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

Nosy parkers.

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

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)