British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-60
Cambridge University Press, 226pp, [pounds sterling]55
The most hated person in Britain, George Orwell believed, is the nosy parker. M15 is the state-appointed nosy parker. Some of the agency's less radioactive files have been opened up grudgingly and James Smith is one of the first literary critics to investigate them. What has been released is partial, "redacted" and tangled. Working through the files must have been like opening oysters with your fingers (a third of the book is dense end-annotadon - lots of shells, a few pearls).
Smith focuses on central figures most of whom, in the flush of youth and idealism, were "premature and-fascists": principally the "Auden circle" (Christopher Isherwood, Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender and others), the folk singer Ewan MacColl, the dramaturge Joan Littlewood and two outriders, Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Many, as history moved on and their blood cooled, shifted ideologically. Some were politically bipolar over the course of their lives. Others, among them Orwell, wobbled incomprehensibly. Some, including Koestler, pirouetted as their interests dictated, running rings around the (misnamed, in his case) "intelligence" agencies.
The overwhelming impression is one of officious bumbledom. As Smith neatly observes, the spooks could have garnered more relevant information from the local public library by studying the revisions to Auden's poems or else attending performances of suspect plays in Stratford. Philistinism seems to have been one of the main qualifications for recruitment. That and a convenient vacancy where common sense should have been.
Spender was under "surveillance" for many years of his life; specially briefed customs officers rummaged through his luggage whenever he returned from abroad. His socks, as friends observed, were well-known for their "potatoes". This was surely noted. An M15 report on Orwell (he was then working at the BBC and being watched round the clock) said: "This man has advanced communist views ... He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours." Case closed.
It was PC Plod and Inspector Clouseau all the way - and there was a disinclination to "join up" what was known. Some of the writers were receiving payment from one branch of MIS while being "surveilled" by another branch.
The magazine Encounter, which was funded covertly by the CIA, was solemnly investigated on suspicion of being run by a communist cell. Meanwhile, in other echelons of the secret service, operatives such as Malcolm Muggeridge were keeping lines open with Langley.
On the evidence presented here, the whole structure of MI5 was fuelled by low-level paranoia - but relatively harmlessly so, compared to the hysterical levels in the US that fuelled McCarthyism. Harmless, that is, except that M15 did not do the one job it should have done: to monitor and catch the Cambridge spies who did substantial damage to their country.
Paranoia is infectious and it has, I think, infected the core of Smith's book. He is a little too ready to be suspicious. The book begins and ends with lofty quotations from Spender on the freedom of the writer. One of the main thrusts of the book is to suggest that Spender (the most discussed figure here) was, despite such lofty proclamations, "complicit".
There had always been the suspicion that he was not what …