School for scandal

Full Text:


Cambridge, Treason and Intelligence

by Andrew Sinclair.

Little, Brown, $17.95.

THE RED IS WHAT it used to be better to be dead than, or it may have been the other way round; the blue is the color of either Oxford or Cambridge–dark blue for the first, light blue for the other. In the United States, Cambridge is merely the town that houses Harvard University; in England it is both town and university. Andrew Sinclair is a double first from Cambridge, and he dedicates his book to “Cambridge, right and wrong.” He is very British–his first novel, Breaking of Bumbo, elegantly filmed, is about life in the Guards (the monarch’s Praetorian protectors); an admirable later novel, Magog, is a mythical portrait of England-but he has written brilliant and well-informed studies of aspects of American life, including a history of the United States. Americans approaching this new work of his are confronting not a hidebound Brit but a full-fledged citizen of Anglophonia. The treason and intelligence he writes about have their relevance to America. Neither the double helix nor the Manhattan Project could have taken off without Cambridge; the treason, which had its origin in an ingrown coterie in a town in the English fen country, shook the West. What happened decades ago in Cambridge still has the power to enhance life or summon death.

I myself am a graduate of Manchester University, which is black-bricked from industrial pollution and very far from venerable. Oxford and Cambridge are medieval foundations, and over the centuries they have developed what may vaguely be termed opposite ideologies-Oxford, “home of lost causes,” essentially humanistic; Cambridge drawn to exact knowledge, where, with men like I. A. Richards, even the study of literature became a branch of science. Plato for one, we might say; Aristotle for the other. Oxford has nothing like the Cavendish laboratories, whose great leading figure was Ernest Rutherford, where John Cockroft split the atom and Patrick Blackett’s work led to the discovery of the neutron. Yet one must not push the opposition too far. Cambridge is as “English” as Oxford, in that it has produced bricoleurs more than engineers, men who changed the world by conducting experiments on low budgets and, literally, with string and sealing wax.

Sinclair’s epigraph is from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, in which the villain Bosola defines a “familiar” as “a very quaint invisible devil in the flesh/ An intelligencer.” Intelligencer has highly sinister connotations, whereas intelligence used to be neutral if ambiguous. Aldous Huxley’s Spandrell, in Point Counter Point, maintains that there are three kinds of intelligence–“human, animal and military.” In the Cavendish before the last war, science used human intelligence to furnish the world with knowledge that, the nature of the modern state being what it is, became known as intelligence in another sense–intelligence as a potential or actual weapon. The men of the Cavendish were liberal-minded in a manner that Oxford approved: they believed in the dissemination of scientific intelligence without reference to what this, that, or the other sovereign state could make of it. Such men were not naive: they were well aware that the splitting of the atom had a destructive potential, but they placed free access to scientific knowledge far above the exigencies of statecraft. This was the ancient tradition, a subscription to the belief that universities were universal.


But these scientists also had their political beliefs. Being human, they could scarcely subsist without them. They lived and worked in a country whose rulers, mostly brought up in the Oxford tradition of classical humanism, tended to despise science. The scientists saw in Soviet Russia the fulfillment of a dream–a state founded on scientific principles (even though Marxism followed an outdated materialistic philosophy). They could not be right-wing, since British conservatism was set in a quasi-humanistic satisfaction with an unprogressive status quo. It is significant that none of the discoveries of the Cavendish were ever passed to Nazi Germany, except possibly through espionage. Russians, on the other hand, were welcome to participate in, and even promote, Cavendish investigations into the nature of matter. One of the greatest of the Russians was Peter Kapitsa, Rutherford’s pet protege. Cockroft and Blackett, both left-wing men, were dear friends of Kapitsa’s. If Kapitsa became the father of nuclear research in the Soviet Union, it was the Cavendish that sponsored him. But in those days what Evelyn Waugh called the dismemberment of Christendom had not yet occurred. There was no Cold War. It is too easy to fasten the term treason to men who had not yet witnessed the East-West split. The only conceivable political philosophy for a Cambridge scientist was socialistic. The only socialistic state in the world was Soviet Russia. It was as simple as that.

SINCLAIR, EAGER to pursue a thesis in which bad guys confront good, perhaps makes too much of the pure-minded, unpolitical internationalism of the Cambridge scientists. Not even hindsight may call them bad guys; indeed, the fact that we have had no world war since 1945 may be attributed to the balance of nuclear power that, in its remote way, the Cavendish initiated. The bad guys are to be found on the arts side, specifically in a Cambridge elite known blasphemously as the Apostles. The Apostles had a Victorian origin. They were undergraduates who were out of sympathy with the establishment, meaning the Oxford politicians and the Church of England. They cultivated a subversive alternative ethos, in which the only social group to which loyalty was permitted was the Apostles themselves. They were clever, even brilliant, and were so, as it were, collectively narcissistic that they were in love not only with themselves but also with each other. Some of them were homosexuals, in an age in which membership in what Auden called the Homintern was not merely antisocial but criminal. Shakespeare knew of such sodalities. His patron the Earl of Southampton was one of the members of an all-male group given to the homoerotic, and in Love’s Labour’s Lost, with the ironic vigor of a non-university man, our bard of the non-elite commonalty gave them a sound pasting.


The Apostles knew they were brilliant, and the brilliance of some of them has been acknowledged by the whole world. They had a London embassy in the district of Bloomsbury, and it even had female associate members–like Virginia Woolf, dutifully homosexual and convinced of her intellectual distinction. It also had the great economist John Maynard Keynes, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the subversive historian Lytton Strachey. E. M. Forster, the novelist, was boosted by Bloomsbury as having transformed the British novel. “Only connect,” he said, perhaps limiting his connection to the Apostles, with a little “trade” on the side. He also said something highly dangerous about friendship and patriotism, hoping that if it came to betraying his friend or betraying his country, he would have the guts to betray his country.

The Apostles of the postwar period have been notable for producing betrayers of their country and, while their hand was in, other people’s countries as well. The question is still asked: What made men like my distant cousin Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt and the rest turn traitor? The answer may lie in the schizophrenia of Apostleship: you had to pretend conformity while privately pursuing high and dangerous nonconformism, especially in the sexual sphere. You presented one face to the world and another to your friends. Such men were apt material for the Soviet spy-recruiters who infiltrated Cambridge. The question why they were found acceptable to such a sensitive arm of the state as the British Foreign Office need not be asked. They were very anxious to work in foreign affairs; they had charm, brains, decent manners. If, like Burgess, they behaved badly in public, this was mere eccentricity, permissible in an Apostle. They were brilliant enough to be installed in the Washington Embassy, where they had a heaven-sent opportunity. to betray not just Britain but the whole of the West.


We non-Apostles are mostly too single-minded to appreciate the skill with which these traitors followed opposed paths simultaneously. Take Anthony Blunt, comparatively recently uncovered and denounced. He served the Queen as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was knighted for his services, and passed on secrets to the Soviets which ensured the deaths of many. To specialize in exquisite regions of art and at the same time to spill, though at a safe remove, the blood of brave men of the free world argues schizophrenic criminality, but such a dichotomy came naturally to a born Apostle. We are all perhaps more dichotomous than we realize, but the Apostles developed the splitting of the human brain with a zest comparable to that other splitting at the Cavendish.

Sinclair is loyal to his alma mater, as is only right, and it is with a certain relief that he lists the achievements of intellectual Cambridge in the sphere of creation, as opposed to cerebral or nuclear fission. Whether he likes E R. Leavis or not, it was he and his myrmidons who reformed literary criticism. Sir Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn became, respectively, directors of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Karl Miller and John Gross became highly influential editors. Jonathan Miller (no relation, though he and Karl married sisters) has shown a Renaissance brilliance in becoming a medical pundit and a skilled stage and television director. Comedy entered a new world with Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week That Was, and Monty Python, all the work of Cantabrigians. But with the exception of Jonathan Miller, none of these Cantabrigians were Apostles. What Sinclair calls the “splendid stealthiness” of that elite conspiracy had nothing to give to either England or the rest of the world except highly polished hypocrisy.