Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. And sometimes fiction is the only way to truly understand fact. There is no historical topic that better encapsulates these two seemingly contradictory points than the Cambridge Spy Ring.
The Cambridge Spy Ring – or the Cambridge Five, as it is sometimes called – is one of those strange and fascinating footnotes of history. Its details are not particularly well known – I have spoken to British historians and historians of Communism that have never heard of them. But if you start digging into the history of the early CIA, or MI5, of the network of spies that criss-crossed Europe and America during the Cold War, five names begin to emerge: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, Anthony Blunt, and John Carincross. All five men attended Cambridge University in the 1930s, when fear about Hitler and the possibility of approaching war consumed Britain, the Soviet Union was still displaying a mask of power of benevolence, and intellectuals in the American, European, and British Left were enthralled by the promises of Communism. All, save for Carincross, were from wealthy, well-connected families of the British establishment. All went on to take key positions in British intelligence and government. And all, from the 1930s to the 1950s, acted as agents for the KGB and passed British and American secrets to the sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy Soviet Union.
There’s something we love about spies. From James Bond, to Spooks, to crime show dramas, they fill our popular culture and our imagination. Tales of spies like the Cambridge Five are even more difficult to resist. Not only do they have the appeal of that sneaking, underhand quest for information, but they pose tantalizing questions: what made these men betray their country? How did they go so long unnoticed and undetected? Will we ever know how much they really did, or what they really thought?
It’s the last question that interests me today. In the years since the Soviet Union collapsed and classified Cold War files on both sides of the Atlantic have begun to be released, new information has emerged about the many spies who worked during the Cold War, including the Cambridge Five. But spies lie. They are trained to hide the truth. Double agents and traitors have all the more reason to do so. Even when the spies no longer have fear of being caught – or already have been – what reason do they have to spill secrets they have kept close for decades?
In my mind, this is what makes spy fiction, even about real spies, so intriguing. The tantalizing personalities of the Cambridge Five make fictionalizing their lives and thoughts even more tempting. Burgess’ flamboyance and Blunt’s academic reticence, Philby’s cold-blooded charm and Maclean’s schizophrenic loyalty, even Cairncross’ (poor, forgotten Cairncross) own personal class struggle. The more you know about these men, the more you realize you will never know.
No wonder so many authors, filmmakers, and playwrights have fallen prey to the temptation to flesh out the lives of these somewhat obscure historical figures. The first to be produced that I know of was Blunt. Produced only a few short years after Blunt was revealed as a spy, it includes a surprisingly sympathetic performance by Anthony Hopkins as Guy Burgess, but otherwise lacks the insight of later attempts. No one seems sure what anyone’s motivations were, even in fictional form. Then there is Alan Bennet’s Single Spies: A Question of Attribution and An Englishman Abroad, a pair of wonderfully subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) character sketches of Blunt and Burgess. Bennet takes them on their own terms and presents two men, once idealists, who have found their ideals to be wrong.
Due to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the opening up of East and West, and Miranda Carter’s excellent biography of Anthony Blunt, the 1990s saw an explosion of fictional adaptations of their lives. John Banville’s The Untouchable is a thinly disguised fictionalization of the Cambridge Spies’ exploits, A Friendship of Convenience a less thinly disguised novella about Blunt struggling to keep his spying days a secret during the McCarthy era. And then there’s Cambridge Spies, a startlingly good BBC miniseries about Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, and Philby that follows their story from recruitment to the defection of Maclean and Burgess.
All versions stretch and bend the truth of fit their needs. To one degree or another they simplify loyalties, muddy timelines, and create people and events. Almost all (especially Cambridge Spies) exaggerate the personal relationship between the men. But all try to answer that question: why?
There have been no new fictional attempts to tackle the question recently, but some new information about the real spies has come to light, and amateurs and academics alike are already scrambling to see if they can find answers to that elusive why.
The BBC has recently made available online a collection of information they possess about the Cambridge Spy ring, with especial focus on Burgess, who was once a radio producer there. The documents they present provide a window into the professional and personal life of the man who has become known as “the loudest spy in history.” They show a man who insisted on taking a taxi to work every day and expensing the cost, whose flamboyance, drunkenness, and sexuality was barely tolerated, but who seemed to have charmed everyone he met. Interestingly, the letters of recommendation are especially telling, like this one from a Cambridge don who recommended him to the BBC:
“He is a first rate man, and I advise you if you can to try him. He has passed through the communist measles that so many of our clever young men go through, and is well out of it. There is nothing second rate about him and I think he would prove a great addition to your staff.”
So was he only fooling them all the whole time, or was there something genuine in that brilliance and charm of his?
Even more interesting is the revelation late last month that the British Library has made Anthony Blunt’s memoir available to the public, announced by the BBC News in late July. Scholars are scrambling to discover the “real” Blunt hidden in this supposed tell-all, according to the news report, Blunt says in his memoir, “The atmosphere at Cambridge was so intense, the enthusiasm for any anti-fascist activity was so great, that I made the biggest mistake of my life.” But that only hints at why he had made that mistake.
Even with this new information available to all, we can’t get to the heart of our question. We can’t quite reach the why. Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt’s biographer, says it best. Noting Blunt’s notorious ability to compartmentalize his life and lie even himself, she says, “I think that self-scrutiny was so limited within his character and that he closed himself off from that period of his life so completely that he was just unable to excavate himself.”
Maybe that’s why fiction about the Cambridge Spy Ring appeals to us so much. Even as we are able to piece together what they did, the why will never be answered. We need fiction to answer that tantalizing question for us.
And so we are left with the strange truth about spies that makes them different from almost any other sort of historical figure: as you learn more about men like the Cambridge Five, you discover that the reality of their lives was more unbelievable than you could ever imagine. But you also realize that thanks to the secrets and the lies, the fiction inside an author’s head might be the closest we can ever get to their reality.