There’s an anecdote David Hare wrote down — I forget where — about meeting Hugh Carleton-Greene in the days when Greene ran the BBC. Greene had Hare tagged as a ‘mischief-maker’ and Hare subsequently titled his essay ‘Ah, Mischief!’ adding ‘I have never seen a man so delighted by a single word.’
I’ll own up to that. To mischief. If we are all the products of our childhood, which is mostly education, then we are also the anti-product … matter and anti-matter.
I have always delighted in fucking things up from schooldays on, or, to narrow it down to something almost as vast, to fucking up England and its Englishness — I am the anti-product, the refusnik.
That’s what drew me to Guy Burgess. He played subversive games with Englishness. He fucked it up. He struck me as a very curious, if comprehensible, mix of a man. A striped-tie-wearing old Etonian, who took to London life in the 1940s with all the tact of a Trump on a Tweet, a man who saw no contradiction in belonging to the RAC and other clubs whilst remaining a non-card-carrying Communist. (To have been a member of the British Communist Party would have been far too obvious.)
I started and put down Friends and Traitors several times. Other books got in the way, and I am a very slow writer. I began it thinking it would deal with a request from Burgess to come home — he hated life in Moscow — but when I finally picked up the book in earnest I realised it would only make sense with what I believe is now called a ‘back story’. Rather than opening on that request in 1958 (the real Burgess asked in 1959, but no matter) I’d take him right back to leaving Cambridge in 1935. This led to a pleasing coincidence. It was the year Troy joined the Police Force in Black Out, many books ago — I hadn’t planned it that way but it quickly led to a decision to trace their relationship from that date until Burgess’s unwitting defection in 1951. Only then would I pick up the original idea of his de-defection.
Hence, the book is, as they used to say of soccer, a game of two halves. Mischief and Murder.