Showing posts with label WWI. Show all posts
Showing posts with label WWI. Show all posts

27 February 2013

BRUCE LOCKHART: Memoirs of a British Agent


Where do you start? This is the guy who smuggled Kerensky out of Russia after the Bolsheviks came to power. He was intimate with Leon Trotsky. He met Stalin, once, and Lenin more than once. He was present at the creation of the modern world, the 20th century in all its wickedness. He lived, in other words, in interesting times, and he perhaps changed history. He was, of course, a spy.
Sun Tzu remarks that war is deceit. And our intelligence services, to borrow a phrase from John LeCarre, reflect our different national characters. Le Carre also noted the odd attraction of the Scots to the secret world, John Buchan an obvious example. Bruce Lockhart, as it happens, was a Scot.
Lockhart

He was sent to the British consulate in Moscow by the Foreign Office in 1912. He was twenty-four years old, and by his own admission, no sophisticate. He set out to learn the language, the customs and courtesies of the country, and Moscow itself, but above all, to cultivate social and political connections. This led, inevitably, to late nights filled with vodka and Gypsy balalaikas, sleigh rides to outlying dachas, and some dubious associations. It led also to an adulterous affair (Lockhart's wife had come with him to Russia), a scandal that got him sacked.

But he'd spent almost five years in Moscow, and the insular young sport had toughened considerably. He'd experienced the popular uprising firsthand, the abdication of the Tsar, the rise of Kerensky and the Social Democrats. As well, he'd witnessed the rough beast slouching toward war. Great Britain and Russia were now allies against Germany, and in London, the primary political concern was keeping Russia in the fight. Six weeks after Lockhart's return to England, in October of 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the Provisional Government and established the groundwork for a Soviet state. Capitulation to Germany was widely rumored.

There were, in the corridors of power Whitehall, two, if not three, competing schools of thought. The first was to strangle the new enterprise at birth. The second was to treat with the Bolsheviks, to encourage their continued resistance to German advances on the Eastern Front. The third was to deploy both the carrot and the stick, and to this end, David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, and Lord Milner, heading up the war cabinet, decided Lockhart was the man for the job. They sent him back, in January, 1918. This time, however, he served two masters, the Foreign Office, which gave him diplomatic cover, and the Secret Intelligence Service. SIS had a rather different mission in mind for him, to set up a clandestine espionage network, and penetrate the upper Soviet apparat.


This wasn't quite the impossible task it now seems, in retrospect. Everything was up for grabs. The new Russian government's grasp on power was unsteady, and the Terror hadn't yet begun. For the moment, they were just trying to keep the trains running, and most of the people Lockhart met in Moscow and St. Petersburg were fatalistic about their chances. Lockhart suggested to Trotsky that he could allow Japanese troops onto Russian soil, to help fight the Germans, or an expeditionary force, perhaps British, but Trotsky wasn't having any. He knew an imperialist plot when he saw one. Lockhart was of course halfhearted in this endeavor, since he knew any intervention would have to be in strength, and the War Office wouldn't sign off on it. At best, it would only be a token number of troops, which was worse than nothing. He was also hamstrung by vitiation in London: they were still arguing which course to follow. In the event, Trotsky went to Brest-Litovsk, and negotiated a humiliating peace. German envoys arrived as conquerors.

Lockhart was in a vise. His sponsors back in London were fighting a rear-guard action---he himself was seen as an obstacle, if not already co-opted by the Commies, and the Russians didn't trust him worth a damn, either. He was hanging on by his fingernails, trying to follow conflicting instructions from home, and keeping the confidence of his hosts. Two events blew him out of the water. A bomb attack in Kiev killed the German commanding general who was a guest of the Kremlin. This was in late July. On the last day of August, a young Social Revolutionary named Dora Kaplan put two bullets into Lenin himself, at point-blank range. One of them hit his lung. "His chances of living," Lockhart reports, "were at a discount."
Sidney Reilly
Now the rubber hits the road. Lockhart and his chief agent, Sidney Reily (yes, that Sidney Reilly---Lockhart's son Robin later wrote ACE OF SPIES), were implicated in the assassination attempt. Their operation came unraveled. Was our man in fact involved? Unlikely. He seems to have been taken completely by surprise. On the other hand, what about Reilly? I wouldn't put it past him. He was a slippery character, with a shadowy past, and an uncertain future, but that's a story for another day. He slips through the net. Lockhart is arrested and jailed by the Cheka. He's taken to the dreaded Lubyanka prison, dreaded for good reason.

Dark corridors, unyielding guards, the stone cells clammy with tears. At the end of a long hallway, a man waiting in an interrogation room, lit only by a lamp on the writing table, a revolver by his hand. "You can go," he tells the guards. A long silence follows. He looks at Lockhart, his face still. "Where is Reilly?" is his first question. An eternity goes by, Lockhart playing dumb, but in point of fact, he doesn't know. There is, he tells us, no attempt to bully him. The threat is implicit. He asks, finally, if he can use the bathroom.

Two gunmen take him there. I suddenly felt in my breast pocket a notebook, he writes. It was compromising material. There was no toilet paper in the stall. As calmly as I could, I took out my notebook, tore out the offending pages and used them in the manner in which the circumstances dictated. I pulled the plug. It worked, and I was saved.

Furious cables are exchanged, the Brits trying to spring their guy. In the end, Lockhart is released, and even at the last minute, the story of his escape is full of suspense. He's traded for the Russian diplomat Litvinov, but sentenced to death in absentia, later on, by the Soviet courts. He never goes back to Russia.

Lockhart lived into the fullness of his years, and died in 1970, at the age of eighty-two. During the Second World War, he coordinated the British propaganda effort against the Axis. He was knighted, too, Well deserved. A man who put duty first, if his dick on occasion led him astray.

Lockhart published MEMOIRS OF A BRITISH AGENT in 1932. It was a worldwide sensation. Why the British government didn't suppress it is an interesting question, but it was the story of an extraordinary success. The final section of his book is titled 'History from the Inside,' and indeed it is, the record of a man who was in the thick of it. He leaves a lot out, for sure, particularly the spook stuff. His son says he scoured through his father's remaining notes and diaries, after Lockhart's death, and turned it all over to the Foreign Office. Was it too revealing? We can read between the lines. Lockhart knew where the bodies were buried.

08 August 2012

John Buchan: The Power House


Hey folks!  Rob here to tell you we are pleased as can be to welcome a new blogger to the second Wednesday of the month slot.  David Edgerley Gates lives in New Mexico and has had a ton of stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines.  His work has been  nominated for both the Edgar and Shamus Awards.  He is probably best known for his "noir westerns" about Placido Geist.  We look forward to hearing from David for many months to come...


by David Edgerley Gates

John Buchan is probably most celebrated and best remembered for THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, and more for the Hitchcock picture, not the novel itself.  (It’s a good movie, even if Hitchcock changed the ending of the book.)
  
Buchan was an interesting guy, who served in the Boer War and was actually a spy, later, in the First World War.  He was ambitious in politics, but too liberal for the Tories, and too conservative for Winston Churchill---like Churchill, he was mothballed between the wars---and eventually wound up Governor-General of Canada, a more or less ceremonial post.  He died in 1940.  

Aside from THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, he wrote some three dozen novels, some of them thrillers, many of them historical romance.  His titles were terrific, THE BLANKET OF THE DARK, THE GAP IN THE CURTAIN, A PRINCE OF THE CAPTIVITY, a book I always thought to be about Lawrence of Arabia.  

He wrote them fast and loose.  He called them penny-dreadfuls, or ‘shockers,’ and they were, depending overmuch on coincidence and accident, but they have enormous momentum, and on occasion genuine emotional power: the scene in MR. STANDFAST, for example, when Hannay encounters the Kaiser himself on a train platform, and sees the man, weighted down by his responsibility for this cruel folly.  Buchan understood the primary job of a storyteller, don’t spin your wheels.

THE POWER HOUSE was published in 1916, a few years into the war.  The character of the villain is almost certainly influenced by Nietzsche, as is, we might well imagine, Professor Moriarty.  Conan Doyle and Buchan, as well as Kipling, another extremely invested writer, in the sense of believing deeply in the social fabric, although Kipling was by far the better craftsman, were conservatives of an older order, keepers of the flame. 

THE POWER HOUSE could be seen as a parable, but I don’t believe Buchan meant it that way.  A century later, a century that saw Hitler and Stalin, delusional maniacs who murdered millions of their own people, and many others, the book is still frightening in its prescience.  Buchan’s frame of reference, though, is different from ours.  We know the slaughter of the Great War, the Holocaust, or the genocides of Africa and the Balkan wars, so we look at a novel like THE POWER HOUSE, or PRESTER JOHN, through a lens of historical irony.  Buchan was in ignorance of the horrific future.  But he saw it in its lineaments.  THE POWER HOUSE is Hitler, unfortunately not strangled in birth, Yeats' rough and slouching beast.  Buchan had the gift, or curse, of foresight.  Cassandra, unheeded. 
    
THE POWER HOUSE, essentially, is about a guy who doesn’t think the rules apply to him.  This basic model of the sociopath is a character Buchan anticipated well before Hannibal Lecter, but one we’ve come to know.  Buchan, and Conan Doyle, got in on the ground floor.  Fu Manchu, or Dr. Mabuse, came on stage later, and they were avatars of an evil that could already be seen, off-stage.  The genius of THE POWER HOUSE lies in imagination.  The brute force of reality caught up with it.  Buchan saw the Fascists and Nazism lying in wait, tinder waiting for a match.  He was a voice in the wilderness. 

John Buchan, or Arthur Conan Doyle, or Rudyard Kipling, might in all justice be called apologists for British imperialism.  I don’t think, however, that they countenanced a philosophy that led to the death camps.  Yes, the Boer War, which was a slippery slope, with the British the first to embrace internment of non-combatant women and children.  Buchan was there, one of Milner’s acolytes.  Perhaps it suggested something else to him, that this way lies madness.  And it did. 

Much of Buchan’s work dates badly, because he’s essentially a 19th-century guy, with a late-Victorian cultural and emotional mindset.  There’s little graphic violence in his stories, and of course no sex at all.  But the men of his generation came to be marked by the Great War, with its unthinkable slaughters, Ypres, the Somme, Verdun, the introduction of tank warfare, the use of poison gas.  There were inspiring heroics, but at horrific human cost.   

The world that came after, as Paul Fussell points out, was very different, different in both temperament and imagination.  The key to THE POWER HOUSE is that Buchan foresees not the horrors to come, or even their political foundations, but the fertility of an individual capacity for evil, the earth from which the dragon’s teeth would spring.