An­thony Blunt

and the art of spy­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

IN the au­tumn of 1979, Sir An­thony Blunt, art his­to­rian, Sur­veyor of the Queen’s Pic­tures and distin­guished pil­lar of academia, faced to­tal ruin: his ca­reer, his life and his rep­u­ta­tion were all on the brink of de­struc­tion. Blunt was about to be ex­posed as a KGB spy. Ben Macin­tyre re­calls how the news broke . . . NO other mem­ber of the so-called ‘‘ Cam­bridge Five’’ spy ring had main­tained so ex­tra­or­di­nary a dou­ble life for so long. None had risen so high in pub­lic hon­our and had so far to fall. Of all the Soviet spies in Bri­tain — Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Don­ald Maclean and oth­ers who are still coming to light — Blunt was in some ways the most enig­matic, his mo­tives and con­vic­tions the hard­est to read. Here was a man who en­joyed all the ap­pur­te­nances of a cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety, yet had ded­i­cated his early life, se­cretly, to de­stroy­ing that so­ci­ety. He em­braced Marx­ism, but was never a Com­mu­nist. He seemed to be em­bed­ded in the Bri­tish Es­tab­lish­ment, but as a ho­mo­sex­ual he was per­haps al­ways an out­sider.

The Blunt story has been ex­plored from many an­gles, in drama by Alan Ben­nett, in fic­tion, in film and in Mi­randa Carter’s bi­og­ra­phy. Blunt has been ex­plored as a traitor, as an ide­o­logue and as an in­tel­lec­tual. But in his new book, Brian Sewell ex­plores An­thony Blunt as a friend and col­league, a man to whom he felt ex­traor­di­nar­ily close while al­ways be­ing held at a dis­tance, as the fol­low­ing ex­tract shows. ‘‘ I knew al­most noth­ing of his per­sonal and pri­vate friends, noth­ing of old loy­al­ties,’’ Sewell writes. Yet Sewell was a wit­ness to, and a par­tic­i­pant in, the last act of Blunt’s ex­po­sure, when the spy’s old loy­al­ties came back to haunt and then de­stroy him.

Blunt was a pen­e­tra­tion agent, a spy specif­i­cally re­cruited to bur­row into and ex­pose the se­crets of an­other spy ser­vice. He was one of the most suc­cess­ful moles in his­tory. He was al­ready a Cam­bridge don when he was re­cruited into Soviet in­tel­li­gence by his friend Guy Burgess; like many other young men of the time, he saw the Soviet Union as the only bul­wark against fas­cism. He be­lieved he was work­ing in the ‘‘ cause of peace’’ and con­tin­ued in that be­lief, ap­par­ently, even af­ter Hitler’s un­holy al­liance with Stalin un­der the Molo­tov-Ribben­trop pact.

Blunt was given the co­de­name ‘‘ Tony’’. (An odd choice given that it was, in fact, his real name; ei­ther a bril­liant dou­ble-bluff by the Sovi­ets, or amaz­ingly stupid.) In 1940 he was trans­ferred from the Army to MI5 and be­gan to prove his worth as a spy. As a ris­ing star with the se­cu­rity ser­vice, he had ac­cess to the most se­cret in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing the de­crypted wire­less mes­sages from Bletch­ley Park. He passed on ev­ery scrap of in­tel­li­gence to Moscow. When his col­leagues went out to lunch, Blunt would of­ten stay be­hind and rif­fle through their desks and fil­ing cab­i­nets for more in­for­ma­tion.

Ev­ery week, be­tween nine and ten in the morn­ing, he met his Soviet con­troller in a dif­fer­ent part of Lon­don to hand over a brief­case filled with doc­u­ments; the fol­low­ing day, they would meet again and the doc­u­ments, hav­ing been copied overnight, would be re­turned. In five years, Agent Tony handed over no fewer than 1771 doc­u­ments, in­clud­ing many files that ran to hun­dreds of pages. In the spring of 1944, he handed over the plans for the D-Day land­ings and the com­plex de­cep­tion plan sur­round­ing the op­er­a­tion. On some as­pects of Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence, Stalin was rather bet­ter in­formed than Churchill. This was the sum­mit of Blunt’s spy ca­reer. ‘‘ It has given me great plea­sure to pass on the names of ev­ery MI5 of­fi­cer to the Rus­sians,’’ he told a col­league, who seems to have dis­missed his words as a joke.

In 1945, Blunt left MI5 to re­turn to his aca­demic ca­reer at the Courtauld In­sti­tute. Yet he con­tin­ued to work as a part-time KGB courier, even af­ter be­com­ing Sur­veyor of the King’s (later the Queen’s) Pic­tures. Come the rev­o­lu­tion, he in­tended to be Com­mis­sar for the Arts. Yet the past was al­ready stalk­ing him. When his friends Burgess and Maclean de­fected to Moscow in 1951, Blunt was ques­tioned, very gen­tly. Blunt him­self de­scribed the in­quiries of his former MI5 col­leagues as noth­ing more than com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions. The vague sus­pi­cions did not pre­vent him from be­ing knighted in 1956.

Blunt never con­tem­plated de­fec­tion to the Soviet Union. Lan­guid and re­fined, he en­joyed his life in the West, with his pic­tures and his hon­ours. He had no de­sire to swap that for the rigours of life un­der Com­mu­nism. He was fi­nally ex­posed in 1961 when a former Cam­bridge con­tem­po­rary, Michael Straight, got a US government job and, fear­ing a full FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion, con­fessed that Blunt had rec-

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