The Cambridge Spies hoodwinked the Establishment by hiding in plain sight. Photo: © GETTY IMAGES

Messages in the bottle: inside the louche, liqueured-up world of the Cambridge Spies

Forget Freudian theories about father issues. The main thing the Cambridge Five had in common was drinking—as two new books, and my mother's memory, attest
May 12, 2018

Friday 25th May 1951 was Donald Maclean’s 38th birthday. He celebrated by taking his oldest friends to lunch at Schmidt’s in Charlotte Street, notorious for its heavy German food and its surly German waiters. There he bumped into two other Fitzrovia cronies, the writers Cyril Connolly and Humphrey Slater, an ex-Communist who had been Commissar of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, during which he had changed his name to Hugh because he thought it sounded more proletarian.

That evening, Maclean joined up with Guy Burgess and caught the midnight boat train to St Malo. “The missing diplomats” as they came to be called were not reliably glimpsed again until they surfaced in Moscow nearly five years later.

Connolly and Slater both had prior reason to suspect that Maclean was a Soviet agent. Three years earlier Slater had written a remarkable short novel, The Conspirator. Its protagonist, Major Desmond Lightfoot, bears an unmistakable resemblance to Maclean, except that he is a military secretary not a diplomat and was recruited by the Soviets at Oxford rather than Cambridge. (In real life Oxford Communists tended to drift into the Labour Party.) Like Maclean, Lightfoot is tall and muscular, alternately brusque and charming, wilful but capable of extraordinary self-discipline, a master of what was not yet called “tradecraft”: vain, brutal, ruthless and an alcoholic.

Roland Philipps’s A Spy Named Orphan—his first book, though you wouldn’t know it—offers an adroit, deeply researched and richly embroidered portrait of Maclean, which replicates in almost every respect Slater’s fictional portrait 70 years earlier.

Slater had told his cousin Patience Pain, who worked in the Foreign Office, about Maclean but the allegation was dismissed as drunken gossip. All this even though “the Office” was at the time desperately seeking the identity of a high-up spy codenamed Homer, whose existence had been revealed by the US’s counter-intelligence VENONA decrypts and who fitted Maclean’s description.

It may seem extraordinary that by 1951 anyone did not know Maclean’s secret, at least in the circle of the Gargoyle Club, the high-Bohemian nightclub in Soho to which everyone so far mentioned belonged. In his drunken rampages, Maclean lurched around the club, telling the truth to anyone who would listen. “You are a Judas, and I am the English Alger Hiss [the US Soviet spy],” he shouted to his former friend, the ex-Communist Philip Toynbee. Goronwy Rees, who had in his Communist days been a purveyor of low-grade stuff to the Soviets, got the same treatment after he abandoned the faith. Maclean stumbled over to his table, collapsed to his knees and shouted at Rees: “I know all about you. You used to be one of us, but you ratted.”

All the above-named were my parents’ best friends or fellow Gargoyle habitués. My mother had gone skiing with Maclean before the war. Toynbee wrote long letters to her from Cairo where he had been caught up in Maclean’s drunken sprees. During a trip up the Nile, Maclean had broken the leg of a fellow diplomat Lees Mayall, whose wife was my mother’s greatest buddy. I was practically conceived in the Gargoyle. I apologise for this personal intrusion, but it does enable me to confirm from my own memory the post-war milieu that floats up from A Spy Named Orphan and from Richard Davenport-Hines’s equally impressive and entertaining Enemies Within.

"I was practically conceived in the Gargoyle."


They were indeed a rackety crowd—reckless in war, feckless in peace, divorcing and remarrying one another, addicted to charm, irony and above all alcohol, averse to serious or purposeful engagement. They were the disreputable outliers of an Establishment that a later generation was to dismiss as rotten to the core, nowhere more magnificently excoriated than by John le Carré in his introduction to Philby: the Spy who Betrayed a Generation (1968) by the Sunday Times Insight team. Bankrupt and played out Britain was a nation on the skids, le Carré argued, feeding on memories of greatness, and making up for its loss of real power by placing “ever greater trust in the magic formulae and hocus-pocus of the spy world… SIS in its worst years, far from being a putrescent arm upon a healthy body, was infected by a general sickness which grew out of the sloth and disorientation of after-war.” Thus, Le Carré explains, “In speaking of the world Philby deceived, I have described it without compunction either as the Establishment or as SIS. At the operative time, the two were indistinguishable.”

While Le Carré was venting his indignation, Anthony Blunt was still swanning about town as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, having in 1964 given a full confession of his betrayals in exchange for immunity. A few weeks earlier, John Cairncross, the last of the Cambridge Five to come to light, had made a similar bargain. It must have been a couple of years later that I sat next to Blunt at a Christie’s lunch. He wore his chilly rather than his charming face that day. When I remarked later what uphill work I had found him, my art historian host said: “Oh Anthony’s just a ghastly old Communist spy.” Despite his affiliation being common gossip, Blunt remained untroubled until his public exposure by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. For his part, Cairncross pottered off happily to pursue a second career as an academic specialising in Molière. It was on some point of Molière scholarship that he phoned me at the Times Literary Supplement from the south of France not long before he died in 1995, a little quavery perhaps but seemingly without a care in the world. The indulgences extended to Blunt and Cairncross dwarfed even Philby’s easing into exile as the Observer’s man in Beirut before his escape to Moscow in 1963.

*** None of the Cambridge Five was ever brought to trial. The excuse was always that to expose any of them would be to alert Moscow Central to the extent of British penetration of their networks. It was, of course, to avoid public embarrassment. The spooks’ fatal self-serving illusion was, in Le Carré’s words, “the identification of the fortunes of the Service with the fortunes of the nation. They themselves replaced the ideologies they dismissed. Their image, their repute, were the nation’s prestige; their infallibility the nation’s bond; their survival evidence of the inarticulate supremacy of the English gentleman.”

It is a formidable indictment, and one whose suggestive power has not faded. Fuelled by the fury of the Beaverbrook press, and from inside MI5 by the egregious Peter Wright, the hunt for the Sixth, Seventh and Umpteenth Men raged on unabated. They homed in on unlikely suspects, coming up with scant fresh evidence but perpetuating the widespread belief in the corruption of the Establishment and of the floppy-haired perverts who manned its upper reaches (homophobia was a standard ingredient in these witch-hunts).

Davenport-Hines wades into this territory with a zestful insouciance and a beady eye for the illuminating detail. Enemies Within is a contrarian book, much of it presented, in the author’s words, as “avowedly revisionist.” It is also an irresistible compendium of 20th-century spy furores, which never loses sight of its central, well-argued thesis.

Davenport-Hines points out that none of the Cambridge Five were aristocrats. They were the sons of a vicar (Blunt), a naval officer (Burgess), a solicitor from a South Wales grammar school who became a Liberal MP (Maclean), a dodgy colonial servant (Philby), and the manager of a Glasgow ironmongers (Cairncross). They belonged rather to what Davenport-Hines calls “the mezzanine class.” Nor were they effortlessly wafted into high places. They were meritocrats, winning brilliant firsts at Cambridge (Philby only a 2:1) and passed high into the civil service.

In their day jobs, except for the erratic Burgess, they were superb public servants: Philby a charming and considerate colleague, Maclean the model of a first-rate diplomat, even the morning after one of his benders. Blunt was a matchless head of the Courtauld Institute. His students were so grateful for his pastoral care that many of them, such as Anita Brookner, stuck by him after he was unmasked.

As spies, they were unbelievably industrious. The briefcases they took home bulged with documents that had to be copied by their Soviet handlers: in 1941 alone, Cairncross sent the Soviets 3,449 documents, a figure exceeded only by Maclean’s 4,419; Burgess, ostensibly a party-crazed pisshead, supplied over 4,000 in the last 12 months of the war. Blunt’s tally between 1941-5 was a mere 1,771, but these did include a complete copy of the Allied deception plans for Operation Overlord. The sheer volume could be counter-productive: Stalin repeatedly refused to believe that he wasn’t being fed lies by British intelligence (how could SIS employ known Communists in the first place?) Moscow Central pleaded for mercy; they simply couldn’t handle so much material. At the end of the Cold War, dozens of files were discovered unopened.

As to their motives, Davenport-Hines has little patience with the amateur Freudians who argued that the traitors were merely spitting on their fathers’ graves, a fashion started by Cyril Connolly in his pamphlet The Missing Diplomats, published in late 1952. Most of them saw little of their fathers. Burgess’s was away at sea and died when his son was 13; Philby’s was absent making mischief in the Middle East. If these spies and many others shared one thing, it was not social class, a dysfunctional family or homosexuality—it was the bottle.

"If these spies and many others shared one thing, it was the bottle."


It seems perverse to locate the driving cause at the individual psychological level rather than in the ideological conflict convulsing the world. The psycho-profiling approach seems even less suited to the scientist spies Bruno Pontecorvo, Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, for whom Communist allegiance dovetailed with a desire to see scientific research openly shared (an idea even Truman and Attlee had toyed with). The scientists were not particularly driven by a revulsion against Britain. On the contrary, Fuchs noted in his confession of 1950: “Since coming to Harwell, I have met English people of all kinds. I have come to see in many of them a deep-rooted firmness which enables them to lead a decent way of life.”

In any case, Britain’s experience was not unique. Davenport-Hines records that, after positive vetting was introduced into the UK in the 1940s, between 1948 and 1982 a total of 166 home civil servants resigned, or were sacked or shifted to less sensitive work. In the United States over the same period, 9,800 federal civil servants were purged, while another 15,000 resigned when under investigation as Communists. The US authorities too had difficulty in bringing to justice those named by informants such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, even before Commie-hunting was tarnished by that pioneer purveyor of fake news, Senator Joseph McCarthy.

*** How seriously did the public really take spying? Even if we dismiss the pleading by the spies themselves that they were only passing stuff to a wartime ally, there is all the difference between a cold war and a hot war: as an unmasked Nazi spy, Blunt would not have lasted 10 minutes at Buckingham Palace. By contrast, in 1997, when Westminster School was naming a new boarding-house after an old boy, many of the pupils voted to call it Philby House (the school opted to call it after AA Milne instead). For Dante and the Daily Express, traitors belonged in the Ninth Circle of Hell. The general public was more quizzical, uncomfortably aware of the moral asymmetry which is the mainspring of spy fiction: our brave defectors are their foul traitors, and the trade of our honourable agents is to induce their agents to behave dishonourably. These ambiguities are beautifully caught in both the books under review; Philipps in particular conveys Maclean’s mixture of vanity, idealism and ambition to be on the winning side of history.

Nor can we avoid the ultimate question: how much does espionage really matter? In spy fiction, so often the actual material to be conveyed by such tortuous and life-risking means is little more than a MacGuffin to drive the plot. The use of the word “product” to describe a substantial piece of intelligence recalls the way actors insist on using the term “working” to fend off the suspicion that they are merely playing. For its own self-esteem, espionage has to be regarded as an industry, not a game.

Histories of wartime intelligence written by old hands tend to inflate its achievements. Outside historians tend to be warier. Max Hastings, for example, in The Secret War (2015), asks: “How much damage did the traitors do to British interests?” and answers, “until the late wartime years, the likely answer is not much.” Paul Kennedy in Engineers of Victory (2013) argues that any history of wartime intelligence should highlight its preponderance of failures: Stalin’s refusal to believe the predictions of the German invasion; American blindness about the threat to Pearl Harbor; the German failure to anticipate the Russian envelopment at Stalingrad. Even the spies’ most famous coups are often uncertain. Cairncross, for example, is best known for having passed the Russians the Enigma decrypts, which were crucial in the Soviet victory at Kursk. Hastings, though, attributes the key intelligence role at Kursk to the mercenary Rudolf Rössler, alias Lucy.

The philosopher Stuart Hampshire, a wartime intelligence officer who was later absurdly fingered as a Soviet agent, complained that “SIS values information in proportion to its secrecy, not its accuracy. They would attach more value to a scrap of third-rate and tendentious misinformation smuggled out of Sofia in the fly-buttons of a vagabond Romanian pimp than to any intelligence deduced from a prudent reading of the foreign press.”

Davenport-Hines has a further overriding criticism. What really damages the fabric of a nation, he says, is not spying but spy mania. Witch-hunts in Whitehall erode public trust and social capital. The tall tales of Establishment cover-ups chip away at the informal solidarity that is crucial to good governance. For Davenport-Hines, here lies the ultimate origin of Michael Gove’s notorious remark during the EU referendum campaign that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Some reviewers, not all of them Brexiteers, have found this connection a little far-fetched. Surely Leavers were soured by 40 years of EU membership. Perhaps so, but there is a sharp contrast between the respectful reception given to the Establishment campaigners for Yes in the 1975 referendum and the derision with which the dire predictions of the Remainers were received in 2016.

Davenport-Hines argues forcefully in conclusion that London’s record was no worse than Washington’s or indeed Moscow’s: “MI5 was not the resting-place of inflexible blimps, superannuated Indian policemen, expensively educated silly asses or obtuse reactionaries.” Prosecutions and jury trials were avoided, he claims, not in order to protect the privileged but because the clinching material such as VENONA decrypts or the evidence of defectors could not be aired in open court.

In any case, the milder methods of SIS are surely preferable to Gestapo brutality, Stalinist purges, or even American loyalty tests. We come back ultimately to questions of trust. As Le Carré did: “Philby is the price we pay for being moderately free... Stupid, credulous, smug and torpid as the Establishment may have been, it erred on the side of trust.”

There is perhaps one further twist to the whole saga. The intelligence we need most urgently today is not about troop deployments in a hypothetical war or blueprints for new secret weapons; what we need is the knowledge that will prevent us from being blown up in a nightclub or mown down on a London bridge. In the face of deadly jihadist terrorism, we cling to the reassurances of the security services that almost daily they are discovering and frustrating terror plots. In the same way, we cannot forget that the IRA campaign of terror spluttered to its end because the whole network had been totally penetrated by British intelligence. In Vladimir Putin too, we have rediscovered the enemy we first thought of, but one now shorn of any ideology likely to appeal to foreign idealists. It may turn out that for Britain the spirit of trust and national solidarity will have experienced a strange rebirth on the streets of Salisbury.


A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean by Roland Philipps (Bodley Head, £20)

Enemies Within: Communists, the Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain by Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins, £25)