Book review: A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

Macintyre_ASpyAmongFriendsHarold Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby was the right sort. Son of a celebrated explorer and a product of Westminster School and Cambridge University with not a scholarship in sight, he slipped easily into the English upper class of the 1930s. A stint as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War confirmed that he’d inherited his father’s adventurous spirit, cementing his qualifications for recruitment by MI6, the British foreign intelligence service.

Men loved the affable Philby as he drank them under the table. Women loved him as they tumbled into his bed. He rose rapidly through the ranks of MI6, mentoring many newcomers to the chaotic world of spying. He rose to the head of the counter intelligence section and then, with Nazi Germany a thing of the past and focus shifting to the Soviet Union, he was posted to Washington to liaise with the rapidly expanding CIA. Urbane, clubbable, and possessing an intelligence that made him the champion of office skullduggery, he was the golden boy of intelligence on both sides of the Atlantic and tipped to take on the mantle of ‘C’, director of MI6.

He was also a Soviet mole.

Philby’s story, from his recruitment into the Cambridge Spy Ring to his final defection nearly thirty years later, has been told many times. Macintyre brings a different approach to previous accounts by focusing on the man behind the myth, through his friendships and marriages. It’s no easy task that he’s set himself as Philby’s closest friends inhabited the same world of secrets that he did. They were either his dupes or his co-conspirators.

His fellow Cambridge spies, Guy Burgess and Donald Mclean, preceded him to Russia. The KGB was hardly likely to allow them to speak freely about him, even after he repaid their welcome by seducing Mclean’s wife. His dupes were unlikely to admit how comprehensively they had been duped. His ex-wives shared his drinking habits and rarely survived marriage to him for long.

Macintyre focuses on Philby’s closest friends, who were also his greatest dupes. Nicholas Elliott’s promising MI6 career was marred by his persistent defence of Philby, while James Jesus Angleton became almost legendary in his own right, heading the CIA’s counter intelligence unit for two decades and gaining a reputation for conscientiousness or possibly paranoia.

The Philby who emerges from Macintyre’s narrative is a peculiar mixture of committed idealogue and egoist. He always claimed to be committed to socialism, yet he embraced the decadence of the British upper classes with enthusiasm until forced to flee to Soviet austerity. He claimed to value friendship, yet he deceived his closest friends. Macintyre suggests that he was addicted to knowing things that no one else did. It certainly chimes with the tone of his autobiography, My Silent War, in which he crows over his cleverness as he outwits the bumbling Brits and Yanks.

However, that book was probably a piece of propaganda directed by the KGB as much as it was a memoir, so it would be unwise to take it too seriously. It says nothing about Philby’s reasons and very little about his operations. Presumably his handlers hoped to generate paranoia in a service they no longer had agents in.

Macintyre says in his preface that he doesn’t expect A Spy Among Friends to be the last word on Philby. He is undoubtedly right, if only because there is no way to tell what was going on behind Philby’s smile so it’s impossible to resist speculating. As one of the most successful spies in history, Philby will remain a subject of fascination for a long time yet.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction

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