Kingsley Amis was spied on – but he’s in the best literary company

MI5 kept tabs on Amis, who joins Byron, Wordsworth, Orwell and Iris Murdoch as having been suspected of espionage

The National Archives revealed this week that MI5 kept a file on Kingsley Amis after learning in the 1940s that he was a student communist. Amis was then called up and his commanding officer, responding reassuringly to an inquiry by MI5’s gloriously named Lt Col John Baskervyle-Glegg, perceptively foreshadowed his ensuing career by saying that he voiced outrageous views “to compensate for a nebulous personality by making extreme and controversial statements in the hope it will make an impression”. This put the subsequently reactionary author of Lucky Jim in rather distinguished company, since British writers who have been spied on are often classier, in literary terms, than those who have been spies (including John Buchan, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John le Carré) because the latter tend to exploit their knowledge of the looking-glass world of espionage by writing thrillers.

John Milton.
Under attack … John Milton. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Christopher Marlowe, denounced by fellow-playwright Thomas Kyd, was under surveillance – apparently as part of a crackdown on Catholics and freethinkers – when he died in murky circumstances in Deptford, south London, in 1593. Ben Jonson was watched by both Elizabeth I and James I, because his plays The Isle of Dogs and Sejanus, were deemed seditious; his poem “Epistle to a Friend” anticipates the McCarthy era in describing a “hell on Earth” where “flatterers, spies, informers both of arts and lies, lewd slanderers, soft whisperers” all swarm.

(The Bard himself is not usually thought to have been either a spy or spied upon, but Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman’s The Shakespeare Conspiracy argues that he was a “double agent” caught up in a plot to kill Elizabeth).

John Milton, an ardent republican and Cromwell aide, was similarly on a watchlist as an enemy of the crown after the Restoration in 1660, midway through the composition of Paradise Lost. Denounced as a defender of the regicides, he was forced to go on the run and his writings were publicly burnt.

Doris Lessing.
Potential threat … Doris Lessing was a member of the Communist party for a spell. Photograph: Kieran Doherty/Reuters

Fast forward to the paranoid, post-revolutionary 1790s, and two more geniuses were the objects of official suspicion. Seeing an odd-looking duo roaming the hills of Somerset at night, the Home Office’s Mr Walsh took them to be French agents. They were, in fact, Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth who – although both bolshy when young – were just doing what nature poets do. (The oft-told story that their discussion of Spinoza was misheard as referring to “the spy Nozy” seems, disappointingly, to have been Coleridgean fake news, however.) In the next generation of Romantics, Percy Shelley fled to the continent in 1814 to escape the attentions of the secret police, who not unreasonably saw his pamphlets and poems as subversive. Byron, more exotically, was suspected by the Austrian authorities of conspiring with the Carbonari when living in Italy.

Another cluster of radical poets were of interest to the authorities from the 1930s onwards. The police and MI5 monitored the links Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis (who both joined the Communist party) and WH Auden had with socialist organisations or “suspicious” individuals. The spooks’ war against leftwing intellectuals also encompassed the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, and continued in later decades with files maintained on reds in the arts – George Orwell (fought in Spain alongside anarchists), Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Joan Littlewood (all had spells as CP members) were among those seen as potential threats to the state – and surveillance and infiltration of the 1950s/60s anti-bomb and anti-war movements.


John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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