Tuesday, October 30, 2012

He shines in the dark

Files newly-released by the UK’s security services (MI5) to The National Archives include the diaries of Guy Liddell from the post-war period when he was MI5’s Deputy Director-General. According to The National Archives, Liddell’s diaries ‘provide a fascinating new insight into the early Cold War era’ including key moments such as the uncovering of Klaus Fuchs as a nuclear spy, and the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. But they also reveal how elements of subsequent science/conspiracy fiction - involving, for example, ‘a luminous man’ or bubonic plague experiments - were actually part of Liddell’s every day world.

Liddell, born in 1892, served with the Royal Field Artillery in the First World War, before working with Scotland Yard, and, in 1927, joining MI5 where he became an expert on Soviet subversive activities. During the Second World he was head of counter-espionage, but after the war his career was curtailed because of his relationship with Guy Burgess (who defected in 1951), and suspicions that he too might have been a double agent. He died in 1958.

Liddell kept detailed diaries about his working life from the start of the Second World War. His wartime diaries were only released to The National Archives in 2002, since when they have been available online for a subscription fee. They were also edited by Nigel West (pen name of Rupert Allason) and published by Routledge in 2005 in two volumes: The Guy Liddell Diaries Vol I: 1939-1942; The Guy Liddell Diaries Vol II: 1942-1945. (See The Diary Review article Liddell, Tyler and internment for more.) Now the UK’s security services have released a second batch of Liddell’s diaries to The National Archives covering the post-war years, 1945-1953, when Liddell was Deputy Director-General of MI5.

The National Archives say the diaries ‘provide a fascinating new insight into the early Cold War era. Daily entries record Liddell’s impressions of key moments including the discovery in 1949 that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb, the uncovering of the spy Klaus Fuchs and the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.’ There is also a discussion of the Liddell diaries (with a topical link to the new James Bond film, Skyfall) on The National Archives blog.

Associated Press has a report on the newly-released diaries with the headline, ‘Overstaffed, overconfident and all too often over here’. ‘That’s how,’ the article continues, ‘a top British spymaster saw his American counterparts at the FBI and CIA, according to newly declassified diaries from the years after World War II. Friction between British spies and their American colleagues is a recurring theme in journals. . .’ It also notes how Liddell called FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, ‘a cross between a political gangster and a prima donna’. Reuter’s report focuses on the ‘slice of everyday espionage life’ revealed by the Russian spy Klaus Fuchs who, according to Liddell’s diaries, was told to throw a magazine into a London garden to set up a rendezvous with his Russian contact.

The BBC notes how ‘Liddell provides a day-by-day account of the unfolding drama, while the diaries’ matter-of-fact writing style barely conceals how personal the betrayal was for the MI5 man who was close friends with some of the key protagonists and who struggled to believe what they had done’. And for The Guardian, the diaries ‘reflect the panic inside the Security Service as it faced the awful truth that a Cambridge spy ring existed at the heart of British intelligence’.

Here are a few extracts from the Liddell’s post-war diaries, all transcribed from scanned pages on The National Archives web pages. (Klaus Fuchs, born in 1911, was a German-British theoretical physicist and atomic spy who worked in the US, British and Canadian atomic bomb research programme during and after the Second World War. He was convicted as a Soviet spy in 1950, and imprisoned for nine years. On being released, he emigrated to East Germany, and continued, successfully, his scientific career. He died in 1988. History has judged that Fuch’s espionage was of prime importance to the Soviets, allowing them to know that the US did not have sufficient nuclear weapons to deal simultaneously with the Berlin blockade and the Communists’ victory in China. His actions are also said to have been influential in the cancellation of an Anglo-American plan in 1950 for Britain to receive US-made atomic bombs.)

23 September 1949
‘The preliminaries to this meeting are quite fantastic. SHAG is to look for a chalk Z which will be placed on a telegraph post near his home. This will mean that if he can manage it he is to attend a meeting at that spot at a given hour on the same day. To confirm he will be there, he has to turn the Z into an H. The man meeting him will be smoking a cigarette and have a rubber band on his little finger. SHAG will bring out his snuffbox and take a pinch of snuff - no conversation will pass. The second meeting will take place at a different rendezvous with another person, when the same pantomime will be gone through. The visitor will ask for a light, then offer SHAG a cigarette, when the latter will reply that he takes snuff. This will be the all clear for further conversation.’

8 February 1950
‘[Fuchs] has told us that his Russian contact in London is known by the name of ALEXANDER. We believe him to be Alexander KRAMER. He also said that he was told, if he wished for a further meeting, to throw a magazine into a garden in Kew with an indication of the rendezvous on page 10. [. . .] If a meeting was to take place there would be a chalk mark on a local lamp post. This is interesting as it is the same technique given by . . . to SHAG. Lastly, FUCHS made it fairly clear that he does not intend to go back on his confession.’

16 February 1950
‘I then asked BURGESS what his next move was. He said that there was a serious accusation on his file, which he considered to be ill-founded, and that if it stood against him his career in the Foreign Office would, to say the least, be seriously blighted. He wondered, therefore, whether, in view of his explanations, the whole thing could be expunged from the record. I said that as far as I was concerned I could not answer for the Foreign Office, but that I would certainly let them know about the specific charges which I had made and BURGESS’s replies.’

31 March 1950
‘There has been a lot of trouble at the Canadian end of the FUCHS case. Pearson of External Affairs has stated that information regarding FUCHS in the HALPERIN diary was passed to us. Meanwhile the Lord Chancellor, in making a speech on the FUCHS case in the House of Lords, had stated that no such information was passed. In fact what happened was that Peter Dwyer, who was in Canada at the time, was told that he could have access to the enormous number of documents seized in a raid on HALPERIN’s house. Included among these documents was the diary, which he did not see. He was working closely with the Canadians and relying on them to bring to his notice anything of special significance affecting this country. The Canadians passed on a photostat copy of the diary to the FBI, but did not send one to us; the first we knew of it was when we started intensive investigations into FUCHS. The information was from the Americans, but not from the Canadians. In fact it had very little significance, since when the entry was made FUCHS had made no decision to act as a spy. Had we known of the existence of this entry, it might have caused us to make closer enquiries and it might have influenced us when the decision was made to allow FUCHS to go to Harwell after his return to this country.’

1 April 1950
‘The DG had seen both the PM and the Lord Chancellor, who now realises how the mistake occurred. I am afraid, however, that we have to admit that our statement in the Lord Chancellor’s brief, that the Security Services were not informed about the entry in the diary, was not strictly accurate. It would have been possible, I suppose, for Peter Dwyer to wade through every single document and to send us a copy of the diary, and it may well be that if we had had our own representative there, who would have had an MI5 rather than MI6 approach to the problem, this would have been done. The Lord Chancellor took the whole thing extremely well and will correct his statement in due course.’

18 September 1952
‘. . . The enquiry may relate to an individual known as “The Luminous Man”, a man who has been working in one of our atomic energy establishments and has become radio-active. Apparently he shines in the dark. If this is so, it is difficult to see why there should be so much secrecy - in fact I cannot imagine how the Press have not already got on to this extraordinary case, since it is clearly a matter that cannot be kept in the dark!’

19 September 1952
‘Bacteriological trials have been going on from Stornoway, to ascertain whether or not bubonic plague germs could or could not be used in wartime. The experiment involved the release of a number of these germs - I imagine over some vessel containing a number of unfortunate animals. At the critical moment, when the cloud had passed over, a fishing trawler from Iceland was bearing down on the scene of the experiment. It disregarded the signals to keep away, and it was calculated that it might have been on the outer fringe of the cloud. The question then arose as to what action should be taken. High level conferences went on, when the rather courageous decision was made to limit the precautions to informing the medical officer at Fleetwood, and also the skipper of the ship, that if during the course of the next three weeks any member of the crew, or anybody in Fleetwood developed boils, isolation precautions should be taken immediately. The alternative would have been to innoculate all members of the crew and all the rats on board with strepto-myoscin, or some other drug, thus making the nature of the experiment quite clear with all the resulting publicity and criticisms.’

Monday, October 22, 2012

I bought her a jet plane

‘I bought Elizabeth the jet plane we flew in yesterday. It costs, brand new, $960,000. She was not displeased.’ This is the actor Richard Burton writing in his diary in 1967, at the height of his fame and in the early years of his first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. The diaries, which span more than four decades though written rather sporadically, have just been published by Yale University Press.

Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins into a large family in Pontrhydyfen, Wales, in 1925, but his mother died two years later, and he was brought up by a sister. He left school at 16, and soon joined the Air Training Corps as a cadet. There he met Philip Burton a former teacher of his who subsequently adopted him, helped him through further education, and encouraged his theatrical skills. The young Burton served two years in the RAF, between 1944 and 1947. Prior to his military service, though, he had already begun to work as an actor, and after his discharge he moved to London to further his career. He met his first wife, Sybil Williams, working on a film set. They had two daughters.

Burton found work easily enough, in films and narrating for the BBC, but a major turning point came in 1951 when he starred in two Shakespeare productions for Anthony Quayle at Stratford-upon-Avon and received excellent reviews. Several films in Hollywood followed (Desert Rat and The Robe), and then a major Shakespeare season at the Old Vic. When his fellow-Welshman and friend Dylan Thomas died, Burton performed the lead role in Dylan’s Under Milk Wood (to benefit Dylan’s family), which today remains one of the most celebrated radio drama productions of all time. Further Hollywood films followed, and with them the wealth that would lead him to relocate to tax-friendly Switzerland in 1957.

After performing on Broadway, Burton was brought in to star in Twentieth Century Fox’s troubled production, Cleopatra, a film which would become the most expensive ever made at the time, and which would usher in Burton’s most successful Hollywood period. On set, famously, he met Elizabeth Taylor who, like him, was married at the time. The affair was widely reported in the media, but the couple were not free to marry until their divorces in 1964. Together, they produced a number of memorable films, not least Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The fiery marriage lasted 10 years, but once they had divorced they soon remarried. Burton adopted Taylor’s daughter by a previous marriage (whose father had died); and together Burton and Taylor adopted a German child.

Burton’s output in later years was more prolific than admired as he often took mediocre work for financial reasons. He did have some success, though, with Equus (which he had played on stage to great acclaim) and The Wild Geese. From 1976 to 1982, he was married to Susan Hunt, and from 1983 to his death in 1984 to Sally Hay. He was only 58 when he died, but he had been a heavy smoker and drinker all his life. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Richard Burton website, or IMDB.

Burton seems to have kept a diary intermittently through most of his life, and extracts from these were first used by Melvyn Bragg in his biography Rich: The Life of Richard Burton published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1988. In 2005, Burton’s widow, Sally, handed over the diaries - written between 1939 and 1983 - and other personal papers, known as the Richard Burton Collection, to Swansea University; and in 2010 the university formally opened its Richard Burton Archives facility. Now - in October 2012 - Yale University Press has published The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams. A generous number of pages can be read freely at Amazon.

The publisher claims: ‘In his personal diaries Richard Burton is a man quite different from the one we familiarly “know” as acclaimed actor, international film star, and jet-set celebrity. From his private, handwritten pages there emerges a different person - a family man, a father, a husband, a man often troubled and always keenly observing. Understood through his own words, day to day and year to year, Burton becomes a fully rounded human being who, with a wealth of talent and a surprising burden of insecurity, confronts the peculiar challenges of a life lived largely in the spotlight.’

‘At times,’ the promotional material continues, ‘Burton struggles to come to terms with the unfulfilled potential of his life and talent. In other entries, he crows over achievements and hungers for greater challenges. He may be watching his weight, watching his drinking, or watching other men watch his Elizabeth. Always he is articulate, opinionated, and fascinating. His diaries offer a rare and fresh perspective on his own life and career, Elizabeth Taylor's, and the glamorous world of film, theatre, and celebrity that they inhabited.’

The reviews of Burton’s diaries have generally been favourable. The Daily Express says: ‘These diaries are basically his autobiography and, luckily for us, the poetry-loving boyo from the Afan Valley was an articulate, insightful, and introspective man who wrote with much more style and wit than a diary requires.’ The Washington Times says the book makes ‘for utterly involving, fascinating reading, giving a rare insight into a complicated, gifted individual.’ Writing in the Camden New Journal, Gerald Isaaman, who edited the Ham & High for many years, charts Burton’s long association with Hampstead. ‘Professor Williams,’ he says, ‘puts the diaries in context, providing a biography of the boy wonder that gives an understanding of his madcap, star-dusted life of angst and contradiction, too much booze and too much beauty. He includes endless footnotes and references to ensure his intimate analysis is accurate and fair amid a saga of scandal and sensation, and gives us an understanding of restless Burton’s true value.’ This is South Wales has an article by the editor, Williams, on his experience of editing the diaries.

Here are a few extracts culled from the sources mentioned above.

30 September 1967
‘At about 12 noon this same day I did something beyond outrage. I bought Elizabeth the jet plane we flew in yesterday. It costs, brand new, $960,000. She was not displeased.’

19 November 1968
‘Famed as we are, rich as we are, courted and insulted as we are, overpaid as we are, centre of a great deal of attention as we are, [we] are not bored or blasĂ©. We are not envious. We are merely lucky. I have been inordinately lucky all my life but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth. She has turned me into a moral man but not a prig, she is a wildly exciting lover-mistress, she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography, she can be arrogant and wilful, she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in the stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!’

10 January 1969
‘The more I read about man and his maniacal ruthlessness and his murdering envious scatological soul, the more I realise that he will never change. Our stupidity is immortal, nothing will change it. The same mistakes, the same prejudices, the same injustice, the same lusts wheel endlessly around the parade-ground of the centuries. Immutable and ineluctable. I wish I could believe in a God of some kind but I simply cannot. My intelligence is too muscular and my imagination stops at the horizon. And I have an idea that the last sound to be heard on this lovely planet will be a man screaming. In fear and terror. It might be more.’

20 March 1969
‘The last six months have been a nightmare. I created one half and Elizabeth the other. We grated on each other to the point of separation. I had thought of going to live lone in some remote shack in a rainy place and E had thought of going to stay with Howard in Hawaii. It is of course quite impossible. We are bound together. Hoop-steeled. Whither thou goest. He said hopefully.’

Monday, October 8, 2012

The heart is musical

Marina Tsvetaeva was born 120 years ago today. She struggled through much poverty in her life - indeed a daughter died of starvation - and political turmoil, but today she is considered a major 20th century Russian literary figure. One of her most important poems - The Encampment of the Swans -  was written about the civil war in the style of a diary; and, recently, a collection of her diary notes has been published in English.

Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow on 8 October 1892. Her father was a professor of art history, while her mother was both literary and musical. She had one sister and two half-siblings, the children of her father’s first wife (who had died). In 1902, Tsvetaeva’s mother contracted TB, and this led the family to seek a healthier climate. They lived abroad - near Genoa, for a while, where there were many Russian emigre revolutionaries - until shortly before her mother’s death in 1906.

While still in her teens, Tsvetaeva studied at Lausanne and at the Sorbonne; and around 1911, she self-published a first collection of her poems. This attracted the attention of the poet and critic Maximilian Voloshin who then befriended her. It was at Voloshin’s home, in the Black Sea resort of Koktebel, that she met a cadet in the Officers’ Academy, Sergei Efron. They married in 1912 and lived in the Crimea, and had two daughters, Ariadna (Ayla) and Irina. After the 1917 Revolution Marina returned to Moscow where she became trapped during a famine. Hoping to save her daughters, she placed them in a state orphanage, but Ayla became ill and Irina died.

In 1922, Tsvetaeva and Alya left the Soviet Union and were reunited with Efron in Berlin. They also moved to Prague and its environs, where they had a son, Georgy, before finally settling in Paris. Tsvetaeva’s writing, during this period, in praise of the Tsarist forces, was not published in Russia until much later. In 1939, still a patriot, she returned to Stalin’s Russia, but Efron and Alya were arrested for espionage. Efron was shot in 1941, and Alya served eight years in prison (though both were exonerated after Stalin’s death). When the German army invaded, Tsvetaeva and Georgy were evacuated to Tatarstan where Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Carcanet Press or The Poetry Foundation.

According to the latter source, critics and translators of Tsvetaeva’s work often comment on ‘the passion in her poems, their swift shifts and unusual syntax, and the influence of folk songs’. She is also known for her portrayal of a woman’s experiences during the so-called terrible years. She wrote several plays as well as narrative verse. One cycle of poems in the style of a diary - The Encampment of the Swans - begins on the day of Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication in 1917, and ends in 1920, when the anti-communist White Army was finally defeated.

In 2011, Yale University Press published Earthly Signs - Moscow Diaries, 1917–1922, Marina Tsvetaeva, edited, translated and introduced by Jamey Gambrell. ‘This volume,’ the publishers say, ‘presents for the first time in English a collection of essays published in the Russian emigre press after Tsvetaeva left Moscow in 1922. Based on diaries she kept from 1917 to 1920, Earthly Signs describes the broad social, economic, and cultural chaos provoked by the Bolshevik Revolution. Events and individuals are seen through the lens of her personal experience - that of a destitute young woman of upper-class background with two small children (one of whom died of starvation), a missing husband, and no means of support other than her poetry. These autobiographical writings, rich sources of information on Tsvetaeva and her literary contemporaries, are also significant for the insights they provide into the sources and methodology of her difficult poetic language. In addition, they supply a unique eyewitness account of a dramatic period in Russian history, told by a gifted and outspoken poet.’

Much of the book is available to read at Googlebooks; and below are a few (undated) extracts.

October on the Train
Notes from Those Days
‘Two and a half days - not a bite, not a swallow. (Throat tight.) Soldiers bring newspapers - printed on rose-colored paper. The Kremlin and all the monuments have been blown up. The 56th Regiment. The buildings where the Cadets and officers refused to surrender have been blown up. 16,000 killed. By the next station it’s up to 25,000. I don’t speak. I smoke. One after another, travelers get on trains heading back.

Dream (November 2, 1917, nighttime). We are escaping. A man with a rifle comes up from the cellar. I take aim with my empty hand. He lowers the rifle. A sunny day. We are climbing on some debris. S. is talking about Vladivostok. We are riding in a carriage through ruins. A man with sulfuric acid.’

On Love - From a Diary
‘The complete concurrence of souls requires the concurrence of the breath, for what is the breath, if not the rhythm of the soul?

And thus, for people to understand one another, they must walk or lie side by side.

The nobility of the heart - of the organ. Unremitting caution. It is always first to sound the alarm. I could say: it is not love that makes my heart pound, but my pounding heart - that makes love.

The heart: it is musical, rather than a physical organ.

The heart; sounding line, plummet, log, dynamometer, Reaumur - everything, but the timepiece of love. [. . .]

Old men and old women. A shaved, slender old man is always a little bit antique, always a little bit the marquis. And his attention is more flattering to me, stirs me more than the love of any twenty-year-old. To exaggerate: there’s the feeling that an entire century loves me. There’s nostalgia for his twenties, and joy for one’s own, and the opportunity of being generous - and the utter inopportuneness of it. BĂ©ranger has a little song: . . . Your glance is keen, But you’re twelve, And I’m twice eighteen.

Sixteen and sixty is not monstrous, and most important - it’s not at all ridiculous. At any rate, it’s less ridiculous than most so-called “equal” marriages. The possibility of a genuine pathos.

But an old woman in love with a young man is, at best - touching. The exception: actresses. An old actress - is the mummy of a rose.’