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A Spy Among Friends,
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This review is from: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Kindle Edition)
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.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 18 Mar 2014 15:12:31 GMT
"Ben Macintyre is a great writer." Discuss.
Posted on 5 Apr 2014 09:49:35 BDT
Lady Fancifull says:
This looks interesting, SR. A new author to me. Will investigate, thank you!
Posted on 10 Apr 2014 17:46:01 BDT
Macintrye FAILs to mention: the GRU and its relationship with the KGB; AND Roger Hollis part in this affair.
Both of these issues are crucial to the Philby story.
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