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BRITISH WRITERS AND MI5 SURVEILLANCE, 1930-1960
by James Smith

Cambridge University Press. 206 pages. 55 (US $95). ISBN 978-1-107-03082-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

 

Some years ago I read a couple of books that dealt with the way in which the FBI carried out surveillance of various American writers. Those books, Herbert Mitgang's Dangerous Dossiers:Exposing the Secret War against America's Greatest Authors, and Natalie Robins' Alien Ink: The FBI's War on Freedom of Expression, provided extensive lists of authors, ranging from William Faulkner to Allen Ginsberg, and including Theodore Dreiser, Norman Mailer, and William Carlos Williams. I've just pulled a few names out of a large hat. At the time I was reading the books I did wonder how many British writers had been subjected to surveillance by our security services, but there didn't seem to be detailed information that would allow me to come to any kind of conclusion. It did seem obvious that the police and MI5 would have files on certain writers,but who were they?

James Smith's book offers some answers, though they're mainly about a handful of well-known writers. This is not said as a criticism, but instead to show that Smith has chosen to focus on a few specific names in an effort to demonstrate just how much surveillance took place.

The police and MI5 kept a close watch on what they thought of as "bohemian revolutionaries" or "intellectual communists," and Smith says that "Special Branch routinely monitored gatherings of 'Jewish and Intellectual type(s) of communists,' with the result that events ranging from small meetings to public festivals were attended by officers themselves or their details were relayed via a network of secret informants." There is ample evidence to indicate that mail was intercepted, telephones tapped, and premises bugged. Ralph Fox complained to the Post Office about irregularities in the delivery of his mail which he suspected, were due to it being intercepted. Nancy Cunard asked the police why her movements were monitored. And the novelist Ralph Bates had his manuscripts vetted by Special Branch as he passed through the port of Newhaven.

One group of writers of particular interest to the authorities included W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, and Cecil Day-Lewis, and Smith devotes a chapter to them. They were, in cultural terms, trend-setters, with their bias towards "poetry and drama deploying Marxist imagery and anti-fascist themes, political tracts such as Forward from Liberalism (Spender) and The Mind in Chains (edited by Day-Lewis), and contributions to Popular Front organs such as Left Review." All that, and their support for the Republican government in Spain, attracted the attention of the police and MI5. It does seem, though, that it wasn't necessarily their literary efforts which bothered the authorities, but rather their links to left-wing organisations or to individuals who were under suspicion. Spender and Day-Lewis had joined the Communist Party. Auden's friendship with Guy Burgess, later identified as one of the Cambridge spies, led MI5 to consider whether or not he had known about Burgess's activities and, in particular, his decision to flee to Russia to avoid being arrested. As for Isherwood,  it was largely due to his knowing Gerald Hamilton that he became of interest to MI5. Hamilton, the model for Arthur Norris in Isherwood's Mr Norris Changes Trains, was in Smith's words, "a remarkably disruptive individual that even Isherwood's fictionalised representations seem to underplay." Hamilton was involved in criminal activity and suspicious political work, so was always under surveillance.

Smith notes that the members of the Auden group quickly moved away from radical politics and "made a rapprochement with the institutions they had seemingly previously rejected." This didn't mean that MI5 stopped keeping records of what they got up to. As mentioned earlier, Auden's links to Guy Burgess caused some concern. Day-Lewis experienced difficulties in the 1940s when he wanted to obtain work with the BBC and the Ministry of Information in order to avoid being conscripted into the armed forces. Like Spender, he was eventually cleared for employment, though with the suggestion that he be kept under some form of surveillance in case he tried to insert pro-communist propaganda into whatever he was doing. MI5 also wanted to know how Communist Party officials reacted to Day-Lewis's withdrawal from the Party. They obtained information about this from transcripts of conversations which were routinely bugged.

A somewhat different bunch of left-wingers who came to the notice of the police (particularly in the Manchester area) and MI5 included Ewan MacColl and Joan Littlewood. MacColl was known to local police because of his membership of the Young Communist League and his involvements with left-wing street theatre. The police constantly harassed MacColl, who was still then using his real name, James Miller, though initially MI5 were not all that interested in him. It would appear that he first aroused attention through his work with the British Workers' Sports Federation (a communist front organisation) and his participation in the 1932 mass trespass at Kinder Scout in the Peak District. But even then, the MI5 investigator, Roger Hollis, wasn't concerned about MacColl's theatre work and remarked, "I think Miller may be left to his plays." This was to change when MacColl started to work for the BBC.

Joan Littlewood had moved to Manchester in 1934, looking for work in radio and with local repertory groups. She married MacColl in 1935, and co-operated with him in the Workers' Theatre Movement, Red Megaphones, and Theatre Union. The latter was a forerunner of the more-famous venture, Theatre Workshop, which was established in London in 1953. Smith cites a number of reports to MI5 by local police in which the various activities of MacColl ("communist cultural") and Littlewood (radio programmes) were noted. There was also a report which commented on their social lives: "at weekends, and more particularly when Miller's parents are away from home, a number of young men who have the appearance of Communist Jews are known to visit Oak Cottage." This was the Miller family home where MacColl and Littlewood were then living. The degree of surveillance carried out was quite significant, and another report stated that the detective concerned had been "able to listen to their conversations during the evenings at Oak Cottage," though he did say that he hadn't heard anything relating to communism and related political matters.

Police and MI5 surveillance continued through the war years, and Littlewood was still hired by the BBC, though not on a permanent basis. As for MacColl, who was still using his real name, he was briefly in the army, deserted, went into hiding, and survived until 1945 without being arrested. He then re-surfaced as Ewan MacColl. Both he and Joan Littlewood had, to a large degree, moved away from direct contact with the Communist Party, but Smith says that they functioned with a social framework that included many Party members. And in 1952 MI5 intercepted a letter containing an application from MacColl to rejoin the Communist Party. When Theatre Workshop was set up in Stratford it immediately became the subject of surveillance, and Littlewood later recalled seeing plain-clothes policemen taking notes in the theatre. Smith also mentions that information about Theatre Workshop was passed to MI5 by contacts within the "broader theatre industry." Were suspicions about it really justified? It's worth drawing attention to an incident which perhaps indicated that Littlewood and company were independently minded. Carl Weber, a famous director based in East Berlin, came to England to supervise the Theatre Workshop production of Brecht's Mother Courage. But he proved to be "much too German, much too dogmatic, and even much too Communist," and was soon barred from the theatre during rehearsals.

Two political writers known to MI5 were George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, both with a record of involvement in the Spanish Civil War, among other things. Orwell had been watched by the Wigan police when he was in the town gathering material for The Road to Wigan Pier. He was suspected of "communist activities," and said to be associating with "undesirable elements," the latter presumably known communists and other left-wingers. He received "an unusual amount of correspondence" and was observed making notes about local industries, etc. The fact that Orwell was already a published novelist and journalist doesn't seem to have come to the attention of the police in Wigan. One of the things that can be seen in reports from police in the provinces is that it was forms of what they thought of as unconventional behaviour that often bothered them. References to casual ways of dressing occur, and interests that didn't fit into an accepted pattern are commented on. This isn't surprising, and anyone who grew up in the towns and cities of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s will easily recognise the kind of thinking behind many police assumptions.

Orwell remained a problem even after publishing his mistrust of communists in Homage to Catalonia. He worked for the BBC during the Second World War, and Special Branch officers claimed that he had tried to obtain employment for alleged subversives. A report states: "This man Orwell has advanced communist views, and several of his Indian friends say that they have seen him at communist meetings. He dresses in a bohemian fashion both at his office and in his leisure hours." Fortunately for Orwell, some members of MI5 were a little more sophisticated in their judgements, and James Smith says that the agent checking the police report "did little to hide the sense of scorn felt for the intellectual paucity of the police." Surveillance of Orwell continued but on a diminished scale, and mostly by Special Branch.

With Arthur Koestler the security services had a much more complex problem to deal with. Smith is of the opinion that compared to the "relatively sparse files on Orwell, Koestler's MI5 file narrates what, in many places, seems more like the plot of a spy-thriller than fact." And he adds that Koestler could be legitimately seen as a "plausible security concern." He had been a member of the Communist Party and had engaged in "underground" activities in Europe. He had been involved with the Party in Germany, worked with the propaganda networks of Willi Munzenberg and Otto Katz, two notorious communists, and was imprisoned in Spain when, using the cover of being a newspaper reporter, he tried to gather evidence about how Franco was being supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Further adventures took Koestler to the Middle East, internment in a French concentration camp, a short stint in the Foreign Legion, and a roundabout route to get into Britain. When he arrived he was arrested and almost deported. He had, by this time, severed his links to the Communist Party, and though he was viewed with suspicion by MI5 he managed to persuade enough people in positions of influence that he was genuinely anti-communist. During the Cold War years he could always be counted on to provide an attack on the tyranny that communism represented. He was, for example, one of the contributors to The God that Failed, an influential anthology in which Koestler, Stephen Spender, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, and others, told how they had lost their faith in communism.

James Smith claims that "Special Branch, and indeed the police forces in general, were manifestly (and sometimes comically) incapable of understanding controversial but legal left-wing political movements and had particular difficulty in judging the security threat posed by intellectuals who involved themselves with dissident causes." And he goes on to say that ordinary policemen were not intellectually equipped to assess the masses of information they gathered. Their response was to harass suspects, gather more information, and invoke security alerts that had little or no basis in reality. Even some MI5 officers were guilty of similar attitudes and behaviour.

Smith does stress that, whatever the nuisance aspect of the surveillance of British writers (and some may well have missed out on work due to MI5 reports on their suitability for employment), the security apparatus did not, on  the whole, have the power "to decide what was or was not beyond the pale." What's more, "It is one of the strengths of Britain's political tradition, in an era when HUAC, McCarthyism, and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI were tearing America's cultural life apart, that MI5 and Special Branch remained marginal, and frequently contested, rather than decisive, voices." This is an accurate summing up, and anyone needing confirmation about the contrast with what happened in the USA ought to read the various histories, biographies, autobiographies, and other documents of what has been referred to as "The Great Fear." Writers went to prison for refusing to say whether or not they were communists, blacklists were established, and publishers leaned on to refuse to print work by left-wing authors. What happened in Britain in terms of harassment was minor by comparison.

However, Smith does ask if "the assumption of the presence of surveillance resulted in self-censorship. Did certain authors choose not to write on certain topics, to not publish in certain venues, or to not speak out on certain political causes because of the fear that this was being recorded and potentially held against them?" He thinks this may have been the case, at least with regard to some of the people he has looked at. Joan Littlewood broke off her connection to the Communist Party because she was worried that it was affecting her career with the BBC. Orwell deliberated about whether or not to write for a communist publication. And Koestler made a point of not associating with left-wing groups in Britain.

It's difficult to know about questions of self-censorship unless a writer admits to it, but I do wonder how many of them, not necessarily well-known or widely published, drew back from publishing work that might be looked on as politically questionable? The police probably had files on writers in their respective areas who were known left-wingers. Smith mentions Shelagh Delaney in this respect, and her file refers to her being a "communist sympathiser." The fact that her play, A Taste of Honey, was being produced by Theatre Workshop was also noted. We don't know how many other files existed locally, or if some writers backed away from political involvements when they worried that their jobs or their families might be affected by police harassment.

James Smith acknowledges that many files have still not been released, and those that have were subject to "redaction," with many details blanked out. Working with the materials available to him he has written a valuable and well-documented book that will, one hopes, lead to further research into surveillance of writers by the police and MI5.