Though it’s been a slow-reading year since the fall (thanks, all-consuming day-job), the Christmas holidays offered an opportunity to polish off two books I’ve been making my way through: Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal and Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway murder mysteries #7, The Ghost Fields. I enjoyed both in that distracted, desultory way one does when other obligations and responsibilities get in an uber-reader’s way. Of the two, Macintyre’s book proved the more compelling. An account of the activities of one high-profile Soviet spy in the UK’s MI-6, Macintyre, rightly so, is more interested in telling the story of how the old boys club that was Britain’s spy agency bolstered, supported, and lauded a traitor, a snake in their arrogant, smug grass. Griffiths’s volume, on the other hand, contained a lacklustre mystery, but my love for Ruth, her five-year-old daughter, Kate, friend Cathbad, DCI Nelson and his team, and Nelson’s wife, Michelle, proved to be strong enough, and their continued relationship complications interesting enough, to keep me reading past the ho-hum mystery plot.
As someone whose heart is on her sleeve, she can’t prevent an eye-roll if her life depended on it, and whose mouth runs off before her judgement kicks in, I was fascinated by Philby’s genial, amoral dissembling. What proved even more riveting was Philby’s ability to balance and live an elaborate double life: member of the MI-6 old boys club, with roots in posh boys public school education, the bonhomie of privilege, the back-slapping arrogant, blind pride of treating people’s lives like a cricket match, and the fall from grace of all that for all that. Can’t say I didn’t do an internal reader-cheer ’cause I did. Philby ne’er betrayed a crack: charming journalists, sticking to his public-school connection guns, and drinking himself into daily stupor. Philby lived the high life of privilege and never batted an eye at betraying it. I was never on his side, people died because of him, but I can’t say I ever felt an iota of sympathy for the higher-ups his fall from grace took with him. (Macintyre seems to suggest that Philby was allowed to flee to Moscow to save MI-6 face and I can totally see that was the way of things.)
Above all, Macintyre tells the story of Philby’s years-long friendship with fellow-agent Nicholas Elliott: they drank together, spied together and even though Philby never gave MI-6 any great shakes spy “goods” (he saved those for his Soviet handlers), his pedigree kept him in the spying game. For how can one of “us” possibly betray what he was born into? Philby is no hero, but neither are the men he betrayed. And at the centre of the account are the women he betrayed time and again, not to other women, but by so easily abandoning them and his children to his ideological mistress, Soviet Communism. Lastly, Macintyre is a great writer; his prose, sharp, witty, and incisive. I’m looking forward to reading his recent follow-up, The Spy and the Traitor (from the other-side perspective of a Soviet who betrayed the Soviet Union).
As for the Griffiths, it’s not my favourite of the lot, but I still adore Ruth, who, in this volume, finally finally accepts her love for Nelson. As for what will come next for them, the team, and Nelson and Michelle, onto The Woman In Blue.
5 thoughts on “What Else I’ve Read”
I’m surprised Philby never let anything slip when he was drunk. Were his motivations ideological or mercenary? (Or both?)
He was a man, according to Macintyre, with an uncanny ability, self-admitted too, to live in two realms. Something very few people can manage, I think. Our impetus for humble self-assertion impedes this. I think he was thoroughly egotistical and thoroughly convinced of his ideology, even after the Stalin revelations came out.
I think that’s a great question: he certainly lived the high life, but Philby took it as his due. I don’t think he was mercenary b/c I don’t think he ever lacked for friends who would carry him along … the very friends he duped. His capacity for a kind of secret-self-protection male friendship, in which those very friends colluded as part of their world-view, was infinite. The self-illusions of the privileged male world view don’t come out looking very good in this book and I loved Macintyre for it.
The only person who stood out as genuine and who understood exactly the kind of non-aggressive psychopath Philby was was a women he tried to recruit for the Soviets early on, Flora Solomon. She had his number, but who listens to women, right? A point she makes to the UK government when they finally try to close in on Philby, a man they defended. As a Jewish person and a woman, she retorted when they asked her why she wasn’t forthcoming before: “I had not volunteered information as every public statement pointed to his innocence” and she knew she couldn’t win against “clubmanship and the old school tie could protect their own.” (I thought it was fascinating that Solomon was a single mother, who made her career at Marks’n’Sparks, and whose son Peter founded Amnesty International, according to Macintyre.)
Moreover, if Philby was blind-drunk, so were his buddies!
I didn’t even know about this Macintyre book. I agree he is a great writer. Operation Mincemeat is very entertaining, there is quite a bit of humor in it.
Really good writer. You might want to try it then: it’s compelling. He’s got a bit of a backlist for me to explore.
Comments are closed.