Find the birch sticks
- The Guy Liddell Diaries. Vol. I: 1939-42 edited by Nigel West
Frank Cass, 329 pp, £25.00, February 2005, ISBN 0 415 35213 4
On 2 February 1940, Guy Liddell, MI5’s director of counter-espionage, wrote in his diary:
An elderly statesman with gout
When asked what the war was about
In a written reply
Said ‘My colleagues and I
Are doing our best to find out’
A not inapposite comment on the Phoney War (and we learn from Liddell that there was a good deal of hidden last-minute talk between Chamberlain and Goering), the verse also conveys something of the self-contained world of MI5. There is no word in these diaries about any of the war’s turning points – Churchill’s takeover, the German attack on Russia, Pearl Harbor – or anything personal. Yet Liddell was a considerable man in every way. After winning the Military Cross in the First World War, as both his brothers did, he spent the entire period after 1919 in counter-intelligence. He and his eccentric wife, the Hon. Calypso Baring, formed the centre of a large dinner-party world in their Cheyne Walk house designed by Lutyens. (Calypso had the walls papered with copies of the Times.) Guy was a great mimic, dancer and teacher of the Irish jig, until he was suddenly abandoned by Calypso, who went off to California, gradually taking all their four children with her. Guy then moved to a Sloane Street flat, a sad and lonely figure, immersed in his work, who found solace only in the cello. His life seems to have been spent in a male world of friends, colleagues and clubs.
Vol. 27 No. 18 · 22 September 2005
R.W. Johnson’s review of Nigel West’s edition of the first volume of Guy Liddell’s diaries fails to point out how defective this edition is (LRB, 1 September). The least that can be expected of an editor is for an attempt to be made to identify and provide information as to persons mentioned in the diaries and references to material about them. Thus the engaging rogue, historian and manuscript thief Harald Kurtz pops up on several occasions: we are told nothing about him or what became of him. In fact quite a lot is known, and, having died of drink, he at least had obituary notices in the Times. The weird George Pitt-Rivers, we are told, was a Nazi. Well he wasn’t, though he did hold bizarre and unpleasant views on some subjects. There is much material on his detention in the National Archives. Frederick Rutland makes a number of appearances: there is no indication that he was Rutland of Jutland, a pioneer of naval aviation, with a special display in the Fleet Air Arm Museum, or that there is a life by Desmond Young, or material in the National Archives. And who was Prince Henry of Pless? What became of him? What was his background? We are not told, though there is no mystery about him. On page 128 we meet ‘a man called Diplock’. Nothing to explain that he is the later Lord Diplock of the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland, at the time working with the Security Executive. A list of names of ‘personalities’ misses most individuals mentioned, and provides only the briefest information, some of it wrong, as when Lord Halifax is listed as foreign secretary without mentioning that he became ambassador in Washington, his departure to the USA indeed featuring in the diaries. ‘One Parmentier, a KLM pilot’ appears on page 208: readers are told nothing about this well-known pilot, who was eventually killed in an accident in Scotland; I am pretty sure there is a biography. It would be tedious to produce a complete list, which would be very long. The editing of the second volume is just as defective. All we get is some snippets of information from ‘Nigel West’, with no indication of their source and no way of checking their reliability. Perhaps worse still is the failure of the editor to provide any references, or even a brief guide, to other relevant published literature. This explains, for example, the fact that R.W. Johnson lambasts the ghost of Sir John Anderson for his scepticism as to the scare stories produced by Liddell and his colleagues: Anderson was right, and they were wrong.
The Liddell diaries are an important historical source, and they deserve competent editing.
R.W. Johnson’s review of Guy Liddell’s diaries makes much of the pro-Nazi activities of Mosleyites during this period, but the far more dangerous activities of Harry Pollitt’s lot are passed over in silence. Readers are even encouraged to think that it was OK for crypto-Communists to send secrets to Moscow, because the Soviets were on our side. One of the most scandalous cases – cited by Johnson a few sentences earlier – was that of John Cairncross, who provided Stalin with the results of a comprehensive government inquiry into its security services in March 1940. The fact that, for Johnson, Cairncross ‘hardly counted’ as a traitor speaks volumes about the survival of Popular Front loyalties among the intelligentsia.