The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) spied on George Orwell (aka Eric Blair) during 1929 when he lived in Paris. The report was written by an intelligence officer codenamed “V.V.” who had, like Blair, commenced his career in the Indian Imperial Police and was later to approve the recruitment of notorious double agent, Kim Philby.
“… the Paris police are very hard on Communists, especially if they are foreigners, and I was already under suspicion. Some months before, a detective had seen me come out of the office of a Communist weekly paper, and I had had a great deal of trouble with the police.”
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)
Orwell claimed that everything in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) had really taken place at one time or another. In one memorable episode, the unnamed narrator, completely cognisant that he risks deportation, is persuaded by his Russian friend that hundreds of francs could be earned writing articles on English politics for a Moscow newspaper. Needing money desperately and being sympathetic to the Communist worldview, he reluctantly accompanies Boris along a shabby street running south from the Seine bank, near the Chamber of Deputies, where a Russian secret society of Communist agents recruits for the Bolsheviks.
The secret society is concealed in a laundry. Boris and the narrator are led into a small, shabby room with frosted windows and propaganda posters in Russian lettering; a huge picture of Lenin is affixed to the wall. A deal is struck. However, the offer of one hundred and fifty francs per newspaper article never eventuates and it appears they have been duped in an elaborate swindle. The narrator acknowledges that these were ‘clever fellows’ who played their part admirably. Their office ‘looked exactly as a secret Communist office should look’.
The anecdote has a specificity about it that makes the story ring true. The comment about being observed by a detective leaving a Communist newspaper office is particularly interesting. The most likely candidates (both weeklies), Monde or Le Progrès Civique, were the only two French publications that printed Blair’s articles. L’Humanité was a daily Communist newspaper and it is conceivable that Blair sought work as a journalist by visiting their office or he may have even have dropped in at 22 rue Delambre, the office from where Pierre Yrondy published his four-page weekly, le MonT-Parnasse Hebdomadaire International.
The speculation over the veracity or otherwise of these events in Down and Out in Paris and London was partly answered when Orwell’s Security Service personnel file was released by MI5 in 2007 confirming Eric Blair was under surveillance in Paris in 1929.
The KV2 series, held at the National Archives in Kew, contains the personal files of ‘suspected spies and double agents, renegades and suspected renegades’. Orwell’s file (KV2/2699) covers the period 1929-1952 and includes correspondence between Metropolitan Police Special Branch, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the British Foreign Office, who collaborated for a month to investigate E.A. Blair.
The letters, written during early 1929 between Captain H.M. Miller, ‘V.V.’ and ‘Stafford’ include intelligence from unknown informants in Paris, whose names were redacted before the documents were released to the public. They were very well-informed about Eric Blair’s activities and daily routines.
The first letter, dated 10th January, is from Captain Miller of Special Branch requesting passport particulars from the Foreign Office for an E.A. Blair currently residing at 6 rue du Pot de Fer. It appears Miller had received information via routine postal surveillance that Blair was offering to be the Paris correspondent for a British Communist newspaper, Workers Life (later to become the Daily Worker). There is no indication as to any other reason why Special Branch wished to investigate but Stafford’s information, noting Blair had recently changed the profession on his passport, from ‘policeman’ to ‘journalist’, clearly aroused Miller’s curiosity.
In a return letter to Stafford, he makes it clear investigations into ‘the ex-Indian policeman “journalist”’ will proceed and writes to a ‘V.V.’ seeking more information about Blair.
V.V. responds to Miller three weeks later, on the 8th February. Here is an excerpt:
Blair apparently states that he is the Paris correspondent for the “Daily Herald”, “Daily Express”, “G.K.’s Weekly”, but he makes no mention of the “Workers’ Weekly”.
Blair, (redacted) states, wrote three articles in the “Progrès Civique” of 29.12.28., 5th and 12th January, 1929, entitled “La Grande Misere de L’Ouvrier Britannique”. The first article dealt with unemployment in England, which, according to Blair, is due to the war; the second with how the unemployed tramp spends his day; the third with London’s beggars. He spends his time reading various newspapers, among which is “L’humanite”, but he has not so far been seen to mix with Communists in Paris and until he does (redacted) considers that the French will not interfere with him.
The analysis, that ‘the French will not interfere with him’ unless he mixes with Communists appears to be accurate if we take into consideration the hint that there had been ‘trouble with the police’ when the narrator of Down and Out in Paris and London was observed departing from the office of a Communist weekly newspaper.
There are no other documents in the MI5 file prior to 1936 when Orwell was investigated, while in Wigan researching a book published by the Left Book Club (commissioned by his publisher Victor Gollancz) about the experience of coalminers and their families in the North of England. However, large numbers of documents were routinely destroyed by SIS and it is conceivable these included updated information about Blair from 1929 now lost.
Who spied on Orwell? Were they British or French agents with the local Deuxième Bureau (who had a close relationship with SIS)?
The British Security Services are exempted from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, 2000. Names of agents and informants, often for completely understandable reasons, are routinely redacted and are unlikely ever to be released. This makes it very challenging to undertake historical research
MI5 politely responded to a formal request, made recently for more information about Orwell’s personnel file, explaining that it had been released in its entirety except for the minor redactions to protect the identities of two individuals. However, a little sleuthing has revealed the identity of ‘V.V.’ and why he would have been particularly interested in Miller’s query about ‘the ex-Indian Policeman “journalist”‘.
Valentine Vivian (1886–1969) oversaw counterespionage for SIS from 1925. He was usually referred to as ‘Val’ or ‘V.V.’ in correspondence and was well-placed to assist Miller with information about Blair. In a strange coincidence, Vivian’s early professional career mirrored Orwell’s except he prospered professionally in a way that Mr and Mrs Blair would have welcomed for their own son.
Educated at St Paul’s School, where he excelled in classics, Vivian decided against a curatorship at the Victoria and Albert Museum and opted for service on the sub-continent. Vivian joined the Indian Imperial Police in late 1906 and commenced his career as a Probationary Assistant District Superintendent. Posted to the Punjab (Orwell served in Burma, 1922-1927), he had a wide range of experiences and progressed swiftly through the ranks to senior positions in military intelligence.
In 1914 he was appointed as the Assistant Director of Central Intelligence, based in Simla, where he was responsible for investigating seditious activity. Vivian served in Palestine and Turkey during 1918–19 with the Indian army, was mentioned in dispatches and awarded an OBE.
By 1920, Major Vivian’s career with MI1c in Constantinople, analysing military intelligence, was being recognised by influential superiors and he was recruited to SIS (later known as MI6 and made famous in James Bond novels and films). This promotion saw Vivian transferred to London for the first six months of 1923 before serving in Germany with the British army of occupation.
Vivian formally resigned from the Indian Imperial Police in 1925 to become head of Section V, newly formed by SIS and devoted to counterespionage. This section particularly concentrated on countering the clandestine activities of the Comintern in proliferating Soviet Communism to the rest of the world.
In an unpublished manuscript, in the possession of his grandson, Vivian reflected on this period of his life:
‘I had the best of two worlds at my command. If I did not like my job in the Foreign Office I could, at any time within the two years of my combined leave, withdraw my resignation and return to India, where according to Sir Edward MacLagan a rosy future awaited me. So when I reported for duty on that New Year’s Day of 1925, I had no idea that I should stay with the Intelligence Division for 28 years …
Almost immediately after joining I was sent on an outside job to inspect our organisations in Holland (Rotterdam), Belgium (Brussels), France (Paris) and Germany (Berlin) …’
Vivian was thus uniquely positioned to investigate if Blair, an ex-Indian Imperial Policeman, who had resigned to become a journalist keen on publishing in radical newspapers, was a Communist threat.
SIS, operating out of the Passport Control Office in Paris, supplied London with regular reports on Communist activities in France and other major European capitals. They were chronically under-staffed and poorly funded. Vivian ran Section V literally singlehandedly and would have had a close relationship with his case-officers in the field, such as Maurice Jeffes (1888-1954) who was the head of station in Paris for most of the interwar period (Jeffery, p. 197).
Jeffes’s agents had cultivated ‘police officials of good standing, who have been persuaded … to take money in exchange for information useful to S.I.S. (ibid). Considering that Orwell mentions, in Down and Out in Paris and London, ‘trouble with the police’ it is very likely French officers supplied Jeffes with intelligence about Blair who then passed it on to Vivian.
Valentine Vivian and Kim Philby
Valentine Vivian rose to the upper echelons of MI6 in a career that spanned almost three decades. The context in which he was responsible for recruiting one of Britain’s most infamous double agents provides an insight into the period and in many ways shows why Orwell is still read and studied.
In 1941, Vivian employed Harold “Kim” Philby (1912-1988) as an intelligence officer with SIS. Philby was to become the most successful member of the Cambridge Five spy ring (so named as they were all Cambridge University students recruited by the NKVD during the 1930s). Vivian was obviously unaware the Russians had recruited Philby in mid-1934.
A year after Orwell’s death in 1950, two of the group (Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess) defected and suspicion fell on Philby (as ‘the Third Man’) when he was the chief British intelligence representative in Washington. He was forced to resign. Unsurprisingly, after such a disastrous intelligence failure for MI6, Vivian retired in 1951.
Philby was publicly exonerated of treasonous activities in 1955 and it was not until 1963 that he was finally unmasked as a traitor (which was not generally known by the public until 1967). He lived the rest of his life in Moscow. He is widely considered the most successful double agent of the twentieth century.
It is worth noting that Peter Smollett, a Soviet agent recruited by Philby, was included on Orwell’s list of crypto-communists and fellow-travellers, provided to Celia Kirwan for the Information Research Department (IRD). It is unsurprising that Smollett advised Jonathan Cape not to publish Orwell’s Animal Farm as it was an anti-Soviet allegory.
Philby’s upper-class English manner inspired confidence and his success as a double agent was unparalleled. In a lecture to East German agents Philby analysed his ‘very dirty work’ explaining that because he was a member of ‘the ruling class’ it was highly unlikely he would have been suspected of treason or tortured if interrogated.
The historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, was uniquely placed to observe Philby and Vivian as he worked closely with the pair as an intelligence officer during WWII. In The Philby Affair, published in 1968, Trevor-Roper claims he was ‘astonished’ Philby had been recruited as it was widely known he was ‘a communist’. He assumed that Philby must have been ‘an ex-communist’ by 1940 as ‘ex-Indian Policemen’ like Vivian and other senior intelligence officers were the most virulent anti-Communists of all. Mostly, Colonel Vivian recruited ex-Indian Policeman but ‘doted’ on Philby (who was also a well-educated classicist) as an ‘intellectual – but not one of those unsound, irreverent intellectuals who gave so much trouble’. Like Orwell perhaps?
Trevor-Roper described Philby’s father, Harry St. John Bridger Philby (1885-1960), ‘an ex-Indian Civil Servant with impeccable right wing (not to say, fascist) views’. Vivian had known St. John Philby when they both served in the Punjab and their careers had intersected many times. The elder Philby was a paradoxical man who apparently considered himself ‘the first Socialist to join the Indian Civil Service’ and later converted to Islam. Coincidentally, the two men’s wives had been childhood friends and these personal connections may have influenced Vivian to take an avuncular interest in the younger Philby.
Vivian, in his old age, was cruelly attacked for his role in recruiting Philby and nurturing the traitor’s career. However, Vivian’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography makes it clear that:
… the defects of attitude and approach within SIS that failed to recognise the flaws in Philby or to detect their consequences were as much systemic as personal.
Reflection: Irony & Ideology
“I was in the Indian Police five years, and by the end of that time I hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear…it is not possible to be a part of such a system without recognising it as an unjustifiable tyranny.”
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)
Eric Blair’s career trajectory was inexorably altered when he resigned from the Indian Imperial Police. He opted for the life of a writer, journalist and public intellectual after his five years of ‘dirty work’ as an apparatchik in an imperial system which he regarded ‘as very largely a racket’.
Orwell, in Why I Write (1946), one of his most oft-quoted essays, first published in the short-lived, left-wing periodical, Gangrel, listed four personal motivations for putting pen to paper. He nominated ‘political purpose’ as particularly significant:
“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”
Many of his contemporaries travelled different paths in an effort to ‘push the world’ after the old imperial certainties were swept away in World War One.
Kim Philby, like Orwell, was a King’s Scholar (but at Westminster School not Eton) born in British India. He had a gilded upbringing but an experience as a young man forever changed his outlook about privilege and disadvantage.
In 1934, while in Vienna, Philby fell in love with Litzi Friedmann, an Austrian Jew and Communist, who taught him about what an un-privileged life was like. During this period he witnessed the violent repression of leftists by the fascist Chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss. Philby and Friedmann married and fled to England.
Shortly afterwards an NKVD agent, Arnold Deutsch, recruited Friedmann and Philby (along with other members of the Cambridge Five). He encouraged Philby to disassociate himself from the Communist movement and concentrate on infiltrating the British government. Philby never changed his allegiance from this period in his youth, until his death more than fifty years later in Moscow, aged 76. He was commemorated as a hero in the Soviet Union.
By the time he moved to Paris, Eric Blair bitterly hated imperialism and was attracted to Communism; the ideology that Orwell was to spend the rest of his life rejecting, as his distrust of left-wing intellectuals whose loyalty lay with the Soviet Union, deepened.
Orwell’s experiences in Barcelona, during the Spanish Civil War, left him under no illusions that those who spoke out against Stalinism risked their lives. After the publication of Animal Farm in 1945, Orwell purchased a German Luger for five pounds from Rodney Philips, an Australian friend who financed the journal, Polemic, genuinely fearing assassination by the NKVD.
In 1967, an intoxicated Philby told an Australian journalist, Murray Sayle, that ‘his purpose in life was to destroy imperialism’. Arguably, Orwell shared Philby’s views about imperialism, although he considered the British variety comparatively benign.
However, Orwell could never have supported a regime that needed ‘a pyramid of corpses every few years’ (letter to Humphry House, 11 April 1940) in the misguided belief that the ends justified the means.
One wonders if either Vivian (or Philby for that matter) read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s last personal attempt to ‘push the world in a certain direction’?
There is more than a little irony – which Orwell would have savoured – that Valentine Vivian, a fellow ex-Indian Policemen organised the surveillance of Blair, the potential agent provocateur, considering they both ultimately shared the same concerns about Communist ideology.
The fact that Vivian erred by recruiting a Russian agent, named after the eponymous character in Rudyard Kipling’s great imperial spy novel, Kim, might have also provided more than a little mirth.
Blishen, A., Vivian, Valentine Patrick Terrell (1886–1969), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Jeffery, Keith (2010) MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, New York: The Penguin Press
National Archives, MI5 file on George ORWELL alias Eric Arthur BLAIR, KV 2/2699
Orwell, George (1997) Down and Out in Paris and London, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 1, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1997) The Road to Wigan Pier, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 5, Secker & Warburg, 1997
Orwell, George (1997) Animal Farm, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 8, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1997) Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 9, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) A Patriot After All: 1940–1941, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 12, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 18, Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) Our Job Is to Make Life Worth Living: 1949–1950, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 20, Secker & Warburg
Philby, Kim (1968) My Silent War, London: MacGibbon & Kee
Sayle, Murray, ‘London-Moscow: The Spies are Jousting’, The Sunday Times, 6 January 1968
Smith, James (2013) British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930–1960, Cambridge University Press
Trevor-Roper, Hugh (1968) The Philby Affair, London: Kimber
Vivian, Valentine (n.d.) Cobwebs of the Past, Unpublished manuscript