What must it be like to be related to one of Britain’s most notorious double agents; a man whose actions are still reverberating decades after his deceit was uncovered?
That is the question which Charlotte Philby – granddaughter of Kim – dealt with intelligently and sensitively at a National Archives talk about her debut novel, ‘The Most Difficult Thing’. Unless you’ve been in her position, I don’t think you can understand what it would be like to bear the Philby name and to have to reconcile the grandfather she knew and loved with the man who betrayed his country.
Charlotte is an author, journalist and broadcaster who was only five when Kim (as she calls him, never “grandfather”) died, in Moscow, having fled there in 1963 when his cover was blown, leaving his children behind in the UK (their mother, Aileen, had died six years previously). Charlotte’s father, John, died ten years ago and “…I’ve always wondered how much he could have known.”
Unsurprisingly, betrayal and espionage are at the heart of ‘The Most Difficult Thing’ – how could they not be, given how those themes have haunted generations of the Philby family? And yet, as Charlotte says, “People tend to look at how Kim betrayed his country – but he had a wife and children at home.” The question that intrigued her, especially after having children, was: What would it take for a woman to walk out on her family? After all: “Men do it all the time.”
This is the scenario we find ourselves in at the beginning of ‘The Most Difficult Thing’, when we meet the novel’s protagonist, Anna – who is preparing to walk out on her family. Charlotte told us that she struggled with creating Anna’s character because she wanted the reader to empathise with her. However: “I didn’t want her to be a kick-ass character, in the way women in spy fiction are often portrayed. Ultimately, the espionage world is bigger & darker than you and will always have control over you.”
Interestingly, criticisms of the book tend to be around the reader not liking Anna. Would people dislike her if she were a man, Charlotte asked us? I’ll make up my mind once I’ve finished the book, but it’s a fair question.
The setting of the novel is as important as its characters. Its three key locations are the Maldives, a Greek island and the area of north London in which Charlotte grew up. Frustrated by its gentrification, she includes the pubs in which she worked, and in which her father drank: a nod to a simpler time.
The novel sounds fascinating, particularly the way in which it addresses that fragile line between good and bad. Who’s to say how any of us would behave under certain circumstances? The older I grow, the more I understand that there is no black or white, only shades of grey.
As you can imagine, most of the audience Q&A centred around Kim Philby and Charlotte’s views of him. Growing up, Charlotte told us, she has specific memories of visiting Russia and being met at Moscow airport by Russian men who didn’t speak English and who rushed them down the motorway, towards her grandfather and the Russian capital: “We never knew where we were going.”
Given that he died when she was five, Charlotte’s memories of Kim are understandably blurred and she sees him as her grandparent but also as someone she both reveres and reviles, commenting that she’ll never be able to truly resolve who he was or why he did what he did.
If he was alive today, and could see what Russia has become, does Charlotte believe he would act in the same way again? That’s an almost impossible question to answer, but Charlotte responded honestly, saying that she understands adopting Communism in the face of fascism – the driving force behind many 20th century communists – but it’s far harder to justify when confronted with Stalin and his legacy. Kim, she reflected wryly, would not be enamoured of Putin’s Russia – but would be equally disillusioned by Boris Johnson’s Britain.
After all, Charlotte continued, soldiers do things in battle which they’re instructed to do, even if they disagree with those instructions. “It may be a cheap and easy get-out: but I understand the argument.”
It’s impossible to describe a human being as 100% good or bad – and Charlotte believes that her grandfather’s actions came from a good place. In his 20s, living in Austria, he married a Jewish woman so that could flee what was now a dangerous country – and he saw that through in the same way that he undertook his initial decision to convert to Communism, which likewise he saw through – for the right reasons, Charlotte believes, even if we disagree with them.
Did writing her novel help Charlotte to understand the decisions that Kim made? “My relationship with him is constantly evolving”, she told us. “I’ve always been slightly in awe of him, because whether or not you agree with what he did, Kim was brilliant to have got away with it for so long.”
That said, Charlotte continued, now that she’s a parent she cannot understand how he was able to walk away from his family. She retains some vivid memories of Kim and his life in Russia, describing to us his “plush” Moscow apartment, in which his third wife, Rufina, still lives. It was part of an enclosed compound and Kim filled his home with books, British condiments, rifles and animals hanging from the wall. In comparison, the rest of Russia appeared drab.
Charlotte also holds a number of Kim’s letters, sent to his family in the UK, and says they are far more enlightening than his (heavily censored) autobiography. Cutting in nature, they showcase his hatred of the British press – and his gloom over Russia’s terrible weather. He was, Charlotte believes, “slightly frustrated” by his life in Russia, having expected a juicy role with the KGB – instead of which, he was put out to pasture.
Did Kim’s children or Aileen ever suspect what he was up to? I recommend reading Ben MacIntyre’s excellent ‘A Spy Among Friends’ for an insight into Aileen’s character and what she did/didn’t know. As for their children, John once told Charlotte that he “…knew Kim was up to something” – but that he never suspected that Kim was a spy. If anything, the family believed his frequent absences from their home to be down to philandering.
And anyway, as Charlotte pointed out, who would ever have believed Kim’s story? You could not make up the events which shaped his life: truth is always stranger than fiction.
Putting aside thoughts of Kim Philby’s actions (and their devastating consequences), I found myself warming to Charlotte and her refusal to be defined by his choices. The Philby name must, I imagine, be both a blessing and a curse: whilst it may have opened doors for her in the publishing world, she grew up knowing that her family’s phones were tapped and their mail monitored. No doubt she’s been at the receiving end of much vitriol, also.
I will read Charlotte Philby’s novel with interest – and with high expectations.
Fascinating story. I think it’s true that for many upper, and middle class people attracted to the far left, it was an intellectual attraction in the face of fascism and the inequality of Western society. It is hard to see how all but the deluded would think Stalin, or Putin for that matter, were causes to betray your country for, but as we see from your piece, it’s more complicated, I guess.
Good to be able to spend more time catching up with your articles now I’m back on this side of the world.
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I’m so glad you found the post interesting – and I agree: in the early part of the 20th century, it seems many perceived communism as one of the few ways in which fascism might be defeated. It’s a fascinating subject, and one which can be endlessly debated. Thank you for continuing to read and comment upon my posts: I really do appreciate it. I still have your Australia posts to read, which I’m hoping to do before I go back to work in early January, when I will hopefully be in a more organised place than I am now!
[…] Having devoured Lucy Foley’s ‘The Invitation’ and ‘The Hunting Party’ – the latter being one of last year’s biggest hits – there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to see Foley interviewed at Goldsboro Books by her friend and fellow author, Charlotte Philby, who gave such an interesting talk at The National Archives recently. […]