Continued on Page 12 HE CONTEMPLATED SUICIDE BECAUSE HE COULD NOT BEAR THE DISGRACE
Extract: in a new book, Brian Sewell explains how he shielded Anthony Blunt ruited him as a Soviet agent a quarter of a century earlier. When MI5 investigator Arthur Martin confronted him at home, Blunt poured himself a gin, stood looking out of the window, then after a long silence, said: ‘‘ It is true.’’
MI5 was horrified, but keen to avoid the prolonged and profound embarrassment of a trial. And so a deal was struck: Blunt could have immunity from prosecution and could keep his honours and reputation in exchange for a full, detailed confession. Blunt certainly told MI5 some of what he knew, but not all of it. He expressed no remorse. The deal held firm for 16 years. This was the Blunt that Sewell came to know as a friend and fellow art expert, a man living a double life based on a lie, knowing that the truth would eventually emerge. On November 20, 1979, Blunt gave a press conference in the London offices of The Times, in which he said he had been misguided in putting his friends before his country.
In an account published posthumously, Blunt described spying for the Soviet Union as ‘‘ the biggest mistake of my life’’. After he was publicly exposed in 1979, he contemplated suicide because he could not bear the disgrace of exposure. Blunt’s friends rallied to his defence, but he guarded his secrets to the end, as reflected in Sewell’s account of his own part in the continued hunt for the so-called ‘‘ fifth man’’. Stripped of his knighthood, increasingly alcoholic, Blunt never fully came clean.
Blunt, it seems, never told the whole truth to anyone, including, perhaps, himself. IN May 1970 I sold a drawing to Andrew Gow, an elderly Cambridge don of whom I knew nothing other than that he was Anthony Blunt’s friend — and that I knew only because it was Anthony who told me of his wish to buy it and, further, that I was commanded to deliver it to Gow in Cambridge. Gow struck me as the coldest man I had ever encountered, a man of calculated silences, intimidating, and, beginning with ‘‘ Anthony wishes you to know . . .’’ he told me the tale of communism and espionage that now everybody knows; he offered no other reason for doing so.
His account of the business was as succinct, orderly and clinical as that dry, of a pathologist recording the condition of a corpse, but I sensed that not only did he know more, but that he had eliminated from the recital any part that he had played, and took him to be mentor rather than confessor. I was not required to respond — nor did I quite know how to — but as it lent an armature to old Courtauld Institute gossip and mythology, I was not surprised. I sensed, too, precaution against events unspecified and unpredictable, but could see no particular point in the timing, and Gow’s telling me rather than Anthony himself I interpreted as Anthony’s unwillingness to discuss the matter (though, surely, he must have been certain of my loyalty) or involve me more deeply. Were it ever to be raised, perhaps in some emergency, he had had the foresight to cut out the need for explanations. Now I wonder if this was Gow’s laying on of hands, telling me a truth that after his death and Anthony’s disgrace might, if untold, be impossible to disentangle from rumour, blame and spite. I said nothing of our encounter; Anthony asked nothing and everything he knew of it he knew from Gow.
On February 2, 1978, Gow, who had been Anthony’s mentor for half a century, died. From time to time I had driven Anthony to Cambridge to see him. Friends told me that, into his nineties and restricted to a wheelchair and walking frame, Gow had slowly exchanged his essential gravity for stingy bloodymindedness. On our return journeys we drove largely in silence, Anthony morose in mood and seeming physically shrunken. The net value of Gow’s will was £357,736, then an enviably substantial sum; to Anthony he bequeathed only two Faenza vases, three small rugs and the £100 that was his trifling memento to several old friends. I found it impossible to reconcile so mean a bequest with so long and intellectually intimate a friendship, and was even more puzzled by our contrived encounter in May 1970, though confirmed in my then assessment of the man. With Gow’s death, had I become the only holder of the secret outside that secret world?
On the evening of Sunday, September 9, 1979, Anthony told me, less as a friend, I thought, than formally, as his executor perhaps, that he might soon, in a book, Andrew Boyle’s The Climate of Treason, be exposed as part of the Burgess-Maclean-Philby business. What should he do? ‘‘ You must have signed the Official Secrets Act?’’ I asked, and he confirmed that he had. This seemed to me to offer him some protection, at the very least allowing him to neither confirm nor deny any accusation or rumour. I reminded him that as many older students at the Courtauld had known of the suspicions roused by the flight of Burgess and Maclean and had taken them in their stride, others too, outside the Institute, must have heard the rumours and not responded to them, and suggested that he should, if anyone now approached him, simply say that there had been much gossip over many years and that now, as then, he was constrained by the Official Secrets Act.
Pretend world-weariness was my advice; say nothing and do nothing that might draw attention to his interest in the matter. Another friend sent Anthony to the eminent Michael Rubinstein, a powerful lawyer altogether more practised in such matters. That I have no idea who this friend was was typical of Anthony: apart from Moore Crosthwaite [a very old friend and former ambassador to the Lebanon] and John Golding [an art historian and former student of Blunt’s at the Courtauld], I knew almost nothing of his personal and private friends, nothing of old loyalties, and as he kept us all in separate boxes it is reasonable to assume that they knew nothing of me. Of his lovers I knew only of Peter Montgomery, with whom in the late Twenties he had had an affair at Cambridge, and the amiable ‘‘ bloke’’, married, with children, who had for perhaps 20 years coolly f . . ked him once a week.
Montgomery came from a wealthy landed family in Ulster and was something of a bigwig there; in the late Sixties he was a tall, amiable man, handsome, prinked and perfumed in a way that did not wholly conceal the boy who had, 40 years before, enchanted Anthony; garrulous and given to heavy drinking, within a decade he was showing signs of senility and I thought he had become an unsafe friend for the Anthony I knew I might one day have to protect. As for the ‘‘ bloke’’, he and I were on no better than nodding terms, for on our very first encounter he had, I thought, betrayed Anthony by offering for a not insubstantial fee to perform the same service for me, and I had tartly cut him short with: ‘‘ I give as good as I get and I don’t have to pay for it.’’ I realise now, of course, that we all pay for it one way or another, and that Anthony’s sex life, uncluttered by affection, was very easily put away in its box once the fiver had changed hands.
In theory, Rubinstein was a well-chosen solicitor for Anthony: the present menace was a forthcoming book and, as he had fought for half a dozen major publishers in libel cases, and for Penguin when, for issuing an unexpurgated text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the company was prosecuted for obscenity in 1960, there could be nothing that he did not know about counteracting literary accusations.
It was not so: he was far too eager to take the battle to the foe without quite knowing the complex nature of the enemy — a doggedly inquiring writer who could not quite prove what he supposed; a press informed by rumour, innuendo and the malice of all sorts of minor figures anxious to pull Anthony down in revenge for imagined slights; an MI5 and MI6 thrilling to the renewal of a long-frustrated chase; and a naive Prime Minister inspired, not by spite, but by such aggressive provincial patriotism that she could neither ask nor answer the question, ‘‘ Why?’’
These forces were far beyond Rubinstein’s power to control and, once unleashed, they swept him aside. It was he who, as a preliminary to quashing it, asked the publishers of Boyle’s book to let him see the text. Because Anthony was not named in it, Rubinstein’s asking to see it was promptly interpreted as an admission of sorts (had he been fool enough to name Anthony as his client?) and the publishers leaked the request to Private Eye; on September 28 the tumbrils of the press prepared to roll. With the publication of extracts from Boyle’s book in The Observer on Sunday, November 4, I had the first telephone calls — from Stewart Tendler at The Times and Chris White at the Daily Mail — but all that I, an unknown nobody wondering, alarmed, how the hell these journalists knew of our connection, could say was that I knew nothing. I was in genuine ignorance of the situation, for I had not heard from Anthony for days and he had not answered the telephone when, troubled by his silence, I had called him.
On the morning of Thursday, November 15, Anthony at last telephoned, whispering, because for some days he and John Gaskin [his partner] had been pretending not to be at home, had not turned on the lights, not opened the curtains, not even flushed the lavatory in case the sound betrayed their presence. Michael Rubinstein had just been informed by the Cabinet Office that the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, was that afternoon to make a statement in the House of Commons that would confirm the rumours of espionage and treachery. Anthony, with the consideration for others that was habitual, thought that the life of every resident in Portsea Hall [the block where he lived] would be disrupted by the mob of journalists bound to lay siege, and asked me to take him, with John Gaskin, to stay with John Golding and James Joll [an historian and Golding’s partner for 40 years] in Ravenscourt Park.
But he could think of no way of leaving Portsea Hall unobserved, for a handful of
Far left, Brian Sewell; left, Anthony Blunt