Hampstead author talks Maverick Spy: Stalin's Super-Agent in World War II
PUBLISHED: 11:30 11 October 2017
Hamish MacGibbon talks to Laura Gozzi about his father's life as a double-agent during WWII
When James MacGibbon first visited Germany in 1932, he was an enthusiastic, impressionable 20-year-old and, like other young men at the time, “may have briefly flirted with Nazism,” says his son Hamish.
Upon his return in Britain, James instead joined the Communist Party in 1938. Hamish’s book Maverick Spy purports that, had James’ interest in Nazism taken root, the outcome of the Second World War may have been radically different.
Maverick Spy – part memoir, part research work – elaborates on Hamish’s father’s late-life revelation of his work as a double-agent who passed wartime military secrets that he knew would be instrumental to the Allied victory to the Soviets. Maverick Spy claims said secrets probably included plans for D-Day, and reached the highest echelons of the Soviet leadership, Stalin included.
Hamish, now 85, says: “My father had been rather throwaway with his stories of the war, but after he died in 2000 my siblings and I wanted to find out about what he had really done in the military intelligence.”
Through their MP, the MacGibbons were invited to a room full of files in the Cabinet office, and made an extraordinary discovery: “there were boxes and boxes of surveillance reports on our everyday life, our childhoods. The mass of information was staggering.”
Trips, visits to the pub, conversations, domestic arguments: thanks to a system of interceptions, bugs and watchers, if it had happened at any point between the end of the 1940s and 1956, it was there. Did this mean their father had truly been a top Soviet spy?
Yes and no. Hamish is at pains to point out James’ unshakeable patriotism, which according to Maverick Spy led him to both join the Army as soon as war was declared and to provide the Russians with top secret information of unimaginable military value; the two, says Hamish, aren’t mutually exclusive.
“He wasn’t a mole. He wasn’t like the Cambridge Five,” Hamish insists. “When he divulged secrets, he wasn’t working for the Communist Party; he saw himself as contributing to the war effort.”
Indeed, the end of the war also marked the end of James’ espionage, but “in 1949, MI6 picked up a secret conversation from the Communist Party headquarters and began to take the investigation of my father very seriously,” says Hamish. Although his father’s leaks to the Soviets had ended with the war, “this was around the time Kim Philby and the others were leaking explosive stuff, and the secret service were under huge pressure to find out where the leaks were coming from.”
And so the MacGibbon siblings were given the bizarre opportunity to read transcripts of their parents’ private conversations dating from the 1950s. Hamish found it all quite gripping: “It gave us an insight into my parents’ relationship – it was interesting, but strange.” (His parents’ affairs and often tumultuous marriage had never been kept a secret, so there were no bad surprises.)
“But the most interesting conversations were political rows. They would scream and argue about the Party, which my mother was becoming very critical of, while my father would explode and refuse to discuss it.” By 1956, year of the crushed Hungarian revolution, both James and his wife had left the Communist Party, but remained lifelong Labour supporters.
In his post-war life, James worked as a publisher, founding MacGibbon & Kee, and he and his wife surrounded themselves with the crème of north London’s literary scene, remaining fixtures of Hampstead life.
Seventeen years after his death, James, the “insouciant debonair,” remains a most charming figure. “He was very lively, ebullient. I was in awe of him, of both my parents,” says Hamish. This admiration means that Maverick Spy ends up tracing much more than “just” the relatively short-lived espionage activities of James MacGibbon. Instead, it blends it with the story of James and Jean’s marriage, their children’s upbringings and the family’s literary and political endeavours, providing an enchanting snapshot of life in North London throughout the 20th century.
Maverick Spy is published by IB Tauris (£20)