Monday, March 11, 2013

I Spy....

When I went to Cuba two weeks ago, I brought with me the usual overload of books.  I intended to read a lot while relaxing in the warm Cuban sun, and in the event I did. Between drinks of rum and good Cuban beer - cerveza - that is. And frequent exercise; the resort had a really good gym and there was a long pool for doing lengths; in addition to the really large pool with the swim-up bar, not really an exercise venue. Which pool I did not visit even once.

The two hardcovers I toted along on the trip were Game Change, the story of the 2008 Presidential campaign, subtitled Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. A really good read, for anyone who hasn't read it. The book gave birth (if that's the term) to the hit HBO film of the same title. That film, though, is all about Sarah Palin and her troubled campaign, and her equally troubled relationship with McCain and his advisors. (For the record, Palin's name does not appear in the book until p. 350.) The film is not a flattering portrait of Palin; McCain comes off much better, as he does in the book.





The second book I brought along was Sweet Tooth, the most recent novel by British author Ian McEwan. I had already started that book, but didn't get around to it again until after I got back to Ottawa. Instead, I found myself reading a book that was in the resort's "collection". We all know about such "collections"; they are comprised of books left behind by tourists. The book was by British author Alan Bennett, and it's a memoir of his family, and especially of his mother's lifelong battle with mental illness and eventual death: A Life Like Other People's.

For readers not familiar with Bennett's writing, he has had a long and illustrious career. At Oxford, way back in the 60s, Bennett teamed up with fellow students Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook to write and perform the satirical review, Beyond The Fringe. It was a huge success, and eventually played to full houses in London and New York. After that, Bennett went on to be any number of things literary, and dramatic, as playwright, essayist and actor. Most readers will know the film for which he is most recognised in North America, The Madness of King George. (Original title of the stage play, The Madness of George III.)





So, what, you may wonder, does any of this have to do with the title of this post, "I spy...."?

Well, Bennett, among his other works, wrote three memorable pieces about spies and espionage. He grew up in an England still cringing from one of the great espionage-treason disasters in British, and Western, postwar history, the flight of three British intelligence officers to the (then) Soviet Union; Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. These three were members of what came to be known as the "Cambridge Five". A fourth member, Anthony Blunt, was identified some years later.

Blunt was a special sort of embarrassment for the British Government, and also for the British Monarchy. He was a gifted and cultured man of great intelligence, a Professor of the History of Art at the University of London, a Director of the marvellous Courtauld Institute of Art in London (which Suzanne and I had the pleasure of visiting last fall), and perhaps most significantly, the "Surveyor of the King's Pictures" - later, after the death of George VI, the "Queen's Pictures" - in London; essentially the vast art collection in the possession of the Royal Family.

(Blunt was also a man of, shall we say, cosmopolitan sexual appetites, straddling (so to speak) both sides of the sexual spectrum. On a DVD collection of a number of his plays, Bennett recounts a story he heard about Blunt being caught, one afternoon, in flagrante with a young woman on his staff, and later that same day in a similar position with a young man. The witness quasi-reproached Blunt for his behaviour with the words, "You seem awfully fickle, Anthony." To which Blunt is said to have replied, "Well, dear fellow, many a fickle makes a fuckle.")

So, Blunt was the infamous "Fourth Man" of the infamous Cambridge Five. And the "Fifth Man"? There is much speculation about that, but so far as I know, his identity has not been established.

Bennett wrote a satirical-serious play on the Blunt misadventure, A Question of Attribution. It originally was staged at the National Theatre in London in 1988; and later, in 1992, was staged for television in the BBC's Screen One series. The play deals with the "outing" of Blunt as a spy, and member of the Cambridge Five. I remember seeing it about that time on Masterpiece Theatre.

At the same time that the Blunt play was staged at the National Theatre, a second Bennett play, An Englishman Abroad, was also staged. That short play deals with an episode in the life of Guy Burgess, and focuses on his rather miserable life in Moscow after his defection from MI6. The play came about because of the chance encounter between the British actress Coral Browne and Burgess in Moscow in 1958. Browne was touring with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre's production of Hamlet, in which she played Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Rightly or wrongly, the play treats Burgess very gently, and with humour. It is great entertainment. Perhaps Bennett felt it was punishment enough that Burgess lived in a dingy flat in Moscow, and was followed constantly by a Soviet agent, his every move recorded. He did not have a happy life in Moscow. He never learned to speak Russian, and he died in 1963 of alcoholism, aged just 52. On the bright side, Burgess maintained his Englishness and, with Coral Browne's help, continued to have his suits made by his personal tailor on London's Savile Row.

The third Bennett play that deals with spies is The Old Country, written in 1977. The play was staged in London's West End and starred Alec Guinness in a role based on Kim Philby's life in exile in Russia. Guinness began his collaboration with Bennett in 1973. In The Old Country, Guinness's Foreign Office traitor has created an entirely English atmosphere at his defector's dacha in Russia. I had the good fortune to see the play in London in 1977 (or was it 1978?) and for the first half of the play, I thought it was in fact set in the English countryside. When it became clear that "we" were in the Soviet Union, I remember being shocked. I knew only a little about the Philby-Maclean-Burgess affair in those long-ago days. Happily, I now know a little more. The internet helps.

That the Cambridge Five have had a lasting impact on the literature associated with the "spy business" is undeniable. In this post, I had planned to delve into "spy literature" in more detail, but I will save that for another day. It's not a genre I know a great deal about, but I am planning to attend a 6-week, 12-hour course on the subject at Carleton University this month. Four authors and books have been selected:

John's Buchan's The 39 Steps; Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories, Ashenden: Or The British Agent; Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana; and John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That's assuming that the course is not already filled to capacity.

As a closing note, I will add that there is a marvellous collection of Alan Bennett's work available on a DVD set, and it includes both An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.


The Alan Bennett Collection


In addition to the two plays above noted, there are nine other pieces. Highly recommended.

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