THE SECRET WAR AGAINST THE ARTS : HOW MI5 TARGETED LEFT-WING WRITERS & ARTISTS 1936-1956
By Richard Knott
Pen & Sword Books. 226 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-52677—031-8
Reviewed by Jim Burns.
We live in a democracy. There may be various interpretations of what that word means, but we generally agree that the rule of law should apply fairly and freely to all, and that we are on the whole at liberty to read what we want, and express our opinions about most things without falling foul of the institutions of the state. We assume that our homes will be respected and not raided, that the police will leave us alone if we don’t commit crimes, that we can move around without hindrance, and that we can communicate openly with other people and not be pilloried for doing so.
Well, that’s what should happen, and often does for most people. There are always exceptions to any law or matter of understanding, and we’d no doubt accept many of them on the grounds that the general good requires us to make concessions. Only an extreme libertarian would argue that terrorist material should be easily available, that certain kinds of pornography ought not to be censored, or that everyone has the right to own guns and ammunition. It’s also necessary to point out that recent events have shown how quickly some of our “rights” can be tinkered with when governments think it necessary.
A difficulty often arises in relation to political aims and ideas. Provided you don’t conspire to overthrow the state by force of arms it might be thought that we ought to be able to read and write anything we please. But the state will most likely claim that it needs to keep an eye on what we are doing in case words turn into actions. And this argument was particularly pronounced during the period covered by Richard Knott’s book when communism was the bogey word. Writers and artists, few of who were active in a direct sense, were closely watched and reported on. It was a situation which led to moments of some amusement when people found themselves subject to surveillance, but also times of stress when authors and painters were blacklisted and unable to obtain work.
Clive Branson and Paul Hogarth both came under suspicion because of their links to the Communist Party. Branson was born into comfortable surroundings – Knott refers to his parents as “conventional upper middle class” – and had a good education. When he left Bedford School he worked in an insurance office, but nursed ambitions to become an artist. His parents eventually agreed to provide him with a small allowance while he became a student at the Slade. He didn’t settle at the Slade, finding the teaching uninspiring, and left to follow what I suppose would be called a bohemian lifestyle while pursuing a lone path with his artistic aspirations. An inheritance gave him freedom from financial worries, but his eyes had been opened to the poverty and distress evident around him, and he became radicalised. He had met Noreen Browne, who came from a family with aristocratic connections, but was. like Branson, growing more aware of the social and political problems of the period. A short stay in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) led them to the Communist Party.
Paul Hogarth was also destined to become a Party member, but his background was a world away from that of Branson. Born in Kendal, and brought up in Manchester, his father was a small shopkeeper who frowned on his son’s interest in books and art. Hogarth attended the Manchester School of Art but left home when he was seventeen, and took an interest in politics. When the Civil War broke out in Spain in 1936 Hogarth was an early volunteer, along with Clive Branson. It was a decision that heightened the interest taken in them by both local police and MI5.
That interest, with files kept on their involvements and movements, lasted for years in Hogarth’s case. With regard to Branson, his death in action in Burma in 1944, while serving in the British Army, brought matters to an end, though Noreen Branson’s continued membership in the Party meant that she was always likely to be watched. Likewise with Hogarth, and he was discharged from the army after a few months even though he was keen to carry on serving in its ranks. His “premature anti-fascism” was held against him. He resigned from the Party in 1957, but was still denied entry to the USA in 1991 because of his one-time Communist Party membership, which the Americans probably knew about thanks to MI5. It might be seen that it was “quixotically British” when he was awarded an OBE in 1989, and was elected to full membership of the Royal Academy.
Branson and Hogarth are just two of the artists Knott deals with. Others include the now, I would guess, largely forgotten Ralph Bates, a novelist and short-story writer with involvements in Spain, who “was deemed to be a potential Red following the discovery of a copy of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black in his luggage”. When Bates made an appeal for aid for the Spanish Republic at a meeting in Conway Hall it was reported that “the audience appeared to be made up of Jewish and intellectual types of communists”.
Throughout his book Knott points out how “personal idiosyncrasies” were often noted in reports about supposed communists. It was said of the painter Julian Trevelyan that “he sometimes wears sandals” George Orwell’s inclination to “dress like a bohemian” was registered.. A red bow-tie, or owning a pair of red silk-stockings was enough to arouse suspicion, as was merely being seen in the presence of a known radical. It does occur to me to wonder if simply being interested in the arts was considered a questionable activity in the eyes of many policemen, and therefore worthy of attention? Contact tracing was in operation long before Covid19 arrived on the scene.
George Orwell, despite his background at public school and in the Colonial police, was looked on as potentially dangerous by the security services. The fact that he was firmly anti-communist may have been recognised, but it didn’t stop Special Branch and MI5 keeping files on him. He’d fought in Spain, but with a non-communist Marxist organisation, though that difference probably didn’t count for much with the authorities. The nuances of left-wing thought confused many people. And his attitude towards the police was suspicious, especially when he said of a campaign to have the Scotland Yard surveillance files destroyed if it looked like the Germans might invade: “Some hope. The police are the very people who would go over to Hitler once they were certain he had won”.
Knott does refer to what some commentators see as a blot on Orwell’s record of opposition to authority, his list of communists and fellow-travellers that he handed to MI5 in 1949. Excuses can be made for his action. He was in poor health, he was possibly influenced by the attentions of a female MI5 agent, and he was genuinely concerned about what communists were planning in terms of infiltrating various organisations. It’s difficult to now understand what the atmosphere was like in the late-1940s and early-1950s. There was a general hostility to communism, especially because of the Cold War and the Russian activities in Eastern Europe. Naming names is not necessarily a practice to be approved of, particularly when some of the names might belong to people who are not in any way dangerous, but we may want to allow for special circumstances at times.
It would be difficult to ascertain just how many lives were affected by the presence in them of the operatives from MI5 and the police. Knott inevitably focuses on some of the better-known names in the arts. But I suspect that others were also caught up in the dragnet, with Special Branch officers from local police forces, and informants, feeding details to MI5. It’s highly likely that some of the details had more to do with the social prejudices of the observers rather than any actual activities on the part of the observed. Dressing a little differently, being interested in things most people ignored, and not openly participating in what might be called normal day-to-day involvements, were all possible grounds for comment.
Shopkeepers, postmen, and neighbours, would know which newspapers and magazines were read, where mail came from, and how many curious-looking visitors arrived. The authorities tapped telephone and opened letters to obtain information. It’s no secret that Communist Party headquarters in London were bugged and burgled. But what about the provinces where the unusual might be more noticeable than in London? Which painter or poet in Birmingham or Manchester had his ideas and opinions scrutinised? The answers might be in the archives, if they still exist, of local Special Branch units, but accessing them might not be easy. And though Knott can come up with evidence of blacklists which prevented some people from working for the BBC and other organisations, I began to wonder how many others were denied employment with local authorities and private companies because the police or MI5 had advised against them being hired?
Such questions are outside the scope of Knott’s book, and his focus is on someone like the poet Randall Swingler. There has been a revival of interest in his life and work in recent years, thanks to the efforts of Andy Croft who has written extensively about him. Swingler had served with some distinction in the British Army in the Second World War, but his continued commitment to communism meant that he found it difficult to obtain suitable employment in the post-war years, and so scuffled to earn a living. He had personal problems, which could have been partly caused by the predicament in which he found himself, and collapsed and died in a Soho street when leaving a pub.
Swingler is a valuable case to study when it comes to how easily a writer can disappear from sight. His writing, and his literary involvements in the 1930s and 1940s, seem impressive, but the onset of the Cold War caused him to be almost “airbrushed” out of history. His radicalism counted against him. It’s also true that his poems would probably not have found favour with the Movement poets of the 1950s, nor with the so-called “underground” poets of the 1960s. The majority of poets are fated to be forgotten, but Swingler probably suffered from neglect more than most.
There is a dark humour to be gained from the fact that, while MI5 were harassing writers and artists, most of who were never likely to engage in espionage or other illegal activities, more than a few real spies were escaping its attention. The stories of Blunt, Philby, Burgess, Maclean, and more, are too well-known to need noticing here. While Auden, Spender, the artist James Boswell, the composer Alan Bush, the novelist Doris Lessing, and the theatre activist Joan Littlewood, were all regularly investigated, information of value to the Russians was flowing freely from highly-placed sources.
The Secret War Against the Arts can’t possibly tell the whole story of how MI5 and Special Branch harassed writers and artists and what the effects were on their work. Did publishers fight shy of poetry by left-wingers and galleries turn down paintings by artists known to be political radicals? Knott says that the Leicester Galleries, his regular outlet, refused to display Paul Hogarth’s drawings from a 1956 trip to Africa, “because of their challenging content”. It isn’t specified what was “challenging” about the drawings, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that what they showed was not In accord with official policy about the colonies. MI5 had informed the police in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia that Hogarth and Lessing were on their way. Knott says that both had their luggage searched before they left England. The authorities presumably knew that funds for the trip, which was in connection with a book Lessing was writing and Hogarth illustrating, had been provided by the Soviet News Agency, TASS.
Richard Knott has written a lively and thought-provoking book. It won’t be the last word on the subject. He notes that researchers continue to be denied access to some files, and that those that are made available are often heavily-redacted. “National security” is the usual excuse for limits imposed on allowing access to files or redacting them.. The names of informants are blacked out. The state doesn’t want us to know too much about how and why we’ve been watched. Which makes one think about who is being observed now besides suspected terrorists? Police in recent years have infiltrated a variety of protest groups, And the growth of surveillance equipment means that we’re all watched a lot of the time. Technology enables investigators to follow our movements, find out what we buy and who we meet. It’s no longer a case of a local policeman sending in a report to say that someone has the appearance of a “bohemian” or sports a red tie. MI5 will now already know much more than that.