a child, Constance Mary, born on March 24, 1931, when Muriel was already falling out of love with her husband. And in the next few years, she embedded herself deeply in the leftist/communist movement in Vienna. She met the journalist G. E. R. Gedye, who put her in touch with people in the underground, and she became friendly with various English socialists there, such as Hugh Gaitskell and Frederick Elwyn Jones. Muriel even recalls meeting Kim Philby at this time, although she claims she didn’t realize it was Philby until much later, when she saw his photograph in a bookshop in Connecticut. Philby asked her to deliver a package to a comrade: she claims in her autobiography that she opened the package after he left, and was annoyed to find a large amount of money, and Communist literature. Surprisingly, Gardiner never mentions Philby’s wife, Litzi Friedmann, although there were few women active in the groups working to help the socialists and Jews. In The Third Man E. H. Cookridge says that Philby claimed that he himself had recruited Gardiner into the Revolutionary Socialists, but Cookridge says she was discovered by one Ilse Kulczar. As Isenberg tells the story: “Muriel’s first covert action was to establish her apartment (the one she would soon have to vacate) as a place to hide people. There she also held several meetings of Leopold and Ilse Kulczar’s Funke (Spark) group, named after Lenin’s underground newspaper, Iskra (The Spark). The Kulczars were intelligent and savvy left-wing socialists – a label that also identified her, Muriel now realized, bemused.”

Gardiner was in fact heavily involved in clandestine activities, with her several properties in Austria exploited for meetings and storage of illicit materials. The Communists were busy infiltrating the Socialist groups in Vienna, and managing their work from the comparative safety across the border, in Czechoslovakia. Philby’s British passport was a vital asset that allowed him easy transit between the two countries. As Cookridge (born Edward Spiro) relates of Gardiner, with convincing detail: “She had plenty of money, a villa in the Vienna Woods, a large apartment in the Rummelhardt-Gasse in one of the outer districts and a pied-à-terre in the Lammgasse near the university. She also had a four-year-old daughter, looked after by a nanny and a maidservant. . . . She made her flats available for illegal meetings; the garden sheds at her villa were soon filled with stacks of clandestine news-sheets and pamphlets.” Thus her claim that she was not aware that Philby was asking her to pass on money and Communist literature (how was such distinguishable from revolutionary-socialist pamphlets approved by a Leninist cell, one might ask?) appears a little naïve. Cookridge says that he broke with Philby when he realised that the latter’s money was coming straight from Moscow, but Gardiner did not appear to initiate any similar rift.

Just after the storming of the Karl Marx Hof, Gardiner decided to take a holiday. According to her account, in late April 1934, she chose to go to Mlini, in Yugoslavia, with her daughter and the governess, Gerda. (‘Governess’ sounds a bit advanced for a three-year old, but then all good socialists have governesses for their children.) As she wrote: “I had selected this spot from various circulars because it was the only one that advertized a sandy beach. The proprietor, replying to my various inquiries, told me that two distinguished English journalists who had been staying at the inn for several weeks were enchanted with it.” After that, she planned to leave her daughter and attendant while she travelled down the coast to Greece. What she didn’t say was that she was accompanied by her current lover of the time, Furth Ullman. In Mlini, she discovered who the ‘two distinguished English journalists’ were. One of them was the poet Stephen Spender, and she was smitten. Spender was ‘strikingly handsome, very tall and well built, with a slight stoop, probably because of his height’. This reaction is echoed by Isenberg: ‘Muriel’s impression of the tall, boyishly handsome young writer was of a “graceful animal”’. Now, an argument could be made that Muriel did in fact ‘pop her cork’ for many men she saw, but this time she was truly entranced. And so was Spender, who found Muriel ‘irresistible’.

There was a slight problem, however. For a highly attractive and lusty young woman in the 1930s, Stephen Spender was perhaps not the best candidate for a long-term relationship. For Spender’s sexual adventures had been solely with men up till then: not only that, he was accompanied in Mlini by his current boyfriend, Tony Hyndman. Yet Muriel and Stephen exchanged confidences, and spoke intimately of their pasts, before Muriel moved on to Greece. Muriel claimed she had never heard of Spender, which was somewhat surprising, given that her post-graduate research in English Literature, and that by 1932 Spender was already a hero of the Oxford literary scene, alongside Auden and Isherwood. She writes that Spender was ‘eager to learn all he could about the events of February and the underground movement’, and adds: “We had both been at Oxford, although not at the same time, and we shared similar reservations about it”, but, oddly, she does not remark as to whether they had shared acquaintances there.  In any case, after two weeks with Ullman touring the Greek coastline, Muriel picked up Connie and Gerda, and returned to Vienna by early May. Later that month, Spender and Hyndman joined them there, as Hyndman needed treatment for an inflamed appendix, and Muriel was soon able to seduce Stephen. Yet Stephen could not choose between her and Tony, although he wrote lyrically to Christopher Isherwood about his affair. Gardiner soon started to become interested in another man, a Socialist colleague Joe Buttinger, whom she would marry, and remain with all her life.

Can we trust the accounts of this affair? To begin with, the dates of the encounter do not ring true. Gardiner said she picked Mlini after looking at several brochures, but also indicates that she had decided to go on holiday at the end of April, had then had an exchange of letters with the proprietor of the hotel, who promoted the hotel’s attractiveness by saying that two English gentleman had been there for several weeks. According to John Sutherland, in his biography of Spender (Stephen Spender, A Literary Life), Gardiner picked Mlini because of the sandy beach, and that she continued her journey to Greece ‘after a day or two’. As Gardiner recounts it, she left Connie and Gerda in Mlini, and took a leisurely trip down the coast, exploring each town at every port of call, and then spending ‘a few days in Athens’. She then returned to Dubrovnik, where she picked up Connie and Gerda, and they were all back in Vienna ‘in early May’. That is quite a speedy accomplishment, especially if Gardiner truly made her decision to leave for Mlini only ‘in late April’. Even with an efficient postal system, how could she have had such a productive exchange with the proprietor in such a short time? And was the line about the ‘sandy beach’ an inadvertent gaffe in trying to add verisimilitude? Sunderland observes laconically: ‘Stephen recalls it having a stony beach: brochures fib.’ Perhaps leftist subversives fib, too. (Current tourist material states: “But the main assets of Mlini are its beautiful, natural beaches with clear blue sea, surrounded by rich and fragrant Mediterranean vegetation. There is even [sic] one sandy beach and a beach for nudists reachable by boat”. So perhaps they are both right.) Sutherland also seems to get it wrong about the Englishmen. He says that the proprietor told her of them when she checked in: Gardiner gives the impression she had received the news in a letter.

Irrespective of how sabulous was the beachfront at Mlini, what was Spender’s version of the timetable? Spender and Hyndman had in fact left London by train in the first week of April with Isaiah Berlin, who split from them in Milan. They continued on in leisurely fashion via Venice and Trieste. But Sutherland reports that Spender and Hyndman arrived in Mlini only in the second week of April, which makes nonsense of the proprietor’s claim to Gardiner. And the choice of Mlini was somewhat problematical. Earlier, Stephen had indicated that he planned to go to Dubrovnik for the winter of 1933, but had been talked out of it by Gerald Heard. Then Geoffrey Grigson apparently recommended Mlini (which is about six miles down the coast from Dubrovnik), and the recommendation was taken up. (Grigson had founded Poetry Review, and in 1936 was the messenger who informed Isaiah Berlin that Spender had joined the Communist Party, a fact that Spender then awkwardly denied, calling Grigson ‘a donkey’.) Was Grigson complicit in the meeting, perhaps?

And what about the decision to meet in Vienna? Isenberg writes that ‘Muriel made plans to see Stephen in Vienna where he and Tony planned to seek medical help for Tony’s inflamed and possibly infected appendix.’ Sutherland indicates that the appendix flared up after Muriel had left: “In May, medical opinion hardened around the appendix diagnosis. The Dubrovnik doctors recommended an operation – in Vienna preferably.” (Doctors? How many? One might imagine that in 1934 experienced gastroenterologists were as sparse in Dubrovnik as Huntingdonshire Cabmen, although it is touching to visualise a group of them around Hyndman’s bed, stroking their beards, and discussing the optimum treatment, while milord Spender sits pensively in the background, composing an ode for the occasion.) Thus the medicos conveniently anticipated the plans that Stephen had already communicated to Muriel. So Stephen then wrote to Muriel, and she arranged for Tony to be accepted at a hospital. Thus a further conflicted story appears: moreover, appendicitis was not an ailment that could be addressed leisurely – especially in 1934, when it was frequently fatal. Yet Spender and Hyndman took their time, and did not arrive in Vienna until May 22.

Moreover, Spender later tried to mask the identity of his beloved. After his arrival in the Austrian capital, he wrote a very mediocre poem (‘Vienna’) that attempts to mingle his ambiguous sexual impulses with the stumblings of the revolution. He openly dedicated it to ‘Muriel’, as my Random House 1935 first edition informs me. Yet, by the time he published his autobiography, World Within World, in 1951, Spender disguised Muriel as ‘Elizabeth’, indicating also that she (with daughter and nurse, but no mention of the lover) all stayed for ‘a few days’. It was not until he was interviewed with Muriel by a TV station in Chicago in 1984 that he admitted to the presence of Ullmann  ̶  ‘a rather steely fawn-eyed young man who passed as her cousin (actually he was her lover)’. So why the deception: did he think no-one would pick up his poetic dedication?   He also wrote that he did not learn about Muriel’s two failed marriages until later, in Vienna: Isenberg, using Gardiner’s unpublished reminiscences, suggests he learned of them while in Mlini. Thus no clear lead on the chronology appears.

One spectacularly unusual item in Spender’s account from this time, which must cast doubt on his overall reliability, is a claim that he climbed one day up a path from Mlini beach to the coastal road, and saw a cavalcade of six-wheeled cars passing, in the first vehicle of which a man turned his head to Stephen and stared at him. It was Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag. But has anybody verified that Goering was in fact in Croatia at this time? (Leonard Mosley’s biography of Goering does not help here.) Was this event an elaborate hoax by Spender, or a dream, where the form of Goering haunted him? Stephen had recently completed a poem about Goering, who had indicted and humiliated the mentally-deficient Dutchman, van der Lubbe, for burning down the Reichstag. Van der Lubbe was then falsely convicted at the show trial, and beheaded in January 1934. The timing of this coincidence is extraordinary.

All in all, it sounds very much as if Gardiner and Spender arrived in Mlini at about the same time, in mid-April. The perspicacious reader (if he or she has lasted this far) may well have noticed the writer’s implicit suspicion that the encounter was perhaps not accidental. As a matter of social etiquette, it should surely have been very difficult for two strangers to develop so quickly such an intimate relationship (especially given Spender’s inexperience with women), when they were each accompanied by their sexual partners. What did Ullmann and Hyndman do while Muriel and Stephen were getting to know each other? Yet, despite the disconcerting details about the sandy beach, the time the two Englishmen had been there, the by no mean galloping appendicitis and its aftermath, and how Muriel’s itinerary worked, the evidence that the surprise encounter was bogus is admittedly still flimsy. Except for one very significant last point.

In 1932, Muriel had made a visit to the Soviet Union. She is very lapidary about this expedition in her autobiography, just indicating that she spent a few weeks in Moscow, and ‘became familiar with the views of a large number of foreign students in Moscow’, but she says nothing about her companions on the trip, or how it was organised. Later, however, describing her time in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss (March 1938), Muriel provides a hint, mentioning that she found someone called Shiela Grant Duff in her apartment. “Shiela, a young English friend whom I had first met in Vienna and who had been with me in Russia in 1932, was now a reporter in Prague. She had come to Vienna to witness the Anschluss first hand.” So how well did she know Grant Duff, and what happened concerning Moscow?

Grant Duff was one of the many female leftist/communist acolytes of Isaiah Berlin. What is more, she had been the girl-friend (but almost certainly not the lover) of Berlin’s friend, and sometime Soviet agent, Goronwy Rees.  (I have written about the 1933 exploits of her, Rees and Berlin in Central Europe before: see Homage to Ruthenia.) In 1982, Grant Duff published a memoir, A Parting of the Ways, subtitled A Personal Account of the Thirties, which is a useful description of the rise of Fascism in that decade, and the reactions of committed socialists like herself. In the summer of 1932, she was in Germany with Rees, and they witnessed the Nazi brutality against Jews and socialists, followed by the vigorous acceptance of Hitler at the polls at the end of July. They decided to leave Germany for Vienna, since ‘many Oxford friends were in Vienna’. Her words describing her time there are worthy quoting in full.

“The smiling, familiar faces of our Oxford friends and acquaintances were infinitely reassuring. William Hayter was there at the Embassy and Duff Dunbar. Martin Cooper was studying music there. Stephen Spender was around and had made a wonderful American friend, Muriel Gardiner, who befriended us all. She was studying psychoanalysis under Freud and living with her little daughter in a flat near the Opera.” Grant Duff goes on: “One night  . . . I fell asleep, only to awake to a most startling proposition – that Neill [her brother], Goronwy and I accompany Muriel on a visit to the Soviet Union, entirely at her expense.” After Muriel returned to London ‘on urgent business’ they reunited in Warsaw, and made their voyage to Moscow. Just like that. Wasn’t it in practice much more difficult to get visas for the Soviet Union?

If Grant Duff’s account is true, it is an astonishing revelation. (Isenberg cites Grant Duff’s memoir, but does not appear to have noticed the early reference to Spender.). Is it possible that she had got the dates wrong? That she had erroneously imagined Spender was there in Vienna in 1932, even though she clearly associates the encounter with the Gardiner-Spender friendship? But it hardly seems likely that she would have made a mistake of that magnitude, just before making a trip to Moscow funded by Gardiner herself. Moreover, she does recall the daughter, and the location of Muriel’s flat. As for Spender, according to Sutherland, his movements that year were as follows: he was in Berlin on July 12, and five days later, travelled to Salzburg, where he remained until the middle of August, reportedly in the company of Isaiah Berlin. Before returning to England on August 18, he spent a few more days in Berlin. Isaiah’s only two published letters from Salzburg that August are to Goronwy Rees and John Hilton: in the letter to Rees, he mentions (vaguely) Spender’s name, but says nothing about his presence there. [Since this original posting, I have discovered, on the Isaiah Berlin website maintained by Henry Hardy, a newly  published letter from  Berlin to Julia Pakenham, dated August 1934, which gratuitously introduces the fact that a Mr. Coughlan had met Berlin with Stephen Spender in Salzburg in 1932.] He writes to Grant Duff on October 13, so she is clearly back in the United Kingdom by then (she had to be back for the beginning of the Oxford term), though nothing is said of the visit to Moscow. Is that not strange? Was it deliberately avoided?

Michael Ignatieff, Berlin’s biographer, offers no details on the summer of 1932: Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, states in his notes to the Letters of that time that Berlin was in Salzburg with Frank Hardie in July, with no mention of Spender. Did Spender thus use Salzburg and Berlin as an alibi for a visit to Vienna to see Muriel? It is entirely possible. Spender’s son, Matthew, has told me that he believes Stephen was in Vienna twice ‘before he met Muriel’: he is seemingly unimpressed by the Grant Duff anecdote. And, even if the presence of Spender in Vienna was an illusion, surely, if Gardiner had accompanied Grant Duff, her brother, and Rees to Moscow, they would have discussed possible acquaintances at Oxford? And, if Muriel and Stephen had met before, what was the purpose of Mlini? Was Spender acting as some kind of courier?

At first glance, that notion does not make sense. After all, Spender’s and Hyndman’s next port of call would be Vienna – though admittedly an unscheduled one, if one believes what Spender said. So why would Gardiner travel to Croatia to deliver a message to Spender? No clearcut reason – unless Philby had perhaps been involved. Again, Gardiner is misleading about the chronology. She suggests that her meeting with Philby took place after she had met Spender in Mlini, and Isenberg echoes this theme, stating that ‘Philby had arrived in Vienna that spring of 1934’, and adding that it was ’his mission to work with leftists, such as Stephen and Muriel, in the Socialist struggle’. But Philby actually left Vienna in April 1934 (i.e. just before Gardiner decided to get away), having married Litzi Friedman in a hurry. Cookridge says that he had to leave quickly, warned by his Comintern friends that he had been compromised. Philby had arrived the previous autumn, and some historians, such as David Clay Large, make the reasonable assertion that Philby was recruited by the Comintern while in Vienna, not when he returned to London, as Philby claimed in his own memoir, and in conversations with various journalists. And, if Philby’s mission had been to work with leftists like Muriel and Stephen, it would imply that Stephen had associated with Muriel well before the Mlini encounter. Isenberg does not explain this anomaly. Perhaps Philby needed to pass a message about his recruitment, hasty marriage, imminent exposure, and escape to London to his cohort, Spender, and encourage his friend to take over some role in Vienna. Indeed, Spender did act as a courier helping Muriel, and the two of them went to Brno in January 1935, taking messages from the Kulczars. Hence the story about the appendicitis. If so, this would be a link between Spender and the ‘Cambridge Spies’ that has not been explored hitherto.

In his recent memoir A House in St. John’s Wood, Matthew Spender recounts the circumstances in which, after Guy Burgess absconded with Donald Maclean in 1951, his father was questioned by MI5, in the person of William Skardon, the interrogator of Klaus Fuchs, as to whether he knew his friend Burgess was a Communist agent. Spender immediately responded that Burgess continually told people he was exactly that, every time that he got drunk, which was ‘almost every night’. Skardon immediately dropped the subject and slunk away: Burgess socialised regularly with Dick White and Guy Liddell of MI5.  That was not news that the government would want revealed. But Philby was a different matter: he had boldly denied his possible role as the ‘third man’. Hugh Gaitskell had ignored Philby’s dubious activities in Vienna when he (Gaitskell) helped recruit him to the Special Operations Executive in the summer of 1940. Maybe Spender was another who knew Philby’s true colours? And one might conclude that Gardiner’s story about not knowing who Philby was at the time was all a pretence.

What is absolutely clear to me is that you can’t really trust the record of any of these people. It looks as if Gardiner and Spender had met some time earlier, and went to some lengths to conceal their association, agreeing to meet in Mlini, but both bringing cover in the form of their respective lovers to divert distraction. Maybe it isn’t so, but it doesn’t smell right, as the published facts stand.

After his break-up with Muriel, Spender had his own adventures. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and in January 1937, was summoned by its secretary, Harry Pollitt, and charged with going on a secret mission to Spain on behalf of the Comintern to discover what had happened to the crew of the Soviet ship, the Komsomol, which had been sunk by Franco’s Nationalist navy. (“It will be a difficult task, comrade. But Moscow Centre has decided that only you can carry it off.”) Yet a less likely intelligence agent than Spender is hard to imagine (with the possible exception of Jane Fonda and her elegant hatbox). MI5 looked on in amazement as the man whom Cyril Connolly called ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic’ started making his inquiries, and, after getting sent back by Franco’s immigration officers at the Cádiz checkpoint, eventually engaged Lord Marley to investigate on his behalf, via the Italian consulate in Cádiz, what had happened to the missing crew. That was not how Comintern agents did things.

Spender’s failure to be entirely honest about the duration of his love-affair with the Communist Party would lead him into difficulties later, every time he wanted to enter the United States. In 1947, by which time his Communism had been watered down to a wishy-washy United Nations liberalism (The God That Failed came out in 1949), he was offered a visiting professorship for a year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville – not part of the Bronx, it should be made clear  ̶  in New York State. Travelling alone, and in first class (his wife Natasha and son Matthew were to join him in the autumn), Spender left on the Queen Mary on August 20, and found congenial company. As Sutherland tells us, ‘on the boat were Lillian Hellman and John dos Passos’. History does not relate whether the man-eating Stalinist popped her cork at the gangly English man of letters, but the two comrades became friends, and Spender later invited Hellman to join him and a faculty colleague, the aforementioned Mary McCarthy, at an end-of-term party for his class. It was a disaster: McCarthy and Hellman were already sworn enemies, and Hellman for ever afterwards thought she had been set up to be ‘red-baited’.

But is it possible that Spender and Hellman could not have discussed their mutual friend, Muriel Gardiner, now Buttinger, during their shipboard encounter? Hellman would surely have been interested in Spender’s experiences near the barricades in Vienna, and, even if he was discreet about his affair with Muriel, Spender would probably have explained to Hellman that his family was looking forward to spending time with the Buttingers in New Jersey, whom Hellman had heard of via the Schwabachers. Sutherland writes that the three Spenders spent many weekends with the Buttingers in Pennington: Stephen’s son Matthew has indicated to me, interestingly, that it was Ethel Schwabacher, not Wolf, from whom Hellman learned Muriel’s history. And he was there (though very young). Isenberg indicates that Hellman, Wolf’s client, had been hearing tales ‘of the glamorous former member of the Austrian resistance’ for ten years already in 1950, when Muriel and Ethel had a falling-out.

Yet the relationship between Hellman and Gardiner is a puzzlement. As I have shown, Gardiner was a very reluctant inquisitor of the woman who had exploited her identity, and she displayed an uncharacteristic loyalty to the mendacious Stalinist. And, despite apparently serious attempts to meet, and an awkward telephone call shortly before their deaths, they reportedly never actually came face to face to discuss what had happened. Is it possible that they had agreed to some deal, whereby Hellman would use Gardiner’s story for propaganda purposes? Why would the Schwabachers not have suggested, from any time after 1940: “You two should meet! I have told both of you so much about each other, and, as sympathizers with Communists, you must have so much in common!” Why would Gardiner, of all people, on reading Pentimento, not have spotted the mangled chronology, realised where Hellman had picked up the story, and pointed out the glaring anomalies, instead of beating about the bush with Hellman, and then doggedly trying to establish whether there was an alternative ‘Julia’? Why did she almost encourage Hellman not to respond to her letter? Why is the chronology of the letter mangled? Is the letter perhaps part of a false trail? Why the business with Dr. Steiner – and what would he have said about the erroneous dates? Why would Hellman believe she could have got away with so blatant a lie, unless she had some form of approval from Gardiner? Should we really trust Muriel’s account of her meeting with the ‘stranger’, Philby? (And why did Gardiner write her memoir under the long-lapsed ‘Gardiner’ name, as opposed to the legal surname of ‘Buttinger’?) Gardiner’s story is just a bit too pat, too deliberate, and too innocent – yet psychologically unsound – and is thus hardly credible.

I believe this extended anecdote confirms several lessons that I have gained during my doctoral research: 1) memoirs are frequently unreliable accounts designed to enhance the legacy of the writer; 2) the creation of a precise chronology is essential for scholarly analysis; 3) biographers face the challenge of being too close to their subjects: if they want personal information, they need to be trusted, but if they press too hard on challenging accounts, they will get rebuffed: 4) tough questions should be asked of all these witnesses to vital matters of security and intelligence while they are alive; 5) fabulists who try to make a dubious story more convincing often introduce details that turn out to undermine the whole fabric of their deception; 6) these unverified stories, especially when they issue from the pens of the Great and the Good, all too easily fall into the realm of quasi-official historical lore, and get repeated and echoed. (For example, Jenny Rees, Goronwy’s daughter, reproduces Grant Duff’s version of the encounter without question in Looking for Mr Nobody, while the Spender-Gardiner version is accepted everywhere else. Martin Gilbert reproduces Spender’s encounter with Goering as fact in his esteemed History of the Twentieth-Century.)

The thirties were indeed a ‘low dishonest decade’, as Auden said, but the intellectuals of the time were often as dishonest as the politicians. An alternative screenplay of the whole Gardiner-Spender-Hellman melodrama probably exists, one in which Muriel and Stephen did meet before Mlini, in which Philby was involved, and in which Gardiner had an uneasy collusion with Hellman over her experiences. It is perhaps waiting for the evidence to leak out from obscure memoirs, letters and reminiscences. And as for you, Big Spender, what were you thinking? Why didn’t you tell us the truth about Muriel, and what on earth possessed you to imagine that you could be a successful agent for the Comintern? What secrets you took with you to the grave!

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.                     (March 31, 2016)

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Some Diplomatic Incidents

I was prompted to read a compilation of essays titled Telling Lives, edited by Alistair Horne, this month. It consists of biographical profiles by writers, all of whom have at one time held an Alistair Horne Fellowship at St Antony’s College. It is a lively collection, which provided sketches of some familiar characters, but also introduced me to a number of persons I knew very little about, from Carole Lombard to Bram Fischer.

Two items caught my eye especially. The first was written by D. R. Thorpe, in his essay on Alec Douglas-Home, and he provides commentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. It runs as follows: “The mood of dazed anxiety in those weeks reminded some of the period leading up to Munich, though Home’s regular contacts with Sir Frank Roberts, the British Ambassador in Moscow, gave him insights into what the ordinary Russian people were thinking, which proved so different from those in Havana and London. When Kennedy’s ultimatum about the missiles were made public Frank Roberts told Alec Home that there was no sign of panic buying in Moscow and that people there were going about their business in an orderly manner. Roberts interpreted this correctly, as a sign that in the end Khrushchev would back off from full-scale nuclear confrontation.”

Could this be serious? ‘No signs of panic buying in Moscow’, when there was nothing to buy in the shops in the first place? ‘What ordinary people were thinking’, when they had no access to independent news, and were discouraged from thinking? I recalled my visit to Leningrad and Moscow a few years later, in 1965, when the citizens were so desperate for Western goods that I had a furtive night-time encounter with a youth my age, at which I exchanged a couple of nylon shirts and some Bic pens for some useless roubles that had to be spent before I left the country. So Soviet citizens went about their business ‘in an orderly manner’. What did Frank Roberts think would happen if those same good people went about in a disorderly manner? That the KGB’s goons would come up to them and say: ‘Move along there, sir, if you don’t mind’? I could not believe that our diplomatic intelligence was in the hands of such amateurs. Just as useful as reading the entrails of dead chickens, I should have thought.

And then, a few days later, I was reading the extraordinary memoir by Heda Margolius Kovály, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968. This is a searing account of a young Jewish woman who is arrested by the Nazis in Prague in 1941, and shipped off to a concentration camp, whence she manages to escape while all her relatives are killed. After harrowing and dangerous times back in Prague, when the war is over, she watches how the Communists stealthily seize power, and sees the obnoxious ideology bring out the worst in all citizens. Eventually, her husband, who worked as an economist for the government, is arrested, falsely accused, sentenced to death in the Slansky trials, and soon after executed. (I shall leave you to discover the full story.)

What hit me between the eyes were the following sentences, as Kovály describes the struggles of the Czech economy: “There were endless lines in front of stores. There were shortages of practically every household staple. Every few months, there were new rumors about an upcoming currency devaluation. People would panic, buying up everything they could find. The chaotic economy and the constant barrage of ideology drained all pleasure from honest work.” So there was ‘panic buying’ behind the Iron Curtain. But I still wonder whether Soviet citizens would have been informed enough by their masters to be able to detect how serious the missile crisis was, and that their leaders had a firm grasp on the tiller. And if they did ‘buy up all they could find’, and stuff it in those avoska bags, I bet it would have been useless things, like clothes-pins and miniature busts of Lenin, as opposed to the flashlight batteries and toilet-paper that their Western counterparts would have started hoarding.

The other anecdote concerned Sir Isaiah Berlin. In his Introduction, Alistair Horne gives a brief profile of a man whom I have followed very closely in the past three years, and writes as follows: “An honorary fellow at St. Antony’s, Isaiah was truly a Don for All Seasons; he could, and would, talk at any level whatsoever to make his interlocutor feel prized beyond belief. At a first meeting my wife expressed alarm at finding herself seated next to such an august academician at a St Antony’s dinner. I reassured her, ’Don’t worry, he’ll take charge!’ Looking up from my end of the table, I was relieved to see them in lively conversation with each other. When afterwards I asked what they’d talked about so busily and what Isaiah’s opening gambit had been, she said, ‘As we sat down, he said, “Tell me, my dear, did you have many lovers when you were young?”’ – then proceeded to talk about his own, in extenso.”

Now, again, I find this extremely unlikely. First, I think it very bad taste of Horne to relate this anecdote, even if it were true, as it shows appalling manners. Ladies and Gentlemen who have not been met before do not discuss their past sex lives (well, not in the environment that I grew up in –  perhaps it is different with St Antony’s intellectuals.) I would expect Horne’s second wife (for it was she) to have been insulted by such a question, rather than feeling ‘prized beyond belief’. And I do not believe that Berlin, who had developed a canny knack for fitting into whatever milieu in England he found himself, whether playing cricket at St. Paul’s, or gossiping over the port at All Souls, would have been crass enough to make this an opening gambit in his dinner-time conversation. Moreover, evidence has it that Berlin’s sex-life developed quite late, so in extenso seems hardly the right phrase to use to describe it, unless the esteemed historian of ideas was fabricating somewhat. In his biography of Berlin, Michael Ignatieff reports on Berlin’s first sexual encounter with a woman (I shall have to leave the possibilities of what happened with Guy Burgess unexplored, although Berlin did complain, perhaps facetiously, that Burgess never made a pass at him), but leaves the lady in question unidentified. It took Nicola Lacey, in her 2004 biography of Herbert Hart, to confirm for all of us that the personage was none other than Herbert’s wife, Jenifer, the Soviet agent.  Henry Hardy, who knew Berlin very well, tells me that this affair (which went on for several years, until Berlin married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg, an event that severely upset Mrs Hart) began in 1949, but that it was not certain who initiated it.

The affair with Aline Halban itself is an interesting tale. Berlin had first espied Aline Strauss (her husband had been killed) on the SS Excambion, sailing from Lisbon to New York, in January 1941. After the war, during which Aline had met and married Hans Halban in Canada, they came to England, where Halban succeeded in being elected to one of the initial fellowships at St Antony’s College. The College (for graduates only) had been founded in 1950 by a bequest from a successful French businessman with merchant interests in the Middle East, Antonin Besse. After some preliminary stumbles in negotiation between Besse and the University, Bill Deakin (married to the Rumanian Livia Stela, known as ‘Pussy’, so-called for her very feline grace, I am led to believe, who was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Pussy Galore) had taken over the Wardenship of the College, impressing Besse with his common sense and vision. Deakin, who had worked with Isaiah Berlin in Washington during the war, was a historian who had seen fierce action with SOE among the guerrillas in Yugoslavia, and had acted as literary assistant to Winston Churchill in the latter’s historical writing. While Deakin had been a fellow at Wadham College, many of the initial staff members were from New College, and Isaiah Berlin had been very active in advising the Warden on appointments and administration.

Halban was offered a Fellowship: when interviewed in 1994 by Christine Nicholls, the historian of the college, Berlin said that it was because Lord Cherwell had thought it a good idea that a scientist be represented – a somewhat surprising explanation, given that the mission of St Antony’s was to improve international understanding, and diplomacy had not been the strongest arrow in Halban’s sleeve. Maybe the fact that the elegant Mrs Halban would be able to join in social events was an extra incentive. Indeed, Headington House had its uses. As Nicholls’s History of St Antony’s College reports: “The grandest social event of all was the ox-roasting. In 1953, at the time of the Queen’s coronation, an Anglo-Danish committee, on which Deakin sat with a Danish chairman, wanted to do something to thank Britain for its help in wartime. The chairman asked Deakin whether his college would like to roast a Danish ox ….. Hans Halban and his wife Aline, who had a large house with land on Headington Hill, agreed to the roasting taking place there.”

The choice of Fellows was a little eccentric. A certain David Footman was elected at the same time as Halban. His expertise lay in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, but he had been dismissed from the Secret Service because of his support for Guy Burgess. Intriguingly, Deakin, who enjoyed fraternizing with Secret Service personnel, had said he wanted a Soviet expert who was free of any commitment to Marxism, and therefore welcomed Footman to the college. But there were questions about Footman’s loyalty: the Foreign Office did not give him a clean bill of health, and Sir Dick White (who headed both MI5 and MI6 in his career) admitted he should have been more sceptical about his trustworthiness. Footman had had contacts with the Soviet spy-handler Maly, and, when Guy Burgess defected, Footman was the first to be notified of the event by that dubious character Goronwy Rees, close confidant of Burgess; Footman in turn informed Guy Liddell – Victor Rothschild’s boss in MI5.

Thus the first appointments at St Antony’s were very much made by an old-boy network, about which Berlin must have eventually had misgivings. As early as 1953, he was to write to David Cecil, when looking for advice on career moves: ‘In a way I should prefer Nuffield because St Antony’s seems to me (for God’s sake don’t tell anyone that) something like a club of dear friends, and I should be terribly afraid that the thing was becoming too cosy and too bogus.’ His words got back to the sub-warden at St Antony’s, James Joll, who had also lectured at New College and had been a pupil of Deakin, and Berlin was duly chastised. (James Joll was later to receive a certain amount of notoriety by virtue of his harbouring Anthony Blunt when the latter was being hounded by the Press after his public unmasking.) In any case, the chroniclers at the college did not seem surprised when the Halban marriage fell apart. Aline’s son Michel Strauss confides that his mother used to have trysts with Isaiah, before their liaison became official, in a flat in Cricklewood (a touch that would have delighted Alan Coren). Michel also informs us that Hans Halban had been seeing Francine Clore (née Halphern), a cousin of his mother’s, in the 1950s, ‘at the same time my mother was seeing Isaiah Berlin’. The gradual dissolution of the marriage, and the new re-groupings, were becoming obvious to their friends.  The History laconically reports: “Halban remained at St Antony’s until he resigned on October 1, 1955, upon taking a chair at the Sorbonne. When Halban resigned his fellowship and left for Paris, he asked his wife to choose between Paris and Berlin. She determined on the latter and became Isaiah Berlin’s wife.” The marriage was a very happy one.

But they were a pretty rum lot, after all, these St Antonians. I expected to see Freddie Ayer in the wings – and Iris Murdoch taking notes.

As an epigram to Berlin in this whole affair, I conclude with the following lines (with apologies to Philip Larkin):

 Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen forty-nine

(through no clear fault of mine) –

Between the release of Welles’ ‘Third Man’

And the launch of ‘What’s My Line’.

The usual set of Commonplace entries to be found here.                   (September 30, 2015)

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Magna Carta and Pluralism

“Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States. It is old, it is English, and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke for current needs.”                                                                                                      (Tom Ginsburg, in NYT, June 15)

Regular readers will recall my old Oxford pal (indeed the only Oxford pal with whom I stay in regular contact), Derek Taylor. Whenever I am in the UK, I try to look him up at the Old Stables in Stow-on-the-Wold, although, if he hears I am coming over, he does sometimes abscond sharply to his retreat in Spain. Derek has now published a second book, titled ‘Magna Carta in Twenty Places’, which appeared in the UK in time for the octingentenary, and in the USA at the beginning of July.

If history is arguably all about sex, power, wealth and religion, I would assert that we pupils got short shrift in 1950s Britain. Sex was obviously a taboo subject, and religion was only slightly less shy-making, as I suspect the masters were probably a bit embarrassed about all the absurd Catholic-Protestant clashes that endured through the centuries. Moreover, they had to be sensitive to the fact that the religion of their charges could have been all over the map, even though Whitgift School had been founded by an Archbishop of Canterbury, and – quite correctly – such beliefs should have remained a private affair. (I remain amazed, however, that so many obviously smart and educated persons, encouraging their pupils to think inquiringly, should have accepted all the superstitions and mumbo-jumbo of religion so unquestioningly.) Thus my recollection of History was a set of dreary topics that did not string together, with major wars interspersed with boring descriptions of devices that peasants used to till the land. ‘One damn thing after another’, as Arnold Toynbee said of history, but I always wanted to know how things had arrived at where the current textbook started off, and what motivated all the agents in the drama. No wonder my mind wandered, wondering whether the rain would interfere with cricket practice.

Derek obviously had a great teacher, and, what’s more, unlike me, he paid attention. He dedicates his work to Stan Revill, who must have been a marvellous man to learn from. Derek brings the evolution of the Magna Carta alive by visiting twenty places, from The Wash to Washington, D.C., from Acre to Angoulême, that either affected its creation, or were influenced by its reality – and myth. He starts off in fine and typical style with a wonderful inspection of Ernest Normand’s iconic depiction of the scene at Runnymede, which ‘represents the classic myth of “bad” King John, the “upright” barons, and Magna Carta as the “birth of democracy”. He has a deep knowledge of the time, and the leading actors, and brings a journalist’s keen eye for today’s physical world to bridge the realities of life eight hundred years ago with the often forgetful world of the 21st century, equally dissonant in so many ways, but in a very different manner.

Magna Carta had been mythologised, and misunderstood, according to Derek, but he reminds us that it does represent the rule of law, and the assertion that even despots should be subject to it. It’s a strong lesson to citizens of the UK and the USA in particular that we should be grateful that we have term limits, and impeachment processes, and regular elections that give us a chance ‘to throw the current lot out’, as opposed to so many other countries around the globe. (Isn’t that what President Obama has been saying this week in Africa? Although his address to the ‘Muslim World’ a couple of years ago made the same Cameronian mistake, as Western pluralism should be inclusive of Muslims, like anyone else.) I am not competent to judge Derek’s historical analysis: from my reading of the July 2015 issue of History Today, a special edition on the Magna Carta, I would say his opinion of King John is a little more indulgent than that of Sean McGlynn’s, while his textual analysis is more incisive. Derek’s version of America’s adoption of the Carta’s symbolic value is close to Alexander Lock’s interpretation. But Derek’s narrative is much livelier. (A third piece in the magazine, by Graham Seel, head of history at St. Paul’s School, explores a canvas by Charles Sims of King John at Runnymede that hangs in St. Stephen’s Hall. Derek does not mention this work, but it provides a fascinating contrast to Normand’s more familiar and romantic creation. It would be an absorbing exercise to compare the two.)

Derek writes with tremendous verve, and has a fine ear for well-balanced sentences. He has been slightly let down by his publisher, who sadly did not ensure that the legend on his map corresponds to the chapter titles identifying the places, and I would have liked to see a bibliography. No doubt these issues will be addressed in the forthcoming paperback edition. (Every reviewer has to find at least one quibble.) Never mind. Derek’s is a fine accomplishment. His book is a wonderfully entertaining account for anybody – especially those whose impression of the Charter may have been coloured by romanticised schoolboy lessons or by pious hyperbole from politicians. Please take a look at and order your copy.

I have been taking a particular interest in Britain’s form of liberal democracy recently, as part of my doctoral thesis addresses the question of why it was not strong enough in the 1930s to provide a coherent and vigorous philosophical antidote to the twin horrors of totalitarian Fascism and Communism. (For the time being, I shall leave my analysis for the thesis.) Thus I was intrigued by David Cameron’s recent pronouncements about promoting ‘British values’ in the face of Muslim extremism. I can’t help feeling that Cameron is still caught up in all the misguided multi-cultural jargon of the Jenkinsite 1970s, what with his references to the ‘Muslim community’ and ‘Muslim leaders’. For the essence of a modern pluralist society is that we should not compartmentalize – and thus stereotype   ̶  large groups of individuals into separate ‘communities’ , nor should we look for self-appointed ‘leaders’ to represent their interests. I am an atheist, but I am not a member of the ‘atheist community’ [I think you mean the ‘AHAA community’, namely Atheists, Heretics, Apostates and Agnostics. Ed.], and I do not look to ‘atheist leaders’ to represent my interests. I have an MP, or a senator, or a representative to do that for me, and I know he or she will not share all my beliefs, but it is his or her job to speak for all his or her constituents. And what about those members of a ‘community’ who ‘intermarry’, or reject the faith they were brought up in? They will feel marginalized and lost. Moreover, is it not true that some of those ‘leaders’ are the ones responsible for the mayhem, as the government of Tunisia is finding as it tries to clean up the mosques of radical influences?

I also noticed that an imam from Leeds told the BBC that he found Cameron’s speech redolent of ‘us versus them’ thinking, and I believe he is right, in that respect, at least. Religious beliefs should be a private affair: the secular laws of the land should apply to everyone (no tolerance of local shariah law, or Jewish courts, or Christian prayers at civil events, for example) and we should recognize the fast-growing trend of an increasing proportion of the population (in the UK and in the USA) defining themselves as religious non-believers, as well as more and more citizens who are offspring of so-called ‘mixed marriages’ (a term I deplore). Such persons are left out of these dim and depressing artificial sociological categories. Cameron needs some fresh advisors, and some fresh advice. Dismantle the Ministry for Communities! Stop stereotyping! Don’t listen to self-appointed ‘Leaders’! Respect Individual Rights, not Group Rights! Coldspur has Spoken!

The normal set of Commonplace items are available for inspection here. (July 31, 2015)

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