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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