The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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