Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess, by Andrew Lownie - book review: A dirty, big-headed, snob... and utterly brilliant

Hodder & Stoughton - £25

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The Independent Culture

Our eternal fascination with spies and secrecy has meant that the infiltration of the British establishment by five of the most gifted people of their generation, from the 1930s onwards on behalf of Russia, was well trawled over in their lifetimes. Can there really be any more to say about the Cambridge spies, two decades after the last of them died? Or is Andrew Lownie’s biography of Guy Burgess, who died a broken figure having fled to Russia in 1963, a case of there being nothing wrong with retelling an old but good story, as some have recently?

In fact there remains plenty unanswered about Guy Burgess, the most flamboyant of the five, who has never been the subject of a proper biography. The most obvious question being how the Russians could have regarded him as good material for undercover work. This was a man, Lownie reveals, who was described even by friends as unreliable, often late, louche, dirty, bolshie, impatient, promiscuous, grubby, opinionated, a slob and a snob, without internal brakes, prone to panicking easily, with an appetite for attracting attention, no morals, a craving to be liked … a conceited, unreliable shit. Surely the fact of being “a natural liar” doesn’t mitigate sufficiently?

As Lownie scrupulously catalogues, however, Burgess was outstandingly brilliant, and in his early years possessed a charm, when he chose to deploy it, and a childlike insistence on getting his way that few could resist. He was also a genuine ideological convert, and presumably saw himself as some sort of bridge between his beloved Britain, in the 1930s decidedly wobbly about taking on fascism, and the great Soviet experiment. The result was that, as an employee of the BBC, MI5, the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office, he sent so many suitcases of secret documents to his Russian controllers that for a while they thought they were part of a cunning British disinformation plan.

I should declare a faint interest: years ago I did a little research for an earlier stab at a biography by David Leitch, some of which has ended up in Lownie’s book. But it’s a puny contribution in comparison to the weight of material that Lownie has skilfully pulled together. Much of it is from sources familiar to spook buffs, but for the most part it is worn lightly and used economically and forensically. Indeed, on occasion, one would have welcomed a few more metaphorical exclamation and question marks from the author. Kim Philby, for example, was, to my understanding, scandalised when Burgess accompanied Donald Maclean on his famous Friday-night flit (because of the suspicion thereby directed at Philby). Yet Lownie opts not to speculate. Similarly he is not drawn on quite why Burgess went all the way to Moscow, sticking to the punctiliously collated sources, which don’t come up with an answer. Only in the final chapter, “Summing Up”, does Lownie allow subjectivity to surface, and to good effect.

But these are quibbles. Not every question has been answered, but most have, and those that remain probably never will be.