Find the birch sticks

R.W. Johnson

  • 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.

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