Mary Dejevsky: Why are the spies of old allowed to retain their romantic sheen?

Share
Related Topics

Sir Anthony Blunt was a traitor. Let me write that again, so you have to read it again: Sir Anthony Blunt was a traitor. A vicar's son, who attained privilege, he enjoyed a charmed life and, it now turns out, a charmed death.

Whatever arrangement he reached with the government of the day when he eventually admitted spying for the Soviet Union – it would be too crude, would it not, to call it a deal – included protection for his memoirs for a quarter century after they were deposited with the British Library.

Those memoirs were finally unlocked this week, 26 years after his death. And – should it really have been a surprise? – they reveal nothing, nothing, at least, that you might want to know. Nothing about the secrets he passed to the Russians; nothing about the mechanics or the finances of the transactions; nothing that indicated the merest flicker of awareness that he was guilty of a crime that doubtless cost British lives and, until many years later, attracted the death penalty.

In his memoirs, it appears, he offers only the old, old story about idealism, the threat of fascism pitted against the dream of communism, and the irresistible, but alas not fatal, attraction of his student, and recruiter, Guy Burgess. Oh yes, and he says he considered suicide after being publicly named, finally, by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In other words, it was not the shame of his activities that caused his "wobble", but the shame of being exposed – self-deception, like deception, being the stock in trade of the traitor.

What struck me most about Blunt's brief return to the headlines, though, was not the paucity of new information in his memoirs, but what had also struck me all those years ago when he was identified as the "fourth man": the leniency with which he had been treated all those years, the protection he enjoyed for so long, and the lack of public indignation on both counts.

Is it really possible to separate his past from his present, to view with equanimity those photos of him exercising his cool connoisseurship as Queen's Surveyor of Pictures? Whence his air of authority, the presumption of privilege? He agreed to tell the authorities all he knew in return for immunity and anonymity. Well, if they learned no more than he betrays in his memoirs, they struck a poor bargain. Not only Blunt, it seems, was guilty of self-deception.

The only lesson that can be taken from Blunt's history is that the establishment, or a certain particularly established part of the establishment, looks after its own. Why is this man, even now, referred to with his knighthood? Why is the damage he inflicted – or sought to inflict – on his home country not treated seriously, as an indelible stain on his character? It was Mrs Thatcher, self-made woman, meritocrat, outsider, who was the one to pierce his protective bubble.

Blunt's reputation, like that of his fellow Cambridge spies, needs to be stripped of its romance once and for all. Try looking at his treachery through a more contemporary prism. How much difference is there, essentially, between Blunt and his co-conspirators, and those who wage jihad today? So they weren't violent?Not with their own hands; they were officers, not men. So they were idealists; but so are those who strive for a new Caliphate. So they were British – so were three of the London bombers. Treachery comes in many guises. It's a pity Blunt was allowed to reject exile in the land he served. A bit of Soviet reality, as Burgess, Philby and Maclean all found, put their spying into its proper perspective.

A count at night was voters’ delight

Since when did that minor, but much-loved, British institution – the late-night election count – become an endangered species? The fusty town hall, the bare boards, the homely volunteers, the amateurish sense of urgency, these all contributed to the very particular atmospherics of our elections, periodically spawning nocturnal dramas that generously repaid the hours of lost sleep. Did you stay up for Portillo? At local elections in May, the majority of counts took place the following morning, as – yesterday – did the count for Norwich North.

With daylight outside and bland routine inside, this count even abandoned civic space in favour of a marquee at the Royal Norfolk Show- ground. It could have been worse, I suppose; it could have been an out-of-town shopping mall (shades of the late J G Ballard's Kingdom Come). We may not have gone quite that far, but it's hard not to believe that something has been lost.

Products that do exactly what they say on the tin

The supermarkets are preening themselves on the success of their "basics" ranges – the more upmarket the chain, the cheerier the self-congratulation – as they embrace frugality-chic. But I wonder how far the popularity of "basics" reflects their low prices and how far it rather reflects shopper-fatigue.

I have in my fridge a tin of kidney beans in chilli sauce bought in error for the unspiced variety, a tin of tomatoes with basil, when I wanted one without, and a packet of so-called "French-style" ground coffee, which turned out to mean "with chicory".

A certain chain offers at least three "own-brand" varieties of meat lasagne, one associated with a pub chain, and all sited in different parts of the store. That's before you get to the dozens of coffees you have to plough through in search of a simple Continental blend. (Double-check for lurking chicory.)

I'm delighted with the proliferation of "basics": simple coffee, simple tomatoes, simple tonic water. (I'll add my own lemon or lime, thank you.) Variety may be the spice of life, but a time comes when all its tiny gradations become counterproductive. "Basics" have the virtue of editing out the froth, and the mistakes.

Celebrities, CCTV and crimes for our times

Only a coincidence, of course, that Amy Winehouse, and Steven Gerrard were in court in their respective cities in the same week, that the use of fists was the issue in both cases, and that both were swiftly cleared by the jury (Gerrard) and the district judge (Winehouse). The good guy of English football and the bad girl of British pop walked out of court promising to get on with their lives.

It would be easy to moan that celebs can now behave badly with impunity (so what's new?); easy, too, to come over all po-faced and remind the pair of their "duties" as role models. But the juxtaposition of these cases might prompt some other conclusions, too.

One is that, whoever threw what punches, people seem readier than they were to resort to physical violence. Another is that CCTV – more ubiquitous here than almost anywhere in the world – yields glimpses of life that hitherto went unrecorded, except in the fallible memories of those present, so making it hard for prosecutors to apply one law to celebs and another to the rest. And a third is that juries can exercise discretion.

If celebs seem to get a free pass, it is we who are permitting it, through our fellow citizens representing us on that jury.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little