Ben Macintyre is a great writer and, in this latest book, he has turned his attention to Kim Philby – one of the Cambridge Spies. Historically, this book may not offer much that is new, but it does tell the story from a different viewpoint ; that of his friendships, most notably with Nicholas Elliott. In other words, this is not really a straight-forward biography of Philby, but focuses on his personality and on the Old Boy network that enabled him to evade detection for so long. The book begins with the meeting between Philby and Elliott in Beirut in January, 1963, with Elliott confronting his former friend about his betrayal of his country and trying to obtain a confession. He must certainly have felt betrayed personally too, as he had done much to protect Philby from earlier suspicions by MI5 – defending and helping him when he was in difficulty.
This fascinating account looks at the early life of both men, their meeting during WWII and their career in the Secret Intelligence Service. Kim Philby was, from the beginning, a Soviet agent. Along with the Cambridge Spies; Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, he was so successful that his Soviet spymasters suspected him of being a double agent. As well as being a close friend of Elliott, he also became the mentor of James Jesus Angleton, an American and one of the most powerful spies in history. The Old Boy network which had brought both Elliott and Philby into the intelligence service meant that while agents were secretive outside of their immediate circle, they were horribly indiscreet within it, trusting on bonds of class and social networking to protect them.
During this book, we read of Elliott’s and Philby’s career, and personal life, including the jaw dropping appointment of Philby as head of the Soviet Section. As the Second World War ended and the Cold War began, Philby was able to inform Moscow of exactly what Britain was doing to counter Soviet espionage and, indeed, their own espionage efforts against Moscow. There is no doubt that Philby’s actions were an odd mix of defiant belief in the Soviet Union and an inability to take responsibility for his own actions. His passing of information to his Soviet masters led to many people losing their lives. Yet, despite his own reluctance to finally defect to Russia (he called himself a ‘Russian’ but lived there as an almost stereotypical Englishman) he was insistent that he had carried out instructions out of a (misguided) loyalty and was seemingly untroubled about the, often terrible, consequences. Also, although he was constantly loyal to Russia, he rarely spoke of politics. It was as though, having decided on his beliefs, he simply put them out of his mind and stayed true to them, despite any conflicting, or disturbing, evidence – such as the disappearance of successive Soviet spymasters that he looked up to and respected.
As Kim Philby’s life descended into the drama of defection, Macintyre asks whether he was, in fact, allowed to escape. Would his possible trial been such an embarrassment to the British government that he was simply given the chance to leave? However, the real core of this book is his friendship with Nicholas Elliott and the two men are almost given equal space. Angleton comes to the fore when Philby is in the States, and is important to the book, but the central relationship was Philby and Elliott. Personally, I found this a really interesting read and there is an enjoyable afterword, written by John le Carre. It is impossible to defend Kim Philby for his actions, but his story – both personal and as a spy – are certainly larger than life. If you have read anything by Ben Macintyre before, you will know that this is a not a dry and academic account, but reads almost like a spy novel. If you were not aware that it is factual, you would assume that this astonishing account was pure fiction – but it is certainly a riveting read and another well written and entertaining book from the talented Ben Macintyre.
British author Ben Macintyre is an excellent writer who has written at least three other books about spies and WW2 and the Cold War. Each of them is very good, and Macintyre adds a degree of humor otherwise missing in many other books on the subject. His new book, "A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal" is another in a long line of good books on espionage. The problem with this book - and with me as the reader and the reviewer - is that I am so disgusted with the men Macintyre writes about - particularly Kim Philby - that I just didn't enjoy the book as much as his previous books.
Kim Philby was one of the great spies in 20th century history. A prolific gatherer of information in pre-WW2 Europe, during the war, and the Cold War afterwards for Great Britain, he was equally if not better at betraying the Brits to the Russian KGB and the NKVD. He was part of the "Cambridge Five" spy ring and fled to and died in the Soviet Union after being unmasked by the British Intelligence in the 1960's. (He was almost caught several times before but tidily arranged for his potential exposers' deaths so as to keep his double-crossing a secret.)
Kim Philby was part of the British "Old Boys' Network" of Oxbridge graduates from elite British families. If your father was well-known and respected, chances are you - the son - would be, too, and welcomed into intelligence work. That's how Kim Philby and many others - including Nicholas Elliott - got into the "spy business". Ben Macintyre writes well about these men and you'll probably enjoy the book. Just don't be surprised if you feel like you need a shower after finishing it.
I found this book every bit as absorbing as promised. At one level, it is indeed a first rate thriller, an incredible page-turner, totally unputdownable. It is by no means the first account of its subject matter, but it offers a fresh perspective via concentration on the special relationship between Philby and his close friend, Nicholas Elliott. I have followed the saga faithfully ever since as one of tender years I registered the general shock at the flight of Burgess and Maclean, and then read avidly many years later Phillip Knightley’s still impressive account of what was then known about Philby and Co. Since then I have devoured all that I could get my hands on, even struggling through the offensively egotistical Peter Wright’s “Spycatcher.”
Ben Macintyre writes in a very different vein, thoughtfully, with dignity and in wonderfully lucid prose. He never insults the reader nor imposes assertively his own views. I must confess that I have not encountered his work previously but I’m strongly minded to explore his other much-celebrated accounts of espionage. I think it remarkable that he can achieve such poise in writing of quite such an extraordinary world. I imagine that MI6 is now a duller, if more secure institution.
This phenomenal amalgam of the socially elite, academically distinguished and seemingly perpetually inebriated, almost defies credibility. Guy Burgess, alone, was of quite amazing singularity: a flamboyant homosexual, apparently born with massive social confidence, charming, rude, contemptuous of authority and convention, aggressive, free-loading, possessed of the most amazing capacity for alcohol, yet blessed with a razor-sharp intellect. He seems, perhaps even more than any of the others, including Philby, to contain within himself the ingredients spread generously throughout this group, and not only the dissidents.
What I also found fascinating and alarming is how despite our knowledge of the ruthless, cold-blooded sending of innocents to their deaths, I still found myself desperately hoping that Philby would escape Beirut before the net closed in. It reminds me of the scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, when Norman Bates tries to sink the car containing the body of the woman he has murdered. There we, and I’m sure it is the majority of the audience, are willing the car which has paused in its descent, to continue and disappear from view.
A footnote. Le Carre’s “Afterword”, I found rather curious, but for me it served one important purpose. It took me out of a world in which I had been lost, back into the near present. Outside of the hermetically sealed world of the secret services Nicholas Elliott seems a man out of his time as well as out of his milieu. Such an extraordinarily unreal world it was!
on 29 March 2015
disturbing book on many levels, I felt in great turmoil at the end. however, as a book, there are some haunting photos of a bygone era, and there is created a real sense of "the times" and places of Philby's espionage and what being "a spy" at that time actually involved. spying certainly these days would involve much more technnologically, rather than the sometimes amateurish, sometimes professional, efforts of this group. they clearly made it their business to enjoy themselves too, which would probably be less the case these days - as illustrated in the progression of Bond films from Roger Moore to the more focused latter day Daniel Craig.
but I felt appalled at the end.
the book doesn't give as full an explanation as one would like though - so I will add some other views gleaned :
1. obviously he was influenced by the communism and anti-Nazism of those times. and let us not forget the British Communist Party thrived even well into the 60s and Morning Star sold for decades after that, so he was not alone in his views. however, as another reviewer suggests, he didn't seem convincing and, having the most perfunctory introduction to communist ideas, it seems very unlikely he was genuinely committed. 2. psychological: the extra-marital affairs definitely seemed to me to point to an enjoyment of duplicity. Another explanation is that MI5 and MI6 were centres of power and there were those who liked to gravitate to this inner circle of power. My own thoughts are that as a spy they would also get freedom and would not be expected to live the life of a parson. I have also read somewhere of the role of his father who was absolutely single-minded and also liked to be on the winning side (he apparently advised the Saudi government to accept American oil business rather than British and he also became a muslim.)
John Le Carre said of Philby "“Philby has no home, no women, no faith. Behind the inbred upper-class arrogance, the taste for adventure, lies the self-hate of a vain misfit for whom nothing will ever be worthy of his loyalty. In the last instance, Philby is driven by the incurable drug of deceit itself.” Another observer said once he started spying, it simply seemed easier to carry on than to stop. But since a risk was involved, I think Philby accepted that perhaps for the feeling of private advantage of 'knowing' more than anyone else did around him.
on 9 September 2014
I have read all of Ben Macintyre's books, and they just get better and better. However, in this one he has set not only an exceptional standard for narrative, but, in a way that was absent in the others, he has, I think, let his own standpoint show, which lends a special edge to the book.
I recently heard an interview with the biographer of a Pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon monarch, and she said that because of the constant proximity to this character, she became something of an advocate of his reputation against others whose relative position was held in higher regard. She thus admitted to a somewhat personal relationship with the subject of her book.
Well Macintyre, I believe does the same. His chapters a a splendid mix of amusing story, surprising history, personal courage (by both British backed and KGB agents) and political interpretation , but, time after time, the objective and cheerful mask slips and reveals that Macintyre absolutely despises and loathes Philby. A sentiment that it is impossible not to share.
The amusing stories of Abwehr and SIS rivalry in Istanbul are retold as clever revelations, and even the post-Venlo rolling up of the British networks in Holland is presented objectively, as a "fortunes of war" disaster, but Philby's betrayal of the Catholic "resistance" in Germany to the KGB is retold, several times, with ill-disguised disgust.
Philby comes across as the lowest possible form of life, an intellectually inadequate Communist who would not defend his beliefs (perhaps because he realised how pathetic and inadequate they were, but hid from this in alcohol), who betrayed trust, friends and those whose lives depended on him for a third rate dictatorship and an intellectually moribund religion.
Macintyre seems to have brilliantly concocted an account where there is a strong impression that this washed up drunk wound up in Moscow with no friends, and not even the respect of the organisation which he dedicated his life to, and that MI6 may have successfully poisoned the waters even there. Finally, even his legendary charm turned to stinking curdled milk.
A splendid, haunting book.
on 21 September 2014
For over twenty years Kim Philby operated as a Russian agent inside the British establishment, much of it working in MI6, including heading up Soviet counter-espionage. The most famous of the Cambridge spies recruited in the early 1930s, he sent thousands of copies of secret documents to his spymasters and hundreds of Allied agents and provocateurs to their death or incarceration. When asked to choose between family, friends, country and political ideology, he always chose politics. A skilled liar and accomplished charmer Philby had a knack for establishing friendships and then exploiting them, relying on them to support his ‘good name’ when accusations eventually surfaced in 1951 as to his exploits. Remarkably the strategy worked, with Philby not only remaining unprosecuted and free, but heavily defended by friends and colleagues and bought back into the intelligence fold, only defecting in 1963. It is these duplicitous friendships that Ben Macintyre explores in A Spy Among Friends, notably his relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a high-flying MI6 agent, and James Angleton, who became the CIA head of counter-intelligence. To a certain degree this does provide a new route into the story of Kim Philby and his exploits, though his charm and friendships are well known. Moreover, the Philby story is one that has been told many times before; it is one that is highly contested with multiple versions of the truth and much disinformation circulating. As a consequence, there is little in the book that has not previously been spun and reworked a few times over. Indeed, most of the material is sourced from other accounts rather than archive sources. What Macintyre offers then, is a slightly different take on an well-worn tale, but one that is told through an engaging narrative.
The post-war Cambridge spy ring holds an endless and rather strange fascination - a group of men who betrayed their country and its allies to the Soviet regime for the most nebulous of reasons and whose actions are considered to have cost many lives. And yet somehow they are held up as anti-heroes, a bit like the Great Train Robbers or Bonnie and Clyde. It's a strange phenomenon and one that always leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. So it was with a mix of anticipation and apprehension that I started to read this one about the infamous 'Third Man', Kim Philby (the inspiration behind Graham Greene's screenplay for the film of that name).
Ben Macintyre is a journalist by trade and has written several books about real-life spies. In this one he has approached his subject by looking at the friendships that to a large extent shielded Philby from discovery for years, even after suspicions had become aroused. Philby had already become a Soviet agent before he joined MI6. Like all the spies, he would claim this was because he was convinced by the arguments of communism - but, again like them all, that didn't stop him living as lavish and hedonistic a lifestyle as he possibly could. Rather than making him stand out, his heavy drinking and constant partying meant that he fitted in perfectly to the overgrown-boys' club that was MI6 at that time. And this is really the point that Macintyre is making in this book - that MI6 in particular was filled by the upper-classes, selected not so much for their characters as their families and old school ties, and living in a kind of closed community where they didn't talk to outsiders but revealed secrets casually to each other on the grounds that of course they could all trust each other.
Macintyre tells the parallel story of Nicholas Elliott, a loyal servant of the Crown, who was (or thought he was) Philby's closest friend and confidant. As they both rose in their careers, Elliott admired Philby's charm as much as his skills as a fellow spy. Philby was also particularly close to the flamboyant and outrageously behaved Guy Burgess, and won over James Jesus Angleton, who was on a simultaneous rise through the ranks of the newly formed CIA, and would later become Chief of its Counterintelligence branch. When Burgess was finally outed as a double-agent and fled to Moscow along with Donald Maclean, Elliott and Angleton were pivotal in deflecting suspicion from Philby as a possibility for the 'third man' known to still be operating. When the truth finally became unavoidable, Elliott was given the task of trying to get a confession from Philby - a task complicated by his conflicting feelings of friendship and betrayal.
I found the first few chapters of the book a bit tedious, as Macintyre would stray from the main thrust of the book to describe some of the exploits of various spies not really directly involved in the Philby story. I suspect however that these bits would appeal to someone with more interest in spying games than I have. But once the story focused on the path towards Philby's eventual downfall I found myself gripped by it. Macintyre is a good storyteller and the book felt well researched. By the time he got to the crux of the matter, I felt that I knew the major participants well and this meant that I could sympathise with Elliott in his anger and disappointment. I was pleased that Macintyre didn't try to show Philby as any kind of hero - he made it clear that his actions had led to many deaths, not just of spies on both sides, but of other people caught up in the games he played. He showed Philby as a curiously amoral character, whose charm gave him an appearance of warmth belied by the coldness of his actions. I didn't feel, however, that Macintyre gave a particularly plausible reason for Philby's seeming loyalty to the Soviet regime - perhaps there isn't one. It seemed that he perhaps just liked the excitement of fooling everyone.
An interesting story that tells as much about the class-ridden power structures of British society as it does about Philby and Elliott - a class that sometimes puts loyalty to its own members above all other considerations, including patriotism.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing.
The literature on the Cambridge spy ring, and in particular on the most successful member, the so-called Third Man, Kim Philby, is very large, but still new books appear, particularly after the publication of authorized histories of the intelligence services. This one is by Ben Macintyre, the well-known journalist and writer on intelligence matters. The problem with all such books is how much to believe. Spies are notorious at manipulating accounts of their past actions and constructing false histories to suit their own purposes. This is, after all, what spies are trained to do. Macintyre does at least admit right at the start that this is a problem, which is compounded by the fact that the files of MI6, CIA and the KGB are still closed, so `facts' cannot be checked.
Macintyre's account tries to concentrate on the way that Philby deceived for many years, and ultimately cruelly betrayed, his close friends, both in MI6 and his family, including at least two wives. But to do this, he has to retell the standard story of Philby's early days in MI6 before and during the war. There is little new here, although his close friendship with Nicholas Elliott, another high-flyer in MI6, does figure strongly. Philby was a notorious liar, philander and heavy drinker, but none of this appeared to be a cause of concern to senior people in MI6, who later could not bring themselves to believe that `one of their own class' could be a traitor. Macintyre relates a story where the appointment of an intelligence officer is made without any vetting on the strength of a chance remark by someone in a club that `I know his people'. This just about sums up the poor professionalism of the intelligence services, particularly within MI6, during that period.
Philby's more serious failing was that he was utterly ruthless in the cause of communism. He relayed to the Russians everything that passed across his desk, or that he became aware of, including the massive indiscretions of the American James Angleton (later the Head of the CIA) when Philby was seconded to Washington. He was thereby directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, often after torture, by no means all of whom were agents themselves. Philby never expressed any regret for his actions.
Only fairly late in the book does the intense relationship between Philby and Elliott become the central feature. Doubts had emerged about Philby, particularly within MI5, but MI6 in the main defended him as `one of our own' and the chief defender was Elliott. It was he who was given the job (he had requested it) of confronting Philby with the damming evidence that finally emerged. It was an interesting choice because Elliot felt Philby's personal betrayal very deeply and said he would like to shoot him. The interview took place in Beirut, where Philby was fitfully working as a journalist for some English publications, while still in contact with his Russian handler. By the time Elliot arrived, Philby was already breaking up under the strain of `looking over his shoulder', and drinking even more heavily than usual. Elliot offered him a deal whereby if he made a full confession he would not be prosecuted. But Philby played for time and the most he would concede was some minor interactions with the Russians years earlier, but he never admitted to the major acts of treachery in later years.
Nevertheless, Philby knew the game was up and he was hastily smuggled out of Beirut on a Russian freighter and back to Moscow. The ease with which he escaped might suggest that Elliot's brief was to extract a confession of sorts that would force Philby to flee, thereby saving an embarrassing trial back in England that would have had the potential to expose the incompetence of senior staff in MI6. Elliot always maintained that he never believed that Philby would take `the fade', but Elliot was himself a spy, so we will never know the truth. Anderson was devastated by Philby's defection and embarked on a witch hunt for communists in American government until his manic behaviour led to him being forced out of the CIA some years later.
Despite the front he put on, it appears Philby was never fully accepted by the Russians and his time there was not a very happy one. His wife joined him, but later left to return to America. Despite all the books about Philby, he still remains an enigma. How did an educated member of his class come to wholeheartedly adopt communism as practiced by the Soviet Union and serve Russia unswervingly for the rest of his life, ignoring the horrors of Stalin's rule. His autobiography `My Silent War' offers some clues, but it is so obviously vetted by the KGB as to be worthless. Ben Macintyre writes in a fast moving attractive style that he has shown in his earlier books and this is an enjoyable read, but whether we are any nearer to understanding Kim Philby is still a moot point.
on 27 February 2015
From the outset this book seizes the reader's attention and it doesn't let go until the very end. I thought at first that as the story of Philby's ultimate defection is so well known that this would detract from the story, but no, far from it; Macintyre's writing is excellent, exploring in meticulous detail the background to Philby's life and his eventual and almost inevitable entry in the British intelligence services with its appalling consequences. It traces the alarmingly simplistic and ridiculous method of recruitment that existed in those times, the long used 'Wink wink, he's one of ours, old boy' approach, which was ripe for exploitation.
Philby's record as a cold blooded and ruthless killer is worse than that of any serial killer of modern times. He succeeded because he was an affable and credible individual who was always good company, especially when alcohol was freely available. Such have been the qualities of every good conman since time immemorial, but this one took lives, not money, and many of those who died did so at the hands of the NKVD and the KGB in the most horrific circumstances. The almost laughable comedy of errors on the part of those in authority who counted themselves his friends and even those who did not, continued until the the last day or so before his ultimate extraction by the Russians, despite serious concerns having been raised by the CIA and FBI. His removal was, in fact, completed with the tacit compliance of the UK government who felt this would be a preferable outcome to placing him on trial with the inevitable scrambled egg trickling down the face of the Establishment that would ensue. There is some grim but meagre satisfaction in knowing that, regretting nothing, Philby ended his days as a lonely drunk in Moscow.
This is a superb read, and is a perfect example of how an exceptionally well narrated history can outdo any work of fiction. Certainly the best non-fiction book I read in 2014.
on 9 June 2014
I am loath to give out five star reviews; they should be treasured and dispensed carefully. Overuse devalues them: If everything is five star then nothing is.
However, with this superb book, I have no choice but to give it the maximum. For this is one of the best books I have read for a long, long time. Credit the author with pulling off a difficult trick: Rendering a very complicated story comprehensible and lucid. I dithered before buying this book (Kindle edition) solely because it was on a subject matter of which I knew little: Would I be able to keep up with the thread, the story of numerous characters - long dead - all seemingly from a distant world of cloistered chambers and privilege?
Yes, in short. The book reads like a novel in places. It is pacy and understated. You can almost see the author raising his eyebrow as he writes. It is an incredible story of treachery and duplicity, spun on a frame of bureaucratic incompetence, deference, and faith in the Old Boy Network.
You do not have to be a historian or espionage buff to enjoy this work. It really is that accessible. The writing style so engaged me that I felt I was with Philby at times, looking out at the world through his eyes. No mean feat, given that this was a man who raised discretion to an art form.
I was born long after the names Burgess, Maclean and Philby entered into notoriety. I vaguely remember Anthony Blunt being unmasked in the late 1970s, and how the episode seemed to open up long-forgotten wounds in the British psyche. Reading this book it is clear why: Philby betrayed his fellow countrymen, did so for decades, and did it by constantly duping those near the very top of post-war British politics and power. A shameful time.