Reviewed: British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-60 by James Smit

Nosy parkers.

British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-60
James Smith
Cambridge University Press, 226pp, £55

The most hated person in Britain, George Orwell believed, is the nosy parker. MI5 is the state-appointed nosy parker. Some of the agency’s less radioactive files have been opened up grudgingly and James Smith is one of the first literary critics to investigate them. What has been released is partial, “redacted” and tangled. Working through the files must have been like opening oysters with your fingers (a third of the book is dense end-annotation – lots of shells, a few pearls).

Smith focuses on central figures most of whom, in the flush of youth and idealism, were “premature anti-fascists”: principally the “Auden circle” (Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender and others), the folk singer Ewan MacColl, the dramaturge Joan Littlewood and two outriders, Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Many, as history moved on and their blood cooled, shifted ideologically. Some were politically bipolar over the course of their lives. Others, among them Orwell, wobbled incomprehensibly. Some, including Koestler, pirouetted as their interests dictated, running rings around the (misnamed, in his case) “intelligence” agencies.

The overwhelming impression is one of officious bumbledom. As Smith neatly observes, the spooks could have garnered more relevant information from the local public library by studying the revisions to Auden’s poems or else attending performances of suspect plays in Stratford. Philistinism seems to have been one of the main qualifications for recruitment. That and a convenient vacancy where common sense should have been.

Spender was under “surveillance” for many years of his life; specially briefed customs officers rummaged through his luggage whenever he returned from abroad. His socks, as friends observed, were well-known for their “potatoes”. This was surely noted. An MI5 report on Orwell (he was then working at the BBC and being watched round the clock) said: “This man has advanced communist views . . . He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours.” Case closed.

It was PC Plod and Inspector Clouseau all the way – and there was a disinclination to “join up” what was known. Some of the writers were receiving payment from one branch of MI5 while being “surveilled” by another branch.

The magazine Encounter, which was funded covertly by the CIA, was solemnly investigated on suspicion of being run by a communist cell. Meanwhile, in other echelons of the secret service, operatives such as Malcolm Muggeridge were keeping lines open with Langley.

On the evidence presented here, the whole structure of MI5 was fuelled by low-level paranoia – but relatively harmlessly so, compared to the hysterical levels in the US that fuelled McCarthyism. Harmless, that is, except that MI5 did not do the one job it should have done: to monitor and catch the Cambridge spies who did substantial damage to their country.

Paranoia is infectious and it has, I think, infected the core of Smith’s book. He is a little too ready to be suspicious. The book begins and ends with lofty quotations from Spender on the freedom of the writer. One of the main thrusts of the book is to suggest that Spender (the most discussed figure here) was, despite such lofty proclamations, “complicit”.

There had always been the suspicion that he was not what he seemed. Cyril Connolly, who co-edited Horizon with him, discerned that there were two Spenders: “Stephen I”, who was “an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot”, and “Stephen II”, who was “shrewd, ambitious, aggressive and ruthless”. Frank Kermode, another co-editor (on Encounter), wryly quipped that his colleague never seemed to know where he was going in London but always knew the quickest way to get there.

Smith tracks Spender’s career from gaytimes Weimar Berlin to his late-life role as public intellectual and world ambassador for British culture, noting his many interactions with various branches of the intelligence services along the way. Pivotal to the author’s verdict is Spender’s 14-year connection with Encounter (1953-67), the longest job he ever held.

Some background, missing from Smith’s account, is necessary. The CIA, much cleverer (on the evidence in this book) than its British counterpart, set out in the early 1950s to reclaim the intellectual-ideological high ground occupied by card-carrying Marxists such as Jean-Paul Sartre. Encounter was one of its most successful operations. The agency deviated its “black” (officially unrecorded) funds through a soi-disant American philanthropist, Julius Fleischmann, who had the convenient “Farfield Foundation”. Thus laundered, the money was passed on to the “independent” Congress for Cultural Freedom, directed by Michael Josselson, a man of high culture and flexible principles resident in Paris and Switzerland.

Irritatingly, Smith calls Spender “the editor of Encounter”. He wasn’t. An American always held that post (latterly Melvin Lasky, Josselson’s “favourite son” and a CIA “agent in place”). Spender owned the back half – he was the magazine’s literary editor. He was no more influential on the political front half of Encounter than, I suspect, the literary editor of this magazine is on the New Statesman’s front half.

Looking at Spender in the round, Smith finds his claims of ignorance as to who funded Encounter and paid his salary “implausible”. He knew, we are to understand. The book ends with a melodramatically “raised eyebrow” at such protes tations. It would have helped before hoisting that eyebrow to look at the many letters in the Spender archive (not hard to access). When, for example, the balloon went up on Encounter in summer 1967, with impeccably sourced articles in the New York Times, Spender wrote, furiously, to Fleischmann for a clear statement. He received a written reply asserting that “as far as Farfield is concerned we have never accepted any funds from any government agency”. Josselson wrote, in response to the same inquiry: “The only outside donor to Encounter has always been the Congress.”

The idea that Spender, Fleischmann and Josselson would have embarked on some charade à trois with letters of blunt inquiry and mendacious denial is, to use Smith’s term, implausible. You could argue that Spender should have known but all the evidence (there is a lot of it) is that he was lied to and duped – as were Encounter’s readers.

Spender has attracted more than his share of sneers during his lifetime and after. This book (more politely than most) adds to them. Does a dead poet’s reputation matter? I think it does. Among the admirable scholarship in this book, there is, I think, an injustice.

John Sutherland is the editor, with Lara Feigel, of Stephen Spender’s “New Selected Journals, 1939-55” (Faber & Faber, £45)

Cecil Day-Lewis, a member of the so-called "Auden circle". Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser