Spies in the cold

Coincidences matter. As the world raced to the end of 2020 like a parched man to an oasis, two news items caught the eye: in Moscow, George Blake, a double agent, died aged 98; in the UK, John le Carre, who raised the spy novel to new levels, passed away quietly. Just then I was turning the last pages of the magisterial, three-volume biography of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry. It all seemed to fall into a pattern, a carefully choreographed cosmic coincidence.


George Blake spied for the Soviets from within the MI6 for years. He was identified in 1961 by a defecting Polish agent and sentenced to an unprecedented 42 years. Aided by sympathisers, he escaped in 1966 from Wormwood Scrubs prison in London and reached Moscow. Blake was the son of a naturalised Turkish-born Briton and never grew roots in the country. He said later: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.” In contrast, the other contemporaneous double agents―the Cambridge Five―were the epitome of the British establishment: Cambridge, foreign office and the secret service. Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Don Maclean and Kim Philby: each of their lives is a fascinating tale of deception and betrayal, but it is to the best known, Philby, that my thoughts now turn.

When Philby headed a MI6 counter-intelligence section in 1942, Graham Greene, already a well-known novelist, worked for him. Their friendship survived Philby’s defection to Moscow in 1963, with Greene even writing the introduction to Philby’s memoir My Silent War. He put aside his own novel, The Human Factor, with 20,000 words done, when Philby defected, not wanting it to sound like a Philby story; the book would come out 15 years later.


The two friends were not to meet till 1986. Greene had resisted visiting the Soviet Union for 25 years, in spite of his sympathy with that country over America; he was protesting the harsh treatment meted out to dissenting writers. Mikhail Gorbachev’s advent encouraged Greene to visit Moscow, including for the Soviet leader’s opening glasnost gambit, the 1987 peace conference. There were other celebrities present―Gregory Peck, Norman Mailer, Yoko Ono, Pierre Cardin―but Gorbachev was a Greene fan. “I have known you for years,” he told Greene on being introduced; the novelist instantly became his supporter.


During these visits, Greene met Philby after 35 years. They “hugged, clapping each other on the back in embarrassment and pleasure”, drank vodka and exchanged reminiscences, recorded Philby’s young Russian wife, Rufina, who incidentally had learned her English using Greene’s The Heart of the Matter as a textbook. Greene told Philby: “You and I are suffering from the same incurable disease―old age.” They also shared the burden of doubt: Greene of the Catholic faith, and Philby of Communism. Greene’s loyalty earned him much public scorn, including from writers Anthony Burgess and A.N. Wilson. “Having a holiday with Philby,” the latter wrote, “is morally on par with having a holiday with Dr Goebbels while this country was at war with Nazi Germany.” In contrast, John le Carre, also in Moscow in 1988―whose Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was inspired by Philby―refused to meet the man, branding him “a thoroughly bad lot, just a naturally bent man.”


Philby died in 1988, like Blake last December, in Moscow. Born on New Year’s Day 1912 in a town called Ambala, he was nicknamed Kim by his ICS father after Kipling’s boy-spy of the same name. The first mission of Kipling’s Kim in the eponymous novel was to pass a message to a handler in “Umballa”. Coincidences do matter.