Conspiracy of Silence

Sir Anthony Blunt, employee of MI5 (the British counterespionage service) during World War II, director of the Courtauld Institute, and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, confessed to being a Soviet spy in 1964. Not until 1979, however, did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reveal that fact before the House of Commons--a second “conspiracy of silence.” Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose, staff writers for the London Sunday TIMES, spent several years researching and interviewing those who knew Blunt and his circle. Despite being often hampered by what they view as obsessive and excessive British official security, Penrose and Freeman have produced an extensively documented, well-researched, interesting book.

As much a portrait of an era as of a man, CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE is especially fascinating when describing the political ferment of 1930’s Cambridge University. Charismatic leaders such as John Cornford, a brilliant scholar and Communist true-believer, inspired their idealistic fellow students. Belonging to the socialist or Communist student organizations was almost considered a fashionable thing to do. Virtually every member of the elite intellectual group the Apostles, to which Blunt belonged, at least dabbled in Communism. Somewhat coincidentally (since members tended to nominate friends), many Apostles were also homosexual. Blunt’s political, intellectual, and personal lives thus seem to have been greatly influenced by his time at Cambridge as a student and as a young don.

Numerous books and articles have been written about the Cambridge spies. One has, however, only to compare Peter Wright’s recent book, SPYCATCHER, in which Wright describes his interrogations of Blunt and his conclusions, with CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE to appreciate the clarity and reliability of Penrose and Freeman’s work. Much mystery still surrounds the Cambridge spies, but the authors have given a credible account of the life of Anthony Blunt without yielding to the temptation of wild speculation.