Mar 10, 2020 • 8M

The Swallow's Nest

Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Huw Lemmey
sounds and voices from utopian drivel by Huw Lemmey
Episode details

For the past few weeks I’ve been starting work on a new long-term research project, something that will hopefully end up as a film. It doesn’t have a name yet – it’s all just going into a google drive folder named ‘gay spies’. It’s come out of a walking tour I did a few years ago for London-based gallery Studio Voltaire called ‘Only the Shallow Know Themselves’. On the tour I took a group of participants around various parts of Westminster, Lambeth and Clapham, visiting sites that have had some sort of significance in the British imagination on the subjects of homosexuality and espionage. From the Tin and Stone Bridge, where new recruits were welcomed into the service, located in the middle of the historic cruising ground of St James’ Park, to Dolphin House, home to a number of real and fictional spies, the tour traced a route around some of the most important sites in British espionage history and culture. Since that tour, I’ve been doing more research and reading around the subject, trying to draw out links on two subjects that are, by their nature, fragmented throughout the archives. You can hear audio from the event here, although apologies for the poor sound quality — walking tours along a windy riverbank don’t lend themselves to recording.

During the twentieth century, both homosexuality and espionage could well be described by the British public as a dirty secret. Before the start of the Cold War and fictions like James Bond popularised the idea of espionage as a glamorous, patriotic pursuit, there was often a sense that spying was at best a necessary evil. Indeed the Special Operations Executive, the British special forces operation during World War II that helped coordinate liaison with resistance organisations, plan sabotage in occupied Europe and spy on the Nazi war machine, was known (by some of those who did know of its existence) as ‘the Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare’. For those men and women who took part in such military practices, it was usually far from glamorous; bloody and brutal, dealing with spivs and fascists, where split-second decisions could lead to torture and death. No wonder, then, that recruiters put a low value on conventional morality. Put simply, homosexuality was not a significant reason to exclude a talented agent from service. 

Perhaps, in fact, it was an asset. One aspect of my research will be looking into the extent that the skill-set of homosexuals and spies in mid-20th century Britain had a significant degree of overlap. Heightened awareness of social codes and interactions, covering over the tracks of a secret life, passing unseen through the world; I have a hunch, although it’s not more than that, that the life of a spy might be an ideal calling for a gay man of the time. Certainly that played out in many of the spy scandals of the 50s and 60s; homosexuality was an important factor in the formation and dissolution of the Cambridge Five spy ring, and the key factor in the blackmailing of John Vassall, a staff member of the British Naval Attaché in Moscow who went on to leak information to the Soviet Union for almost a decade as a result. Fear of homosexual corruption of the state and intelligence agencies in both the UK and USA in the 1950s was something of a test-run for the later McCarthyite ‘Red Scare’. McCarthy cut his teeth persecuting homosexuals who worked for the State Department in the ‘Lavender Scare’ in the early part of that decade, an action that would have significant impacts not just upon those whose lives were destroyed, but upon the wider history of the gay rights movement. Indeed, the astronomer Frank Kameny, who was working for the US Army’s Army Map Service, was amongst those fired for suspected homosexuality. He would go on to form the Mattachine Society of Washington (a group independent from the larger Mattachine Society) and become a prominent gay rights activist. The Lavender Scare also led to a wider suppression of leftist currents within the early homophile movement, fearful that the presence of communists would lead to greater government attention and suppression.

This stuff went right to the top; while some men like Vassall were successfully blackmailed, others, such as American journalist Joseph Alsop, who had already been a victim of McCarthy, went to the CIA to warn them of the attempt by the Soviets to ‘turn’ him. Astonishingly, he gave a full and frank account of his sex life to the US authorities, leading to the untold consequences for many men high up in the US government, including Arthur Vandenberg Jr, an Eisenhower staffer with whom he’d had an affair. The business of state was run by men who, by and large, could get away with criminal sexual behaviour. There’s an obvious class vector here, and plus ça change, but that doesn’t change the fact that many of these sexual relations must have been fraught with political anxiety alongside more general feelings of guilt. 

I’m interested to see where the research leads me. There’s been enough written about the Lavender Scare and the Cambridge Five, of course, but I’m interested to look at the wider social implications in the British imaginary. It’s fascinating to me that so much of the public interest in espionage and sex in general emerges during the liberalising period of the 1960s; the first Bond film, Dr No, was released less than a month after the Vassall Affair broke, a couple of years after Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change speech’ and at just the time when the last National Servicemen were finishing their time in the ranks. Bond emerged just at the moment when the British Empire was crumbling. That moment was a challenge to a heterosexual masculinity that was built upon imperialist models and cultures such as Baden-Powell’s cult of manliness, made evident in the martial values of the scouting movement. Another example is the imperialist, masculine stoicism embodied in Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’, offering patrician advice to his son on how to ‘be a man’. Espionage seemed to provide the British public with a new space where British men could have both sexual potency and geopolitical influence, even if they could no longer find it in colonial domination. Could the figure of the spy offer a new sense of hope for a masculinity that was built upon the idea of colonisation and empire, in a world where countries were finally winning independence from British control?

Bond films play out the Cold War on military and sexual battlefields, with the recurrent figure of the Soviet woman as a honeytrap, mirroring the fearful figure of the Red Nurse in fascist literature of the 1920s and 30s, as described by Klaus Theweleit in ‘Male Fantasies’. The idea of a sexually potent woman is somehow a twin threat for Bond, a British alpha-male figure. Their self-confident or even dominant sexual urges are either fraudulent — part of a honeytrap, with such women being, in contemporary spycraft jargon, a ‘swallow’ — or over-compensating, a battle for dominance which Bond can win, turning the leather-clad seductress into a purring sex kitten who has fallen for Bond by the following morning. Either way, it’s all still there, the British man still has it, even if, to the rest of the world, his political and sexual potency is hidden. In fact, the seeming absence of sexual or political power for the British man is, following Bond, an example of his superior skill at spycraft. This fantasy of a subversive British sexual potency is the only way to contend with the rising geopolitical and sexual power of the figure of the American — brash, bold, and out on display. All this was a way to cope with the diminishing influence of the British on the political and cultural stage, and the effect of those changes on the British heterosexual male.

In reality, of course, most of the victims of honeytraps were not dashing Bonds but aging civil servants used to exerting their positions of power and influence to exploit women. Men like Sir Geoffrey Harrison, the 60 year old British ambassador to the Soviet Union, who was trapped by an agent named Gayla posing as an embassy chambermaid, or Commander Anthony Courtney, a 60 year old Tory MP who was photographed having sex with a woman he thought was his tourist guide, Zinaida Volkova. Courtney, incidentally, was the political successor of Ian Harvey as an MP, whose promising political career in the Tory Party had been cut short after he was caught fucking a teenage member of the Coldstream Guards in the bushes of St James Park. This was doubly ironic considering just two years earlier he’d been on the House Select Committee that called for “draconian punishments for practising homosexuals in the armed forces”, following imported fears of homosexual subversion brought in from the United States. He was replaced as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office by, thank God, a gold-star heterosexual: one John Profumo MP. Just six years later his own career would implode in maybe the biggest sex scandal in British history, the ‘Profumo Affair’, after he was found to have lied about an affair he’d had with Christine Keeler, a teenage model who had previously had a sexual relationship with Yevgeny Ivanov, the senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy. 

This is part of the story I want to tell; one of unbridled class power and deference that built an environment of both the sexual exploitation by powerful, older men of younger men and women with lower class status, lower social power, and then the further exploitation of that sexual culture by state intelligence services. I also want to look into how gay men and women in the secret services regarded their own sexuality, and to what degree their roles gave them an unusual degree of freedom – or otherwise – to practice it. There are so many questions to ask, and given the nature of both, it seems unlikely I’ll get anything approaching a rounded picture, but in my experience even the smallest snippets of these worlds are fascinating, almost alien insights. All of this happened against a background of extreme sexual and moral repression, a repression that many of those caught out were complicit in, which adds to the whole situation a powerful atmosphere of both excitement and paranoia. The heterosexual manifestations of this era are better known, but I’m hoping the stories of homosexuality and espionage are ready to be told, to shed light not just on the statecraft and spycraft of the era, but on the wider sexual, social and moral culture of the time. Is there a secret story about how homosexuality changed espionage, and vice versa, waiting to be told?

Many thanks, as always, to you for subscribing to utopian drivel. I hope you find something of interest in my regular dispatches to your inbox: I really enjoy your comments and responses. If you’ve been sent this email and would like to subscribe for weekly essays, click below!

If you’d like to read more from me, I’ve had a bunch of things out recently:

Catalan Gothic, a new piece for the independent artist and writing organisation How to Show Up, based in Amsterdam, who have just launched their new website. I’ve worked with them on a number of projects over the last few years, and their level of engagement and support for their collaborators is incredible, producing a really healthy community around the organisation. This piece is about haunting, architecture, ghosts and urban space.

Experience Tingles and Techno-Therapy is a profile I wrote for TANK magazine on the ASMR subculture, and what it says about our current working conditions and mental health crisis, amongst other things. This is an area I’ve been interested in for years, although always failed to get commissioned for. I’m grateful that TANK ran the piece and ever since I’ve had requests for new pieces on ASMR. Ain’t that the way… hopefully, though, I’ll have a chance to focus in on some of the issues I inevitably had to paint with a broader brush in this piece.

I recently did an interview with the lovely Jessica Andrews and Jack Young, both of whom live in Catalonia, for their new literary podcast Tender Buttons. The episode, entitled Flesh, Meat, and Fighting the Guerrilla Culture War covers the recent British election, Jean Genet and Richard Scott, and the culture war.

Lastly, next week I’ll be guest-hosting my favourite weekly podcast, 301 Permanently Moved, a personal podcast 301 seconds in length normally written, recorded and edited in one hour every Friday by Jay Springett. If you don’t already subscribe, please do — Jay’s ethos of weekly updates was an inspiration behind utopian drivel and still guides a lot of my thinking about what I do here, and how to change it. I hope I’ll do a good job of filling his shoes for the week!