A spy’s odyssey
Kim Philby’s granddaughter Charlotte has written a novel that draws on her knowledge of espionage and working on a local paper in Camden Town
23 July, 2020 — By Peter Gruner
Image from the cover of A Double Life, by Charlotte Philby
THE novelist granddaughter of one of Britain’s most notorious spies has written a sparkling new thriller set mainly in Moscow, Camden and Islington.
Charlotte Philby’s main character in her book, A Double Life, is Gabriela, a senior counter terrorism figure with the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The name Philby will be familiar, as Charlotte’s Cambridge-educated grandfather, Kim, was a British intelligence officer-turned-double agent, who spied for the former Soviet Union until his death in 1988, aged 76.
Another major character in A Double Life is Isobel, a tenacious journalist working for a local paper in Camden – not unlike the CNJ.
Charlotte Philby. Photo Roo Lewis
Author Charlotte, who attended Camden School for Girls Sixth Form and grew up in Kentish Town, revealed that not only is she a fan of this newspaper, but she did work experience with us back in 2005.
“Working for the CNJ gave me my first proper taste of journalism,” she said. “I later worked for the Independent newspaper for eight years. Today, with a husband and three children, I concentrate on my novels.”
In this novel – Charlotte’s second – protagonist Gabriela lives in Tufnell Park, and is asked to go to Moscow following fall-out over the poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko. He was assassinated in 2006 and buried in Highgate cemetery.
Gabriela is chosen for Russia, writes Charlotte, due to a “delicate balance of innovation, deference and ability to hold both her drink and tongue”.
Meanwhile, Gabriela’s househusband, architect Tom, has to stay at home and care for the two kids. He’s not terribly pleased, although proud that Gabriela has such a top job.
Gabriela is told to “keep an eye” on things in Moscow. The city is described as having “austere grandiosity,” with buildings and the sky both “steeped in a sense of sorrow-tinged romance”. It was a perfect backdrop for Gabriela’s own life.
On her return all is not well between the couple. Tom realises that looking after young children is probably one of the hardest jobs you can do and longs to get back to being an architect. But he has to accept that Gabriela earns the money. Their relationship worsens and she starts an affair with Ivan, who describes himself as an entrepreneur and works in sustainable energy.
Charlotte said: “I’m interested in taking traditional roles, swapping them, and seeing what happens. How do we define male and female roles? It seems that women who have affairs and become spies are treated far more harshly then men. People will struggle to understand her motivations”.
There’s also trauma when the couple’s daughter Sadie is mysteriously led away on Hampstead Heath by a strange man who says he’s a “friend of mummy” and who buys her an ice cream before returning her, apparently unscathed, to Tom.
Reporter Isabel, whose life eventually converges with Gabriela’s, has her own problems. After witnessing a horrific attack on a woman on the Heath, she sets out to investigate.
With a new drama starring Dominic West as Kim Philby coming soon to TV’s Britbox, all eyes will soon once again be on Charlotte’s late grandfather. Writing previously about Kim, Charlotte remembers trips to Russia as a very small child to meet “a funny old man with a beaming smile, who dressed almost exclusively in white vests and braces”. Kim died when she was five.
“When I asked my dad, John, shortly before he died in 2009, how he’d felt about his own father’s betrayal, he told me exactly what Kim had told journalist Murray Sayle during an interview in 1963: ‘To betray, you must first belong.’ And as Kim said himself: ‘I never belonged.’”
Charlotte added: “My dad always had great respect for my grandfather; he told me that even when he was a child, he always knew he (Kim) was up to something – he just didn’t know what. The pair got on well in those later years – they were very similar in many ways – and my father said he never felt any resentment, not even when he unfairly came under fire by virtue of his name.”
• A Double Life. By Charlotte Philby, The Borough Press (HarperCollins). £12.99.