So much stuff and nonsense has been said about Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt that yet one more comment might seem like superfluous self-indulgence.
Their audacity in foiling the British establishment, from which they came, is a subject that has for long nagged the Sunday supplements and still manages to grab occasional headlines, as it did early April with the discovery by the BBC of a “secret tape” in the Stasi Archives of a talk that Kim Philby delivered to East German intelligence officers in 1981.
Much of the commentary around this concerned the boast by Philby that he successfully used his intimate knowledge of upper class culture to evade detection; that is, he exploited the ”old boy network”.
Those hacks, who prattle on incessantly about treachery, are especially irked that the so-called “Cambridge spies” had betrayed their own class and remained entirely unrepentant. But this cold war perspective never really uncovers the true personalities and what inspired them despite the fact that books continue to trundle off the press recycling old material and repeating even older arguments.
To satisfy its readers, a book must get the tone right and do justice to its subject no matter how controversial. In this respect, Tom Driberg’s “Guy Burgess: A Portrait with Background” (1956) is a neglected classic and remains one of the best books on Burgess to date.
Driberg challenges some of the misconceptions deliberately fostered about Burgess and anticipates an end to the Cold War. In the 1970s, during a renewed period of “spy mania”, Driberg, a former Labour MP and journalist, was himself the victim of unsubstantiated allegations of treachery made by Chapman Pincher and Andrew Boyle.
His book highlights an anniversary that has largely been missed: the press conference at a Moscow hotel on 11 February 1956 when the two missing British diplomats, Burgess and Donald Maclean, resurfaced after nearly five years absence, to announce to a surprised world that, “We both of us are convinced that we were right in doing what we did.”
Later that same year, Driberg flew out to Moscow to interview Burgess at his suite in the Moskva Hotel, where the two discussed at length world affairs, his political motivations and life in the USSR. He describes Burgess as an “Englishman nurtured in the Radical tradition” and a person of much principle.
As Driberg explains, Burgess also had a dacha in the countryside and shows that his lifestyle in exile was far less austere than the one portrayed in, for example, Alan Bennett’s drama, An Englishman Abroad, where Glasgow and Dundee doubled up for the Soviet capital.
While in Moscow Burgess was to work for the Foreign Literature Publishing House and proudly tells Driberg of his successes in getting them to translate and publish more good English fiction such as Graham Greene and E M Forster.
This long out-of-print book refutes many of the more lurid charges laid against Burgess and Maclean by their detractors in particular that their actions led to the deaths of American soldiers in 1950 during the Korean War.
Driberg describes attacks on Burgess’s character and private life as “irrelevant” muck raking and the product of the ”familiar transatlantic technique of the smear”.
He concludes that, “having talked at length with Guy Burgess, and satisfied myself of the passionate sincerity of his convictions, I respect him for his courage in doing what he thought right” in order to “secure world peace”.
The book ends with a suggestion that it is high time to re-examine the whole concept of treason and looks forward to improved relations between East and West. Sadly, sixty years on these aspirations remain forlorn and extremely elusive.
Discarding the cold war view of Burgess as a traitor to a single state or patrician class, a shift in perspective allows him to emerge as a hero of humanity.
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This post was written by David Morgan