Posted by: Corri van de Stege | July 8, 2014

The spy who got away from his friends – Ben Macintyre

A spy among friendsBen Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal  (which is now available for just 51 pence on Kindle) is an absolute must read for anyone remotely interested in what happened before, during and after the war when Philby, from upper middle class background and with friends in high places, became the most notorious British defector and Soviet mole ever. Moreover, Macintyre knows how to write, of course.  You will know that if you’ve read one of his spy novels. For me he is up there with John Le Carré and this book on Philby provides some of the factual backgrounds to Le Carré’s Smiley novels. It is just incredible how Philby managed to fool his best and long-term friends for some thirty years, despite suspicions when Burgess and McLean defected to Russia in 1951.

Macintyre is good at uncovering the motivation and the psychological make up of Philby who continues to spy even after he has been re-installed safely by his establishment friends after the seemingly hopeless position he found himself in. And manages to betray so many more people to the KGB and so send them to certain death for another ten years, from Beirut. It is only in 1962 that it becomes clear that he has been rattled and even then friends and former colleagues conspire not to put him on trial, because of the scandal that would ensue but rather promise him a form of ‘retirement’ in England in exchange for complete confessions, names, details, contacts in the KGB, etc.

Macintyre captures the time, the era of war-time Britain, the class-consciousness and the men belonging to upper middle class Britain, protecting themselves and each other, the old schoolboy network, the feel of late empire Britain, crumbling as the war progresses and then the Cold War commences.

Philby, as well as his all time best friend Elliott whom he betrayed, were public schoolboy friends and both had strange and aloof fathers; both found the spy establishment suited them and it became their home from home, they were drinking buddies, and Elliott was greatly harmed and hurt when he realised the treachery of Philby in 1962/3.  Elliott had confided in Philby every little secret and plan, he was Philby’s confidant and they shared their professional lives as well as their family lives.

I have always been fascinated by this story of the Cambridge Five and Macintyre manages  to evoke so brilliantly the England that was stuck in post-colonialism and class systems, and where the establishment had its own codes of behaviour and protected its own.  Surely this is again coming out in the most recent sex scandals, where it is believed that either MPs or police (or both) covered up their own in order not to rock the boat and also with the recent trials of Harris and Saville, who had become glitterati in their own right.

I downloaded the kindle version. The book includes and afterword by John le Carré, photos and pages of references. Looking at the photos I am considering buying the book in paperback format. It surely will be an asset on any bookshelf and it would be good to just be able to pick it up and glance over some of the chapters again.

Bookshelf 1



  1. This sounds right up my alley. Thank you for this great review.

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