Visiting the files
I first viewed Jack Lindsay’s MI5 files when Helen Lindsay invited me to go with her for her first viewing of them at the The National Archives of the UK.
Helen came from Norwich to the flat I rented near Victoria Station and stayed over night so that we would have a full day if we needed it. The next morning we set off early for the National Archives, which are in Kew. It’s an easy if slow trip from Victoria on the District tube line that ends at Richmond. From the station at Kew it’s about three blocks walk to the National Archives. Like the National Archives in Australia, this is a new purpose-built facility and very pleasant to work in. The attendants are very helpful and Helen knew a number of the archivists, as she is a conservator by profession.
We had chatted in the train about what to expect but neither of us had seen Secret Service Files before. As Helen had pre-ordered the files online, there were several bundles waiting for us when we arrived. The system is that you pick up the files from outside the reading room where you are assigned a particular seat and take them there to read. You can photograph the entries if you don’t use flash – and there are stands available for cameras and foam blocks for making files and books more accessible.
We opened the files and just started looking through the entries, mostly through the 1940s and into the 1950s though some of the entries were from the 1930s. We knew we were looking at a period when the Cold War was developing and coming into full swing; however, we were both shocked by what we saw.
I’m showing some slides of the entries or parts of entries – but to put it in context, I returned to the Archives a number of times by myself and took photos of what seemed to me interesting entries. I ended up with over 600 photographs. What we found was extensive monitoring of Jack’s movements before the Second World War, including a stay in a place called Whitstone in Devon, after which he started to be called Jack Whitstone Lindsay by the Secret Service; this seemed an example of the kind of inaccuracy that creeps into secret reports and can never be righted. Jack was then travelling with his partner, Elza and they moved frequently, mostly to keep ahead of bailiffs. During the War he worked in the propaganda section of the Army, writing patriotic plays and again he was monitored extensively. This monitoring continued after he left the Army and went back to civilian life as a writer and publisher.
Helen and I were shocked at the level of surveillance and by what seemed a delight in the detail of it. Yet never once in any of the files – at least anything not redacted (as there were redacted entries) – was there any indication of anything untoward in his behavior. Except that he was an intellectual, a Communist, and an Australian. Three strikes, I suspect.
Jack had talked about being under surveillance but we don’t know whether he ever realized the extent of it. And what is so extraordinary about this intensive surveillance is that Jack was doing nothing illegal. He was a member of the Communist Party which was a legal organization, with a regular meeting place whose members did not hide their participation. He was not part of the political apparatus of the Party but in the cultural wing and his activism consisted of writing essays, plays, poems and novels that articulated his views. He travelled to the Soviet Union and Romania to meet people, as a cultural ambassador – and in Moscow he talked to children about Shakespeare.
This was Helen’s father and he was my friend and mentor. We knew him as an intelligent and gentle man, a man who wrote books and poetry for a living and who thought deeply about how to create a better world. What this excessive surveillance and secrecy conveyed to us was the fear that was rife in the 1940s and 1950s of anyone who thought differently, particularly someone who thought differently from those in power and authority. We felt the paranoia of that time, not just in the language of these files but in the jumpy typewriting, the red stamps of SECRET across much of the correspondence, the multiple signatures and initials that indicated multiple viewings, the multiple coding of the pages – presumably for cross-reference, the overly personal comments that hid a barely disguised disgust at Jack’s unconventional thinking and behavior; even the crumpled nature of some of the pages that suggested they’d been passed through different hands. And again the paranoia … at one point I found myself wondering whether our names were now winging their way to MI5 as people who were reading these files. And I then started looking at other people at our table and wondering if they were recording what we were saying … and then I realized it had got to me – that the paranoia of that time was reaching out its tentacles and pulling me in.
Features of the files
The files we saw had hundreds of entries, some of them still redacted. It seems the most likely reason for this is to protect the identity of informers used to gather information. Overall, the impression is of intense surveillance over decades that revealed no illegality and nothing of any particular threat to the state except perhaps a critical consciousness that would not accept mainstream values without analysis.
We noted that ‘Send to Box 500’ was written on a number of the letters to Jack we found in the files and seems to have been code for ‘send to MI5’.
I am reproducing below some of the photographs I took of the files. I’ve divided the photographs into categories of report that seemed to be repeated: Identification checks; Mail interceptions; Transcribed conversations; Telephone taps. I have not included photographs of financial records, however we found copies of Jack’s bank accounts; cheques from publishers; and his tax returns. We also found evidence that the car number plates of visitors were recorded and traced.
Particular features of the files we noted were:
Multiple handling: The pages were signed or initialed by up to eight or ten different people, which suggested an extraordinary expenditure of money and time.
Tenor of description: Jack was repeatedly described as ‘an untidy man’ and as being ‘of untidy appearance’. His skin, which was marked by childhood chicken pox, always drew comment and there seemed to be a kind of prurient delight in presenting him as slovenly and unkempt, which was not my memory of Jack or evident in any of the photographs of him. As Helen suggested, what it actually meant was ‘not one of us’ but there was a disdain in the description that was offensive. Academic and poet, Andy Croft describes the similar treatment of Randall Swingler. Swingler too was a poet and a publisher, a journal editor, teacher and newspaper reporter, and member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Croft describes finding the same level of surveillance used against Swingler. He notes:
Of course, the great majority of these files contain nothing but inconsequential trivia –the registration numbers of cars parked outside the Swinglers’ house, a list of pictures on their walls, the concerts they attended, the frequency of his visits to the pub, the names of people he drank with. The files contain copies of [his left-wing magazine] Our Time, Unity [Theatre] scripts, a letter Swingler wrote in 1955 to the Halstead Gazette protesting against German re-armament, copies of his bank statements, intercepted letters, phone-call intercepts to and from the Swingler’s flat, transcripts of telephone conversations to King Street, and several conversations inside King Street … Every time the Swinglers travelled to the Continent, their suitcases were searched at Newhaven or London airport on the way out and on the way back (‘Nothing of interest to Special Branch was found during the examination of their baggage’).
The same comment was written over and over again in Jack’s files. And Croft notes the same preoccupation with Swingler’s appearance:
… on the whole, these files tell us rather more about MI5 than they do about Randall Swingler. The security services seemed bizarrely preoccupied with the length of his hair and his style of dress. ‘A man of Communist appearance’; ‘untidy brown hair’; ‘he has the appearance of a communist’; ‘wears his hair very long and unkempt’; ‘Bohemian type.’
Compared to the treatment of the Hollywood Ten or Zhdanov’s attacks on Ahmatova and Zoschenko, all this may seem harmless enough. But these were the years in which the security services were allowed to define what and who was in ‘the national interest’, and what and who represented a threat to ‘national security’. The British State was conceded powers to determine the limits of public debate and the extent of participation in that debate. The road to Guantanamo Bay may be said to have begun in the late 1940s, with the systematic removal of Communists, first from public life and then from public memory. The security services ensured the first, British cultural institutions the second.
This conclusion is supported by one entry that Helen Lindsay found very enlightening as it solved a family mystery.
A Puzzle Solved
This letter, dated 3rd May 1949, is from MI5 to Miss N. Wadsley at the B.B.C.
Helen explained that Jack had been puzzled for many years why his work for the B.B.C. had been terminated, despite its excellent reception. This happened in 1949 when money was tight and earning a living as a writer very difficult. The withdrawal of work by the B.B.C. had been distressing, particularly since Jack was not able to get any reasons for the withdrawal of the offers of work. This letter in the files provided the answer, though Jack did not live to read it.
The first paragraph notes that MI5 has been informed that a translation of a Greek play and a talk on ‘Post-War Trends in British Literature’ by Jack Lindsay has been broadcast by the B.B.C., and that Lindsay’s notes from his talk were used by the B.B.C.’s Russian Service. The second paragraph details Jack’s association with communism as a writer and speaker about literature and history, and member of the Society for Cultural Relations with the U.S.S.R. The letter is signed ‘C.S.Weldsmith’.
Miss Wadsley is left to draw her own conclusions as to what action she should take, though it is clear what action she is expected to take, based on this letter from one of the country’s most powerful and secretive organizations. She complied and Jack lost a source of income. Yet, it appears that Jack’s subversive activity at the B.B.C. consisted simply of a well-received translation of an ancient Greek play and a study of contemporary British writing.
Again, we might echo Croft’s conclusions, firstly that institutions within the British state worked actively to remove communists from both public life and public memory, and secondly that British cultural institutions complied with their demands. In Jack’s case this meant withdrawing the offer of literary and translation work. Interestingly, the Kudos/B.B.C. series, The Hour (2011-2013) dramatizes this influence of the secret sevice on the B.B.C. in the 1950s.
Photographs of the files
Identification chacks were made of him wherever he went to live, or whenever he left the country. As he travelled to the USSR during the Cold War, his movements were traced and his luggage was always searched – though nothing of interest was ever found.
Metropolitan Police (Special Branch)
3rd day of June, 1949
The following person left this airport for Prague at 8.28 a.m today:-
John LINDSAY, born 20.10.1900 at Melbourne, Australia, in possession of British passport No. 148876 issued London 31.5.1946, in which he is decribed as ‘Author’, and N.R.I.C. No. YASA 345/834. This man appears to be identical with a person of the same name who attended the Intellectual Workers International Peace Conference at Wroclow in 1948.
30th August, 1947
Vera and Jack LINDSEY
In connection with Rita LEVIN’S circle, Marylebone Branch of the Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society, the names of Vera and Jack LINDSEY should be noted. Jack is a fairly well-known Australian writer living in this country. He moves in the “left” intellectual circles. His wife is one of the Marylebone Branch organisers of the Anglo-Russian Friendship Society. Both are communists of long standing. USE WITH CAUTION
Intercepted and Microfilmed Mail
Jack’s mail was regularly opened and copied, both letters that he posted and letters sent to him, including bank account details and tax returns. Helen and I soon realized that the annotation, ‘send to Box 500’ meant ‘send to MI5’. Photographs and microfilms were also made of his mail.
Conversations between Jack and other people were recorded and transcribed; and conversations that mentioned him were also copied to his file.
Telephone calls by or to Jack and also intercepted calls by other people (members of the Communist Party of GB) that mentioned him were copied to his file.