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Philby’s Bouillabaisse

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In his autobiography, My Silent War, Kim Philby reminisces about the food he knew in London in the 1930s. ‘Haute cuisine’, he liked to label it, only the ‘haute’ element was more about his appreciation than it was about the food itself. His taste, as two new books about him suggest, was for Mediterranean cooking, food that Elizabeth David would make better known after the war – bouillabaisse, paella, that sort of thing. He apparently wasn’t a bad cook, either, which was less typical of men of Philby’s background.

Kim Philby by Tim Milne is an account of a friendship that began in 1925 at Westminster and ended after Philby did his ‘fade’ in 1963, and turned up in Moscow. The book was written in the 1970s but suppressed by British intelligence until this year. Milne – the nephew of A.A. – joined the counter-espionage department of the Secret Intelligence Service at the beginning of the war, helped in by Philby. It’s the quotidian, humdrum stuff of intelligence life – the longing to be anywhere but behind a desk – that stands out in Milne’s book. He writes about the two men’s travels through Europe in the 1930s, how they saw one another in London, went to parties and drank a lot. ‘I found myself in a different world,’ Milne writes. ‘Everyone seemed so enormously intelligent, sophisticated and well-informed, and given to mildly malicious gossip.’ Philby, it seems, was friends with everyone, charm itself, and typically drunk.

Then, in 1936, Philby went to Spain, where he eventually wrote about the civil war for the Franco-sympathetic Times. On his return, Milne noticed a change in his friend.

It was not just that he had grown fatter – too fat for a young man – but he seemed to have discarded all his previous asceticism and idealism, which I had admired without much wishing to follow. Now the talk was about the fleshpots of Spain, the booze, the marvellous seafood, and the nightly fish train which ran, with priority over guns and soldiers, from Vigo to the Nationalist-held north-west area of Madrid.

Intriguing this, Philby’s fondness for the one thing in Spain that slipped from one side of the civil war battlelines to the other. Philby cooked paella with lobster: he made the dish for Milne, who says Philby took ‘everything upon himself, from buying and killing the lobster to finally serving up’. Fifteen years later in Beirut, Philby’s favourite restaurant was at the Hotel Lucullus: ‘Excellent bouillabaisse,’ he said.

Philby’s enthusiasm for food appears to have been encouraged by another friend, Tomás Harris, an art dealer and, during the war, an officer in MI5. In the 1930s, Harris and his wife Hilda were hosts of the parties that so dazzled Milne. Ben Macintyre in A Spy Among Friends describes the Harrises’ as ‘an open house salon for spies’. For Philby, Harris was the ‘outstanding personality’ of the secret services. For Anthony Blunt (who wrote an obituary as well as Harris’s entry in the DNB) he was ‘the most complete man’: artist, dealer, man of wealth and generosity. There’s no evidence that Harris himself was a double agent, although – tricky territory, this – there’s also nothing categorical to say he wasn’t.

In 1940, Tomás and Hilda were hired by Special Operations Executive; they worked as cooks at the sabotage unit’s training school north of London, until their talents out of the kitchen were recognised. Spain, Spanish art and cooking were if anything more of a common denominator among the Harrises’ guests than espionage. Harris’s father ran the Spanish Art Gallery in London; Harris’s own extensive collection of Goya etchings and engravings ended up at the British Museum. During the war, espionage and art overlapped, because of Anthony Blunt but also because of geography. St James’s was home to MI5 and MI6 offices, just as it was home to Christie’s and Sotheby’s and countless galleries. Martinez was a Spanish restaurant just off Piccadilly popular with agents and art dealers interested in Spain. There were quite a few of them, because neutral Spain and Portugal were two of the few safe ways in and out of mainland Europe during the war.

‘Tommy can’t read or write,’ Philby told Milne, ‘but he’s extraordinarily subtle and astute about anything to do with people.’ That wasn’t completely accurate: Harris wrote an account of his work running one of the most elaborate and amazing double agents of the war, Juan Pujol, a.k.a. ‘Garbo’. Their fictitious accounts of Allied troop movements on the south coast deceived the German army into thinking that the central D-Day landings wouldn’t take place in Normandy. (The Public Record Office, now the National Archives, published Harris’s report in 1999.) Harris and Pujol had their office on Jermyn St. They often went to Martinez. Harris also wrote a scholarly appraisal of Goya’s etchings and engravings in 1963, a year before he died. As for his astuteness, did he guess what Philby, Blunt and others were up to?

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