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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


By Caroline Hume


Redroaster Café, Brighton

Ever wondered about the home life of spy? When they’ve clocked off, arrived home, hung up their mac, kissed their spouse and asked what’s for tea? Do they do the washing up? Do they enjoy a board game with the family?

Kim Philby, apparently, washed the dishes and was good at Monopoly.

“You’d never know he was a communist from the way he plays Monopoly,”* says Eleanor, his third wife.

But perhaps a spy never really clocks off. Certainly Philby, if Caroline Hume’s Secret is anything to go by, carried the profession of deceit and double-dealing into his personal life.

He must have been quite a charmer. Secret draws on what little we know of five women in Philby’s life (there were more) and we see him through them, through their love, their suspicions, their understanding of what it means to be a spy. They comprise the wreckage of his life and they also stands monuments of survival in the face of what he does to them.

It’s complicated. The story begins a few days after Philby’s co-conspirators, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, have defected, and the hunt for a Third Man is underway. Philby is suspected but manages to stick around for 12 years before he, too, defects.

The lies come in layers, from the international to the domestic. How much do his wives and lovers know? To what extent are they victims of the deceit? Does he cheat them like he cheats his country? Are they unwitting accomplices in the spying game?

Hume has researched her subject over several years. She has steeped herself in the period and the people, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they sip their tea, nibble macaroons and drink champagne.

The characters of the five women are sharply defined and distinct. Bunny (Miranda Henderson), a fascist sympathiser, knowingly provides right cover for Philby, can look after herself and does.  Aileen (Lucinda Curtis), the mother of Philby’s children reveals her own secrets of self-harm and defends him till the bitterly disappointing end – “He may not have loved me but he stood by me, and that’s nearly as good”.

There’s Melinda (Sian Webber), wife of Burgess, lover of Philby, tough, imposing, sexually driven. Litzi (Holly Strickland), Philby’s Austrian first wife and possibly his only true love – he names a pet fox after her – who knows the truth and doesn’t mind hurting with it..

And Eleanor (Nicola Barber), the most tortured of all. We seem closer to Eleanor than any of them, thanks to a remarkable, emotional performance by Curtis and thanks to her getting some of the best lines.

“It was like catching a clown smoking backstage,” she says, describing the sight of a dead body. “As indifferent as that.”

Hume writes as beautifully as that. The dialogue is easy, elegant, yet shot through with clinging images. We are left with brilliant clarity and dark, depthless mystery in one.

Harrison (Alister O’Loughlin), the man from the Foreign Office and sole male character, has the last, inconclusive word. “The fact is…” he says, tailing off into ellipsis.

It is a story to be continued. But without, you feel, any final resolution.

*Apologies for any errors in quotation. I have access to neither the script nor a good enough memory.

October 11, 2010

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