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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The age of self: the strange story of how YouTubers saved publishing

When 21-year-old Alfie Deyes released his first book, it was No 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 11 weeks. Who are the YouTubers – and why are their books so successful?

It’s a sunny Saturday May morning in Cardiff city centre, and shoppers are throwing confused glances at a large, cordoned-off queue outside WHSmith attended by a hulking cluster of guards. The queue is here for an author signing – a common enough sight at high-street bookshops – but the barriers and the bouncers are all new. “Even Charlotte Church didn’t have security,” the shop manager tells me. The queue is waiting for Caspar Lee.

The general population divides into two categories: those who have never heard of Caspar Lee and those who think he is one of the biggest stars in the UK. Lee, a 22-year-old British-born South African, is a YouTube star. Vlogging, or video blogging, first took off around 2005 – also the year that YouTube was founded. By July 2006 it was the fifth most popular site on the internet. A huge amount of content is uploaded every day, but Lee and his friends are the site’s celebrities. At the time of writing, he has 6.7 million subscribers on his main account – and his videos have notched up 633 million views.

His clips centre on pranks, chats with other YouTubers and records of his daily life. One series showed his trip to Paris with a girlfriend: we saw him singing in the shower and her drawing on his face with make-up. It all feels very up close and personal, until you start to wonder just who is holding the camera as the pair skip up the Eiffel Tower together, holding hands.

Until recently, Lee shared a flat with another YouTube star, Joe Sugg (the 25-year-old brother of the YouTube megastar Zoella). The pair’s influence is so great that the established media has had to take notice: BBC Worldwide recorded the travel documentary Joe and Caspar Hit the Road in 2015.

Inside YouTuber world, Lee is almost unimaginably famous. In October 2015 he recorded an interview with Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci, the two most recent Bond girls, titled “KISSING MY NEW GIRLFRIENDS”. He thinks, in short, that an implied insight into his love life will get more clicks than the names of two of the world’s biggest actresses. He is probably right. The video has over 1.9 million views.

***

To understand that queue outside WH Smith, we need to go back to 2014, when Blink, a small British publishing house, decided to bring out a book with a vlogger named Alfie Deyes.

The Blink editors knew they were taking a risk: Deyes, then 21, was virtually unknown outside YouTube. Not only that – his book was, quite literally, pointless. Based on his vlog of the same name, The Pointless Book featured mostly blank pages on which readers could complete a task. “Do a finger selfie,” reads one, suggesting that you draw round your own fingers. Another page wants you to “draw your pet”.

At best, it was a playful take on his channel. At worst, it was a middle finger to the whole publishing industry.

“No one had published a book with a big-name YouTuber before,” says Karen Browning, head of Blink’s public relations. “We knew Alfie had huge platforms and a big teenage fan base, but we didn’t know if that would translate into an audience.”

Blink did a big PR push. At first, the press wasn’t interested but then, as the sales figures rolled in, it began to take notice. Metro called Deyes “the most famous celebrity you’ve never heard of” and the Telegraph demanded: “Who on Earth is Alfie Deyes?” Blink decided to hold a signing at Waterstones Piccadilly days after the book was published, predicting a crowd of about 500, and handed out wristbands accordingly.

What happened next can be read in baffled news and police reports. Conservative estimates indicate that at least 4,000 fans descended on the store for the signing. Half an hour before it was due to start (YouTube fans are, it seems, nothing if not prompt), police helicopters and horses had to intervene and the shop was closed. Westminster City Council allegedly advised Waterstones not to hold any more signings until it could control them properly. “It was unprecedented,” Browning says. “They had never seen crowds of this size for anyone before. Including David Beckham.”

The book was No 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 11 weeks and Deyes was featured in Debrett’s list of the 500 most influential British people in 2015. PointlessBlog now has 5.4 million subscribers. To date, the book has sold 300,000 copies and its sequels, The Pointless Book 2 and The Pointless Scrapbook, have sold 160,000 and 60,000 respectively. To put that in context, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize, had sold 12,237 copies by the time he won.

Within days of Deyes’s signing, heads in the publishing world snapped towards YouTube. Isabel Prodger was working in publicity at Simon & Schuster at the time. “We had a book coming out by Grace [Helbig, a US YouTube star] and it wasn’t really on the radar at all – we were just distributing it,” she tells me. “There was no publicity campaign, no marketing. It was pretty much Amazon-only.” After the Deyes events, Helbig’s book, Grace’s Guide: the Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-Up, began to sell well, despite having no UK publicity.

Prodger’s job became YouTuber-focused: in the summer of 2015 she held events all over Britain for YouTubers, including Connor Franta, Tyler Oakley, Louise Pentland (YouTube name Sprinkleofglitter)and Miranda Sings. Today, publishers and bookshops alike are operating what many describe to me as a “slick operation”. Tickets are sold online and the location, which is kept secret (though when an event is marketed by WHSmith for certain cities it’s not hugely difficult to guess where it will be), is texted to visitors a week before the event. Security is high – for the fans’ protection.

Publicists such as Prodger and Browning measure signings in hundreds and hours – Oakley did 1,000 in three and a half hours. “It all depends on the length of their signature,” Prodger says.

Deep in the bowels of WHSmith in Cardiff, I sit down with Lee in the makeshift green room to discuss his book, Caspar Lee. It’s a memoir written by his mother, Emily Riordan Lee, with annotations, presented in a font resembling handwriting, by him. It covers 21 years out of his 22, from a photo of him as a baby – “Oh my God, Mom” – to his recent trip down the red carpet with Joe Sugg to promote their BBC documentary.

Lee is tall, with a neat haircut and the high cheekbones and piercing eyes his fans downstairs are whispering about. He is also far more serious than you would expect, given that he makes videos with titles such as “CARA DELEVINGNE SHOWS ME HER UNDERPANTS” and “ROOMMATE SHOWER PRANK”.

Why has he waited so long to do a book, until practically everyone was doing them? By my count, at least ten big or medium-name YouTubers will have released books between August and October 2016, and many are on their second or third. “I think I’m the last one to do it of the YouTubers I’m close with,” he says – by which he means the likes of Zoella, Deyes and Oli White, whose Generation Next young adult novel about an aspiring YouTuber appeared around the same time as Caspar Lee.

Lee says that he was approached by publishers before but wasn’t inspired until he thought of writing a book with his mum, a former journalist.

“I didn’t really want to write a book,” he says slowly, as if worried that he’ll say the wrong thing, “but then I realised I could spend more time with her while making the book. It’s really nice to have someone good at writing to do it, who knows my story.”

Lee has a busy schedule of signings – another one today and then to the Hay Festival; he will be the first YouTuber to appear there. (Katya Shipster, a publicist for Penguin, later tells me that the audience was full of dedicated Lee fans: “It felt pretty great to be bringing in a new generation of literary festivalgoers.”)

Back at WHSmith, the queue snakes right through the travel section. A mother barks at her pre-teen daughter, “Camera ready! Are we camera-ready?” A brother and sister, one nine, one 11, say they love Lee’s videos but would never watch them together. “Oh, we’re definitely each getting our own copy of the book,” the girl adds. Who is more excited to be here? “Me!” both shout at the same time. But why bother buying a physical book when Lee’s vlogs are there to watch, for free, any time? A shy 14-year-old explains: “This feels different – it looks really cool and funny. I’m going to read the whole thing this weekend.”

The noise mounts as the clock ticks closer to midday.

***

YouTuber books are a difficult genre to define. Lee rejects the definition altogether. “It’s important for people to understand that YouTube is just a platform, like TV is, and everyone makes completely different types of content on it.”

Indeed, the books come in disparate forms. Yet although one interviewee after another tells me that the grouping is a bugbear for authors and publishers alike, there is no doubt that it works as a marketing technique. Near Lee’s table at WHSmith is a special “YouTuber” book display, featuring everything from cookbooks to novels.

When we say “YouTuber”, especially in the UK, we don’t mean local schoolboys uploading skateboarding tricks. We mean an elite cadre of high-profile stars at the top of a complex UK YouTuber food chain. Most of these figures make personality-led videos. The women often talk personal life, make-up and shopping; the men veer towards interviews or pranks. A common trope is interviewing other YouTubers using a “tag”, or list of rote questions that has been circulating in the community, which might include “When was your last holiday?” or “How did you meet your best friend?”.

Somehow, the YouTubers manage to make even these dull questions interesting. They most resemble reality stars or presenters, in that they all have specific skills but are keen to emphasise that they are just like their viewers, and are really only there to chat. A common refrain in Zoella’s make-up videos is: “Remember, I’m not a proper make-up artist – these are just the techniques I use!” They are a new form of celebrity and they glimmer with that particularly irresistible quality: they all know each other. Zoella and Deyes are a couple. They share a £1.5m house in Brighton.

Philip Jones, the editor of the Bookseller, says the YouTubers’ books fill the vacuum left by celebrity biographies. “Until 2008, celebrity publishing was a big plank in most publishers’ armoury – massive sales generated over Christmas, with A-, B- or even C-list celebrities dominating the charts and underpinning a lot of the publishers’ work for the rest of the year. But that really sank without a trace from 2007-2008 onwards. Since then, publishers have been looking for the new celebrity publishing, and this is it. It came along at exactly the right time.”

Some are snobby about YouTuber books (a Guardian piece about a box set of Deyes’s first two books called them “the worst thing you’re likely to see in a tin this Christmas”), but Jones insists that the phenomenon has been a saviour for an industry that was struggling; the books are a key factor in the upturn of physical sales from 2015 onwards. YouTuber books, with their big, colourful images and hardback covers, most certainly fall into the printed-books category. Print’s overall resurgence encourages bookshops to invest, Jones says. “I think it was an important affirmation that the book is ­probably going to survive. The next reading generation, buying their YouTuber books, clearly want books. It has given everyone a lot more confidence in what they’re doing.”

Although they may have plugged the hole left by old-style celebrities, YouTube stars generally seem more invested in the overall process than their predecessors. As Briony Gowlett, a senior editor at the publisher Hodder & Stoughton, explains: “Because YouTubers are creative people, they know what they want – they’ve grown up on a platform where the restrictions are very few.”

These are young celebrities in direct control of every part of their personal “brand” and they are not about to let go. Which is wise, because digital-savvy audiences can sniff out inauthenticity, as Zoella (arguably the UK’s biggest non-gaming YouTuber, with 11.1 million subscribers) and her publishing team learned to their cost.

Zoella was the first YouTuber to catch the attention of the press, thanks in part to lucrative deals with brands taking advantage of her huge online following. But her breakthrough also brought backlash: a 2014 piece in the Independent – which argued that an “irritatingly Disneyfied” make-up vlogger was not the ideal role model for young girls – went viral, both because her fans hated it and because it resonated with many parents befuddled by her appeal.

Breakthrough also meant a book deal, and Zoella produced a young adult novel about a socially awkward blogger, Girl Online. The children’s author Siobhan Curham was credited as an “editorial consultant”. There followed accusations that the book had been ghostwritten but was not marked as such. A spokesperson for Random House told the Sunday Times: “To be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own.” Zoella tweeted: “Of course I was going to have help . . . everyone needs help when they try something new.”

Zoella’s debut sold 78,109 copies in its first week, making her the UK’s fastest-selling debut novelist ever. She didn’t hold meet-and-greets like her brother, boyfriend or friends: she has spoken about her problems with anxiety and hundreds of signings would have been too much for her. Girl Online, whether ghostwritten or not, is surprisingly moving. The protagonist writes in her first post: “This can be our very own corner of the internet, where we can talk about what it is truly like to be a teenage girl – without having to pretend to be something we’re not.”

Zoella has become an important figure in breaking the taboo around mental health. She tries – with questionable success – to ensure that her make-up videos promote a message about being creative with your appearance, rather than “fixing” your faults or simply appealing to a crush.

For sequels, she has written alone, though she holds weekly meetings with her publisher. And she has launched the Zoella Book Club with WHSmith, which presents a curated list of young adult books she has “selected” herself. (I requested more information about the ­process from WHSmith, but it remained tight-lipped.) In June, her recommended books drove a sales surge on Amazon – sales of The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward went up by 11,000 per cent.

***

Tanya Burr is on her way. The staff of WHSmith at the Bluewater shopping centre in Stone, Kent, are buzzing around a giant poster with her name on it and worrying about the table. “It’s ugly,” one of them says, pushing £20 into her colleague’s hand. “Go and buy a tablecloth.”

At the ticketed signing for Tanya Bakes, Burr’s new cookbook, the queue has been sent up the escalators to the mezzanine floor of the shopping centre, and faces peer down, stretching as far as you can see. Burr is not quite as big a star as Deyes, Zoella or Lee: she has only 3.6 million subscribers.Her UK book tour hasn’t quite sold out, but has still made waves – the Liverpool Echo did a liveblog of her signing. When it was published at the end of June, Tanya Bakes moved straight to No 1 in the non-fiction charts. It hit the top spot on Amazon, thanks to pre-orders, even before it was published.

A hush falls over the store – “She’s coming!” – and in walks Burr, wearing jeans, Converse trainers, a stripy T-shirt, impeccable make-up (she’s best known for her beauty tutorials) and a choker. She smiles sweetly and then sits down at the table. “Take away the tablecloth,” she says, her smile dropping. “It slips around when I’m signing.”

One by one they come, most of them too scared to say a word but eager to take their selfie. (Prodger says most fans far prefer a selfie to a chat.) The more outgoing ones immediately hold up their phones to take a reaction video: “We just met Tanya!”

This engaged young audience is just as exciting for publishers. Trade insiders compare the titles favourably with ­colouring books, the other chart-topping genre of 2015-16. Prodger says that during her long summer of signings, she saw “incredibly well-dressed, stunning 17-year-old girls” at signings who would say, “Oh, I’ve never been in a bookshop before.”

“It’s not seen by everyone as a totally positive phenomenon in publishing,” she remarks – “nothing ever is – and some people just don’t understand it. But that’s one thing that’s undeniably good about it.” As the author Neil Gaiman said at a lecture in London in 2013, “There are no bad authors for children. You don’t discourage children from reading because you think they’re reading the wrong thing. Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”

Later, I sit with Caspar Lee, in a shop that will owe no small sliver of its profits over the next year to a book filled with his face and faux-handwriting, and ask him about his own relationship with books.

“Writing a book feels like a huge responsibility. It’s so overwhelming.” He looks towards the stairs with confusion and trepidation. “When I walked into the bookshop earlier, I just looked around and realised . . . how many types of literature there are.”

Downstairs, a side door opens, an alarm accidentally rings out and Lee, his mum and his sister step on to the shopfloor. “He’s REAL!” yelps a teenage girl to her friend. A hundred iPhone cameras click as the trio make their way to the signing table. The rumble of the crowd rises to a roar.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times