Q’s Espionage Festival: 3. Soviet Spies, John Stott and fleeting encounters
This is a mildly unserious combination of Q’s Espionage festival and Friday Fun. But London W1 is a spy-historian’s paradise – there are so many spots around here that saw Cold War duty (and the KGB certainly knew their way around). For a start, the formal gardens of Regent’s Park were regular rendezvous points for Cambridge Spies Kim Philby and Donald Maclean with their KGB handlers. But there’s another couple of connections that are even closer to home.
Passing a spy?
One of the streets that I find myself walking down almost more than any other is Bentinck St. So I nearly fell of my chair when reading the account of the period by Yuri Modin, the spies’ KGB handler. For he noted in passing that Guy Burgess had shared a flat with Anthony Blunt at no 5 Bentinck St (see below) while he worked at the BBC. It was a place notorious for wild parties that lasted long into the early hours, and had been lent to them by Victor Rothschild (another Cambridge friend, a Communist sympathiser and scion of the famous family). The street has witnessed many famous inhabitants in the past – and there are blue plaques for Edward Gibbon at No 7 (he of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) and James Smithson at No 9 (the founder of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC). But there will undoubtedly never be a plaque for Burgess or Blunt.
Burgess worked at the BBC for around 8 years, during most of the Second World War. The BBC has put up a fascinating archive of documents relating to his time there – including some bizarre correspondence about the so-called Langham Incident which took place just over the road at the Langham Hotel.
But what of all this? Well, it’s no more than a passing coincidence – but of course John Stott grew up round the corner on Harley St (at no 58), and then when he became curate of All Souls, he lived at no 1 Queen Anne St. I doubt very much whether or not Stott ever met Burgess (or Blunt). For a start, Burgess was 10 years older than Stott. But I always think of both men, from such similar social and educational backgrounds (both public school, both Trinity College, Cambridge), and actually both quite radical. Both would have a far-reaching impact on twentieth-century Britain and indeed the world. But their worldviews, methods and lifestyles were light-years apart. How strange then to imagine how they no doubt walked past each others’ homes, perhaps even passed each other on the street, countless times – oblivious of each other and their ambitions.
Marrying a spy
Now, that’s a pretty tenuous link, I know. But the next one is not tenuous at all – and I’m grateful to Gordon Corera for pointing it out to me. You never know who you’re going to marry, of course. And I’m not referring to arranged marriages or a teenager’s daydream about walking up the aisle. I’m talking about the role of a church minister. And in the 30 years he was full time on the staff of All Souls, and in the many years of active ministry subsequent to becoming Rector Emeritus in 1975, John Stott must have married countless people.
I bet it would never have occurred to him that one of the grooms he married was a Soviet spy, who became notorious for successfully escaping from Wormwood Scrubs, thanks to his KGB helpers. I’m of course referring to George Blake (not one of the Cambridge Spies, but a potent double agent nonetheless). This is what he writes in his autobiography about his marriage to Gillian Allan.
I was faced with a terrible dilemma and my conscience was greatly troubled. She was a girl of conventional English upbringing, whose views, in so far as she had any, were decidedly conservative. If I told her that I was a Soviet agent, she would be absolutely horrified. What is more, I would confront her with a choice with which nobody should be confronted, let alone a young and inexperienced girl. She would either have to betray me, the person she loved, or betray her country, to which she was deeply attached. On the other hand, if I broke off the relationship, without giving a very convincing reason, she would never understand and be terribly hurt.
I made some feeble attempts to put her off by telling her that I was half-Jewish and that her father, who was the kind of Englishman who had little time for Jews, blacks and dagos, would not like this. This had no effect and so, faced by these two evils, I decided that the best course would be to go ahead with the plans for a wedding. I tried to quieten my conscience by arguing that I was really in no different position from a soldier during the war who got married before he was sent to the front, and consoled myself with the hope that it would all work out in the end and nothing terrible would happen to me.
In October 1954, we were married in St [Mark's] Church, North Audley Street, by the Reverend John Stott a well-known preacher in those days. We spent our honeymoon in the South of France and on our return moved into my mother’s flat in Baron’s Court.
Many years later, when I was already in prison and she knew everything, my wife told me that my decision had been the right one. My sons, whom I met again after more than twenty years and to whom I told the whole story, thought the same. This is some consolation, but it does not take away the guilt which I feel towards my wife and my whole family for the pain and grief I have caused them.
Realising that I had obtained all the operational intelligence which section ‘Y’ could provide, I began to make it known that I would be interested in a posting abroad. Since the reorganisation of ‘Y’ in connection with the Berlin-tunnel operation meant that my place as number two would, anyway, have to be taken by an American official, this seemed to suit everybody. At the beginning of 1955, I was posted to Berlin. (No Other Choice, George Blake, 1990, p165)
The betrayals of spying are all too clear – a lose-lose for Gillian Blake. As someone regularly involved in marriage prep, the mind boggles about how to handle the situation if one had the slightest inkling that this was all going on beneath the surface.
Interestingly, like Stott, he too was influenced by the early church in the Book of Acts – but again with very different consequences:
A society in which people do not have to compete and elbow each other out of the way, in which each gives of his best for the good of all, will always remain for me the ideal. The formula, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ defines, to my mind, the only right and just relationship between men, born free and equal into this world. To help build such a society, was this not to help build the Kingdom of God on earth? Was this not the ideal that Christianity for two thousand years had been striving for? Was this formula not taken almost word for word from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:44-45)? What the Church had failed to bring about by prayer and precept would not the Communist movement achieve by action? (p140)