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

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left