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Where the Soviet double-agent Kim Philby was a traitor to Britain he was at once a stranger to his oldest friend and colleague Tim Milne. Indeed, the scandal’s familiar characteristics are unchanged when surprised in this private setting; the superstar defector appears as his usual slimy self and Milne shows the same dopey incuriosity towards him as the British state had done. The pair’s thirty-eight year friendship had begun at Westminster school in 1925, it was renewed when Philby recruited Milne to MI6 in 1941, and it would end with Philby’s flight to Moscow in 1963. At first we may regard Milne as being something mildly inferior to a cuckold, but on reflection losing a close friend to the Soviets makes cuckoldry seem almost gentle. Men are, after all, supposed to be on the same side. Philby and Milne had drunk together for decades and yet Philby had never once spilled his secret.

Milne’s memoir of this friendship was finally published in February, following his death in 2010, but it was unfortunate in coinciding with the release of a flashy new biography of Philby by Ben Macintyre. Philby’s story may be “unknown,” as the wording of this memoir’s subtitle contends, but history is still clogged up with books about it. Readers who want to delve into the story anew are more likely to join forces with the latest historian than to settle for the company of the spy’s dead crony and a book written in 1979. This is the great theme of Milne’s life: being overshadowed. Philby and Milne emerge from the memoir looking like an MI6 rendition of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, with the first aloofly brilliant and the second decent and a bit dim. The analogy never exhausts itself, despite the comical strain which it comes under. At the end of the memoir, Philby is still Holmes and his sidekick is still loyal, even though he cannot quite grasp why the detective has run off with all the silver.

You would scarcely think that you were handling a book which had been effectively censored by the British state for over thirty years. In 1979 MI6 would refuse Milne permission to publish his memoir and Milne, who was using the Official Secrets Act to shelter from press speculation about his role in the Philby scandal, was in no position to challenge their verdict. The injustice of this is not only that Philby’s own autobiography had been available in Britain as early as 1968, but that elements of Milne’s story had been fictionalised in John le Carré’s bestselling 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (and would be subsequently retold in TV and film adaptations).

Philby and Milne’s friendship is conceivably the basis for Le Carré’s “famous Haydon-Prideaux partnership”: both Tim and Jim were educated with the mole, the former at school and the latter at university; both were personally recruited to the secret service by the mole; and both were happy to scrape second fiddle to an espionage virtuoso. Yet these friendships unravelled in dramatically different ways: Milne would maintain a shamefaced, noncommittal loyalty to the man who had deceived him, whilst Prideaux ends up wringing the exposed mole’s neck with his bare hands.

Lolloping along with his sore back, Prideaux reflects something of Shakespeare’s Caliban when in rebellion against the genius of Prospero. It might appear that Le Carré is offering Prideaux as an example or even as a rebuke to one such as Milne, but there are significant differences between the two sidekicks. Prideaux and Bill Haydon were lovers, and the violence of Prideaux’s retribution stems from his realisation that Haydon had sacrificed him out of a greater love for the Soviet system. Milne makes it plain that in his dealings with Philby, “Neither of us was homosexual,” which possibly bespeaks a degree of irritation with what must have seemed like a libel upon his character. Milne only ever alludes to Le Carré in his crisp judgement on “shadowy” espionage fiction that, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a man who never was.”

Whereas the literary critic Tony Barley has cautioned that Haydon is “in many ways a composite creation” and “not Philby’s duplicate,” characters such as the avenging Prideaux and the hero George Smiley arrive bearing openly fictional credentials and they pacify an obvious distress. Le Carré may peer down Smiley’s nose at James Bond whilst Haydon wallows in Bond’s effortless womanising, but Smiley and Bond nonetheless personify the same fantasy of restored imperial certainties. If Bond was always too conspicuous to be feasibly a spy, Smiley is a version of Bond who has infiltrated a world such as ours in superb disguise. Contrary to this desperate conservatism, Haydon’s ringing line “Control’s going potty” was, within Milne’s world, a historical inevitability. His memoir is basically Tinker Tailor without a George Smiley.

We had earlier likened Philby to Sherlock Holmes and our metaphors may be getting mixed. The literary critic John L Cobbs has argued that Smiley and not Haydon is deliberately modelled on Holmes (both Smiley and Holmes “[come] back at least three times from retirement”). In the story of Kim Philby, several unlikely literary characters and figures seem to meet on the same ground. Philby was nicknamed Kim after Rudyard Kipling’s young hero; he would work alongside the novelist Graham Greene during wartime, and betray Le Carré’s identity to the Soviets during the Cold War. Meanwhile, Milne was the nephew of A.A., the chronicler of the Hundred Acre Wood, and his pleasantly dopey memoir could be at times almost narrated by Winnie the Pooh.

Milne’s memoir is bathed in the loveliness of Pooh Corner, the sense of a sunshine stroll down memory lane. He is happier describing the antics of his section’s office dog, or the departmental habit of taking secret documents to the pub, than he is the execution of his agents in the field. But if innocence is, as Greene famously warned, “a kind of insanity,” then Greene’s own attitude to Philby may not make the best case for the alternative. Greene visited Philby in Moscow in 1986, having previously donated a foreword to the defector’s autobiography which asked, “who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?” A.N. Wilson consequently fumed in the Daily Mail that, “Having a holiday with Philby is morally on par with having a holiday with Dr. Goebbels while this country was at war with Nazi Germany.”

Pooh explains that he has “tried to avoid either condemning or condoning what Kim did,” but one cannot imagine his memoir summoning the energy to condemn anything. Even the dropping of the atomic bomb passes without comment. Is he still off on a holiday of his own with Philby? On the scales of judgement, Milne’s innocence has to be set against an incuriosity towards Philby’s motives which often seems flatly implausible. It apparently never occurred to Milne that this student Marxist with a Communist wife and “little affection for England or its countryside, cities, institutions and traditions” might be a Soviet collaborator. If Milne’s memoir was a novel and Milne a fictional character, we would have rumbled him as an unreliable narrator, and probably a double-agent himself, from the get-go. But perhaps this only advertises how difficult it is to think back a couple of generations. In an age when many people publish every passing thought on the internet, it is scarcely conceivable that men working in the same office would think it impertinent to discuss each other’s personal views.

Philby seems to have recruited Milne because he didn’t ask questions. The pair was not on first-name terms for the first nine years of their friendship (and even afterwards, Tim and Kim were not their actual names); whilst Milne confesses that, “whatever role Kim and I played in each other’s lives, it was never that of confidant about personal matters.” They boarded together, sharing the toothpaste, but it still took Milne years to clock that Philby had not divorced his first wife and married her replacement. Incidentally, the most successful relationship within Tinker Tailor remains awesomely impersonal. Peter Guillam, Smiley’s own henchman, studiously obeys his orders, knowing Smiley “as a shy man… and one who expected very little communication.” Circumnavigating Prideaux’s innocence and Haydon’s cynicism, Smiley redeems the British system and potentially spares Guillam the disillusionment which had befallen these two predecessors.

Milne’s innocence is often of the schoolboy sort and a note of schoolboy worship is still audible in his memoir long after Philby has fled to Moscow. Milne relates that the schoolboy Philby, “had something untouchable about him, a kind of inner strength and self-reliance that made others respect him.” When Philby is transferred to another department, Milne reacts to “the end of three years’ working together” with “sharp disappointment,” pining like a schoolboy whose best friend has been put into another class.

Satire to the bone, Tinker Tailor illustrates how some preservative atmosphere within MI6 kept the schoolboy mentality fresh. Milne’s doppelganger Prideaux literally goes back to school, in being resurrected at the boys’ school Thursgood’s and imparting (albeit whilst teaching French) the patriotic values which had led to his own humiliation in the adult world. Man hands on misery to man, and Prideaux duly acquires a disciple named Bill, who shows the same devotion to him that he had once felt for Bill Haydon.

John L Cobbs observes that Prideaux “ironically… finds in the British public school a microcosm of the system he flees… the “men” of the Circus are in many respects the Lost Boys of Peter Pan who never grew up.” The novel is unpacked like a toy chest and we are regaled with the schoolyard counting game which Control uses to label his suspects; the “spelling cards” which are spread across the floor of Ricki Tarr’s quarters; the bottle smashing game which Roy Bland’s son invents during Smiley’s questioning; Karla’s faux deployment of toy soldiers in Czechoslovakia; the crayons which Karla brandishes during his interrogation of Prideaux; and the ultimate symbol of the hollow Russian dolls which Smiley shores against Haydon’s mystery. At Sussex Gardens Smiley looks down on a Bedford van in which “he presumed some children were sleeping… in unmarried bliss. Kids, he was supposed to call them.” Meanwhile, genuine and wide awake children tear about Thursgood’s in Prideaux’s car.

If Kipling’s 1901 novel Kim had popularised the description of espionage as a “Great Game,” Tinker Tailor elaborates upon this founding symbolism to portray an entire profession which is still sunken in immaturity. Milne’s memoir only confirms the idea that intelligence is a game, or something lesser than reality, and because of this context, we may also assign a spurious quality to Philby’s treachery.

Nobody has ever cracked Philby’s code: were his motivations intellectual, for want of a better word, or ultimately just perverse? Writing in the New York Times in 1994, Ron Rosenbaum concluded that Philby was, “an agent of neither West nor East but, more than anything, an agent of chaos.” Le Carré’s Haydon is a sort of vapour: “Bill’s real trick was to use them, to live through them to complete himself; here a piece, there a piece, from their passive identities: thus disguising the fact that he was less, far less, than the sum of his apparent qualities.” If one wishes to dabble in psychology, the fact that Philby’s father had converted to Islam in the early 1930s, and was interned by the British state during WW2, seems like quite a big clue. For father and son, the departure from conventional British identity was equally spectacular, except that the father was openly an outsider.

Milne was absent from Philby’s side during most of the 1930s, but he shared a little of Philby’s formative experiences when they toured Europe together during their summer holidays. The pair did not merely trade England for Europe’s cosmopolitan hotspots, but they essentially conducted an expedition into the working class. Milne dwells repeatedly on the insect attacks and slum toilets, and we may sense that this poverty was fascinating, or even glamorous, for the two public schoolboys. It is now generally supposed that Philby’s mind was made up about Communism by witnessing the violent suppression of Viennese socialism in 1933, and yet his earlier holidays must have left him conscious of the incommensurability between his own dreamy world and the bitter realities of European poverty. When bidding farewell to village after village for the open road, it had surely occurred to Philby that their inhabitants could never leave. Or perhaps not – Milne, after all, seems to chortle his way around the Baltic, regarding the passing peasant squalor as nothing more than amusing scenery.

Greene tried on Philby’s logic and compared his assumption that Stalinism would come and go with the patience of a Catholic who is disappointed in the current pope. It all works in theory, and perhaps this was to its advantage: within the rarefied intellectual bubble of British intelligence, such a naïve and inflexible dogma was preserved from social realities.

MI6 all sounds terrifically jolly. Milne relates that, “However hard we worked, we always – Kim as much as anyone – maintained a rather light-hearted attitude, looking for the funny side even in our most formal correspondence.” He sets up his boss, Major-General Sir Stewart Menzies, as a stock military incompetent, unveiling Dad’s Army in the higher echelons of the British state. Milne compares Philby’s fellow defector Guy Burgess to Kenneth Williams’ character in Carry on Spying. During wartime, when it was uncertain whether the British system would survive, levity may have provided a safe outlet for Philby’s alienation from the British system, or else his final flight to Moscow expressed a craving for something humourless: a society in which politics really was a matter of life and death. Perhaps Philby did not attempt to recruit Milne to the Soviet cause because he preferred to apportion this constantly-amused man to his homeland, rather like an adult handing on a Winnie the Pooh bear to his children.

The joke was ultimately on Moscow. Britain’s supreme Communist defector emerged from a dazzlingly elite bubble rather than from industries which were mass employers. The Cambridge spy ring was equally embarrassing to both sides: to paraphrase Lenin, Britain’s public-school brains, when translated into Russian, were its shit. There were few arenas in which brilliant graduates could sparkle during the drudgery of wartime, and MI6 helped to expend the intellectual energies of a fiendish, useless social class. MI6 was doubly a holiday for Philby, since his equivalent responsibilities within Soviet intelligence would have probably involved scheduling executions. When one was not consumed with getting the edge over Trevor Roper in Section Vw, MI6 was something that came in a box; a packet of strategy challenges, in which codes had to be cracked and agents identified. At one point in his memoir, Milne recounts an incident in which he was forced to allow a ship to leave Gibraltar even though he feared that it might contain a bomb. One senses that it was extraordinary for Milne to find his paperwork correlating with anything in the world of men’s lives.

After 1951, Philby was left midway between a mole and defector, still unexposed but unable to burrow into state secrets. Milne now regarded him as an acquaintance, whose alcoholism provoked only polite bafflement; and whose suicide attempt could be tidied away with a preposterous excuse. Yet the reflective passages of Milne’s memoir lose the customary dimness of the chapters in the field, and they demonstrate a newfound analytical keenness. He argues that Philby probably remained in Britain out of devotion to his children, and that he was always limited in his value as an agent by his lack of privacy and time. Whereas John Ranelagh had argued in his history of the CIA that Philby “undoubtedly contributed to the deaths of several hundred people,” Milne has a shot at wriggling out of such grave charges. He ventures that the information which Philby fed to Moscow about Albanian infiltrators might not have been passed to Albania for fear of jeopardising his own position. It was simply never practical for Philby to be as diabolical as he could have been.

Philby delivered the most extravagant surprise in the history of the Great Game, but he lacked proletarian prestige or even any decisive political usefulness for his Soviet sponsors. As Auberon Waugh scoffed in the Spectator in 1987, “The only “secrets” involved are secrets about keeping secrets. Perhaps a few secrets-freaks murdered each other as a result of Philby’s defection, but that is their nature.”