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The Cambridge Spies: Why Do We Still Find Them So Fascinating?

08/05/2015 13:07 BST | Updated 08/05/2016 10:59 BST

An interview with Peter Murphy, author of a new novel about the Cambridge Spies, And is there Honey Still for Tea? (No Exit Press, publication on 23 April) who says that the public continues to be fascinated by the Spies, even 50 years or more on.

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What inspired you to write about the Cambridge Spies?

The story of the Cambridge Spies is an enduring part of our national psyche. I find it an endlessly fascinating subject, and I have long wanted to write about it. It has everything a writer could want: espionage; a real, if warped idealism; treachery at the very heart of the Establishment; desperate dashes for freedom; and some truly amazing, larger-than-life characters. It is one of those subjects which a writer can approach from so many different vantage points, either as fiction or non-fiction. I chose the vehicle of a historical novel as an immediate way to tell the story.

Why do you think the Cambridge Spies have become so strongly embedded in our national consciousness?

Quite why public interest remains so strong after half a century or more is not an easy question to answer. Part of the answer may simply be that everyone loves a good spy story. But I think there is a deeper reason. Very few events have shaken British self-confidence to the core as did the series of revelations that a number of trusted officials in the highest echelons of the Foreign Office and the Security Services betrayed their country at critical moments during the Cold War. In so doing, they not only endangered our national security, but also diminished the confidence of our allies, particularly the United States, in our ability to safeguard important secrets. The suspicion that we cannot always trust those who are supposed to guard us has never entirely subsided.

Part of the fascination, undoubtedly, is with the social background of the Spies. It now seems clear that there was a first-rate Soviet talent spotter at Cambridge University during the 1930s. Many observers credit Anthony Blunt with performing that role, and there is no doubt that he was involved, even if he did not work alone. Blunt was a fellow of Trinity College, later Director of the Cortauld Institute, a distinguished Professor at Oxford, and Surveyor of the King's, and later, the Queen's pictures. Among his likely recruits were Guy Burgess, later to serve in MI6 and with the BBC; Donald Maclean, later to enjoy a distinguished career in the Foreign Office; and H.A.R. 'Kim' Philby, destined to rise almost to the top of MI6. All three eventually defected to Moscow. No one knows for sure whether Blunt was the recruiter, or the only recruiter, or how many men he recruited. But that this was going on at such a quintessentially British institution as a Cambridge college has captured the public imagination. The treachery really did take place at the heart of the Establishment.

When you studied at Cambridge, was the Spies scandal fresh in the communal memory - if so, what was it like?

It was indeed. I went up to Downing College in 1963, by which time Burgess and Maclean were rather old news. They had defected in 1951 and gave a press conference in Moscow in 1956. But 1963, the year in which Kim Philby disappeared, brought the story of the Cambridge connection back to life with a vengeance. There were persistent rumours in the press about a 'fourth man', the suspects including Anthony Blunt and others, and there was a consciousness of the University being associated with a seemingly endless espionage conspiracy. There had been other, more recent espionage scandals since Burgess and Maclean - Gordon Lonsdale in 1961, George Blake and John Vassall in 1962, and, of course, the Profumo affair in which a Minister resigned after it emerged that he had shared the favours of a call-girl with a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy. All of these cases helped to keep the story alive. I think we all had a vague sense of guilt by association!

Which books would you recommend to people interested in learning more about the Cambridge Spies?

There are quite a number available, but I would recommend four which are very informative, both about the Spies themselves and the times in which they lived. I found all of these very useful when researching my novel.

Kim Philby's own memoir, My Silent War, the Autobiography of a Spy, Random House, (New York, 1968) is almost required reading: a compelling, yet breathtakingly arrogant and self-serving account of his career, but one which provides a great deal of fascinating detail.

Miranda Carter, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, Macmillan (London, 2001): a definitive and brilliant biography, offering sharp insight into the mind of Blunt, as a man and a spy.

John Fisher, Burgess and Maclean: A New Look at the Foreign Office Spies,

Robert Hale Limited (London, 1977): a very thorough factual account which offers a comprehensive history and is, therefore, invaluable for background, but which, to my mind, does not quite get inside the minds of the two spies as well as Miranda Carter does in the case of Blunt.

Ben Macintyre, A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal,

Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (London, 2014): a recent reflection on Philby, giving newly available information about Philby's interrogation by Nicholas Elliott in Beirut, and Philby's disappearance - a very interesting and worthwhile read.

Why do people become spies - money, conviction or something else?

I think this is a very complex question. There are those who do it because of blackmail or threats, in which case self-preservation is the only motive. No doubt there are some mercenaries, who do it for money. But in general I think that espionage can be attributed to a wide range of different motives, and often to mixed motives. That is certainly true of the Cambridge Spies. It is impossible to understand the Spies without understanding the time in which they lived. It was a time of immense turmoil. They went up to Cambridge when the economy and the British way of life were under threat from the damage caused by the Great Depression and the massive national debt left over from the Great War. The working families of the country were living in conditions of abject poverty. Yet the Labour Party seemed unable or unwilling to come to their aid, despite the hunger marches and the General Strike. Fascism was on the rise in Europe, and our Government seemed unable or unwilling to oppose it. When the Civil War broke out in Spain in 1936, many British men flocked to join the Republican forces, only to suffer defeat. Only the Soviet Union, it seemed, offered some kind of resistance, and when the Second World War came, the Soviet Union eventually became our ally. Many of those who admired the Revolution, despite the atrocities under Stalin, were caught unawares by the sudden change in relations caused by the onset of the Cold War. Many must have continued to see Russia as a friend to ordinary people. Many were idealists who genuinely believed that human progress would advance best under socialism. It is hard to see that the Cambridge Spies derived any material benefit for themselves by spying, and they were certainly not doing it in the hope of monetary reward. Their motives, while complex, were more idealistic than materialistic.

What qualities make a good spy?

Another very complex question. Apart from the necessary commitment to a cause, I would have to say the most important quality is the ability to lead at least two lives at once, and to maintain a complex cover over a long period of time. I can only imagine what strain that must cause, and I infer from this that a spy needs a good deal of self-confidence, sound nerves, and a huge talent for deception. Like any other profession, some are better at it than others.

What fiction best captures the mind of the spy?

I have tried my best to capture it in Honey. My readers will have to decide to what extent I have succeeded! But obviously, I have to acknowledge John Le Carré as the pre-eminent master in the field. He has been a major influence on my work. Most people are familiar with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but for those interested in the psyche of the spy, it has to be A Perfect Spy - in my opinion, clearly Le Carré's masterpiece.

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Peter Murphy graduated from Cambridge University, and has spent a career in the law, as a teacher, advocate, and judge. He has published five novels: two political thrillers about the American Presidency, Removal and Test of Resolve; and three legal thrillers in the Ben Schroeder series, set in 1960's London: A Higher Duty, A Matter for the Jury, and his latest, And is there Honey Still for Tea? - a novel about the Cambridge Spies.