John Cairncross

The TV thriller series A Spy Among Friends, based on the book of the same name by Ben Macintyre, has been much publicised lately. This is due at least in part to the continuing interest in what might be described as the legend of Kim Philby, the most famous of the so-called ‘Ring of Five’ Cambridge Spies – Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Donald MacLean and Kim Philby.

John Cairncross (above) is perhaps the least known of the quintet. He was, like Philby, known to Graham Greene having worked alongside him in the Special Intelligence Services (SIS) during World War II. Cairncross corresponded with Greene during the last decade of the writer’s life when the revelations about his spying activities had become public knowledge. Clearly Greene had not heard from him for some time.The early letters from Greene, in the correspondence held at Boston College in Massachusetts, about Cairncross trying to sell a house on Capri and being puzzled by some of the photos he had sent because he didn’t look like the person GG had remembered, are quite formal, even frosty, in tone. Greene did not like Cairncross’s latest translations of some of La Fontaine’s poetic works either. However, his later communications are much softer, even helpful. He sympathizes over Caincross’s treatment by the press – which seems to echo GG’s defence of Philby’s motives. He offers advice about finding a publisher: he suggests his friend Max Reinhardt. Intriguingly, Greene speculates, ‘What puzzled me was that the papers hadn’t got on to your connection with Section V’ (which was Philby’s [SIS] section).

John Cairncross’s letters are long and rambling in contrast to Greene’s polished conciseness. Moreover, whereas GG had use of a skilled typist, Cairncross appeared never to have mastered a typewriter tab key.