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The Secret Twenties by Timothy Phillips review – spies and the Bolshevik threat

A rewarding book, the product of years in the declassified archives of MI5, highlights errors and over-heightened suspicions on the part of British intelligence. Late in 1920 the Hampstead branch of the Communist party of Great Britain held its end-of-year dinner at Pinoli’s restaurant in Soho, London. The diners were offered a range of dishes – fillet of whiting, chicken au chasserole, lamb cutlets, salads, ices and cheese – and the festivities ended, as Timothy Phillips writes, with a rousing rendition of the “Red Flag”. We know all this because Special Branch spies not only monitored the event but sent full details, including that insurrectionary menu, across Whitehall and even to members of the cabinet.The Secret Twenties is the rewarding product of Phillips’s immersion in what he calls the “vast, sweeping, intriguing and sometimes shocking repository of material” that comprises the declassified archives of MI5. His subject is the intelligence services’ obsession with the new Soviet Union and the “Bolshevik threat”. While he is alert to the dangers of anachronism, and to how alarming the possibility of revolutionary contagion must have been, his evidence points to paranoia and error on the part of Britain’s spies, who in general were “simply scaring themselves with spectres of their own making”.

Along the way he makes a few significant discoveries and tells plenty of entertaining stories. The guest of honour at the dinner at Pinoli’s was Nikolai Klyshko, friend of HG Wells, who had not only brought two suitcases full of platinum bars into Britain to help fund the dissemination of Communist ideas, but instructed the left-wing journalist Francis Meynell to smuggle in expropriated Russian jewellery inside pats of butter and soft-centred chocolates. Meynell licked off the chocolate before flogging the gems in Hatton Garden.While spies failed over years to identify the Comintern agent Jacob Kirchenstein, despite his rather conspicuous alias “Johnnie Walker”, they made much of the activities of Clare Sheridan, a cousin of Winston Churchill. Sheridan, a sculptor and socialite with advanced views on free love, had an affair with Soviet negotiator Lev Kamenev and paid a visit to the USSR, but while there was never a shred of evidence that she endangered national security she long remained one of the fledgling MI5’s most important suspects. Given her addiction to the limelight, Phillips reflects, “the idea that Sheridan could have functioned … as a secret agent is laughable”. There was “mania in the air”.

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