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, attestby Ferdinand Mount / May 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.