Thursday, February 25, 2021

From Wagner to Kim Philby: Meet the Comyns Carrs

The other day I told the story about Sir Arthur Comyns Carr and the 1958 Liberal Party Assembly. Newly elected as the party’s president, he had expressed his intention not to say anything that might exacerbate tensions in China.

Sir Arthur deserves to be remembered for more than that. He stood for parliament many times and his one victory saw him sitting for Islington East between 1923 and 1924. His last contest was at Shrewsbury in 1945, where he captured a quarter of the votes cast.

Wikipedia says that hi expertise in National Insurance led him to co-author a book on the subject in 1912 to which David Lloyd George wrote the preface. He was a member of the Liberal land inquiry committee of 1912 and also sat on the land acquisition committee in 1917.

Outside politics he was a prosecutor in the trials of German and Japanese war criminals after the second world war, and it was for this that he was knighted for this work in 1949. And long before that his cross-examination in a libel case speeded the downfall of the corrupt Liberal MP Horatio Bottomley.

But then the Comyns-Carrs are an interesting family all round. Arthur’s father was Joseph Comyns Carr, a drama and art critic, gallery director, author, poet, playwright and theatre manager. Wikipedia describes him as “a vigorous advocate for Pre-Raphaelite art and a vocal critic of the "short-sighted" art establishment”.

As an adviser to the Royal Opera House, he was responsible for the first English performance of Parsifal.

Arthur’s son Richard worked for MI5 in the same section as Graham Greene, overseen by Kim Philby. His wife, a writer who published under the name Barbara Comyns, explained that this association did little for Richard’s career:

Comyns claimed that MI6 dropped her husband in 1955 because of his association with Philby … : “Oh Kim was a delightful man. So funny. Always here playing cards. Neither of us had a notion! When he disappeared – to Moscow, you know – they sacked my husband. They said that either he must have known and therefore was a traitor, or that he hadn’t spotted it and therefore must have been a fool.”

And, in an essay on Boundless, Lucy Scholes celebrates “The forgotten genius of Barbara Comyns”:

With every new reissue of her novels, the ranks of dedicated Comyns fans swell and strengthen, proof that it’s little more than a stroke of bad luck that so much of her work languishes for the most part unknown. She’s an author of rare genius, ripe for rediscovery, her novels not so much a gentle breath of fresh air, but rather a chilling, bracing blast.

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