Looking for Mr. Nobody by Jenny Rees
Looking for Mr. Nobody: The Secret Life of Goronwy Rees
by Jenny Rees
Transaction. 295 pp. $24.95
Goronwy Rees was a casualty of the ideological struggles of the 1930’s. A gifted writer, a Marxist, and a fellow-traveler, he was briefly part of the notorious network of Soviet agents in Great Britain that included Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and others known and unknown. Conscience-stricken afterward, he never managed to cut his way through the conflict of loyalties between his country and these friends. Here is a theme fit for a classical drama.
Coincidentally, in the United States, Whittaker Chambers was experiencing the equivalent moral dilemma. Authors of their own misfortune, Rees and Chambers had much in common. They were self-made; they possessed striking literary gifts; and they owed a great deal to devoted wives. They were also hesitant by nature and prone to accidents, and suffered from depression and occasional mental breakdown. For both, conspiring on behalf of Communism bolstered their self-image as lonely wanderers in a hostile world. And for both, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, in which Communism displayed itself in all its true brutality and cynicism, came as a shattering revelation that led to a decisive break.
For many liberals, both Rees and Chambers were later to become figures of infamy—not for anything treasonable they might have done in the past, but for what they would in time feel impelled to reveal about their former Communist associates. But there the parallel between the two men stops. Chambers finally found the resources of character to rise to the test, working through the machinery of the law and in full view of the American public. Rees did not.
Jenny Rees, a journalist and Goronwy Rees’s eldest daughter, grew up to appreciate and love both her father and her mother Margie, but she also had a disturbing sense that over her father’s life hung questions requiring an answer. Her book about him is much more than a work of filial piety; it is a careful and complete examination of a brilliant but puzzled and ultimately rather sad man who had the chance to do himself justice but never quite did.
Born in Aberystwyth, in north Wales, in 1909, Rees was the son of a strict but affectionate Calvinist minister and was brought up speaking Welsh at home. (Goronwy means “spring of sparkling water,” an apt name for a beautiful and eager boy.) He went to Oxford in 1928 on a scholarship, to discover there the sort of high life that his contemporary Evelyn Waugh would memorialize in Brideshead Revisited. In an open examination held once a year, All Souls College offers two graduate fellowships, perhaps the most prestigious academic awards in Britain. Duly elected, Goronwy found himself at the age of twenty-two in the most exclusive of all Oxford settings; his daughter lists his colleagues as “one archbishop, one bishop, an ex-Viceroy of India, several cabinet ministers of the detested Conservative party, two of the country’s most brilliant barristers . . . and [the] editor of the [London] Times.”
Heady stuff. But, as Rees himself would write much later in a memoir, A Chapter of Accidents (1972), he was “more often than not” miserable at Oxford. So swiftly recruited to the establishment, he was unsure how to reconcile his cosmopolitan success with his provincial past, and drifted accordingly. He drifted in more ways than one: among the many women who fell for his Byronic good looks in those years were Sheila Grant Duff, an anti-Nazi publicist for the Czechs before and during the war, and the novelists Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann.
The Depression and Marxism at last gave Rees some sense of purpose. Hardly alone in this, he was rather “just like a young hopeful between the wars,” to quote another contemporary, William Plomer, in a satirical poem about those who believed that “only the Left Wing could ever be right / and that Moscow, of all places, was the source of light.” In that spirit, Rees taught himself fluent German and visited Germany and the Soviet Union in the early 1930’s. In the former, horrified by Hitler and Nazism, he observed a desperate balance “between disasters past and disasters yet to come.” In the latter, he concluded that there had been genuine “evolution” thanks to Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, and that the democracies might “have something to learn” from it.
Then, in about 1934, as Jenny Rees dates it, Guy Burgess entered his life. At the core of Rees’s A Chapter of Accidents is a superb portrait of this flamboyantly destructive character, with his clever conversation and charm, his garlic-chewing bohemianism, his dirty clothes, his indiscriminate homosexuality, snobbery, and self-importance. Trying futilely to seduce Rees, Burgess did succeed in throwing around him a misleading aura of homosexuality. But his ideological seduction was more effective. Jenny Rees describes how the two traveled to a Communist-front meeting of writers in Paris where Rees was flattered to be hobnobbing with the likes of Louis Aragon and Theodore Dreiser.
The friendship with Burgess came to a head at the end of 1937, when Rees published a quasi-Marxist article about the poverty of Welsh coal miners. This article, Burgess asserted, had “the heart of the matter in it,” and he abruptly confided to Rees that at Cambridge he had become an active agent of the Comintern. Presumably in breach of Moscow’s instructions, Burgess also gave the surprised and skeptical Rees the name of his own controller. In A Chapter of Accidents, in language unusually muddy for him, Rees would write: “I don’t suppose he could have named a person who could have carried more weight with me . . . and . . . with whom I would have joined in any enterprise.” As for the identity of this man, undisclosed by Rees even 35 years after the event in question, the world has since learned it was the eminent art historian Anthony Blunt.
Exactly what happened between Rees and Burgess in the eighteen months following this 1937 conversation remains obscure, and Jenny Rees cannot supply details. Burgess certainly invited his friend to become, like him, a Soviet agent. But how much Rees compromised himself, and what help he could have offered to the Soviets, is unclear.
Then came 1939 and Rees’s revulsion at the Nazi-Soviet pact and consequent break with Moscow. Burgess visited him, in a panic that Rees would give him and Blunt away to the authorities; but he need not have worried. Although Rees believed Burgess had been telling him the truth about his and Blunt’s spy ring, the whole truth seems to have been, in some sense, just too unbelievable. The contradiction paralyzed him, and, although ceasing himself to be any kind of agent, he kept Burgess’s secret all through the ensuing world war.
During that war, employing his German-language skills for intelligence and planning, Rees became a member of Field Marshal Montgomery’s staff and thus privy to military secrets. He also continued to see Burgess and Blunt quite regularly (The two conspirators shared a house, whose rackety atmosphere Jenny Rees evokes very well.) A day even came when Rees had in his briefcase the complete operational orders for the invasion of France. Had he been an agent at that point, the Comintern would have pulled off a great coup.
After the war, Guy Burgess wormed his way through the BBC, the Foreign Office, and the British embassy in Washington, where he joined another member of the Cambridge ring, Donald Maclean. But in 1951, back in England and correctly anticipating exposure, Burgess and Maclean quite suddenly disappeared. A Third Man was rumored to have made the necessary arrangements for their defection, and behind him was said to be a Fourth Man, then a Fifth, a whole column of invisible traitors inside the British foreign service and security apparatus.
On the very day of his disappearance, Burgess spoke for twenty minutes on the telephone to Rees’s wife Margie—without, of course, letting on what he was about to do. But Jenny Rees now says that her father sensed intuitively his friend’s fear of imminent exposure—a sense amply confirmed when Anthony Blunt, aware that Rees was in a unique position to expose him, swiftly showed up in his home and urged upon him E.M. Forster’s advice that it was better to betray one’s country than one’s friend.
At last, Rees resolved to tell British intelligence what he knew. But something mysterious then occurred, for which neither Jenny Rees nor anyone else has an explanation. Called in for a debriefing, he discovered that he was instead to enjoy a social luncheon with Guy Liddell, a senior intelligence operative, at which Blunt contrived to be present. And there the matter rested. At a future date, MI-5 would cut a secret deal not to prosecute Blunt in return for a full confession—though even then he played false, withholding or distorting information.
Two years after Burgess’s defection, Rees was appointed principal of the University College of Wales, in his home town of Aberystwyth. In thoughtful pages, Jenny Rees balances her own happy childhood there against the narrowness of the Welsh academics, their exclusion of her mother Margie, and their disdain for the worldly Rees. He himself would later judge that this return to his roots had been a mistake—but the mistake became a disaster when Burgess and Maclean suddenly surfaced in Moscow to crow about how they had deceived British intelligence. In the immediate aftermath, there appeared in a London tabloid, the People, a series of five explosive articles about Burgess and his circle, written by an anonymous but evidently well-informed author whom it was fairly simple to identify as Goronwy Rees.
The publication of such sensitive material in such a cheap style—having given the material to the paper on condition of anonymity, Rees had also conferred upon it the right to rewrite and sensationalize—caused a scandal that Jenny Rees captures very well. Intellectuals of every stripe fell upon Rees for betraying his friends. (Blunt was not identified by name in the articles, though to insiders there were giveaway phrases like “one of the country’s most celebrated academic figures.”) In an exact metaphor, the Cambridge don Noel Annan was to write later that, though the explosion detonated by the articles was atomic, “the blast walls of the Establishment are so cunningly constructed that the person most hideously wounded was Goronwy Rees himself.” Denied the motives of conscience or public spirit, Rees instead became a pariah comparable to Whittaker Chambers. Aberystwyth professors combined in outrage to force him to resign, and his career never recovered.
One day in 1961, I was invited to have a drink with Arthur Koestler, an opponent of Communism par excellence. There, very much at home in Koestler’s circle, was a conspicuously handsome man with silvery hair and the brick-red cheeks of a hardened drinker, who declared to the room that Anthony Blunt—keeper of the royal collection of pictures, honored scholar and courtier, a member of the British security services during the war and after—was a leading Comintern agent in Britain, and had tried to recruit him before the war. “Have you heard what I’ve just heard?” I asked the literary critic John Mander, standing next to me. “Oh,” he replied, “don’t you know Goronwy Rees? That’s his party piece.”
Rees was evidently obsessed with Blunt—and yet he was still protecting in public the identity of a man whom in private he denounced as a despicable traitor. In the 60’s and 70’s Rees wrote a regular column for the intellectual monthly Encounter, whose editor, Melvin Lasky, another intimate of the Koestler circle, would have supported him unconditionally had he resolved to say what he knew. But not until 1979, with the publication of Andrew Boyle’s The Climate of Treason, was Blunt publicly exposed as the traitor he had so long and cold-bloodedly been. By then Rees was on his deathbed. In the hospital, in a final interview with Andrew Boyle, he summed up the matter in a spirit more of wistfulness than revenge:
Anthony Blunt cast a long shadow over my life, just as I may have cast a long shadow over his.
These decades of painful prevarication, according to Jenny Rees, have explanations that stem from personality as well as from historical context. Too insecure to resolve conflicting loyalties, Rees felt socially out of his depth. Not knowing himself well enough to be consistent, he was at the mercy of warring impulses. For all his brilliance, she insists, he was always Mr. Nobody inside.
But there was more to it than that. In the early 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jenny Rees contacted Oleg Tsarev, formerly a colonel in the KGB and later its trusted historical consultant. In Moscow, Tsarev produced documentary evidence that Burgess (under the code name Mädchen, or Girlie, a fine specimen of KGB humor) had indeed recruited Rees to be what was called in the trade a “source” and an “operational contact.” Rees had consented, Tsarev thought, out of a combination of romanticism and ideological conviction. His role was a “shadowy” one, consisting solely, it seems, of passing on conversation from the All Souls high table. When, at their meeting after the Nazi-Soviet pact, Rees told Burgess he was not going to continue as a Comintern agent, Burgess assured him that he, too, was ceasing his espionage. Her father, Jenny Rees now supposes, took Burgess at his word. The shock of learning over a decade later that both Burgess and Blunt had deceived him led to severe guilt, and also to the fear that somehow they might contrive to blackmail or incriminate him.
“I had no ambition to be the British Whittaker Chambers,” Rees wrote in his autobiography, in a moment of self-revelation. True, he had no pumpkin papers to support what he told the authorities about Burgess and Blunt; it was his word against theirs. And his own treason, Jenny Rees makes clear, cannot have been so very terrible: security was not endangered, no lives were lost. But there is cause for regret nevertheless.
So bizarre and multiple were the deceptions and cover-ups throughout British government in those decades that still today a number of politicians and officials, including some in the intelligence services themselves (Guy Liddell, for one), have been suspected as Soviet agents and not definitively cleared. If Rees had had some of the same dogged courage as Chambers, he might have forced into the open the whole issue of Communist infiltration in Britain, helping to expose the rot and defeatism at the top of the country while there was still time to do something about it. Then he would have been Mr. Somebody.