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The endless fascination of espionage………

IA Spy Among Friends am not quite sure why spies, and spying, should be so very fascinating to most of us, but the success of books, films and TV programmes about spying show that it is!

For myself, there is something about the mask which we all wear, becoming something far less penetrable and obvious than most of our masks are to those around us who observe us. Although no-one can ever really know another, most of us are much more transparent in what we really are feeling/thinking than we believe. Most of us think we are safe behind our various masks, but the ability to ‘read’ the other is as much an evolutionary advantage as the ability to be a trickster is.

Spies though, a whole life lived hidden, take this to a different space, and the idea of never being really seen by another, truly, is as awful as the idea of having no-where to hide one’s psychic bruises from everyone’s gaze.

This is an excellent, readable account of Kim Philby’s life, and indeed of the whole culture of espionage from the lead-up to the Second World War, through the war years, and then into the period of the Cold War, when Russia, not Germany, was seen as the enemy by the West, and particularly by the UK and America. Author and journalist Ben Macintyre is clearly fascinated by the subject of espionage as he has written several other factual books on this topic. His research is extensive, and this particular book has a revealing postscript by John le Carre, who of course also worked in the Secret Service.

Macintyre starts his book with that very well known, and also in some ways, given the time of its writing, (1938) that very shocking statement by the novelist E.M.Forster:

If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friends, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country

What in the end the Forster quote implies is that ‘country’ like ideology itself, can, taken to an extreme, lead to the devaluing of an individual life. The ism elevated above the humans who live within the ism, or believe the ism. Fidelity to the ism (nationalism, specific faith or political ideology ism) can lead to the terrible things that happen when not just the other person’s ism, but indeed, the person themselves, becomes expendable for the sake of devotion to MY ism.

The fascinating dichotomy in this book however, became the clash between the ‘club’ – an upper class, public school, Oxbridge educated elite – a friendship of same background, bonded together with heavy drinking, those who were loyal to those friends, and would never betray their friends, and those, like Philby, whose loyalty was to the country of ideology. There was an extremity in both positions. Philby was willing to betray and sacrifice individual lives as he played his game of double bluff, ostensibly high up in MI6, whilst in reality, serving the KGB. But the intelligence agencies, both in the UK and at that stage, in the States, had high up individuals who were unable to comprehend that a man of ‘our class’ could possibly be a traitor to his class, or to the politics of his class, or to his country.


Kim Philby was above suspicion for so long, not just because he was so clearly ‘one of us’ with absolutely the ‘right background’, but because he was possessed of fatal (for others) charm. If you look at the real derivation of the word – a charm is a piece of magic, an enchantment, a spell, something thought to possess occult power. Kim Philby’s charm clearly DID ‘subdue by secret influence’. As Macintyre explains

Beneath Philby’s golden charm lay a thick substratum of conceit; the charmer invites you into his world, though never too far and only on his terms

By all accounts, Philby, in that markedly English upper-class way, did not ever discuss real things – emotions, political beliefs – repeatedly, colleagues talk about him as good fun, ironic, witty – and sometimes these skilful tools can be absolutely used to parry away real intimacy,

What shocks also is what an incredibly heavy drinking culture the worlds of MI6 and the CIA were. It seems as if most of the high up personnel must either have been drunk or nursing hangovers most of the time!.

Alcohol was so much a part of the culture of MI6 in those days that a non-drinker in the ranks could look like a subversive or worse

The other fact which struck me is how young, how very young, some of these major players were at the time when they were rising to extraordinary positions of power and responsibility – men in their mid-twenties.

I was also quite fascinated to discover how much the class war was played out in this country between MI6 (that public school educated, upper class often aristocratic privileged elite) and the middle or working class background of MI5. And of the rivalry and distrust between them. This was mirrored in the setting up of similar agencies in the States, between the CIA and the FBI

The story of Philby’s eventual ‘outing’ after decades of successfully living the lie, and of how and why (possibly) he did not end up, like some lower placed double agents, tried and imprisoned, but escaped to Moscow to live out his days, is cogently argued. Some less highly placed double agents, whose ‘betrayals’ cost fewer agent’s lives lost, fewer state secrets betrayed, were imprisoned for many years – John Verrall, for example. Philby, like Burgess and Maclean, were able to flee the country – in the case of Burgess and Maclean this was engineered by Philby, in the case of Philby, it wasn’t another agent, but, but ……….you’ll have to read this excellent book!

A received this as a review copy from the publishers, via NetgalleyBen Macintyre

A Spy Among Friends Amazon UK
A Spy Among Friends Amazon USA