By Heather Howard / Japan News Staff WriterA Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
By Ben Macintyre
“A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal” pulls off a deft bit of misdirection in its first two chapters, something the infamous Soviet spy himself might have appreciated. Author Ben Macintyre draws us into the world of late-1930s MI6, where spies of “the right sort” are drafted over drinks at Ascot and almost everyone seems deliciously witty, charming and eccentric.
Chief among them is Philby, described as a dashing former Times correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and early World War II who sometimes sported “a coat of green fabric lined with bright red fox fur, a gift from his father who had received it from an Arab prince.” Add his devotion to family, exquisite manners and ability to listen with great sincerity, and who wouldn’t trail eagerly in this man’s wake?
And so it still comes as a blow, even though Philby was exposed half a century ago, when Chapter 2 abruptly turns from the drama and camaraderie of MI6 to trail Philby to a London park. There he hands a bundle of documents about his division to a Soviet spy, including a file on his closest friend, who had a “good brain” but “pig-like” appearance.
Almost as if we had followed Philby to that park ourselves, Macintyre’s skillful introduction gives us a taste — albeit on a far less personal, devastating level — of the shock and betrayal Philby’s friends and colleagues must have felt when they learned the truth.
Readers’ shock will grow and grow as Macintyre lays out the truth in this engrossing read, describing Philby’s seemingly inexorable rise within British intelligence and his countless betrayals along the way. His charm is revealed as the merciless weapon it was: Shed a tear for two brave Georgian youths, aged only 20, who thought Philby was training them for a mission to help liberate their homeland from the Soviets.
In fact, they were set up for death, to drive “a stake through the plans of future operations,” said Philby, whose devotion to communism was so unswerving he could send mere boys to their death without a single qualm.
Much dark humor pervades the tale as well, even as Macintyre describes the fatal elitism that protected Philby and his fellow spies for so long.
Philby was a member of the so-called Cambridge Five, of which Donald Maclean was the first to be exposed. Maclean snapped one day in 1950 under the pressure of his double life, trashing the apartment of two female employees at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and ripping up their underwear while drunk.
After a brief period of psychiatric treatment, however, Maclean was nevertheless promoted to head the American desk at the Foreign Office, prompting Macintyre’s immortal observation that “even drunken, unhinged knicker-shredding, it seemed, was no bar to advancement if one was the ‘right sort.’”
Where to read
Anywhere other people won’t be disturbed by your alternating cries of disgust and bursts of laughter.