Geoffrey Grigson and I were touring Wiltshire in a hired car, a black Morris 1000 saloon, doing a piece of photo-journalism for Picture Post. I was taking the photographs. It-was 1951. The Mail had offered a reward of £10,000 for any information leading to the capture of the fleeing diplomats, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.
One morning the winding mechanism of my 35 mm camera jammed, and we called at a pub not far from Warminster, where I asked the publican if he would let me use his cellar, which I imagined would be totally dark, to cure the fault. He took me down to the cellar, but it had two small windows, and when I emerged a few minutes later, explaining that unfortunately it was not dark enough for my purpose, he seemed slightly offended: so his cellar wasn’t good enough. He handed us our drinks rather grumpily. I asked about the possibility of a chemist with a dark-room in Warminster. Yes, he said curtly, there was one opposite Woolworth’s in the High Street. He handed me my change, gave us both a rather hard and hostile look, and disappeared so hurriedly that he failed to close the till. The only remaining customer had also just departed, and I remarked to Geoffrey: ‘Look, we’re being tested, we’re alone, the till is open, we could take the cash and go.’ I’d hardly finished speaking when the publican came back, looked at his watch, looked at us, looked at his watch again, closed the till and asked if we wanted another drink. Thanks, no, we said. He made no reply to our rather over-hearty goodbyes, though he stepped outside to watch as we drove away. For the first time I noticed, apprehensively, that the gears were difficult to engage and disengage.
We found the chemist. Geoffrey said he would wait outside in the car. The man behind the counter seemed to know immediately what I had come for and took me down some stairs to the dark-room. As I came out, with my eyes still adjusted to darkness I dropped my wrapped film, stooped to pick it up and found my hand groping a pair of stout boots. I straightened up to find myself face to face with a short man in an off-brown raincoat who said: ‘I have instructions to take you to the station.’ ‘Must be a mistake,’ I said: ‘I have my own car outside, thanks all the same. I don’t need the station.’ ‘The Police Station,’ and he showed me a card. ‘We need proof of your identity. We have reason to believe that you and your friend in the car outside are Mr Burgess and Mr Maclean.’ My mind quickly produced a picture of Burgess and Maclean. Which of us was Burgess, which Maclean?
I had been at school with Maclean; he was rumoured to be having an affair with the wife of our housemaster, and was something of a hero. Yes, definitely, I supposed that I was Maclean. How would Geoffrey like to be taken for Burgess? The voice was droning on. ‘It would save a lot of time and unpleasantness if you come now ...’ At that date there were identity cards to carry around, and for a few things there were also ration-cards, with which we could easily have proved our identity but both Geoffrey and I had come away without them. I walked quickly out to our car and said quite loudly to Geoffrey (who was involved in an angry conversation with another plain-clothes man): ‘This idiot thinks we are Burgess and Maclean.’ The rain-coated man thought it best to be in our Morris and told me to follow his colleague. I started the engine, fiddled with clutch, gear lever and accelerator and discovered that I could engage only one gear – reverse. ‘This is no time for jokes.’
That it was no joke was simple to prove by allowing the policeman to try for himself. He told his colleague to go slowly, to allow for me to follow going backwards: and in this strange way we arrived at the Police Station. It was not far away, though, as I pointed out, it was considerably further than the legal limit for ‘proceeding along the highway in reverse gear’. In the Police Station our identity was again challenged: ‘Who are you?’ Spender and Grigson. (It happened that the previous day a national newspaper had given publicity to my brother Stephen in some sensationally farfetched connection with Guy Burgess, John Lehmann and other names they hoped to involve.) ‘Ah that rings a bell,’ and significant looks passed between uniformed men at desks and with telephones. Our identity was doubted until Tom Hopkinson (then editing Picture Post) and the Art Editor of the Daily Mirror, for which I had recently been working, gave assurances by telephone that our story was to be believed and that we were known to be touring in Wiltshire. As compensation for our ‘inconvenience’, we were allowed to make the other urgent telephone call asking that a replacement for our faulty car be sent out at once. Watched by two policemen, we drove in reverse to a rendezvous as near as possible to the Police Station.
The replacement car arrived after a three-hour wait – another black Morris 1000 saloon. We drove out of Warminster towards Salisbury; after driving about ten miles a police car passed us and flagged us down. ‘We have reason to believe that one of you is Mr Burgess, the other Mr Maclean.’ ‘Oh no, it can’t be true.’ ‘It well might be. We have our instructions: you must come with us to the station.’ ‘But that’s where we’ve just come from.’ ‘Those are our orders.’ Back at the station an embarrassed chief came as near to apology as his dignity allowed and explained that cancellations to instructions to ‘apprehend’ a black Morris 1000 saloon would by now have been fully circulated. Once more we could go.