Kim Philby was the only man in history to have been made both an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and a Hero of the Soviet Union. After his defection to Moscow in 1963, aged 51, he admitted missing some friends, some condiments (Colman’s mustard and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce) and English cricket — though he continued avidly to follow the scores.
He was also a keen reader, though access to books in English through the British Council and USIS libraries in Moscow was denied him. Instead — and unusually — he was able to order books through the post and to pay for them with American dollars sent via a Russian bank. I recently found seven typed letters, addressed from Postbox 509, Main Post Office, Moscow, and signed H.A.R. Philby. Written between 22 August 1984 and 11 January 1987 to Bowes & Bowes booksellers in Cambridge, they provide a fascinating insight into his literary tastes.
As one might expect, he was a keen follower of John le Carré (the pseudonym of David Cornwell) and Graham Greene, both of whom had served in Intelligence, but whose views on him were diametrically opposed. Philby wrote to Phillip Knightley: ‘I have ordered The Honourable Schoolboy. From le Carré’s introduction to your book [Philby: The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation], I get the vague impression, perhaps wrongly, that he didn’t like me.’ When Knightley tried to make light of le Carré’s hostility, Philby replied:
Smiley rides again, a little wearily, perhaps, but that is natural for a contemporary of mine. You write that Cornwell’s attitude to me is neutral. Maybe he is a mite schizophrenic.
In fact le Carré had expressed his intense antagonism. He called Philby ‘spiteful, vain and murderous’, and wrote that he
gave himself body and mind to a country he had never visited, to an ideology he had not deeply studied, to a regime which even abroad, during those long and awful purges, was a peril to serve; he remained actively faithful to that decision for over 30 years, cheating, betraying and occasionally killing.
By contrast, Graham Greene corresponded with Philby for 17 years and sent him all his own books, which held pride of place beside Philby’s desk. The Human Factor, about a SIS agent who defects to Moscow, was clearly inspired by Philby. Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry, reminds us that in England, during the war, Graham ‘worked long hours at SIS headquarters in St Albans under Kim Philby, who was even then (though of course no one in SIS knew this) a Soviet agent.’
In his introduction to Philby’s My Secret War, Greene defended, with special pleading, Philby’s treason:
‘He betrayed his country’ — yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?… He was serving a cause and not himself, and so my old liking for him comes back.
But, attempting to portray Philby as an idealist, Greene did not define the crucial ‘something or someone’. Again, according to Sherry, after Philby had defected and was
asked what he would like if he had a magic wand, he replied: ‘Graham Greene on the other side of the table, and a bottle of wine between us.’
The old friends finally had a congenial meeting in Moscow in 1986, two years before Philby’s death.
The following is a list of the books ordered by Philby from Bowes & Bowes in the period covered by these recently discovered letters:
Modern fiction: Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country; Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools; F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night; Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), Death in the Afternoon; Elizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relatives, The Hotel, The House in Paris, Last September, To the North; Anthony Powell, Agents and Patients, Venusberg, The Fisher King; R.K. Narayan, The Talkative Man; Gore Vidal, Lincoln; Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Memoirs: Pablo Neruda, Memoirs; Edmund Wilson, The Fifties.
Travel: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani, Roumeli, A Time of Gifts, The Traveller’s Tree.
Literary criticism: Somerset Maugham, Ten Authors and Their Novels.
Popular novels: P.G. Wodehouse (2), Nancy Mitford (2), Nicholas Monserrat (4), Simon Raven (1).
Thrillers and spy fiction: Agatha Christie (21), Francis Iles (1), Dashiell Hammett (2), Margery Allingham (4), Julian Symons (3), Michael Gilbert (3), Edmund Crispin (1), Dick Francis (1), P.D. James (1), Patricia Highsmith (12), Ed McBain (15), Nicolas Freeling (2), Anthony Price (1), John le Carré (1), Robert Parker (3).
History: A.J.P. Taylor, Bismarck, the Man and the Statesman; Correlli Barnett, The Desert Generals, The Audit of War; Martin Middlebrook, The First Day of the Somme, 1 July 1916; William McNeill, Plagues and People; Christine Sutherland, Princess of Siberia: The Story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles; Lyn Macdonald, Somme.
Espionage: Nigel West, MI6; Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, eds., The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the Twentieth Century.
Fitness (for his wife): The Jane Fonda Work-Out Book.
There are also two personal messages in Philby’s correspondence with Bowes & Bowes. On 27 November 1985, worried by the worsening relations between the superpowers and the threat of an annihilating war, he wrote: ‘I wish all you Bowes (except for nuclear longbows and crossbows) a merry Xmas and Happy New Year.’ Two years later, on 11 January, the lifelong communist remembered with nostalgia his undergraduate days at Trinity, when he first opened his account at the bookshop — and was recruited as a Soviet spy:
Thank you for your letter announcing the change of name from Bowes & Bowes to Sharratt & Hughes. I note that your letterhead is still B&B, so I hope that this letter will reach you. To an old conservative gentleman like me, it is rather a shock to hear that a name which I have revered for 57 years is no longer to be.