Sunday 19 July 2020

Sadder and More Confusing

An undoubted Establishment figure - Keeper of the Queen's Pictures no less - Sir Anthony Blunt was exposed as a spy in the 1960s (an episode of The Crown deals with the affair), though the information wasn't publicised until Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979. Anita Brookner, who worked with and for Blunt at the Courtauld, was unaware of his secret past. (She would later discover, on publication of Peter Wright's Spycatcher, that she had herself been unwittingly used to gather information possibly useful to the Soviets.)

Max Hastings, writing in the Spectator in August 1980, laid into those he saw as forgiving or making light of Blunt's misdemeanours: all those former students, colleagues and hangers-on who continued to be seduced by his charisma and didn't demonstrate the sort of kneejerk condemnation Hastings (and the Leaderene, no doubt) would have seen as confirmation of the right stuff.

Brookner's letter to the Spectator of a few weeks later was nuanced and oblique. In her second life as a novelist, soon to be inaugurated, we would come to recognise this tone - and its deployment as a bulwark against very real horror and pain.
I owe my entire career to Anthony Blunt. With a number of co-signatories – from England, France, Germany, Italy, and America – I and some of my colleagues wrote to The Times last November to state our gratitude to our former teacher. The letter was not printed. I also attended a meeting of Convocation at which it was proposed to strip Anthony Blunt of his Emeritus Professorship: a ludicrous and intemperate occasion which was preceded by a lecture on the solar system – the very stuff of black comedy. 
But it should also be placed on record that some of us do not attend those dinner parties at which the matter is laughed away. Indeed, the position has grown sadder and more confusing since November. There is an inescapable moral point, but it is not the one hammered home by Mr Hastings. Those who mislead by omission find it such a trivial offence. Those on whom such an offence is practised find it devastating. You must understand that it is difficult to reconcile the very real memory of the charismatic influence with realisation that one kind of truth can run parallel with unsuspected powers of deception. Some of us are still trying to make sense of these respective positions. For my part, I must confess, without success.

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