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April 28, 2008

Treason in a Cold Climate: Brendan Simms on the treason of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess and why it matters

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - considers the meaning of treason.

Alan Bennett has always insisted that he is not much interested in spying, but fascinated by exile. In his two short plays, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution, [performed as the double-bill "Single Spies" at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, 21st -26th April, with Nigel Havers and Diana Quick] the contrast between the banishments of Guy Burgess and Sir Anthony Blunt is made clear in the very opening scenes. In An Englishman Abroad, Burgess (Havers) is rotting in a shabby Moscow apartment, his Soviet-issue dentures don't fit, and the scavenged tomato is treated as a delicacy. All the decencies of life, soap, scotch and cigarettes, have to be cadged or stolen from visiting foreigners such as the actress Coral Browne (Diana Quick). In A question of Attribution, on the other hand, Blunt (Havers) is still in office as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures and Director of the Courtauld Institute; he had been unmasked many years earlier, but granted immunity in return for cooperation with the authorities.

But both are unmistakably in exile. Burgess is cut off from his tailor, his friends - Auden, Cyril Connolly, Isherwood - and above all from gossip; in the background a rendition of the Eton boating song on the balalaika signals his homesickness.

Blunt has been even more effectively boxed in by the Queen's knowing needling about fakes and misattribution to the barrack-room art history of his secret service interrogator. Each is tormented in the appropriate way. When the extrovert attention-seeker Burgess asks what they are saying about him back home, Coral Browne punishes him with her pity. Nothing very much, she replies, and is willing to seek out the clothes he requests because she "feels sorry" for him. Blunt, who craved privacy and respectability, is pursued by a secret serviceman of such PC-plod transparency that he attracts the attention of Blunt's students. Towards the end of the piece the inevitable exposure looms.

Of the two, we feel sorrier for Burgess who has almost shrunk from his former bull-like dimensions to fit the frame of a fey and fragile Havers. When Burgess is serenaded by his Russian companion, Tolya, it is tempting to feel that he has suffered enough. The Climate of Treason - to borrow the title of Andrew Boyle's classic - may have sunny spells (which burst through in Burgessís forced eulogies on the vitality of the Soviet system), but it is essentially inhospitable.

The two plays are less eloquent on the question of motivation. Coral Browne asks Burgess straight out why he did it. Because he responds, "it seemed the right thing to do at the time"; Blunt says something very similar to his MI5 interrogator. Interestingly, Bennett places very little stress on the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazism, which the traitors themselves often cited in their own defence.

What both pieces show brilliantly is the nature of concealment. Bennett's Burgess reminds us that he never denied his homosexuality or his communist sympathies. This openness became his best disguise: surely somebody so obvious could not be a spy. Burgess hid in plain sight. Bennett's Blunt is continuing his game of hide and seek even after his unmasking. His fascination with Titian - as a series of probing exchanges show - is a reflection of his own predicament and our own obsession with the spying game. As the piece unfolds, the painting more and more resembles a Russian (Soviet?) doll as the various layers are stripped away and x-rayed to reveal more figures, first a third man (Philby), then a fourth (Blunt himself) and finally a fifth (still the subject of speculation). Bennett's point is that there will always be another man: our imagination requires it. And - he wonders - does it really matter whether he exists or not?

Does it matter? That is a question which Bennett often asks in both plays. It is a phrase that trips easily from the lips of a Burgess and a Blunt, to whom few things matter much and most don't matter at all.

In the end, there is actually very little doubt where Bennett himself stands. Coral Browne tells Burgess bluntly that he

pissed in our soup and we drank it.
If she agrees to his request to order him new clothes from his old tailors, this is preparatory to twisting the knife further. In one particularly brilliant scene, she accuses the tailor of Burgess's bespoke pyjamas of hypocrisy. How come, she asks, they tolerated his flagrant homosexuality, and yet now turned their back on him just to remain suppliers to the royal family. Thank God, Coral Browne thunders - and here Diana Quick breaks into an unmistakably Australian accent - she is not English. In fact, the tailor informs her, the business is not English in origin, but Hungarian. It is a poignant moment, for it instantly becomes clear that he is thinking not of his prestigious link to the palace, but of the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Budapest.

The treason which Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross committed may not have mattered much to their friends, but for many brave men and women fighting on the other side of the iron curtain against communist dictatorship British treason meant imprisonment and even death. It did matter.

The author thanks Dr Anita Bunyan for her comments on this piece.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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