His brother’s keeper - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 24. His brother’s keeper

I hesitated before including Nicholas Elliott’s account of his relationship with his friend and fellow spy, the British traitor Kim Philby. My first reason: as it stands, his account is a fiction that he has come to believe, rather than the objective truth; and my second, whatever Philby means to my generation, his name may not resonate so loudly in the ears of the present one. But in the end I couldn’t resist offering it, shorn of its expository passages, as a window on the British espionage establishment in the post-war years, on its class assumptions and its mind-set.

The scale of Philby’s betrayal is barely imaginable to anyone who has not been in the business. In Eastern Europe alone, dozens and perhaps hundreds of British agents were imprisoned, tortured and shot. Those who had not been betrayed by Philby were betrayed by George Blake, another MI6 double agent.

I had always had a bee in my bonnet about Philby, and as I have reported elsewhere it had led me into a public dispute with his friend Graham Greene, which I regretted, and with such luminaries as Hugh Trevor-Roper, which I didn’t regret at all. For them, Philby was just another brilliant child of the thirties, a decade that belonged to them and not to us. Forced to choose between capitalism on the one hand - to leftists of the day synonymous with fascism - and the New Dawn of communism on the other, he had opted for communism, whereas Greene had opted for Catholicism and Trevor-Roper for neither. And all right, Philby’s decision happened to be hostile to Western interests, but it was his to take, and he was entitled to it. End of argument.

To me, on the other hand, Philby’s motive for betraying his country smacked a great deal more of an addiction to deceit. What may have begun as an ideological commitment became a psychological dependency, then a craving. One side wasn’t enough for him. He needed to play the world’s game. It therefore came as no surprise to me to read, in Ben Macintyre’s excellent portrayal of the Philby-Elliott friendship,* that when Philby was in limbo in Beirut, living out the inglorious end of his career as an MI6 and KGB agent and fearing that his Soviet controllers had given up on him, what he missed most, apart from watching cricket, was the prickle of the double life that had for so long sustained him.

Has my animosity towards Philby mellowed over the years? Not that I’m aware of. There is a type of entitled Briton who, while deploring the sins of imperialism, attaches himself to the next great imperial power in the delusion that he can steer its destiny. Philby, I believe, was such a man. In conversation with his biographer, Phil Knightley, he apparently wondered aloud why I nursed a grudge against him. I can only reply that, like Philby, I knew a thing or two about the conflicting storms aroused by a maverick father, but there are better ways of punishing society.

Enter now Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s most loyal friend, confidant and devoted brother-in-arms in war and peace, child of Eton, son of its former headmaster, adventurer, alpinist and dupe - and surely the most entertaining spy I ever met. In retrospect, he also remains the most enigmatic. To describe his appearance is, these days, to invite ridicule. He was a sparkling bon vivant of the old school. I never once saw him in anything but an immaculately cut, dark three-piece suit. He was thin as a wand, and seemed always to hover slightly above the ground at a jaunty angle, a quiet smile on his face and one elbow cocked for the martini glass or cigarette. His waistcoats curved inwards, never outwards. He looked like a P. G. Wodehouse man-about-town, and spoke like one, with the difference that his conversation was startlingly forthright, knowledgeable and recklessly disrespectful of authority. I never got the wrong side of him to my knowledge, but not for nothing did Tiny Rowland, one of the City of London’s tougher nuts, describe him as ‘the Harry Lime of Cheapside’.

Among the many extraordinary things that Elliott had done in his life, however, the most extraordinary and undoubtedly the most painful was to sit face to face in Beirut with his close friend, colleague and mentor Kim Philby, and hear him admit that he had been a Soviet spy for all the years that they had known each other.

During my own years in MI6, Elliott and I had been on nodding terms at most. When I was first interviewed for the Service, he was on the selection board. When I became a new entrant, he was a fifth-floor grandee whose espionage coups were held up to trainees as examples of what a resourceful field officer could achieve. Flitting elegantly in and out of Head Office from the Middle East, he would deliver a lecture, attend an operational conference and be gone.

I resigned from the Service in 1964 at the age of thirty-three, having made a negligible contribution. Elliott resigned in 1969, aged fifty-three, having been central to every major operation that the Service had undertaken since the outbreak of the Second World War. Intermittently, we kept in touch. He was frustrated by our former Service’s refusal to let him reveal secrets that in his opinion had long ago passed their keep-by date. He believed he had a right, indeed a duty, to give his story to posterity. Perhaps that’s where he thought I might come in - as some sort of go-between or cut-out who would help him get his unique exploits out into the open where they belonged.

So it happened that one evening in May 1986 in my house in Hampstead, twenty-three years after he had received Philby’s partial confession, he poured out his heart to me in what turned out to be the first in a succession of such meetings. While he talked I scribbled in a notebook. Looking over my notes some three decades later - handwritten, fading notepaper, a rusty staple at one corner - I am comforted that there is hardly a crossing out. At some point in our discussions I tried to enlist his collaboration in a two-handed play starring Kim and Nicholas, but the real Elliott would have none of it.

‘May we not ever again think about the play,’ he wrote to me in 1991. And today, thanks to Ben Macintyre, I’m thoroughly glad we didn’t, because what Elliott was telling me was not the story, but the cover story of his life. No amount of the caustic levity that was his stock-in-trade was going to take away the pain of knowing that the man to whom he had unreservedly entrusted his most intimate personal and professional secrets had, from the very first day of their long friendship, betrayed him to the Soviet enemy.

Elliott on Philby:

‘Terrific charmer, with an impulse to shock. I knew him terribly well, especially the family. I really cared for them. I never knew a fellow like him for getting pissed. I’d interrogate him, he’d drink Scotch the whole time, I’d literally have to load him into a cab to send him home. Give the driver five quid to cart him upstairs. Took him to a dinner party once. Charmed everyone, then suddenly he started talking about his hostess’s tits. Said she had the best breasts in the Service. Totally off-colour. I mean you don’t, at a dinner party, start talking about your hostess’s tits. But that’s how he was. Liked to shock. I knew the father too. I had him to dinner in Beirut the night he died. Fascinating chap. Talked endlessly about his relationship with Ibn Saud.* Eleanor, Philby’s third wife, adored him. The old boy managed to make a pass at someone’s wife, then left. A few hours later he’d died. Last words were “God I’m bored.”’

‘My interrogation of Philby lasted a long time. The one in Beirut was the end of a series. We had two sources. One was a pretty good defector. The other was this mother figure. The Office shrink had told me about her. He rang me up, the shrink. He’d been treating Aileen, Philby’s second wife, and he said, “She’s released me from my Hippocratic Oath. I’ve got to talk to you.” So I went and saw him and he told me Philby was homosexual. Never mind all his philandering, never mind that Aileen, whom I knew pretty well, said Philby liked his sex and was pretty good at it. He was homosexual, all part of a syndrome, and the psychiatrist, on no evidence he knew of, was also convinced he was bad. Working for the Russians. Or something. He couldn’t be precise but he was sure of it. He advised me to look for a mother figure. Somewhere there’ll be a mother figure, he said. It was this woman Solomon.* Jewish woman. She was working in Marks & Spencer’s, a buyer or something. They’d been communists together. She was angry with Philby over the Jewish thing. Philby had been working for Colonel Teague, who was Head of Station in Jerusalem, and Teague was anti-Jewish, and she was angry. So she told us some things about him. The old communist connection. Five [MI5] were running the case by then, and I passed it all on to Five - get the mother figure, Solomon. Wouldn’t listen of course, they’re too bureaucratic.’

‘People were so naughty about Philby. Sinclair and Menzies [former Chiefs of MI6] - well, they just wouldn’t listen to anything against him.’

‘So this cable came, saying they had the proof, and I cabled back to White [Sir Dick White, former Director General of MI5 now Chief of MI6] saying I must go and confront him. It had been an ongoing thing for so long, and I owed it to the family to get it out of him. Feel? Well, I don’t think I’m an emotional sort of chap, much, but I was fond of his women and children, and I always had the feeling that Philby himself would like to get the whole thing off his chest and settle down and follow cricket, which was what he loved. He knew cricket averages backwards and forwards. He could recite cricket till the cows came home. So Dick White said okay. Go. So I flew to Beirut and I saw him and I said to him, if you’re as intelligent as I think you are, and for the sake of your family, you’ll come clean, because the game is up. Anyway we could never have nailed him in court, he’d have denied it. Between you and me the deal was perfectly simple. He had to make a clean breast of it, which I thought he wanted to do anyway, which was where he fooled me, and he had to give us everything, but everything on damage. That was paramount. The damage limitation. After all, I mean one of the things the KGB would have been asking him was, who can we approach independently of you, who’s in the Service, who might work for us? He might have suggested people. We had to know all that. Then whatever else he’d given them. We were completely firm on that.’

My notes resort to straight dialogue:

Self: ‘So what were your sanctions if he didn’t cooperate?’

Elliott: ‘What’s that, old boy?’

‘Your sanctions, Nick, what you could threaten him with in the extreme case. Could you have him sandbagged, for instance, and flown to London?’

‘Nobody wanted him in London, old boy.’

‘Well, what about the ultimate sanction then - forgive me - could you have him killed, liquidated?’

‘My dear chap. One of us.’

‘So what could you do?’

‘I told him, the alternative was a total cut-off. There wouldn’t be an embassy, a consulate, a legation, in the whole of the Middle East that would have the first bloody thing to do with him. The business community wouldn’t touch him, his journalistic career would be dead in the water. He’d have been a leper. His whole life would have been over. It never even crossed my mind he’d go to Moscow. He’d done this one thing in the past, he wanted it out of the way, so he’d got to come clean. After that we’d forget it. What about his family and Eleanor?’

I mention the fate of one of Britain’s less socially favoured traitors who gave away far less than Philby but spent years in prison for it.

‘Ah well, Vassall* - well, he wasn’t top league, was he?’

Elliott resumes:

‘That was the first session and we agreed to meet again at four o’clock and at four o’clock he turned up with a confession, sheets of it, eight or nine closely typed pages of stuff, on the damage, on everything, masses of it. Then he says, you could do me a favour actually. Eleanor knows you’re in town. She doesn’t know anything about me. But if you don’t come round for a drink she’ll smell a rat. So I say all right, for Eleanor’s sake I’ll come round and have a drink with you. But first of all I’ve got to encode this stuff and cable it to Dick White, which I did. When I got to his place for a drink, he’d passed out. Pissed. Lying on the floor. Eleanor and I had to put him to bed. She took his head, I took his feet. He never said anything when he was pissed. Never spoke a loose word in his life, far as I know. So I told her. I said to her, “You know what this is about, don’t you?” She said, “No,” so I said, “He’s a bloody Russian spy.” He’d told me she hadn’t rumbled him, and he was right. So I went home to London and left him to Peter Lunn* to carry on the interrogation. Dick White had handled the case jolly well, but he hadn’t said a word to the Americans. So I had to dash over to Washington and tell them. Poor old Jim Angleton.* He’d made such a fuss of Philby when he was head of the Service’s station in Washington, and when Angleton found out - when I told him, that is - he sort of went all the other way. I had dinner with him just a few days ago.’

‘My theory is, you see, that one day the KGB will publish the rest of Philby’s autobiography. The first book sort of cut itself dead at 1947. My guess is, they’ve got another book in their locker. One of the things Philby has told them is to polish up their goons. Make ’em dress properly, smell less. Sophisticated. They’re a totally different-looking crowd these days. Smart as hell, smooth, first-class chaps. Philby’s work, that was, you bet your boots. No, we never thought of killing him. He fooled me though. I thought he wanted to stay where he was.’

‘You know, looking back though - don’t you agree? - at all the things we got up to - all right we had some belly-laughs - my God we had some belly-laughs - we were terribly amateurish, in a way. I mean those lines through the Caucasus, agents going in and out, it was so amateurish. Well, he betrayed Volkov, of course, and they killed him.* So when Philby wrote to me and invited me to go and meet him in Berlin or Helsinki, and not tell my wife Elizabeth or Dick White, I wrote back and told him to put some flowers on Volkov’s grave for me. I thought that was rather good.

‘I mean, who the hell did he think I was, not telling them? The first person I’d tell was Elizabeth, and immediately after that, I’d tell Dick White. I’d been out to dinner with Gehlen - did you know Gehlen?* - came back late at night, and there was this plain envelope on the doormat with “Nick” written on it. Dropped in by hand. “If you can come, send me a postcard with Nelson’s Column on it for Helsinki, Horse Guards for Berlin,” some damned thing. Who the hell did he think I was? The Albanian operation?* Well yes, he probably blew that too. I mean we had some fucking good assets in Russia too in the old days. Don’t know what happened to them either. Then he wants to meet me because he’s lonely. Well of course he’s lonely. He shouldn’t have gone. He fooled me. I’ve written about him. The Sherwood Press. The big publishers all wanted me to write about the interrogation, but I wouldn’t. It’s more for one’s climbing friends, a memoir.* You can’t write about the Office. Interrogation’s an art. You understand that. It went on over a long time. Where was I?’

Sometimes Elliott drifted off into reminiscences of other cases that he had been involved in. The most significant was that of Oleg Penkovsky, a GRU colonel who provided the West with vital Soviet defence secrets in the run-up to the Cuba missile crisis. Elliott was infuriated by a book concocted by the CIA as a piece of Cold War propaganda and published under the title The Penkovsky Papers.

‘Frightful book. Made out the fellow was some kind of saint or hero. He was nothing of the sort, he’d been passed over and he was pissed off. The Americans turned him down but Shergy* knew he was all right. Shergy had the nose. We couldn’t have been less similar but we got on marvellously. Les extrêmes se touchent. I was in charge of Ops, Shergy was my number two. Marvellous field man, very sensitive, almost never wrong. He’d been right about Philby too, from very early. Shergold looked Penkovsky over and thought yes, so we took him on. Very brave thing, in spying, to put your faith in someone. Any fool can go back to his desk and say, “I don’t altogether trust this chap. On the one hand, on the other hand.” It takes a lot of guts to take a flyer and say, “I believe in him.” That’s what Shergy did, and we went along with him. Women. Penkovsky had these whores in Paris, we laid them on, and he complained he couldn’t do anything with them: once a night and that was it. We had to send the Office doctor out to Paris to give him a shot in the bum so that he could get it up. You do get some belly-laughs, they were what one lived for sometimes. These marvellous belly-laughs. I mean how could you crack up Penkovsky to be a hero? Mind you, betrayal takes courage. You have to hand it to Philby too. He had courage. Shergy resigned once. He was frightfully temperamental. I came in, found his resignation on my desk. “In view of the fact that Dick White” - he put CSS [Chief of the Secret Service] of course - “has passed information to the Americans without my consent, and has therefore endangered my very sensitive source, I wish to resign as an example to other members of the Service” - something like that. White apologized and Shergy took back his resignation. I had to talk him round though. Wasn’t easy. Very temperamental chap. But a marvellous field man. And he got Penkovsky dead right. Artist.’

Elliott on Sir Claude Dansey, also known as Colonel Z, Deputy Chief of MI6 during the Second World War:

‘Utter shit. Stupid too. But tough and rude. Wrote these awful short minutes to people. Carried on feuds. I mean a real shit. I took over his networks when I became Head of Station in Bern after the war. Well he did have these high-level business sources. They were good. He had a knack of getting these businessmen to do things for him. He was good at that.’

On Sir George Young, Vice Chief to Sir Dick White during the Cold War:

‘Flawed. Brilliant, coarse, always had to be out on his own. He went to Hambro’s [Bank] after the Service. I asked them later: how did you make out with George? Were you up or down? They said they reckoned about even. He got them some of the Shah’s money, but he made perfectly awful balls-ups that cost them about as much as he got for them.’

On Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, historian and wartime member of SIS:

‘Brilliant scholar, all that, but wet and useless. Something perverse inside him. Laughed my head off when he took a dive on those Hitler diaries. The whole Service knew they were fake. But Hugh walked straight in. How couldHitler have written them? I wouldn’t have the chap near me in the war. When I was head man in Cyprus I told my sentry at the door that if a Captain Trevor-Roper showed up, he should shove his bayonet up his arse. He showed up, the sentry told him what I’d said. Hugh was puzzled. Belly-laughs. That’s what I liked about the Service. Marvellous belly-laughs.’

On providing a prostitute for a potential SIS asset from the Middle East:

‘St Ermin’s Hotel. She wouldn’t go. Too near the House of Commons. “My husband’s an MP.” She had to have Fourth of June off so that she could take her boy out from Eton. “Well, perhaps you’d rather we got someone else?” I said. Didn’t hesitate. “All I want to know is, how much?”’

On Graham Greene:

‘I met him in Sierra Leone in the war. Greene was waiting for me at the harbour. “Have you brought any French letters?” he yelled at me as I came within earshot. He had this fixation about eunuchs. He’d been reading the station codebook and found that the Service actually had a code group for eunuch. Must have been from the days when we were running eunuchs in the harems as agents. He was dying to make a signal with eunuch in it. Then one day he found a way. Head Office wanted him to attend a conference somewhere. Cape Town I think. He had some operation fixed or something. Not an operation, knowing him, he never mounted one. Anyway he signalled back “Like the eunuch I can’t come.”’

A wartime reminiscence of life in Turkey under diplomatic cover:

‘Dinner at the Ambassador’s. Middle of the war. Ambassadress lets out a yell because I’ve cut off the nose. “Nose of what?” “The cheese.” “The valet handed me the bloody cheese,” I tell her. “And you cut the nose off it,” she says. Hell did they get it from? Middle of the bloody war. Cheddar. And the chap who’d handed it to me was Cicero,* the fellow who sold all our secrets to the Abwehr. The D-Day landings. The lot. And the Huns didn’t believe him. Typical. No faith.’

I am describing to Elliott how, while I was in MI5, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana was published and the Service’s legal adviser wanted to prosecute him under the Official Secrets Act for revealing the relationship between a head of station and his head agent.

‘Yes, and he jolly nearly got done for it. Would have served him bloody right.’

And most memorable of all, perhaps, Elliott recalling a passage from his early soundings of Philby concerning his Cambridge days:

‘“They seem to think you’re a bit tarnished somehow,” I say.

‘“By?”

‘“Oh, you know, early passions, membership -”

‘“Of?”

‘“Jolly interesting group, actually, by the sounds of it. Exactly what university is for. Lefties all getting together. The Apostles,* wasn’t it?”’

In 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, I was visiting Moscow. At a reception given by the Union of Soviet Writers, a part-time journalist with KGB connections named Genrikh Borovik invited me to his house to meet an old friend and admirer of my work. His name, when I enquired, was Kim Philby. I now have it on pretty good authority that Philby knew he was dying and was hoping I would collaborate with him on his second volume of memoirs, the very book that Elliott was convinced he had up his sleeve. In the event, I declined to meet him. Elliott was pleased with me. At least I think he was. But perhaps he had secretly hoped, all the same, that I might bring him news of his old pal.

He had fed me a sanitized version of his last encounter with Kim Philby, and of his supposed suspicions about him in the years leading up to it. The truth, for which we must thank Ben Macintyre, is that ever since Philby had come under suspicion, Elliott had fought tooth and nail to protect his closest friend and colleague. Only when the case against Philby could no longer be denied did Elliott exert himself to obtain a confession - and a partial one at best - from his old pal. Whether by then he was under orders to give Philby the space to make good his escape to Moscow, we’ll probably never know for sure. Whether he was or not, he fooled me, just as he was fooling himself.