Isaiah Berlin – Too Hot To Handle?

Regular readers will recall that, in October 2013, I held a seminar at Buckingham University, delivering an address titled ‘Isaiah Berlin: The Undercover Egghead’. (see septemberspooks). This was an account of Berlin’s activities during WWII and after in the field of intelligence, enterprises that he severely downplayed when interviewed by his biographer, Michael Ignatieff. Soon afterwards, I wrote up my speech in article form, and sought to have it published, identifying ‘History Today’ as the most suitable outlet.

I have learned by now that the publishing world works in a most mysterious way, but, after a few months, and occasional prodding, I was delighted to learn that the editor, Paul Lay, had accepted the article for publication. I worked with his Picture Editor, and we selected a number of photographs, as well as a cartoon from Punch, for which copyright fees were paid. Then things went silent. I was surprised that no final copy was sent to me for review. However, in the September issue of the magazine, the text that appears in this image confirmed that my piece was due to appear in the October issue.

'The Undercover Egghead" is on its way!

‘The Undercover Egghead” is on its way!

The October issue came out in mid-September, but my article was not there. I questioned Paul Lay by email, but he was evasive. As it happened, I had planned a visit to the UK in October, primarily to get my degree upgraded from a M. Phil. to a D. Phil, and my supervisor had encouraged me to use the forthcoming publication as support for my case. So I informed Lay that I would be in London, and would like to meet him to discuss it. The meeting took place; I learned that the Picture Editor had suddenly retired (without informing me); Lay himself had had concerns about the controversial nature of my piece, since ‘current history’ was a sensitive topic. (He had apparently been burned by a recent article on the Shroud of Turin, and did not want any repeat). He said that he had to pass the article to another Berlin expert for review; that expert had had one or two questions about unreferenced claims I made, but, once those were cleared up, he expected he would be able to publish in the December/January timeframe. On my return to the USA, I gave him the references he wanted, and all seemed fine.

Nothing has happened since. In January, my friend Henry Hardy (who was Berlin’s chief editor at the OUP, until he recently retired) inquired of Lay when the piece would come out, and Lay indicated March. It did not appear in March, or April. A further inquiry has gone unanswered. It is all a mystery. Is Berlin too hot to handle? Did he become so much of a ‘national treasure’ that any criticism of him is off limits? Are my revelations about the indiscretions of MI5 and MI6, and Berlin’s plotting with the Soviet spy Guy Burgess too uncomfortable for the Establishment? The censorship cannot be purely out of concern over the sensitivities of Lady Berlin, as that extraordinary lady died in August 2014 (aged 99). It is all very bewildering.

But the research continues. My degree was successfully upgraded, I discovered critical new facts at the National Archives in Kew, and I plan to complete my thesis later this summer. But should I expect to be stopped at Immigration (‘just a few routine inquiries, sir’) if I were to make a return visit to the UK?

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In one of those intriguing juxtapositions, I read in the New York Times about a week ago of two events: the death of Lee Kuan Yew, and the re-burial of Richard III. According to his obituary, in 2007, the former prime minister of Singapore said: “To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist. To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny. So, history is a long time. I’ve done my bit.” Well, the United Kingdom no longer has a ‘homogeneous population’ (but did it ever? what on earth could that mean, what with Celts, Danes, Normans, Huguenots, Jews, etc. etc.?), I am highly suspicious of claims about a single ‘common culture’, and I think it’s a bit capricious to talk about ‘common destiny’. But the UK does have a well-illustrated history and a strong sense of continuity, and I suspect it is that which drew so many people out for the parade and ceremony in Leicester. One does not have to be an ardent royalist, or a member of the Church of England, to recognize that there is something moving in being able to watch the body of a king who died over 500 years ago being carried through a city’s streets for a proper burial. Richard III was not a nice man, and his diabolical nature was impressed upon me (and maybe on many others) by Shakespeare, and by the account of the Princes and the Tower in Our Island Story. (I have very vivid memories of seeing, on a wet 1955 Thursday in Crowborough, Sussex, the film version of Shakespeare’s play, where Lawrence Olivier squirmed like an insect as he acted out the king’s death at Bosworth Field.) As reinforcement of that notion, I have also just read, in Nicola Lacey’s biography of the jurisprudential expert, Herbert Hart, that Hart considered Margaret Thatcher ‘the worst head of Government since Richard III’, an assertion that probably tells us more about Herbert Hart than it does about Lady Thatcher. The revisionists are already working on Richard: we shall probably soon learn that he liked to dandle young children on his knee (like Stalin), and spent most of his time quietly basket-weaving, and giving away his possessions to the poor.

The usual set of Commonplace entries: mostly about nationalism and communism. (Commonplace)


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Media, Personal

2 Responses to Isaiah Berlin – Too Hot To Handle?

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