Guy Burgess and Bosie Douglas

I am reading Andrew Lownie’s fascinating new biography of Guy Burgess, member of the Soviet spy circle, the Cambridge Five. Lownie’s book contains something very curious. (I am reading a Kindle edition, so can only give chapter references.)

In Chapter 20, Relationships, we read in paragraph 1:

“In June 1945 [Peter] Pollock returned to Britain.”

Pollock had been away several years, fighting with the British Army in North Africa and in Italy, and having been captured and held as a POW in Italy. In Paragraph 4, we read:

“That summer Pollock and Burgess had seen much of Brian Howard and his boyfriend, Sam, staying with the couple at their home in Tickerage, East Sussex. On one occasion, they had visited the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas in Brighton, as Burgess wanted to show off Pollock and prove he was even more attractive than the famously attractive Douglas in his youth.[Footnote 5]”

The source (footnote 5) is given as: “Pollock taped interview, by kind permission of Miranda Carter.” Pollock died in Tangier on 28 July 2001.

But, according to Wikipedia, Bosie Douglas died on 20 March 1945, so Pollock and Burgess could not have visited him in 1945. Was Pollock mis-remembering the year they met, or deliberately lying about meeting Douglas? In either case, the date of Douglas’s death is surely something Lownie could have checked, rather than repeating Pollock’s statement without critical commentary.

Although the content of the book is superb, the book shows the weaknesses of a text written over a long period (30 years), together with some fairly mediocre editing. On several occasions, the author mentions something without explaining it, forgetting that what he knows is different to what the reader knows. Sometimes explanations are given at the second or later mention, instead of at the first. When Lownie mentions “Johnny Philipps, a rich gay bachelor who lived in Albany”, for example, he does not explain what or where is Albany. Only in a later chapter when talking of someone else do we learn that the Albany was “a fashionable set of apartments off Piccadilly.” Likewise, the Venona transcripts are mentioned in Chapter 26, but only explained in Chapter 28. At one point, we learn that Burgess earnt some GBP 800 pa from a Canadian Trust Fund. Nothing is said about this fund, nor how Burgess came to be a trustee of it, although there is an earlier mention of a trip he took in 1930 with his mother and brother to visit Canada, before going up to Cambridge. In Chapter 40, in another example, there is a throwaway reference to a party given by “the Burchetts”. Australians of a certain age would catch the reference to communist journalist Wilfred Burchett, who lived in Moscow in the 1950s, but who else would?

Another instance of poor editing is the description of Novodevichy Cemetery in Chapter 37. Burgess moved to a flat near the cemetery in 1956. Lownie describes the cemetery thus: “where amongst others were the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Khrushchev, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stalin’s wife . . . “. But, Khrushchev only died in 1971, and Shostakovich in 1975, both well after 1956; indeed, well after 1963, when Burgess died. I imagine that such poor editing must be an embarrassment to an author whose day job is acting as a literary agent for other authors.

And perhaps taking so long to write a non-fiction book means not enough advantage has been taken of the Web. For instance, is the young German actor named George Mikell mentioned in Chapter 26 the same person as the Lithuanian-Australian actor named George Mikell who has a website? Is the drifter of no fixed abode named James Turck mentioned in Chapter 29 the same James Turck (1924-2011) who acquired an MBA from Columbia and a seat on the American Stock Exchange? I find myself Googling every name mentioned, so I am surprised the author has not done so too.

Overall, the book is fascinating and riveting despite the sloppy writing and apparent lack of editing. Lownie makes a convincing case for the importance of Burgess as a Soviet agent, detailing the documents he was able to provide to his handlers at each stage of his career. Whether Burgess was MORE important than his fellow spies could not be assessed from a life of just one of them. My one major disappointment from the book was the absence of any discussion of the theory that one or more of the Cambridge Five were known to Britain’s senior spy-masters, long before their departures East, to be Soviet agents and were allowed to remain in place. If you want to deceive your enemy you need to communicate through channels your enemy will likely believe, and that may mean using their own loyal agents (or people they believe to be their loyal agents). Such channels are even more necessary if you mostly communicate to deceive but occasionally want, or may need, to send truthful messages.

Indeed, this hall of mirrors might even have further mirrors, if one or more of Burgess, Maclean, or Philby were themselves witting in this deception, and sacrificed their public reputations, their pensions, and their quiet English country-side retirements to serve the land of their birth even beyond their defection. To my mind, such knowing and self-sacrificing deception by these upper-class Englishmen, educated at the best schools and habitués of London clubs, is immensely more plausible than any other explanation I have seen for their treason. Does MI6 hold secret medals for them all in a hidden safe in its Ziggurat-on-Thames?


Andrew Lownie [2015]: Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.

Russell’s Spelling Test

Bertrand Russell once proposed the following sentence as a test of spelling:

“I prophesy the unparalleled embarrassment of a battalion of harassed postillions gauging the symmetry of a potato peeled by a lovable but grisly sibyl.”

This was on 21 December 1955, so well before Dan Quayle.

Source: Rupert Crawshay-Williams [1970]: Russell Remembered. OUP: London, UK, page 114.

Musical Instrument Museums

For reasons of record, here is a list of musical instrument museums, ordered by their location:

  • Athens, Greece: Museum of Popular Musical Instruments
  • Berlin, Germany: Musikinstrumenten Museum
  • Brussels, Belgium: Musical Instrument Museum
  • Monte Estoril, Portugal: Museum of Portuguese Music, Casa Verdades de Faria
  • New York, NY, USA: Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Phoenix, AZ, USA: Musical Instrument Museum
  • Rome, Italy: Museo di Strumenti Musicali dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
  • Vermillion, SD, USA: National Music Museum, University of South Dakota
  • Vienna, Austria: Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, Kunsthistorisches Museum

A number of people

Despite some ridiculous practices at the BBC, the grammar of English allows for apparent subject-verb disagreement on occasion: A number of people are unhappy, for example, is grammatically correct. Geoffrey Pullum has an explanation here.

Some of the people, all of the time

Writer Colm Toibin has an article in praise of Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors, here.

Did Toibin not notice the words of the text as he read it? That novel is appallingly badly written. James’ long, rambling, discursive sentences reflect not subtlety and nuance, but long, rambling, muddled thought. The prose is often hard to comprehend, due to this muddle. An irritating widespread quirk of his style are sentences containing multiple pronouns, each pointing to different people – or perhaps to the same people. There is no consistency. Sometimes a pronoun in one sentence refers to the subject of the previous sentence, and sometimes to the object. Sometimes, indeed, one pronoun in a sentence may refer to the subject in an earlier sentence, while another pronoun refers to the object in another sentence. I lost count of the number of times I encountered this deictic ambiguity: eventually I concluded that either James was deliberately aiming to make it impossible for the reader to parse his text, or else it was he himself who was muddled, following no consistent rule in his pronoun assignments; in either case, I should feel no shame at abandoning such poor prose. James is justly neglected, and long may he remain so.

Why read?

Why do we read? Many people seem to assume that the only reason for reading is to obtain information about the world. With this view, reading fiction is perhaps hard to justify. But if one only reads to learn new facts, then one’s life is impoverished and Gradgrindian. Indeed, this reason strikes me as like learning to play the trumpet in order to have a means to practice circular breathing.

In fact, we read for many other reasons than just this one. One could say we primarily read novels for the pleasure that reading them provides:

  • the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of Hardy, Joyce or Faulkner, for instance)
  • the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Burney, Doris Lessing, Perec, Brautigan)
  • the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective or espionage novel)
  • the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction)
  • the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers, horror stories)
  • or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Calvino, Fowles, Murnane, Pynchon).

These various pleasures are very distinct, and are orthogonal to the desire to gain information about the world. And some of these pleasures may also be gained from reading non-fiction, for example the finely-honed journalism of AJ Liebling or Christopher Hitchens, or the writing of Oliver Sacks, who passed on today.

Brisbane life


Old Museum Concert Hall

Vienna life


Oh cry, the beloved country

The truly criminal destruction by the Troika of the Greek economy and Greek society that we have witnessed these last five years may have one good outcome: it may bring down at least one of the organizations responsible, according to this scathing indictment by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the London Telegraph today. An excerpt:

The International Monetary Fund is in very serious trouble. Events have reached a point in Greece where the Fund’s own credibility and long-term survival are at stake.

The Greeks are not withholding a €300m payment to the IMF because they have run out of money, though they soon will do.

Five key players in the radical-Left Syriza movement – meeting in the Maximus Mansion in Athens yesterday – took an ice-cold, calculated, and carefully-considered decision not to pay.
They knew exactly what they were doing. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde was caught badly off guard. Staff officials in Washington were stunned.

On one level, the “bundling” of €1.6bn of payments due to the IMF in June is just a technical shuffle, albeit invoking a procedure last used by Zambia for different reasons in the 1980s. In reality it is a warning shot, and a dangerous escalation for all parties.

Syriza’s leaders are letting it be known that they are so angry, and so driven by a sense of injustice, that they may indeed default to the IMF on June 30 and in so doing place the institution in the invidious position of explaining to its 188 member countries why it has lost their money so carelessly, and why it has made such a colossal hash of its affairs.

The Greeks accuse the IMF of colluding in an EMU-imposed austerity regime that breaches the Fund’s own rules and is in open contradiction with five years of analysis by its own excellent research department and chief economist, Olivier Blanchard.

Greece’s public debt is 180pc of GDP. The loans are in a currency that the country does not control. It is therefore foreign currency debt. The IMF knows that Greece cannot possibly pay this down by draconian austerity – the policy already implemented for five years with such self-defeating effects – and the longer it pretends otherwise, the more its authority drains away.

It is has pushed for debt relief behind closed doors but only half-heartedly, unwilling to confront the EMU creditor powers head on. Objectively, it is acting as an imperialist lackey – as Greek Marxists might say.

Indeed, it has brought about the worst possible outcome. The Fund’s man on the ground in Athens – Poul Thomsen – has pushed the austerity agenda with a curious passion that shocks even officials in the European Commission, pussy cats by comparison.

This would be justifiable (sort of) if the other side of the usual IMF bargain were available: debt relief and devaluation. This how IMF programmes normally work: impose tough reforms but also wipe the slate clean on debt and restore crippled countries to external viability.

It is a very successful formula. On the rare occasion when the IMF goes wrong it is usually because it tries to prop up a fixed-exchange rate long past its sell-by date.

All of this went out of the window in Greece. The IMF enforced brute liquidation without compensating stimulus or relief. It claimed that its policies would lead to a 2.6pc contraction of GDP in 2010 followed by brisk recovery.

What in fact happened was six years of depression, a deflationary spiral, a 26pc fall in GDP, 60pc youth unemployment, mass exodus of the young and the brightest, chronic hysteresis that will blight Greece’s prospects for a decade to come, and to cap it all the debt ratio exploded because of the mathematical – and predictable – denominator effect of shrinking nominal GDP.

It is a public policy scandal of the first order. One part of the IMF has issued a mea culpa admitting that its own analysts misjudged the fiscal multiplier badly. Plaudits to them.

Another part of the Fund continues to push new variants of the same indefensible policies, demanding a combined fiscal squeeze from pension cuts and VAT rises equal to 1pc of GDP this year and 2pc next year even as the economy lurches back into recession.

Ashoka Mody, former chief of the IMF’s bail-out in Ireland, refuses to criticise his former colleagues on the European desk, but the meaning of the words I quoted last night are clear enough.
“Everything that we have learned over the last five years is that it is stunningly bad economics to enforce austerity on a country when it is in a deflationary cycle. Trauma patients have to heal their wounds before they can train for the 10K.”

“I am frankly shocked that we are even having a discussion about raising VAT at all in these circumstances. We have just seen a premature rise in VAT knock the wind out of a country as strong as Japan.”

“Syriza should recruit the IMF’s research department to be their spokesman because they are saying almost exactly the same thing as Syriza on the economics of this. The entire strategy of the creditors is wrong and the longer this goes on, the more is its going to cost them.”

The IMF’s Original Sin in Greece was to allow the urbane Parisian Dominique Strauss-Kahn to hijack the institution to prop up Europe’s monetary union and the European banking system when the crisis erupted in 2010.

The Fund’s mission is to save countries, not currencies or banks, and it certainly should not be doing dirty work for a rich currency union that is fully capable of sorting out its own affairs, but refuses to do so for political reasons.

It was of course a difficult moment in May 2010. The eurozone was spinning out of control. There were no backstop defences – due to the criminal negligence of Europe’s leaders and banking regulators – and fears of a euro-Lehman were all too real.

Yet leaked minutes from the IMF board meetings showed that all the emerging market members (and Switzerland) opposed the terms of the first loan package for Greece. They protested that it was intended to save the euro, not Greece.

It loaded yet more debt onto the crushed shoulders of an already bankrupt country, and further complicated the picture by allowing one large French bank and one German bank – no names please – to offload much of their €25bn combined exposure onto EMU taxpayers.

“Debt restructuring should have been on the table,” said Brazil’s member. The loans “may be seen not as a rescue of Greece, which will have to undergo a wrenching adjustment, but as a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions”.

Arvind Virmani, India’s member, was prophetic. “The scale of the fiscal reduction without any monetary policy offset is unprecedented. It is a mammoth burden that the economy could hardly bear,” he said.

“Even if, arguably, the programme is successfully implemented, it could trigger a deflationary spiral of falling prices, falling employment and falling fiscal revenues that could eventually undermine the programme itself.” This is exactly what has happened.

The Fund might have atoned later by acknowledging its special duty of care towards Greece and softening the terms. It did not do so. We should hardly be surprised if Syriza is now on the warpath.
The IMF needs to be careful. It has itself become an emblem of bad governance. Mr Strauss-Kahn was caught in flagrante delicto, only to be replaced instantly in a political stitch-up by another French finance minister (of quality and integrity – but that is not the point). Mr Strauss-Kahn’s predecessor was recently indicted in Spain for fraud.

The institution cries out for reform. There is no justifiable reason why the job of managing-director should go by divine right to a European, nor why the Europeans still control eight seats on the IMF board.

. . .

These anomalies should have been sorted out at the time of the Strauss-Kahn debacle – along with quota reform blocked by the US Congress – all the more so since China and a host of rising reserve powers were already bursting onto the scene by then.

Leadership failed. The West disgraced itself. No wonder Asia is now going its own way with a rival set of bodies.

Greece’s firebrand government is bringing matters to a head for an institution already in trouble, but one with a superb staff and still worth saving.

Mrs Lagarde must stop playing the role of a diplomat. She must take off her European hat and speak instead for the organisation she leads and for the world.

She must confront the EMU creditors head on and in public. She must tell them, in blunt language, that they share much of the blame for the current impasse.

She must make it clear to them that Greece needs sweeping debt relief – as a matter of economic science, whatever the morality – and that the refusal of the creditors to face up to this elemental fact is now the chief impediment to a solution. And she should tell them that the IMF will no longer play any part in their deceitful charade.

If she does not do so, and if the lack of leadership by Europe’s political class leads to a catastrophic denouement on every level, then let it be on her head too.

Paris life – brunch

Les Frangines Montparnasse Paris

Cafe Les Frangines, 46 Rue Raymond Losserand, Montparnasse 75014 Paris, France. Soundtrack: Dixieland and klezmer – trumpet, clarinet, trombone, piano, accordian, double bass.