A life of Guy Burgess. The life of Guy Burgess. Not the ice cream man from Beverley, but one of the Cambridge Five cold war spies. One of the greatest traitors ever to grace our shores. Or was he?
I researched the Cambridge Five for my spy walks in 2017. Most people, myself included, are drawn to Philby. He was the real deal, a spy’s spy. A traitor through and through. An easy man to hate and respect with equal vigour. Perhaps the reason he is the most famous is that press conference he did, convincing Fleet Street’s finest of his innocence. He even convinced the Prime Minister, who defended him in the House of Commons. Philby was a bastard.
I had the softest spot for Donald Maclean. I went to see his grave, not two miles from my house near Penn in Buckinghamshire. That was a beautiful day, and I was not the only one to hover at Donald’s stone. That is saying something, in that remote corner of England. After all this time. Yes, Maclean was a true spy and a family man. He was a gent. With Maclean, the feelings get more nuanced. He wasn’t a bastard. He may even, whisper it quietly, have been a victim, like Blunt.
Blunt is easy to hate. He was a terrible spy, a public figure who was allowed to live quietly in London for fifteen years after he admitted his antics to MI5. Cairncross was exiled to France and, as a result, also left alone.
Only Philby and Maclean had to run to Moscow, where they lived unhappily ever after. Which brings us to Guy Burgess.
Even the name Guy Burgess is friendly. Guy. What a guy. A brilliant mind. Lownie seems to think Burgess kept the five together. Even though he recruited only Blunt and Cairncross, perhaps the least impressive of the five. It was Philby who brought in Maclean, and Philby was reeled independently from the others. By Arnold Deutsch himself, the KGB ringleader in London. Arnold’s cousin was Oscar, as in Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation: ODEON.
Burgess persuaded Blunt and Cairncross, who thought Guy was straight. Guy was never straight, not like Michael Straight, the American recruited by Blunt. You see how complex this gets?
Guy Burgess worked for the BBC as a producer. He used his personal Cambridge network to get the gig, and made a name for himself as a raconteur. It seems that virtually everyone found him brilliant company and a brilliant genius. Of course, as with most geniuses, booze and food got the better of him, and perhaps drugs too. Later acquaintances speak of a trampy aura around Burgess. Like many others before him, he simply forgot to take care of his body.
He drove everywhere at 90 miles an hour. On a single memorable day in America, he was stopped in three states doing either 80 or 90. He was sent home. And that was the beginning of the end. Burgess and Maclean arrived back in England, and plans were made for Burgess to take Maclean to Moscow. Forevermore, their names would be conjoined. Even though they hardly knew each other, and were utterly different personalities. Yes, Burgess and Maclean became espionage’s most compelling double act. Their association lingers in popular culture.
Perhaps a little like the Cliveden set, the Cambridge Five were not the devils as portrayed in our gutter press. But Philby. He was a bastard.