Hampstead journalist reveals why acting as a gay drunk was perfect cover for one Soviet spy
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The author of a book on Cambridge spy Guy Burgess tells Alex Bellotti why the double agent is a continually fascinating subject.
One of the most extraordinary messages in the history of British espionage came in 1946, when one MI6 officer filed a report to another over the conduct of a certain Guy Burgess. Concerning the English double agent’s clash with a bartender during a posting in Tangier, Morocco, it read: ‘Burgess should not have pinched Harry Dean’s Arab bum boy. He has created one hell of a scandal.’
More than anything else, the episode hints at the eternal, compelling conundrum surrounding Burgess. How could a drunken, promiscuous socialite so seemingly drawn towards chaos be one of the central members of The Cambridge Five, the infamous Soviet spy ring who infiltrated the upper echelons of the MI5, MI6 and Westminster? And more pertinently, how did he get away with it?
In a new biography, Hampstead journalist Stewart Purvis and media historian Jeff Hulbert attempt to make sense of such questions. While it is somewhat unfortunate that Guy Burgess: The Spy Who Knew Everyone comes hot on the heels of Andrew Lownie’s biography on the same subject, the recent release of hundreds of National Archives files ensured the pair had plenty of new material with which to investigate one of the 20th’s centuries most curious betrayals.
“While it’s hard to get rhapsodic about a Soviet spy – they were completely wrong in everything they did – in terms of asking if they were any good at it, Burgess has been judged quite harshly because of his drinking and his sexuality,” says Purvis.
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“Now I’m not saying he wasn’t a drunk and I’m not saying he wasn’t promiscuous, but that was a wonderful blind for all the other things he was doing. People were so obsessed with his drinking and his sex life that they didn’t notice. And of course they couldn’t believe that a guy like this could be a Soviet spy – it’s the perfect cover.”
Previously the editor-in-chief of Channel 4 News and chief executive of ITN, Purvis, 68, struck up a working relationship with Hulbert during their time as professors at City University. Their first book, When Reporters Cross the Line, featured a chapter on Burgess; while never a reporter, the spy’s time working as a radio journalist set the “gold standard for crossing the line because he was variously – and sometimes simultaneously – working for not just the KGB, but also the BBC, MI5, MI6, the foreign office and about three or four others.”
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Despite the name, the exact numbers involved with the Cambridge Five remains uncertain. At the very least, its core consisted of Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Duart Maclean and Anthony Blunt – all of whom were found to have passed foreign office and MI5 documents to the Soviets before and during the Cold War.
Recruited in part by Arnold Deutsch, a Soviet scout who lived in Hampstead’s Lawn Road Flats, quite why they betrayed their country is a continued source of debate.
“They saw it as a choice between facism and communism,” says Purvis, who lives in the Vale of Health. “People had written off liberal democracy in the ‘30s; they thought you either had to be fascist or communist and since they were anti-fascist, that made them communist.
“But I have to say I think in Burgess’s case there was a sense of egotism as well. Partly because his friends were all signing up to what later became the KGB, he didn’t want to be left out and it was actually Philby who said that Burgess virtually forced his way into the KGB, saying ‘Me too!’”
If it sounds a remarkably shallow reason, it doesn’t sound out of character either. Born the son of a naval officer to a privileged family (their original name was literally ‘Bourgeois’), Burgess attended Eton and Cambridge, where he made no secret of his desperation to join their most exclusive social clubs.
Based as a spy in central London, he became a serial networker, with a contacts book boasting the names of everyone from Winston Churchill to George Orwell. His fall from grace came when he helped Maclean, who had come under suspicion as a spy, escape to Moscow, only to find he was also unable to return.
The reason why Burgess – who wasn’t under suspicion himself – made the journey to Russia remains unclear, with Purvis suggesting that at some basic level, “he was told to carry on”. Whatever the case, MI5 were so keen to ensure he couldn’t come back that they went through the trouble of jailing another military defector just to set a trial precedent to frighten Burgess. “You come away thinking that anyone who believes that the administration of justice is separate from politics is completely naïve,” laughs Purvis.
Burgess hated life in Russia and eventually died there aged 52 after a bout of alcoholism. Yet he lost his faith in communism. Having noticed in his research that practically the whole of NW3 was full of communist sympathisers at the time, Purvis suggests that the spy “had a sense that history was on his side”.
“I’ve been through virtually every letter he wrote from Moscow, and there’s a clear regret that he’s not living in England, but there’s no sense of him giving up on communism. In fact you could argue that if anything he got more left wing, in that he was very taken by Chinese communism.
“While most by that point were saying that communism didn’t work, he was looking for another version. But did he want to go back and start drinking again at the Reform Club bar? Absolutely.”
Guy Burgess: The Spy Who Knew Everyone by Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert is published by Biteback for £25.