Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th October, 2015
Andrew Lownie’s biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) was in gestation for 30 years, but like a fine single malt it is all the better for it. Though Burgess has been dead for half a century, his flight to Moscow with the other “Missing Diplomat”, Donald Maclean, still resonates in the English collective consciousness. Too often he has been portrayed as something of a joke, a spoilt mummy’s boy who wore Old Etonian ties even in his Soviet exile, who drank and dribbled, groped and propositioned and when in his cups alternately mocked and lauded his home country. Burgess was viewed wrongly as the most frivolous of the so-called Cambridge spies, but as is clear from Andrew Lownie’s extensive interviews of both Russian and British friends, colleagues and lovers of his subject, he methodically transferred to the Soviet intelligence service thousands of classified documents, as well as providing them with in-depth analyses of British politicians and other public figures, many of whom had been his personal friends — and some of whom would remain so even after it became clear that he had abused his positions at the BBC, in the Foreign Office and the British intelligence services.
Alan Bennett’s rather endearing dramatisation of a real-life meeting in Moscow between Guy Burgess and the actress Coral Browne (An Englishman Abroad) offers an image of a man who was a rather pathetic figure, a fish out of water in his adopted home, but that was only partly true. At the height of his powers — when not drunk or feeling sorry for himself — he was brilliant, amusing, phenomenally well-read and a lively gossip. It was not only his overbearing mother (who used to send Fortnum & Mason hampers to him in Moscow) who adored him. So did his Russian housekeeper and several of his lovers, including Jack Hewit (whom I interviewed for my biography of Christopher Isherwood) and Tolya, the faithful young Russian companion who he first met in a foul-smelling Moscow public toilet (perhaps planted by the KGB, who knew he frequented such places?). Like many very bright people, Burgess was easily bored and I get the impression from this definitive biography that the naughtiness and excitement of treachery were as much of a motivation for his actions as his rather shaky ideological conviction. He was a Marxist, but was not particularly impressed by the Soviet reality. Yet although he spied for the Soviet Union (including during his time at the British Embassy in Washington) not because of blackmail (as was the case with the Labour MP Tom Driberg and others) but out of some kind of commitment, it was nonetheless a very half-hearted commitment at times. It is no criticism of Andrew Lownie that this reader felt at the end of his meticulous work that Burgess still remained something of an enigma; that is what Burgess would have wanted, what he succeeded in being for much of his life.