Title: The Missing Diplomats
Author: Cyril Connolly
Connolly, Cyril (1952). The Missing Diplomats. London, Queen Anne Press
Date Posted: March 29, 2017
Comments by Julian Barnes
On a Saturday morning half a century ago, the overnight ferry from Southampton docked at Saint-Malo. While most passengers headed for the boat train to Paris, two members of the British ruling class took a leisurely breakfast with beer. When the train had been safely missed, they hired a taxi to drive them fifty miles (very ruling class) to Rennes, where they paid the fare of forty-five hundred francs but failed to give the driver a tip (not very ruling class). At Rennes, they caught a less obvious train to Paris, and were not seen again for five years.
The sureness of hindsight makes it obvious what was happening. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Soviet spies recruited while at Cambridge, were defecting to Russia. The Americans were onto them, and the British had scheduled their top interrogator, William Skardon, who had broken the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, to start work on Maclean the following Monday morning. Only the looseness of surveillance and MI5’s disinclination to work on weekends allowed the two spies to escape. Over the next decades, the nettle roots of the Cambridge conspiracy were slowly pulled up. Burgess and Maclean led to the Third Man, Kim Philby (suspected 1951, defected 1963), the most durable and damaging of the group. The Third led to the Fourth, the art historian Sir Anthony Blunt (granted immunity 1964, outed 1979), who is now the subject of a compelling biography by Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives. The Fourth Man led to the Fifth, John Cairncross, and to lesser, unnumbered agents.
But little of this seemed obvious at the time. Cyril Connolly, who knew both Burgess and Maclean socially (and had spoken to Maclean the day he escaped), became obsessed by their case, and published his speculations as The Missing Diplomats. Missing: the neutrality of the adjective is eloquent. Connolly’s monograph retains its fascination because of its very uncertainties and hesitant theories; its author, despite being an insider and despite the evidence in front of him, remains incapable of drawing the logical conclusions. For a start, what was a spy supposed to look like? Spies were known to be either grubby men seeking money or else idealists with staring eyes. Burgess and Maclean didn’t fit either profile: they were public school and Cambridge, part of the “us” that for centuries had ruled “them.” Connolly wrote of Maclean, a career diplomat, “We all felt that he was a rock, that if we were in trouble he would help us. . . . His charm was based not on vanity but on sincerity.” Burgess was less conventional—a more reckless drunk, and incautiously homosexual—but in the days before he disappeared he had told a friend that he could never live abroad and was planning to settle down to “his great task, the addition of a final volume to Lady Gwendolen Cecil’s biography of the Tory Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, which he thought the best biography in English.” How could such men be traitors to the Crown?
They were, admittedly, well known among friends for their anti-British and anti-imperialist sentiments; each, separately, while drunk, had confessed to working for the Soviets. But Connolly’s circle decided that “the more Communism they talk, the less likely they were to be agents.” The stripes of their old-school ties neutralized any alcoholic lapses. Mark Culme-Seymour, a friend of Connolly’s, had a late-night, lubricated conversation with Maclean which he anxiously reported to Connolly the next day. Maclean: “What would you do if I told you I was a Communist agent?” Culme-Seymour: “I don’t know.” “Well, wouldn’t you report me?” “I don’t know. Who to?” “Well, I am. Go on, report me.” Connolly and Culme-Seymour analyzed this exchange and concluded that it must have been a contorted “loyalty test” devised by Maclean. “The whole incident seemed preposterous in the light of day.”
Still, Burgess and Maclean had indubitably disappeared; and again Connolly’s inconclusiveness about why and whither remains instructive. The missing diplomats might have gone off on an alcoholic fugue like Verlaine and Rimbaud. They might have flown to Moscow to try to help end the Korean War—a version of Rudolf Hess’s famous mission. They could possibly be agents recalled to Moscow for liquidation, but if so why would they “sign their own death-warrants”? And so on. As for where they might be: there had been sightings from Andorra to Prague, Brussels to Bayonne. Connolly found himself “looking for them—it’s infectious—in Zurich, Feldkirch, Lichtenstein.” Burgess had apparently been glimpsed at Browning’s villa at Asolo, and it is in Browning’s poem of mysterious vanishing, “Waring,” that Connolly finally locates them. “What’s become of Waring / Since he gave us all the slip . . .” One answer to the poem’s title question is that the vanisher might have gone East, perhaps to Moscow. But the narrator decides against it: “In Russia? Never! Spain were fitter!”
Unlike Waring, Burgess and Maclean did not escape into poetic myth; they turned up, prosaically, in Moscow in February, 1956. The significance of the story they began is not mythical, either, but very concrete, both socially and politically. The British have become noticeably less impressed by their supposed superiors over the past half century: the monarchy has increasingly made itself ridiculous; Tony Blair was reëlected last year  with the biggest display of voter apathy in decades. The social class that took for granted its right to rule and administer no longer commands automatic respect. One key factor in that loss of respect is the case of the Cambridge spies.
Anthony Blunt was the son of a vicar, an Evangelical Anglican who was in charge of the British Embassy church in Paris during the First World War, and of a shy, virtuous, dominant mother. As a weedy boy with perfect French, he was unpromising material for an English public school, but found his niche at Marlborough as an aesthete. There he edited the magazine Heretick with another softy, John Betjeman; half a century on, Betjeman would become the popular, cuddly face of art appreciation, Blunt (who always made Betjeman feel “trivial and shallow”) its academic, reviled face. Like his elder brother Wilfrid, Anthony soon realized he was homosexual; he acclimatized the more easily of the two. At twenty-eight, Wilfrid consulted a Harley Street specialist about his sexuality. He later recalled that the doctor had told him to treat his condition as a disability, “like being blind or deaf. Or, he added—rather charmingly, and as if in afterthought—a Jew (he was clearly one himself).” Both brothers kept the secret from their parents and, strangely, from one another; they finally exchanged confidences some time after the Second World War, at a Windsor Castle reception.
We expect our spies to have divided selves, for their psychology to serve their political pathology. Blunt’s psyche was one watertight bulkhead after another, which explains why he was so hard to sink. He was capable of being a highly effective spy and a highly effective Royal courtier; a committed Marxist and a full-time member of the establishment. Among those of his own age and class, he was often aloof and self-absorbed, the ultimate halibut among cold fish; with the young he was witty and unpompous. In Britain he was all buttoned up; abroad, on holiday, he could be skittish and silly. He could be at his most intimate on the lecture platform, at his most formal en tête-à-tête. Although his homosexual ambitions were idealistic (“He seemed to want it all to be, oh, the classical world, Plato, all that sort of thing: dignified, honorable,” a lover of his recalled), the reality was unequal partners and a lot of rough trade. Michael Levey, onetime director of the National Gallery, found him a social enigma: “Even as we sat there, I might ponder on whether one would describe him as modest or vain, unworldly or intensely alive to the exercise of power, genuinely absorbed by our talk or privately aloof and barely engaged.” John Golding, friend and executor, called him “the most compartmentalized man I ever met.” Blunt once appeared as a guest panelist on the TV quiz show “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral,” and the question might equally have been put about him.
Blunt was recruited at Cambridge by Burgess in “late 1935, early 1936,” and asked to talent-spot promising left-wing undergraduates. He was idle, or at least unsuccessful, in this, finding only two or three recruits in the period 1937-39. But when the war came he joined Military Intelligence and immediately started supplying classified information; in 1940, he moved into MI5, where he monitored diplomats from neutral countries and invented a system for surreptitiously opening diplomatic bags. He also surreptitiously rifled colleagues’ desks. It was efficient, regular work: once a week from 1942 on, he would meet his Soviet control, between nine and ten in the evening, in a different part of London, to hand over his swag. According to the Russian Intelligence Archives, he passed 1,771 documents to the N.K.V.D. between 1941 and 1945. (In comparison, Burgess supplied 4,605, Maclean 4,593, and Cairncross 5,832.) He carried on providing low-grade information for five years after the war; his last major contribution was to act as liaison man for Burgess and Maclean’s defection.
The other spies were more prolific data suppliers, but remain interesting largely to the extent that they were agents: motives, style, tradecraft, mistakes. Their professional and personal lives were much at the service of their lives as spies. Blunt was a diligent, cool-headed traitor for two decades, yet this was the smaller part of his life. His overt expertise was in French art and architecture. He was (legally) recruited first by the Warburg Institute in London, then moved to its rival the Courtauld, where he eventually became director. He catalogued Old Master drawings at Windsor Castle and, in 1945, became Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. He wrote the first article in English on Georges de la Tour, and helped bring about a reëvaluation of Poussin, curating the Louvre’s first exhibition of the artist, in 1960. If his scholarship was sometimes questionable, his authority was not: Carter judges that in the fifties he was “the most powerful and influential man in British art history”—though he was less known to the public than Kenneth Clark. Anita Brookner, who studied under him at the Courtauld, said of her generation, “We all wanted to be like Blunt.”
It was the fact and nature of this separate, acclaimed existence—there he was, advising the National Trust, whispering in Her Majesty’s ear about Titian—that enraged those who finally came to judgment on Blunt. It was Blunt who had planned Burgess and Maclean’s escape route, and then managed to get himself appointed to “help” MI5 work out what could possibly have happened; Blunt who remained snugly in place while Philby was suspected, forced to resign, publicly exonerated by the Foreign Secretary, and then encouraged (or allowed) to flee. Confident that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him in a courtroom, Blunt had declined to defect, and traded what he knew (or, this being the world of espionage, what little he chose to add to what he knew they already knew) for immunity from prosecution. Fifteen years of insecure anonymity followed, until he was described by the historian Andrew Boyle, named by the satirical magazine Private Eye, and denounced from on high by Margaret Thatcher: “And it damn well serves him right.” By this time, Burgess was dead and Maclean and Philby were safe in Moscow; Blunt, now a septuagenarian retired academic in remission from cancer, was subjected to a contumely magnified by the previous unavailability of his fellow-spies.
His worldly honors were withdrawn. The loss of his knighthood was an indignity shared in the twentieth century by villains as various as the Irish traitor Sir Roger Casement and Nicolae Ceausescu. The British press was its enthusiastic moralistic self. The Sunday Telegraph, confusing two different Blunts, claimed that Anthony had been responsible for the deaths of forty-nine Dutch agents; when Blunt asked his solicitor if this was libelous, the reply came that he had no good name left to defend, being already known as “a traitor and a homosexual.” Blunt had been used to a certain level of abuse: Sir Alfred Munnings, president of the Royal Academy, had once sneered at him for being “high-brow” and an “expert.” Now the populist sage Malcolm Muggeridge summed him up as a “pansy aesthete,” as if either condition might be conducive to treason.
Ironically, Blunt’s commitment to the Soviet Union was at best theoretical. His formidable mother, delirious on her deathbed, imagined herself in Russia, where, she complained, the food was “simply disgusting”; her son’s austerity of daily living might have helped him survive had he fled, but the notion of inhabiting—or even closely examining—the workers’ paradise was not on his agenda. Blunt was never taken seriously in left-wing Cambridge; in what seems a perfect paradigm of his life, he once left an anti-Fascist rally early in order to have tea at the Reform Club. His first control, a sophisticated European Communist, found him “a simple person”; later, his Russian control complained that he was interested only in architecture. Blunt never became disillusioned, partly because he never put himself in the way of facts that might have challenged his intellectual conclusions. The aesthete as revolutionary seems at first a contradiction in terms, as well as a stumper for counter-intelligence; but there is a logic to it. Pure Marxism always flourished best in academe.
Blunt began as a follower of Bloomsbury, and those atheistic devotees of sexual amorality and the primacy of the emotional life have come in for the usual amount of blame. When asked in 1979 to explain his spying, Blunt put forward E. M. Forster’s dictum that if asked to choose between betraying his friend and betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country. This much-quoted remark is—like Yeats’s poser about perfection of the work versus perfection of the life—fine literary rhetoric but bogus as a dilemma. The choice rarely presents itself in this way. For a start, Blunt had two countries; among his British comrades, only Burgess was a friend (and, briefly, lover)—Maclean and Philby were merely associates. More to the point, if you betray your country, you by definition betray all your friends in that country who aren’t themselves traitors. When the count is done, Blunt exploited, deceived, and lied to far more friends than he was loyal to.
Miranda Carter’s skill at scouring the different compartments of Blunt’s life is deeply impressive. Biography is at best an approximate genre, subject to selective memory, the hidden agenda, the hazard that gives survivors the last word, and so on. The biography of a spy is even trickier. Spy always rhymes with lie; intelligence agencies cover their tracks and gloss over their failures (the offer of immunity served MI5’s purposes as well as Blunt’s); governments spin. When a socially high-placed spy is disgraced, some of those who knew him well (Stephen Spender is the present instance) turn out not to have known him so well after all. On top of this, the world of espionage attracts all kinds of hangers-on who have only a loose acquaintance with reality: fantasists, conspiracy theorists, dupes, and dopes. Malcolm Muggeridge used to maintain that “diplomats and intelligence agents, in my experience, are even bigger liars than journalists”—though, since Muggeridge was himself both an agent and a journalist, the paradox of Epimenides would seem to apply. Carter is exceptionally clear-headed and skeptical about the sources she has to rely on; every so often a curt footnote will dispatch another dolt into oblivion. It is, therefore, an irony she will be best placed to appreciate that one of her own star witnesses has had his authority humiliatingly undermined since her book came out. The former Tory M.P. Rupert Allason, who writes books on espionage under the pseudonym Nigel West, advised Carter on the Russian Intelligence Archives and supplied her with documents from it. She praises him for being “sane and conscientious.” Mr. Justice Laddie of the High Court begs to differ. At the end of last year, he presided over a case in which Allason claimed authorship and copyright of the memoirs of the Fifth Man, John Cairncross, and therefore large amounts of royalties from the publisher, Random House. Mr. Justice Laddie concluded that Allason had told “untruth after untruth” in the witness box, and rated as “one of the most dishonest witnesses I have ever seen.”
What does seem clear from the K.G.B. archives, however, is that there was as much paranoia in Moscow as there was naïveté in London, and equal inefficiency in both places. About half the documents the British spies sent to Moscow were never even read; moreover, Moscow wasted key years suspecting the Cambridge group of being double agents. They seemed too good to be true, too successful, too suddenly well placed at the heart of British Intelligence. So with Russia at war with Germany, and their British spies producing untainted information about the enemy, Russian controllers ordered Blunt and company to prove their authenticity by writing schoolboy essays on “My Road to Marxism.” Further, Moscow sent a surveillance team to London charged with the mission of catching the “double agents” secretly meeting their British controllers.
Here, too, is additional proof that intelligence agencies, whatever their presiding ideology, tend to mirror one another. Paranoid Moscow decides that there must a priori be an anti-Soviet conspiracy in the intelligence community of capitalist Britain; Blunt and company are ordered to find the evidence; and their repeated assertions that no such conspiracy exists are taken as proof that they must be double agents. Skip forward a couple of decades, and Blunt is being interrogated by the British after their promise of immunity. A new, unfoolable generation has replaced those gullible buffers who let their old-school-tie pals get away with it for so long. The new boys decide that there must be a big conspiracy within the service which still hasn’t been uncovered; further, that if there was a Cambridge Ring there must logically also have been an Oxford Ring. Blunt’s failure to provide corroboration for these theories merely confirmed that he was still holding out on them. (Maybe he was, but not, seemingly, about this.)
Until full access to the Moscow archives is allowed, we can’t know exactly what damage Blunt did as a spy. Miranda Carter can tell us the what and the how, but the what is not fully in focus; we are given the number of documents Blunt passed, but not their exact nature and contents. Carter concludes that Blunt, unlike Philby, was responsible for no deaths on his own side. Indeed, since much of the information he passed was designed to help Russia in its war with Germany, it could be that indirectly he helped save Allied lives. On the other hand, he certainly told the Russians all he knew about precisely how the British secret services functioned.
Graham Greene compared the ruthless Philby to those English Catholics who worked for Philip II of Spain against the England of Elizabeth I. Greene also thought that tenacious Communists who kept the faith while Stalin did his worst were like Catholics during the Inquisition sustained by the belief that eventually a figure like Pope John XXIII would come along. With the collapse of Communism, the comparison seems more fanciful; it is still easier to understand those who betray and kill for a religious idea (certain paradise after death) than for a political one (promised paradise as long as all the targets of the next few Five-Year Plans are met). Could time make the Cambridge spies seem like idealists who backed the losing side—not Roman Catholics but, say, defeated purists like the Cathars? This seems unlikely; although Blunt exhibited much stoicism after his disgrace, he was always well short of nobility. Still, his rich contradictions have already provoked a stage play from Alan Bennett and a novel from John Banville. Perhaps Cyril Connolly was right all along, if about the wrong spies. Perhaps Blunt will finally escape into literature, the Waring of this age. ♦
 Julian Barnes, “Enigma: Anthony Blunt devoted his life to art—and espionage,” in The New Yorker (January 14, 2002). The focus of the article is on Blunt, but Connolly is mentioned in depth. Downloaded March 29, 2017
 Sir Stephen Harold Spender CBE (28 February 1909 – 16 July 1995) was an English poet, novelist, and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work. He was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the United States Library of Congress in 1965.