Sunday, 4 May 2014

Book Review: The Lawn Road Flats

From LSHG Newsletter 52 (Summer 2014)

The Lawn Road Flats 
Spies, Writers and Artists
By David Burke
 Boydell Press 2014
Hardcover 309pp
ISBN 9781843837831

David Burke writes books about spies, and The Lawn Road Flats is in the same genre. While I find the books of John Le Carré interesting as social history, and very readable, I am no expert in spy fiction or the intelligence services. However, Burke’s book, about the occupants of what is perhaps more often known as the listed Isokon building in London’s Belsize Park before, during and after World War Two is really as much about the left, or at any rate the substantial part of it that was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and various Communist Parties, than anything else.

Certainly the building housed a large number of people who at least the British Government would have regarded as spies, including Arnold Deutsch, the controller of the Cambridge spies, the most famous group of double agents in UK history to date. Also to be found there were some of the people who controlled various Communist agents dedicated to antifascist work and undermining the Nazis, and a range of scientists, literary figures and artists probably broadly sympathetic to Communism, but no more than that. These people included the sculptor Henry Moore, the writer Agatha Christie and the historian of the ancient world V Gordon Childe, who became one of the UK’s earliest TV personalities on the Animal, Vegetable, Mineral programme. Other occupants included Philip Harben, the first UK TV chef, a distant forerunner to MasterChef. Raymond Postgate, who founded the Good Food Guide, was also a visitor. The building had a social club in the basement, the Isobar, and Burke relates that it was often packed with the occupants who enjoyed good food and wine at economical prices. Also available was rare and unusual beer from the 1930s equivalents of what are now called micro-breweries.

The Times review of the book notes that Burke spends much time going into detail about the relationship of the various occupants to the Communist Party and the history of the time which throws little direct light on what was going on in the Isobar. Burke has researched meticulously (with the help of some Government papers and other archival material) what is known about what did actually go on in the building, but inevitably we can’t really be entirely sure what they talked about or who they talked to. One assumes the talk in the Isobar was on the left but unfortunately we don’t seem to have any details through memoirs or, indeed, intelligence accounts. Presumably at some level both the British and the Soviet Government knew well enough how many spies were housed in the building — Burke does not indicate any action was ever taken — but whether the individuals themselves knew if others were spies is unclear.

What the book does establish beyond doubt was that the mainstream British left was at the forefront of founding the forerunners of the kind of organisations there are today to promote good food, wine and beer. It is perhaps something not always associated with the image of the British Communist Party or for that matter Soviet spies. As often on the left the generation that produced the kind of people who occupied flats in the Isocon did not reproduce itself and in the late 1960s the building was sold as an investment to the New Statesman. In turn the magazine, in the early 1970s, sold it to Camden Council and it has become affordable housing for priority public sector workers. Burke’s book contains much to fascinate, not least that Agatha Christie wrote her only spy novel in a building that was substantially occupied by spies. It provides a fascinating glimpse into a world that we have mostly, in various ways, lost.

Keith Flett

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