Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie — Reviewed by Guy Portman
This biography of the notorious spy Guy Burgess recounts his life from birth through to premature death in Moscow, aged fifty-two in 1963. After spending his formative years at the naval college Dartmouth and Eton, Burgess attended Trinity College, Cambridge. It was there that he embraced communism and was allegedly recruited as a Soviet agent.
He went on to provide the Soviets with information throughout a career that encompassed stints in the BBC, Foreign Office and working as an intelligence officer. Ever the consummate networker, the charming, heavy drinking, unapologetic homosexual Burgess is portrayed as having been a paradoxical-existence-leading, Old-Etonian-tie-wearing fantasist. An indiscreet and relentless gossiper, it was his highly manipulative nature and integration in the ‘old boy’s network’ that allowed him to operate for so long.
Through fastidious research, extensive interviewing and interesting psychological insights, historian Lownie has created a compelling and revisionist account of the life of surely the most charismatic member of the ‘Cambridge Five’.
Despite the early chapters being rather slow going, this is an absorbing and adeptly crafted work that will appeal to many. This reader was intrigued by the author’s peculiar fixation with the purported deplorable state of his subject’s fingernails.