Graham Greene: On Kim Philby, John le Carré, and the Spying Game

Listen to the True Spies Graham Green podcast: The Dangerous Edge of Things

Not long before the end of the Cold War, Graham Greene traveled to Moscow where he visited Kim Philby, the British intelligence officer who had been unmasked in 1963 as a KGB double agent and member of the Cambridge Five spy ring.

It was 1986 and the men had not set eyes on each other for 35 years yet within minutes they were clapping each other on the back, chatting like close friends, and laughing over shared memories. Philby's young Russian wife, Rufina, later recalled: "The two of them sitting around a table in a Moscow flat knocking back vodka, Greene's favorite drink." 

Greene was one of Philby’s deputies when the pair worked for the British spy agency MI6 decades earlier and the aging secret agent was sympathetic to Philby’s plight - he even wrote an introduction to Philby’s memoirs rationalizing Philby’s treason.

"He betrayed his country - yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?” Greene wrote in his introduction to Philby’s My Silent War. “In Philby's own eyes he was working for a shape of things to come from which his country would benefit.”

Many questioned Greene's loyalties, a question closely examined in True Spies' Graham Green podcast: The Dangerous Edge of Things.

Graham Greene On Kim Philby, John le Carre and The Spying Game
Graham Greene: The Dangerous Edge of Things
MI6 officer and author Graham Greene, 1964; True Spies' podcast: The Dangerous Edge of Things


Graham Greene: On Kim Philby, John le Carré, and The Spying Game

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Listen to the True Spies Graham Green podcast: The Dangerous Edge of Things

Not long before the end of the Cold War, Graham Greene traveled to Moscow where he visited Kim Philby, the British intelligence officer who had been unmasked in 1963 as a KGB double agent and member of the Cambridge Five spy ring.

It was 1986 and the men had not set eyes on each other for 35 years yet within minutes they were clapping each other on the back, chatting like close friends, and laughing over shared memories. Philby's young Russian wife, Rufina, later recalled: "The two of them sitting around a table in a Moscow flat knocking back vodka, Greene's favorite drink." 

Greene was one of Philby’s deputies when the pair worked for the British spy agency MI6 decades earlier and the aging secret agent was sympathetic to Philby’s plight - he even wrote an introduction to Philby’s memoirs rationalizing Philby’s treason.

"He betrayed his country - yes, perhaps he did, but who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?” Greene wrote in his introduction to Philby’s My Silent War. “In Philby's own eyes he was working for a shape of things to come from which his country would benefit.”

Many questioned Greene's loyalties, a question closely examined in True Spies' Graham Green podcast: The Dangerous Edge of Things.

Graham Greene On Kim Philby, John le Carre and The Spying Game
Graham Greene: The Dangerous Edge of Things
MI6 officer and author Graham Greene, 1964; True Spies' podcast: The Dangerous Edge of Things


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Philby and Greene

Was Greene still unwittingly under his old bosses’ spell or was the MI6 agent also a communist sympathizer? Greene was briefly a Communist Party member while studying at Oxford University and later also wrote a sympathetic profile of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. 

Undoubtedly, Philby was not without charm, a born leader who made a lasting impression. Greene fondly recalled the “long Sunday lunches at St. Albans when the whole subsection relaxed under his [Philby’s] leadership for a few hours of heaving drinking”. 

Philby died in May 1988, apparently having done his utmost to drink himself to death. Greene passed away shortly afterward in April 1991 at the age of 86 and interest in both men endures - two iconic figures crucial to the espionage world of the 20th century.

Greene once said writing and spying had much in common: “There is a splinter of ice in the heart” - noting both spies and writers used human tragedy as the basis for their work.

Graham Greene On Kim Philby, John le Carre and The Spying Game
Shop SPYSCAPE’s NYC HQ for first edition books including Stamboul Train and Ministry of Fear

Graham Greene: Childhood bullying and spying

Greene was born in Berkhamsted, England in 1904, the fourth of six children. His mother was a cousin to Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.

By all accounts, Greene had a difficult childhood and reportedly ran away from home having been bullied at school. His troubles continued at Oxford University, where friends noted he was prone to bouts of depression.

Greene’s problems were serious enough that his parents sent him to London for psychotherapy - unusual at the time - and while in London he discovered his love for literature. Writers Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein are said to have been mentors through his formative years.

He graduated from Oxford University in 1925 with a second-class degree in history and began working as a journalist for The Times of London. Years of debauchery soon followed.

Biographer Richard Greene (no relation) describes Graham Greene as a man who loved drink, opium, adventure, and beautiful women. The MI6 spy once visited a brothel and monastery during one visit to Mexico but there was no danger of Greene becoming a priest: “‘Chastity would have been beyond my powers,” Graham once said.

Graham Greene On Kim Philby, John le Carre and The Spying Game
Greene converted to Catholicism to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning; they parted during WWII

The emerging spy writer

Greene wrote his first novel, The Man Within, in 1929. Betrayal, pursuit, and death quickly became central themes of his work. Catholic religious themes were also at the root of much of his writing, including The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair.

His first success came with the publication of an entertaining thriller, Stamboul Train (1932), which he followed with Brighton Rock (1938) - filled with violent sexual imagery - and Confidential Agent (1939).

The Lawless Roads documented his travels in Mexico in 1938, and the same experience was the basis for The Power and the Glory, which he regarded as his best work. By the 1950s, Greene was one of the finest writers of his generation when he published Our Man in Havana (1958).

Graham Greene On Kim Philby, John le Carre and The Spying Game
Author Graham Greene on the movie set of Our Man in Havana


Graham Greene's travels and espionage

Greene’s journalism writing made him a natural choice for a life in intelligence and provided an ideal cover story. He traveled extensively - to Liberia, Mexico, Haiti, around the Congo Basin, and what were then the British Cameroons. In 1941, Green’s sister recruited him into MI6 and he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War.

Spy writer John le Carré - another MI6 veteran-turned-novelist - met up with Greene in Sierra Leone. He later recalled with amusement how Greene immediately demanded his letters from France and shared his fixation with eunuchs.

“He’d been reading the station code book and found that the Service actually had a code group for eunuchs,” le Carré later told author Ben Mcintrye. ”Must have been from the days when we were running eunuchs in harems as agents. He was dying to make a signal with eunuchs in it. “ 

Greene and his spymaster

Greene’s work in West Africa inspired the novel The Heart of the Matter, and he played a small role in helping the revolutionaries in Cuba in 1957, transporting clothing for Fidel Castro’s rebels which may have influenced Our Man in Havana.

It was around this time that he became friends with Philby, and the two remained friends for decades, even after Philby’s defection and the scale of his treachery were exposed. Philby’s betrayal led to the execution of countless men and women - some believe thousands - who were working on behalf of MI6 and the CIA, yet Greene remained loyal to his former spymaster.

Greene resigned from MI6 in 1944 and later left Britain in 1966 for Antibes, France, before spending his final years in Switzerland where he died in April 1991, one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century. 

Listen to the True Spies Graham Green podcast: The Dangerous Edge of Things
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