Friday, 25 September 2015

Stalin's Englishman, by Andrew Lownie

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought:

On one hand, anyone with an interest in the 1930 to 1950s Cambridge/Moscow spy ring of Philby, Blunt, Maclean, Caincross and Burgess must wonder if there is anything left to say. On the other, there is such an evergreen fascination with the spies, the politics, the morality and the culture which fostered such a scandal, readers still wonder how it happened. 
And after reading this book, I wonder how much has changed in the last 100 years.

Andrew Lownie is an expert biographer and tells his version from the centre – Guy Burgess. Drunk, gay, promiscuous, indiscreet, unkempt and ‘a natural liar’, Burgess is an extraordinary character, both outside and inside the establishment, equally charming and repulsive. In addition, the depiction of the social structure and strata of the times illuminates an intriguing (in every sense) set of circumstances which propelled such an individual into a position of alarming power. A portrait of a man, his time and social class.

What is added to a life already picked over and exposed is the hall of mirrors Burgess himself created. He batted for both sides, but neither trusted him. His background and education shaped a personality with an ego all his own. Duplicitous and charming, this man was a player, and one far more significant, according to Lownie, than previously assumed.

An absorbing read, strong on research and new perspectives, peppered with wit and humour, you emerge from this book enlightened and entertained by one man’s exceptional lives.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked:
Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges, The Mitford Girls, by Mary S. Lovell, Present Indicative by Sheridan Morley

Avoid if you don’t like: British history, real characters, the realities of spying

Ideal accompaniments: Pimms, kedgeree and Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice

Genre: Biography, non-fiction

Available on Amazon