I had been in something of a catatonic state when I picked up the papers last Thursday morning, but as I looked down at the front pages I was suddenly wide awake. Staring out at me was a picture of Anthony Blunt – whose memoir after 25 years under lock and key had finally been released by the British Library.
Looking at it, my mind was transported back to a crisp morning in 1994: I was 11 years old and about to learn for the first time of the figure whose cool absent gaze stared back at me.
That wasn't the only occasion I had been called to the school office in the few short terms that I'd been enrolled there, but it is one I still remember.
"Where were you at prayers this morning?" my headmistress asked, pushing her half-rimmed spectacles to the end of her nose, as my gaze darted between the ceiling and my purple Doctor Marten boots. "Reading a book in the loo," I admitted, slumping in the chair and getting prepared for a severe dressing down. "Thank God," she replied, to my bemusement: "I am so very, very pleased."
Apparently, in my absence a colourful member of the local church, who had been invited to address the girls at school assembly, had – quite out of the blue and for reasons that were never fully explained – launched a scathing tirade aimed at Blunt who, along with my grandfather Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, had served as Soviet operatives during the Cold War.
I may have been young but I already knew a fair amount about the notorious Cambridge Spies, and enough to realise that by pure accident of birth, as the daughter of Kim's eldest son, John, I had in some small way become embroiled in one of the biggest scandals in British history.
By the time I was born in 1983, my grandfather was firmly ensconced in a small modest flat several floors above ground level, in central Moscow. I remember thinking that day in school how strange it was trying to equate the Kim Philby I knew, the soft-eyed old man with a mischievous grin, who I always seemed to remember wearing a dressing gown – my Grandpa – with that people talked of: a much-loathed public figure who as head of the anti-Soviet section of the British Secret Intelligence Service had betrayed his country.
I'd known from the very beginning that Kim wasn't quite like my friends' grandpas, those who would join in at birthday parties and Christmas dinners, but he was still pretty normal to me: the man who would play epic games of chess with my dad over several glasses of whisky, when we visited him in Moscow, while I'd scuttled around on the carpet next to them with a waste paper bin on my head. He was the one who'd bellow: "Who's been sitting in my chair?" when he returned to the living room to find that I had deliberately crumpled up the pillow on his favourite armchair while he went to refill his glass in the kitchen.
Yet when I think back on it now, the grandfather I knew was never truly extricable from that of the notorious double agent known as the Third Man. One of my favourite images of my grandfather is from the end of one of our visits to Moscow, when he and my dad were shoved into a cupboard at the airport and passed a bottle of vodka to keep them compliant while members of staff frantically tried to work around the fact that they had accidentally scheduled my parents and I on the same flight back to London as the British ambassador, who was wafting around the terminal in a pinstripe suit.
The next time we tried to leave Russia at the end of a family visit, I recall being speeded down the motorway to the airport in the lane reserved for senior officials and visiting dignatories in an unmarked car, with pleated grey curtains pulled around the windows and a flashing blue light; we certainly didn't miss that flight.
Yet there are simpler memories too, like packing my bear-fur coat and matching hat for a trip to see Kim and presenting him with jars of Colman's mustard and pots of Marmite. Once settled in his flat, where two polished guns hung above the sofa in the living room, we would spread the marmite across hunks of heavy black bread, which almost broke my jaw as I attempted to chew. In fact, some of my favourite childhood memories derive from those holidays: afternoons spent with my mum at the bear park across the road from Kim's flat, so-called because of the great carved wooden animals that stood in the playground. Then there were the overnight trips to Leningrad on the sleeper train, and being given a small gift to take home at the end of our stay with Grandpa.
On one occasion, Kim presented me with a series of beautifully painted Russian dolls, which still stand on my mantelpiece today, next to a book on Karl Marx, which he had sent to my maternal grandfather, Basil, soon after my birth, along with a four-page, hand-typed letter to my mother's father, whom he'd never had the opportunity to meet. These glimpses of a man I never had the chance to talk to as an adult provide a small but intimate insight into the person behind the mask, for this is the man who I am truly interested in, not the masterspy.
But there could always have been more hints, further clues to who he really was, and so it is with a degree of personal interest – and also some sense of trepidation – that I read the numerous articles that continue to appear about Kim on an almost weekly basis. The ones I like best are the anecdotal, which say something about his character, preferably his quintessential Englishness. My favourite clipping of all time came earlier this year amidst reports on the MP expenses scandal. A list of Kim's own claims for a number of personal items mislaid in 1940 while working as a war correspondent in France was published. It included: a camel hair overcoat, a Dunhill cigarette lighter ("six years old but all the better for it") and pig-skin gloves. To me that says so much.
Obviously the majority of reports involving my grandfather are slightly less enjoyable to read, but I have never found myself begrudging any of these or judging Kim based on them; one thing I have gleaned from conversations I've had with my own father and others who knew Kim, is that for good or for bad, he was a proud man, and one who chose to publicly stand by his actions. While he made a choice that few – if any – can really claim to fully understand, and one which had dire consequences for the friends and colleagues he betrayed, Kim was prepared to face the repercussions of what he did – either because he felt that was the right thing to do or because it was about saving face. Either way, I'm not sure that it matters. Whether, when at the end of it all he sat back and reflected on the choices he'd made during his life, he did feel any doubt about the decisions he'd made, we will never know, but one thing is for sure: he would never have asked for absolution, so I should never expect that on his behalf. But unfortunately, it seems, the same cannot be said for the man whose face I found staring back at me last Thursday morning as I scoured the headlines.
Anthony Blunt, during the course of his carefully constructed 30,000-word memoir, written several years after he was publicly outed as the Fourth Man in 1979 and published decades after his death, does his best to redeem himself in the eyes of those who he had betrayed, to admonish his own guilt, without ever actually genuinely apologising for the actions which he goes on to describe as the "biggest mistake of my life". At one stage, Blunt blames the negative influence of the "extraordinarily persuasive" Guy Burgess, his student at Cambridge who recruited him to the Soviet cause in 1934, before turning on his own political "naivety". Never really does he seem to accept personal responsibility for his actions.
Furthermore, Blunt waited until after his own passing and that of his Cambridge cohorts to release these claims; while it is hard to speak of "the honourable thing to do" in a story that is bound with deceit and betrayal, it might at the very least have been brave if Blunt had, once exposed, stood up and admitted that what he had done had been a mistake if that's really what he thought. No one would have then been expected to pat him on the back and forgive him all just on the basis of an apology, but at least in his own mind he would have known he'd taken on the chin a long series of decisions which he says caused him so much grief in later years that he had "contemplated suicide" (ironically, he says he thought better of it as that would have been a "cowardly" decision).
Instead, in his diaries, Blunt attempts to pass the buck. This, in my mind, only serves to lose him whatever remaining admirers he might have had. While few may applaud the decisions my grandfather made in his lifetime, at least in his autobiography, My Silent War – which was published while he was still alive, in contrast to Blunt's manuscript which was only released once he and the men involved in his story were dead and buried – my grandfather stands by the choices he made, never once asking for forgiveness or for pity. And so it should be. After all, he, like Blunt, chose to live by the sword.
One key difference between my grandfather and Blunt is that at the end of it all, holed up in a pokey flat in Moscow with few if any trophies to speak of – and perhaps a lot less than the Soviets had promised him, Kim accepted his lot. And that at least must count for something. These men after all were professional gamblers among other things, and someone who makes their career taking risks has to be prepared to take the fall when it all comes crashing down.
Kim Philby: A life in and out of the shadows
1912 Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby, born in Punjab, son of St John Philby, a British Army officer and explorer who converted to Islam.
1928 Leaves Westminster School at 16.
1933 Trinity College, Cambridge (graduates with a 2:1 in economics). Peers – and later spies – include Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Asks tutor Maurice Dobb how to serve the Communist movement. Recruited by Soviet intelligence service, OGPU.
1936 Marries Alice "Litzi" Friedman, Jewish Communist, in marriage of convenience.
1936 Following orders from Moscow, pretends to be pro-Fascist and works as journalist in Spain.
1940 Gets job with Section D of SIS. Appointed Special Operations Executive "black propaganda" instructor.
1941 Starts working for Iberian Section V and can pass on information to Soviets. Marries Aileen Furse, has three sons and two daughters.
1944 Manages to be appointed head of government's anti-Soviet Section IX, with access to identities of British intelligence officers and agents and to hundreds of classified documents.
1945 Narrowly escapes being revealed by Soviet agent Konstantin Volkov.
1946 Goes to Istanbul to work at the British embassy.
1949 Acts as liaison between British embassy and CIA.
1950 Is asked to track down a double agent passing secrets to the Soviets (Maclean). Tips off Maclean and Burgess, who defect. Philby under suspicion as "Third Man" who warned them.
1951 Investigated but says he does not know Maclean. Forced to step down. Continues working for SIS on the quiet.
1955 Cleared by foreign secretary Harold Macmillan.
1956 Employed by MI6 as an "informant on retainer" but remains under suspicion of being a Soviet spy.
1957 Aileen dies.
1959 Marries Eleanor Brewer in Beirut.
1963 Disappears before being interviewed by British Intelligence. Surfaces in Moscow. By now drinking heavily.
1965 Leaves Eleanor for Maclean's wife, Melinda Marling.
1972 Marries Russian Rufina Ivanova.
1988 Dies aged 76. Posthumously awarded medals by USSR.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies