‘I Let Him Pay For the Caviar'
GUILT by association
is not simply a delusion of
auto-persecuted leftists; the most innocent actions may have horrendous
consequences when inscribed on a person’s conﬁdential ﬁle. The recent case
concerning Mr William Owen, former British Labour MP accused under the Ofﬁcial
Secrets Act, resulted in his acquittal on all charges. Had it not been for the
extreme and indiscriminate zeal of the security authorities, the action probably
would never have been brought, but there is a lesson to be learnt from it: it
can be circumstantially damning to dine at regular intervals with an official
from the “other side”.
Therefore it is high -time that I make a clean
breast of it, and tell the full story of my lunches with my Soviet friend Mr Y.
This gentleman introduced himself several years ago over the phone as a throaty
Slavic voice, anxious to discuss my writings on Asian affairs of which he was a
great admirer. This assertion was the first of many to be disproved when l
actually met him; he might have read a letter of mine to The Times at the most
-- if he had, he had got it wrong anyway.
While he sought to induce in me a more profound understanding of the Soviet
point of view, I found myself adopting a more than usually pro-Peking response.
Our meetings -- and there were many of them -- became miniature Sino-Soviet
confrontations, except that the polemics were confined to one side. Mr Y was
always elaborately polite.
The exact procedure by which our lunches were
arranged and held may be of interest to
those new to the game. We met first, if I remember correctly, at the Ecu de
France, one of ‘London’s
smartest French restaurants. Our next luncheon appointment was ﬁxed orally for
a fortnight hence at Browns Hotel; if I was unable to keep it, so Mr Y assured
me, he would be there “one week
more, same place, do not worry”. There were
unspeciﬁed practical difﬁculties which made it inconvenient to phone or to
write and “We need not bother your post ofﬁce”.
Mr Y preferred the best cuisine and wine; it was a
matter for continual regret to him that I drank very lightly. On one sad
occasion he obviously had misread his Good Food Guide: we met by arrangement in
what turned out to be a Lyons Corner House. In his mortiﬁcation he practically
conceded the Sino-Soviet dispute to me. Whether I arrived
on time or a week later, he was always there, although in a curiously
insubstantial way. As I approached the building, he was never to be seen, but
ﬁve paces from the door he would materialise from a taxi, bus or from across the
road. “We talk inside, Chon” he would say, parting the swing doors powerfully
with his broad shoulders.
If Mr Y had a particular purpose in talking with me,
it was apparently to extract information on the Chinese conspiracy in England.
The activities of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation intrigued him
immensely, as did those of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. The
only occasion on which he showed his temper with me was when I refused to supply
him with copies of the Society’s Bulletin --- a journal which, I pointed out,
was freely obtainable in the Charing Cross Road bookshops or by subscription.
“Ah, Chon, I thought we were friends”.
More in sorrow than in anger, Mr Y used to suggest that
I was too lenient in judgement upon the
Chinese heresy and their perfidious tactics. “Ah, Chon, you are too much a chentleman”
he would protest when I refused to accept the reality of a Peking-Washington
conspiracy to sell the Vietnamese down the river. But he was prepared to listen;
on one occasion at least he claimed to have transmitted my opinions to the appropriate
authorities in Moscow. I had suggested it would be an unfriendly act to China
if the international communist conference was held as planned. Two months later
it was indeed postponed for the ninth or tenth time. He would not say - he said
- that I had been solely responsible, but my views had not gone unnoticed.
Mr William Owen, I see from the newspaper reports, was
asked whether he had ever used a “maildrop” — such as the hollow stump of a
tree — with which to communicate with his Czech acquaintance, and he replied
that he had not. Neither did I, although I did learn once that another
acquaintance of Mr Y, in professional circumstances similar to mine, had
received his appointments by means of a rolled copy of the New Statesman. Mr Y
did however offer me money on one occasion, to
defray the costs of my eating lunch at his expense. He seemed to expect me to
refuse, as I did, but he showed a continuing interest in my wife’s pregnancy
and the extra expenses to which we would be put.
The reader will by now have asked himself why l
should have put up with this charade for so long. I ﬁnd it hard to give a good
reply. Certainly I enjoyed the lunches to begin with and I was inexperienced
enough to hope that sooner or later Mr Y would give me a deeper insight into
the real Soviet -position in the Sino-Soviet dispute. The affair also had its
amusing episodes; l would occasionally “bother the post office" and
telephone or write to cancel an appointment. Mr Y’s features were more than
usually Slavic at our next meeting.
Yet a more profound reason now occurs to me at a
distance of four or ﬁve years from my lunches with Mr Y. I was disarmed by his
very ineptitude, by his transparent and laborious attempts to compromise me --
and he knew that I was. As long as I felt myself to be in control of the
situation and wise to his game, for so long would I be prepared to maintain
contact. Doubtless I would not go unobservcd by those who take an interest in
these affairs, but that may not have mattered. Yet another acquaintance of Mr Y
(not a British citizen) was informed by his own authorities that they had him
under observation — and would he please keep the contact up for their beneﬁt?
Mr Y probably did not care too much which way that particular ball bounced,
since he could always play it straight back.
Fortunately I left England not too long after the
pleasures of good eating had begun to pall. I was told by Mr Y that a colleague
of his in the South American country for which I was bound would be in touch
soon after my arrival. The contact was never made, perhaps because I took up
writing for a local pro-Cuban (and anti-Soviet) magazine before very long, and
I was shortly denounced by the official communist newspaper as an “objective
instrument of the Central Intelligence Agency”.
Last year I returned with my family from Hong Kong through
the Soviet Union, stopping for a week in Moscow. We had barely settled in when
the phone rang -- it was Mr Y, who had heard
from an unnamed friend that I was visiting his fatherland. We mot in the Hotel Rossiya,
where he had booked a table in the
best restaurant to which he now steered me, ostensibly “just for a quick drink”
while my wife put the children to bed. There was caviar, vodka, all kinds of
salty sidedishes and none of the usual waiting for service. The comrade
supervisor kept a special eye on us.
Mr Y was
doing very well for himself these days. He carefully explained that his
full-time pay was less than that of a
factory worker, but that he derived a steady freelance income from writing
articles about the crimes of the “anti-Soviet
anti-socialist Mao-clique”. In this connection, I might like to know that my
own writings on the Cultural Revolution had been attentively read in the
appropriate quarters, and were not without their effect.
Back on his home ground, Mr Y was more sure of his
footing. He had a natty English suit and that air of knowing where he belongs
(a good way up the social ladder) which every Russian bureaucrat possesses.
It did not take him
very long to come to the point, although expressed with an oblique delicacy of
which he would have been incapable in his London days. Could he, my friend
Yuri, ever look forward to the day when I, his friend Chon, would understand
that the forces of peace were indivisible— and work in harmony on the same
side? We drank a quick toast in vodka to friendship before I politely said no.
We had one more meeting before leaving Moscow. Mr Y
consented to be my guest at a farewell lunch in the presence of my wife and two
rowdy small children. Previously he had shunned such encounters, refusing even
to leave phone messages with my wife if I was out, and we expected a frigid
affair. He was a little ponderous hut charming. Later I was reproached for
making him sound such a boor. Eating, at last, at my expense, and meeting, at
last, in mixed company, the past was exorcised. Mr Y turned out to be a nice
family man himself. I must have been paranoid to have ever suspected that he
was anything else.