Interview: Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre has become an authority on spies, an expert at crafting together the material into gripping stories, which, if made up, would certainly be accused of being implausible. His latest, A Spy Among Friends, follows the story of Kim Philby, one of the ‘Cambridge Five’, and the greatest double agent ever seen, whose memory still overshadows the secret services.

I meet Ben after a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival, which packed Christ Church hall. He’s a natural story teller, and in the hour long lecture took us through Philby’s life with such skill and enthusiasm that the characters come to life in his words.

Afterwards, we grab a table in the tea room off the side of the hall, and I admit to having forgotten pen and paper, upon which he pulls both from his pocket and hands them to me. A long time correspondent at the Times, he claims to have fallen victim to this himself many a time.

Macintyre writes about the Cambridge spies, but, he tells me, there was an Oxford spy ring – of course, it wasn’t really up to much, he jokes; Macintyre is himself a Cambridge man. But its recruiters were the same Soviet agents that won over the Cambridge lot, so, he reassures me, there was no Russian bias to the other place!

Macintyre has always been interested in spies – he was himself ‘tapped-up’ at Cambridge, recruited for the secret service. Apparently it went no further than the interview, when, he says, they realised pretty quickly that he wasn’t spy material.

What is it about spies that so attracts us, I wonder, and particularly captures Macintyre? “I think spying is one of those subjects that’s a great backdrop for all the things that we all think are important, like loyalty, love, betrayal, drama, adventure, war…I mean, the actually process of spying is quite interesting, but it’s the kind of emotions and the human, moral issues that it throws up that really get us”.

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“It’s the sort of things you’d quite like to write about in a novel, but because it’s all true, you know, you don’t have to make anything up’. Certainly, the spies of Macintyre’s books are almost too good to be true. Eddie Chapman (Agent ‘Zigzag’), was a sort of crook turned double agent; ‘he’s a dreadful man, but incredibly good fun, a wicked womanizer and shocking figure, but incredibly good fun to write about”.

Agent Zigzag was a crook, but he was ultimately on our side, winning the war. Ben’s latest, about Kim Philby, is different – ‘this is the darkest of them. This is about a dense, brutal, intimate betrayal between two people, one of whom thought they were the closest friends there could possibly be, so it has a kind of psychological brutality to it’.

Has Philby been as much fun to write about? A figure who ruthlessly handed absolutely everything over to the KGB, responsible for possibly thousands of deaths. Absolutely! He offers “much more opportunity to get right deep inside the psychology of men who to us seem strangely of another world – this kind of clubby, male friendship, where they sat around all day talking about cricket”. A world where men had come through the war together and felt a deep, inherent belief in each other.

To this day, it is the charm of people like Philby that stands out – he was above suspicion, he was ‘one of us’, the ‘right sort of chap’. “If he’d walked into a room you’d have thought “my God, the lights have all gone on”, only he was wicked, I mean, a really bad man, but such fun, and so funny! He had an old world charm – to us there’s something creepy about that sort of charm now”.

Inevitably one thinks of Bond, how much is real about the charming womaniser? Macintyre has written a sort of biography of Bond and Fleming, so I ask how this relates to his real-life spy, Kim Philby. “The Bond thing makes him invisible to us, to other Bonds, you can’t see him, because he’s perfect. His education, charm, manners, his looks even, made him invisible.’ He was so much the Bond that no one could have guessed at his betrayal – it’s telling that his only vetting for the secret service was a word from the head of MI5;”I know his people”. Compare this to Stalin’s ‘nobody is above suspicion’ and perhaps we can see why the Soviet intelligence managed to infiltrate the British and American so well.”

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Philby was invisible in his day – now he’s the very stereotype of a spy. Who is the modern day Philby, the modern invisible man? ‘Now the invisible spy is a young Muslim woman from Bradford – she’s the perfect recruit for MI5 because she can penetrate Al-Qaeda cells and the like, but she’s also the person that Al-Qaeda are after.’

The parallels are clear; “they’re all fishing in the same pond, as they were in 1930s Cambridge. MI5 is full of young Asian women – and it still haunts them today, the fear that, already in the system, are people like Philby, ‘clean skins’ in the trade term, who have got in because they look right.”