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'Our friends' in Beirut
John Julius Norwich Writer
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[Q] Did you have anything to do with spies?

Spies – well, there was a big spy centre in Beirut. MI6 had about, oh, I don't know, it must have had six or eight at least, perhaps even more; I can't quite remember now, you know. And I used to see quite a lot of them, because there was a very useful little establishment called Joe's Bar immediately around the corner from the embassy, and we all used to congregate in Joe's Bar every day for a quick one before lunch, to help us drive up the mountain to where we were living or wherever it was. In those days, you had a quick one or two to help you drive. How things have changed. And that was... there were about six or seven regulars, of whom I should think four were MI6 boys, 'our friends', as we used to call them. I wasn't. And there was always Kim Philby there, and Kim would always have got there by about 11.30 and be absolutely smashed by the time we got there, so we never really spoke. He sat there looking incredibly romantic in a bush jacket with a sort of red scarf tied nonchalantly around his neck and that sort of thing. But he was a very handsome man, but he never said anything; he just sort of sat at a back table. And we never understood him at all, because he never went to a press conference, and yet every Sunday, on the page one of The Observer, there was a very, extremely well-informed and thoughtful piece from HAR Philby, our correspondent in the Middle East, and we always wondered where he got it from. I think possibly overhearing all our conversations at Joe's Bar may have been one of the principal sources; I'm not quite sure. We never got that straight. But, yes, there were... there was a fair amount. But in those days, it was so odd, all this cloak-and-daggery; it was much more cloak-and-dagger then than it is now. Now everybody knows who's doing what, really, you know, and it's all open. But in those days, it wasn't. And one would receive these reports in a red jacket, obviously top secret and all that. But one very, very seldom found anything that one wanted to know. I mean, a new oil-refinery had been opened in Homs; there's not a lot you can do about that, you know. That was the sort of thing. So the red jackets used to... tended rather to sort of pile up in one's in-tray and not get read very much, you know. But, anyway, I suppose, you know, I've no doubt that a lot of people were very much more interested in it than I was.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Kim Philby

Duration: 3 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018