GUY BURGESS BIOGRAPHER ANDREW LOWNIE FACES THE SPIES & SHADOWS AUTHOR INTERROGATION
“Stalin’s Englishman” is the long awaited biography of Cambridge Spy Ring Member Guy Burgess. Written by Andrew Lownie, the book has already been given the Spies & Shadows seal of approval and is a great read for anyone fascinated by the antics of the Cambridge Spy Ring as well as Burgess in particular.
But how will Mr Lownie fare when subjected to the Spies & Shadows questioning?
How has ‘Stalin’s Englishman’ been received, both overall, and by separate audiences such as the book trade, spy aficionados and history lovers?
I’m pleased the book has been well-received across the board with over fifty 5* reviews on Amazon, good reviews in all the nationals including ‘Biography of the Year’ from The Times and Mail on Sunday and Guardian ‘Book of the Year’ nominations from William Boyd and Craig Brown. I’ve done over twenty events already with more than twenty already arranged for next year ranging from Texas and Paris to the Travellers Club and Oxford Festival.
What was it about Burgess that made you want to write a book about him?
I’ve always been interested in the Cambridge Spies really from the exposure of Blunt in 1979 as I was leaving school . In 1984 whilst at Cambridge I organised a symposium on them with Andrew Boyle, Chris Andrew and Robert Cecil, Maclean’s biographer and successor as head of the American Department. After Cambridge, I helped research John Costello’s life of Blunt and since then as a literary agent have represented many of the leading books on the subject and reviewed various intelligence books.
After I finished my life of John Buchan in the 1990s I began work on Burgess interviewing some hundred contemporaries, many of whom had never spoken before. Though he appears in lots of books, and I think is the Cambridge spy with the broadest hinterland – his circle included Frederick Ashton, Lucian Freud, George Orwell, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Stephen Spender, Graham Greene, EM Forster & Maynard Keynes – there had never been a book on him.
What was the biggest “Bloody hell!” moment (something that really makes you sit up) you discovered in your research on Burgess?
There have been lots. First hearing from Sergei Kondrashev, the KGB officer who ran him in Moscow, and also his KGB handler in Britain, Yuri Modin, that he was the most important of the Cambridge Spies especially for his role just before the Second World War as a secret emissary for Neville Chamberlain.
Then discovering the extent of his female relationships and that he was engaged several times, including to Winston Churchill’s niece, Clarissa (who later married Anthony Eden) and Kim Philby’s secretary and lover Esther Whitfield. Lots of wonderful detail such as his footballing and swimming prowess, the fact he was a corporal in the Cadet Corps at Eton, at Dartmouth he was tipped to be an admiral, the range of his homosexual affairs , the extent to which he was protected by superiors, the sheer number of fictional references etc.
What do you think has been the biggest misconception about Burgess?
He has been dismissed as a buffoon and not taken seriously but he was a highly effective and ruthless spy.
He was the first of the Ring to penetrate British Intelligence joining MI6 in 1936; the only one to serve in both MI5 and MI6 where he betrayed their ‘order of battle’; was an agent of influence at the BBC and in the Far East Department of the Foreign Office where he helped shape British policy to recognise Red China; had access to the most secret information whilst serving as private secretary to Bevin’s deputy at the Foreign Office; remained influential as an advisor to the Russians on British policy whilst in Moscow and was prepared to himself kill an agent he had recruited, Goronwy Rees, whose son was his godson.
Although Burgess is long gone, the Establishment and The Powers That Be may still rankle a little over his antics. What if any obstacles did you face in putting the book together?
My attempts for releases under Freedom Of Information Act legislation have constantly been frustrated and quite unlawfully the ominously sounding Knowledge Management Department of the Foreign Office refused to deal with more than one request every sixty days. I have had to refer them several times to the Information Commissioner and one case is now with a tribunal.
Though the release of the Burgess files is to be welcomed, one has to ask why it has taken so long – such files under the Public Records Act are supposed to have been deposited after thirty years – and why so much material is still retained or redacted including much material already in the public domain.
Burgess has been portrayed over the years on TV and in the theatre. The most famous is arguably ‘An Englishman Abroad’. If you could choose any actor to play Burgess in a film, who would it be and why?
A whole range of actors have played Burgess from Alan Bates, Ian Ogilvy, Anthony Hopkins and Derek Jacobi to Tom Hollander, Rupert Everett and Benedict Cumberbatch . I think it would be Bates though the others have each brought something fresh to the part. What many people don’t know is Michael Caine, Tom Baker, Edward Fox and Dirk Bogarde were also short listed against Bates.
What ONE word would you use to sum up Guy Burgess?
Charming – a very dangerous word.
Burgess and his Cambridge cohorts, along with George Blake arguably represented a ‘golden age’ for spy writers. How likely do you think it is to be equaled by writers focusing on more recent intelligence events, such as the Gareth Williams affair, or Daniel Houghton’s attempted treachery?
I think what makes the Cambridge Ring so fascinating is they were so able and intelligent, so effective, all knew each other and so posh. Why should men who so relished life within the Establishment seek to betray it? There’s also the suspicion there are many more spies of the period still to be uncovered. That said, as an agent there’s still plenty of life left in the contemporary as well as historical spy novel.
What advice would you give for budding spy writers? (And does the advice differ whether it’s fiction or non-fiction?)
I think advice is similar. Know your market and competition, do research and polish, polish, polish.
What next for you? Next writing project?
I’m looking at Lord Mountbatten: a different figure to my two previous subjects which requires immersing myself in defence policy, Indian independence, Royal Family and naval operations.
Stalin’s Englishman is available at all good bookshops, published by Hodder & Stoughton. You can read the Spies & Shadows review here.