Apr 22, 09
Read in April, 2009
This is a sprawling and at times gossipy epic contextualising the lives of both the senior Philby, a civil servant who converted to Islam and became an advisor to the Saudi rulers, and the junior, who, of course, operated as a Soviet agent with a cover so well-crafted that the Russians were never quite sure if he was really theirs.
The cast of characters is lengthy, and at times the biography's two subjects disappear from view in what is in places a somewhat tangled and digressive narrative which moves between India, the Saudi court, posh English schools and Cambridge University, the world of journalism (where Philby Jnr got to know Malcolm Muggeridge), the intelligence war against the Nazis (which brings Graham Greene into the tale), the CIA, Beirut, and finally Moscow.
The book contains a good deal of research, although I note that some reviews claim there are inaccuracies. I noticed one minor botch, which is hardly surprising in such a wide-ranging tome: the Duke of Coburg is described as having been related to the British royal family through his grandfather, Prince Albert - but surely it would be more obvious then to note that his grandmother was Queen Victoria! In fact, the significant point of the story has been garbled - the Duke was an English aristocrat who was removed to Germany as a child in order to maintain British control over Prince Albert's historical title. It ended in tears, with the Duke being persona non grata in the UK after World War One, and his German title abolished anyway.
Some reviews I've seen scoff at the book's title, as if the author had really intended to suggest "bad blood" was the real reason Philby Jnr became a traitor. However, this isn't actually a serious thesis that is made in the book, although some similarities in personality between father and son are considered. I suspect some of these reviewers baulked at the length of the book and simply seized on the title as an easy way to make a criticism.