Burgess Tells His Story

by The New Republic | November 12, 1956

For five years the West has been baffled by the strange flight to Russia of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, two officials in the British Foreign Office. Both were in disgrace. Burgess had just been sent back from America after the British Embassy in Washington had been driven nearly mad by his drunken behavior and incompetence. Maclean, son of a puritanical Scotsman who was at one time a Minisiter in a Liberal Government, was under far graver suspicion. It was known tiiat somebody in the Foreign Office had been giving information to the Russians and MI 5--the British equivalent of the FBI--had narrowed the chase down to three men. Of these the most likely seemed to be Maclean, and two detectives were therefore shadowing him shortly before the escape took place.

All that was known until a short time ago was that one Friday night Maclean and Burgess left Maclean's house in Tatsfield, within a stone's throw of Winston Ghurchill's country retreat, and drove to Southampton. There they caught a boat for France, landed at St. Malo, and soon afterwards disappeared. Although it was assumed they were in Russia, this was confirmed only in February when the two gave a Press interview in a faded Edwardian hotel in Moscow. Even then the assembled pressmen were not told any details of the escape or what work the two were doing for the Russians. Now at last Burgess has given the facts to Mr. Tom Driberg, an English journalist and Vice Chairman of the Labour Party, and although Burgess is a congenital liar and braggart, and some of the detaiils may be wrong, there is no reason in this case to disbelieve the broad outline of his story. The mystery is a mystery no longer and indeed turns out to be one of the more splendid comedies of our muddled postwar world.

It all goes ba.ck to the day when Burgess sat talking to Maclean on a sofa in a corridor at the Foreign Office. They must have looked an unlikely pair. Although both have been called drunks and homosexuals, they had, in fact, very little in common. Burgess was a natural homosexual, and during the war made himself notorious by prowling hungrily through the posher London hotels in search of pick-ups. Maclean seems to have been a homosexual only at intervals; just as he was not a confirmed drunk but, driven on by his inner conflicts and sense of guilt, gave way to occasional reckless orgies and violence. Burgess was dirty, slovenly, vulgar and boastful--an avid scavenger and bore. Maclean was fastidious and while at the Foreign Office loolced the perfect English gentleman—black hat decorously tilted a little to the side, dispatch case in one hand, rolled umbrella twitching on the arm. Fundamentally, no two men could be less alike, and tiiey escaped together not because they were friends--they were not--but because they happened to be accidentally thrown together when Maclean was cornered and was desperately searching for an ally.

The ludicrous vanity of Burgess came out during this talk on the sofa. Although a minor official in the Foreign Office and a person of no importance, he had the impudence to submit a memorandum on the "dangers of the Far Eastern question," as he pompously puts it in the Driberg story. It is as if an obscure office boy in General Motors had sent in his views on labor relations to the chairman. Ludicrous as it seems to us, it was vintage Burgess. Later on he did exactly the same when he reached Moscow. He tells us that at the time of the doctors' plot he wrote "a sharp note" to Beria saying that the Jewish organization, "Joint"--the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee--was quite incapable of committing the crimes ascribed to them.

How easily we can imagine the scene--Burgess, intoxicated, no doubt, on good Caucasian wine, egged on by inordinate vanity, writing his foolish memorandum to the most savage man in Russia after Stalin. Fortunately for Burgess, the Russian he chose to deliver the note was so ternified that he never did so. If he had. Burgess would almost certainly not be alive today. Everything about Burgess fits into the same frivolous mosaic. He was not, so Driberg reports, a Communist when he fled to Russia with Maclean. True he joined the Party while he was at Cambridge; but the stern discipline and the puritanical attitude of the leadership was, I assume, hardly the kind of atmosphere that was likely to appeal to him. Burgess soon drifted away, but in order to make himself interesting at parties and to indulge his craving for melodrama and publicity, he continued to attack America and defend Russia whenever he was given the chance. He has not developed into a more serious person since he arrived in Moscow. Although he has been there for five years, he still has not troubled to learn the language and has to address his housekeeper in kitchen Russian. Maclean, on the other hand, speaks it fluently.

Perhaps the only puzzle that has not been explained is how the fastidious Maclean could have allowed himself to become involved with so squalid a character as Burgess. Desperation.? Nerves.' Relief at finding somebody who apparently shared his views.' Whatever the reason, Maclean decided he could trust Burgess. After their talk in the Foreign Office, they arranged to have lunch together, and as they were walking to the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall Maclean confessed that the police were after him. "I'm being followed by the dicks," he told Burgess.

The official view of this part of the story, was given in a British White Paper published last year. "It is now clear," the authorities said with enormous solemnity, that in spite of the precautions taken . . . Maclean must have become aware at some time before his disappearance that he was under investigation . . . he may have been earned." There was no need for anybody to warn him because the two detectives made themselves as conspicuous as the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The espionage business, alas, is not what it used to be in the grand old days of Hari. On one occasion. Burgess tells us, the two detectives were so clumsy that they allowed their car to bump into Maclean's taxi when he suddenly changed his mind and decided he wanted to call in at Chatham House. No wonder he soon discovered that he was being followed. To add to the comedy the "dicks" only shadowed him in London. Every time he went down to Tatsfield, the detectives would see him into his train and then toddle home for a pint of beer and a few hours at the telly, leaving Maclean free to escape or to slip still "more secrets to the Russians."

It was a situation that was made for Burgess. As Maclean talked he could see himself as a character in Eric Ambler, a kind of Russian Bulldog Drummond. It happened, too, that for once he was in a position to help. Maclean dare not book a passage to the continent for fear of being arrested, but there was no reason why Burgess, who was under no suspicion, should not get tickets for them both. He could do it all the more naturally because he had already arranged to go on a jaunt abroad with an American he had picked up on the journey back from Washington, All he had to do was to buy two tickets for a weekend cruise to St, Malo and the Channel Islands, giving his own name and the name of his American friend. Not that he had finally decided to throw in his lot with Maclean even at ihis late hour. Russia or France? Caviar or foie gras? No man ever went through such a fearful spiritual struggle as Burgess did just before he left for Tatsfield. In the end he packed two bags, one in case he should fly with Maclean and the other in case he should go to France. The first contained sensible utilitarian clothes; in tihe second there was a dinner jacket because "one needs a dinner jacket in Paris."

The American was told to stay by the telephone. If he did not hear from Burgess by 8:30, he would know that the jaunt was off. The scene at Tatsfield might have come from almost any Chekov play. It was Maclean's birthday and his wife, Melinda, had cooked a special ham for dinner. The three dawdled endlessly over their meal. Melinda was expecting a baby, and it might be supposed that her husband was now reluctant to leave her. According to Burgess no such thought even crossed Maclean's mind, though this was hardly a point that Burgess was likely to notice. The reason, he says,, why they lingered over dinner was merely because Maclean has no sense of time. In fact they stayed on at Tatsfield for so long that they only caught the boat with 10 minutes to spare.

The French and British established that they left the boat at St. Malo, and a taxi driver afterwards told the French police (who disbelieved him) that he had driven two Englishmen to Rennes. Tliere the trail utterly vanished, and it was widely assumed that the sinister and clever Russians had somehow spirited them away. Burgess and Maclean had been hidden in the Russian Embassy and then taken' by some devious route behind the iron curtain. Others argued that they had been sihot in some cellar and buried under the flagstones. The truth is much less exciting. The Russians had nothing to do with it, and the fugitives made their escape without any help. Rennes, they had found out on tibe boat, is an important junction for Paris, and as the local train had already gone, they had to take a taxi if they were to catch the Paris Express.

The immediate object was to get to Prague. A trade fair was in full swing there, and they hoped to pass themselves off as interested visitors even though the British might by this time be breathlessly on their heels. The British, of course, were concerned with more important matters. It was Saturday--day of rest and quiet leisurely hours on the golf course. Bent anxiously over their putters, no one in the Foreign Office gave a thought to Donald Maclean. Petrov says that the fugitives i3ew from Paris to Prague. According to Burgess, they took the midnight train and in due course arrived in Zurich. Here they had their first setback. Maclean had assumed there was a daily air service to Prague, but in fact he discovered that there were no planes on Mondays. The two spent an agonizing 24 hours. Burgess went off to see a motor rally, and Maclean lay on his bed at the hotel reading Jane Austen--surely one of the more subtle touches in this comedy.

Arrived in Prague, the exquisite Maclean and the grubby Burgess presented themselves at the Soviet Embassy and went through their first mortifying experience of Russian bureaucracy. Instead of being joyfully received--instead of invigorating champagne and the long-desired caviar--the officials listened to their story without twitching a muscle. They would have to see; the matter must be referred to Moscow. Indeed, far from accepting the escape as a wonderful chance to humiliate the West, it is quite dear that the Russians were just as embarrassed ais the British. As soon as the fugitives arrived in Moscow, they were promptly banished for six months to a provincial town which reminded Burgess of all the hideous monstrosities of Glasgow. It was not, one ga&ers, what Burgess had expected. Although the wine was plentiful and he was housed in a beautiful flat, he must sometimes have reflected that he could hardly have done worse had he stayed in the decadent West.

While he and Maclean read Jane Austen, the Press of the world were concocting one absurdity after another. Burgess and Maclean were supposed to be behind every Russian move--they were eternally at IQirushchev's elbow, whispering devilish words of warning or advice to him.

Even so the story would probably have died from lack of nourishment had not Melinda suddenly astonished everybody afresh by skipping out of Switzerland and disappearing behind the Iron Curtain. Late as always, the popular Press came pounding after her long after she had escaped.

There is nothing in Driberg's book about Melinda's flight. We must therefore do our own sleuthing, once more covering the old ground inch by inch and picking up the clues as we go. It is a strange story and no one has yet got it quite right. When Melinda ifled from Switzerland, the Press assumed she had always been a secret Communist and had aided and abetted her husband's escape. Nothing is more untrue. Melinda is a very simple American, and had she not met Maclean she would probably have voted Republican in any American election. There is no doubt that she was often unhappy with her husband. When Maclean got drunk at parties, he would advance with itching fingers and threaten to throttle her. She had to deal with his drunkenness to say nothing of his homosexual affairs. All the same there remained something between them or else she would not at last have decided to go to Russia.

There were also private and human reasons. She had her children, it might be difficult to get a divorce--what was she to do.'' She was living with her mother and the two were not on particularly good terms. To add to her distress, Maclean had managed to get in touch with her and almost daily sent messages, imploring her to follow him. While two detectives hourly kept watch outside her flat, she continued to debate with herself whether she should stay or whether she should go.

When she finally contacted the Russian Embassy, she was told to meet an agent at a certain place and at a certain time. It is all Eric Ambler again, except that this part of the story is the purest comedy. The Russians proved themselves even more incompetent than MI5, and time and again the escape had to be postponed because of their bungling. For instance, Melinda would

be told that the password, let us say, was "Overcoats are green this year." When, however, she met the Soviet agent, he would baffle her by getting the words wrong. "Overcoats are blue this year," he would tell her in a conspiratorial hiss. Melinda did not know what to make of it. Was the Russian a counter agent in disguise, perhaps? Was MI5 on to her at last? Indeed there were so many false starts, so many delays and misunderstandings that one is surprised she ever managed to get away at all.

Burgess and Maclean are now safely in Moscow. Both have flats in the city and a country place outside, and both have jobs in publishing. Burgess, of course, tries to pretend that the authorities consult him on various matters, but one suspects this is just part of his eternal day-dream. The future must often seem oppressively bleak. . , '

Now that Burgess has told his story, he has lost all further chance for mischief and must return to the obscurity from which he should never have emerged. As for Maclean, he may have learnt by this time to mouth the official platitudes, but it will not be easy for a man of his training and character to stifle all doubt. Ultimately he may find that he has not solved his Jekyll and Hyde problem by flying to Moscow.

By Hugh Massingham

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