Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Lownie’

Stalin’s Englishman

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th October, 2015

imageAndrew 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.

imageAlan 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.

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The Biographers’ Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th July, 2013

Clementi house KensingtonWriters are like meerkats; we live in holes to escape the heat of the world outside and to get on with our work, emerging occasionally to sniff at the big outdoors, standing on our hindlegs to savour what we find, before scurrying back to the security of our burrows and our research. So it is a good thing that The Biographers’ Club (originally founded by my literary agent, Andrew Lownie) exists, to provide a forum for intellectual and social contact amongst those of us who spend an unhealthy amount of our time in libraries and archives or at our computers. I suspect I am not alone in having a study at home, surrounded by books, with my desk facing the window but with curtains closely drawn, day and night. That way I can carry on, hour after hour, without distraction. Anyway, every summer The Biographers’ Club holds an annual summer party, which this year was in the stupendous house and garden of one of my publishers (and author himself), Tom Stacey. Once the residence of the musician Clementi — as well as playing host to Mendelssohn — the house is a Kensington treasure, not least because of its large secret garden, in which are displayed Tom’s wife’s sculptures. But this evening, with a jazz band playing boisterously in the main sitting room, where I have had many an editorial meeting over a couple of my previous books, the house was thrown open to a motley crew, including Sarah Bradford (whom I worked with on a book on the Sitwells years ago), the art historian Frances Spalding and my fellow patron of the Oscar Wilde Society, Neil McKenna, whose very racy book on the Victorian transvestites, Fanny and Stella, I am currently hugely enjoying. Such occasions are not just for catching up on who is doing what — and who has died — but more importantly to give us the stamina to go back to our holes and carry on.

[water colour of the house, by Gertrude Keeling]

Link: http://www.biographersclub.co.uk

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