In the last years of his life, French noirist Jean-Patrick Manchette concluded that the genre in which he had been writing had, when it came to addressing the political reality of the world, become ensnared in the parameters of its own invention. So he decided to turn his attention to spy fiction. Though I would agree that espionage novels often display a wider scope and can be politically acute, I'm not quite ready to abandon noir fiction altogether. This even though I'm often left asking myself why I'm reading such books, wondering just what a given author is trying to say other showing that they are familiar with the grim reality of the everyday world. Not that espionage novels don't function within their own spectrum of cliches. Which might explain why I've lately been turning to non-fiction, for example the fascinating A Spy Among Friends by Times journalist Ben Macintyre, which revolves around the notorious spy and Russian defector Kim Philby and his two friends, associates and eventual adversaries Nicholas Elliott and James Jesus Angleton. The former, like Philby, a golden boy in MI6, while the latter, Angleton, was instrumental in the formation of the CIA and head of counter intelligence.
But this is also a book about class, the old boys network, and the British establishment, the remnants of which are still with us. Though the present government, ruled by ex-members of the Bullingdon Club, tells us otherwise. Though they are amateurs in comparison, and London mayor Boris Johnson a pale imitation to his predecessors.
By "establishment," we're talking about unaccountable power in the hands of the few, brought together, at least in Philby and Elliott's day, by public school, club, country, cricket and Tory politics. With, of course, a high tolerance for peccadilloes and eccentric behaviour. Macintyre traces Philby's, Elliott's and Angleton's respective lives, including how, over the years, they intersect. In the case of Philby and Elliott, growing up with distant and eccentric fathers (Philby's an advisor to King Ibn Saud and eventually convert to Islam, Elliott's a headmaster who believed in an extreme version of tough love), public school, and Cambridge, where Philby, MacLean, Burgess and Blunt met, and their idealistic belief in the Soviet Union was nurtured. From which point it was an easy leap to MI6 (reminding me of Tony Benn saying that when he left Oxford he was expected to join MI6, politics being a career of a distinctly lower order) and, for Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, Soviet spies.
As pathetic and, in the end, sad as his life was, and as duplicitous and destructive as his action were, I couldn't help but feel a certain amount of admiration for Philby. After all, he might have been a traitor, responsible for a number of deaths, but one could say that at least he never acted out of self-interest. Macintyre believes he was simply addicted to deception. That might be the case, but it might also be a slight over-simplification. Philby was also a true believer and there was nothing in his life that could possibly over-ride that. Of course, the establishment gathered around him, as they usually do. Nevertheless, I still found it remarkable that the political career of the foreign secretary Harold Macmillan could have survived after exonerating Philby in parliament. That he could then go on to become prime minister would be unthinkable today. Or that Anthony Eden could have also survived having rejected an inquiry. Most touching of all was the final meeting between Elliott and Philby, separated by their respective positions, with Elliott taking it upon himself to extract a confession from his old friend. This after Philby had spent years milking Elliott for information, just as he had spent years gaining information form the anglophile Angleton, deflating this ex-poet and supremely paranoid spook in the process. John Le Carré's afterward highlights this brotherhood. He asks Elliott, who by the 1980s had retired only to advise Thatcher on intelligence matters, "Could you have him (Philby) killed?" Elliott responds: "My dear chap...One of us." Nevertheless, after Philby's defection, things would never be the same. The establishment would continue to exist, of course, but Angleton would never recover from the betrayal, nor would Elliott. Likewise, the relationship between MI6 and CIA, and between MI6 and the more déclassé MI5, who had always been out to get the toff Philby.
Coincidentally, Owen Jones in a recent article in the Guardian writes about the origin and meaning of the term "establishment," tracing it back to the formidable Times and Spectator journalist and author of such books as The Spoiled Child of the Western World: The Miscarriage of the American Idea in Our Time and The Kennedy Promise, Henry Fairlie who coined the term:
Fairlie had grown cynical about the higher echelons of British society and, one day in the autumn of 1955, he wrote a piece explaining why. What attracted his attention was a scandal involving two Foreign Office officials. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to the Soviet Union. Fairlie suggested that friends of the two men had attempted to shield their families from media attention... This, he asserted, revealed that "what I can the 'establishment' in this country is today more powerful than ever before. For Fairlie, the establishment included not only "the centres of official power- though they are certainly part of it"- but "the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised...This "exercise of power", he claimed, could only be understood as being "exercised socially". In other words, the establishment comprised a set of well-connected people who knew one another, mixed in the same circles and had one another's backs. It was not based on official, legal or formal arrangements, but rather on "subtle social relationships."
But the more important point is that not only did the establishment offer protection to the likes of Philby, Burgess, and Maclean, but that they would make sure the three would, for as long as possible, remain impervious right up to the time of their ultimate exposure and defections. Certainly neither their drunken behaviour, homosexuality, communist past, or social slights had prevented their promotion. Written in a witty and effortless style, A Spy Among Friends is one of some ten books written by Macintyre, all in one way or another about spooks and outsiders, including The Napoleon of Crime, about Adam Worth whom Macintyre calls the real Moriarty, and Agent Zig Zag, about Eddie Chapman, who was a WW2 MI5 spy, both of which sit atop a stack of books I'm looking forward to reading at some point in the not-so distant future.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.