After the war, Eric Roberts joined M.I.6 and was sent to Vienna as a clerk with the occupying forces, to trail his coat in the hope that he would be recruited as a Soviet spy. His mission was a failure—it’s possible he had been betrayed before he arrived. He returned to London, and then, believing himself to be unwanted and under suspicion, he moved his family to Canada, where he set up home on an island off Vancouver.
There he gardened and wrote. He published a history of the island and tried his hand at fiction. In researching his life for my book Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5’s Secret Nazi Hunter, reviewed by Andrew Roberts in this issue of Air Mail, I visited his daughter in Canada, where she showed me a box containing various papers. Some were communications from his 1930s controller, which he shouldn’t have kept. One was the start of a novel. There were also two short stories.
They are inspired by his time in Vienna, but also by his voracious reading. A self-taught spy—M.I.5 had no training program when he joined—Roberts had picked up tips from fiction. The stories are most evocative of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden and of Eric Ambler’s novels—Roberts had been a fan of both.
They are tinged by the postwar disillusion that came from the realization that victory hadn’t meant the liberation of Europe. Those behind the Iron Curtain had swapped one totalitarian regime for another. They are tales of men in the field, far from home, just as Roberts was, emotionally if not always geographically, throughout his time as a spy. Neither has a happy ending, but both end with a wry smile. And though both are set in a cold climate, they are, like their author, full of warmth. One of these appears below.
Symphony Number One
by Eric Roberts
The booking clerk attempted to discourage me. “Comrade,” he said, “no other Englishman or American has requested tickets for this concert. It is of interest only to the Slav and Balkan peoples. Why do you wish to attend it?”
I replied, “Simply because I am interested in modern Balkan music.”
He shrugged his shoulders and pushed forward a ticket.
The “Concert of Cultural Solidarity of the People’s Peace Loving Democracies” had been publicized for months now. The principal work to be performed was “Symphony Number One.” Composed by some previously unknown Slav, it had been described as embodying all that was noble in the struggle of the heroic “Balkan Partisans” and as being a work of genius. The symphony had then been deleted from the program and now, a few days before the concert was due to be given, it had reappeared as the principal attraction—this time without the propaganda blurb.
The music critic of the London paper I represented sensed a story and he suggested that the composer may have unfavourably criticized the People’s Democracy or that he may have been denounced as a musical deviationist or as a musical reactionary element. It was rumored he had not been seen for several months and it was my job to get the story.
I attended the concert. The upper circle to which I was conducted had been divided by lofty partitions and the section to which I was shown had seating for three hundred people. I was the sole occupant. After the novelty of such complete isolation had worn off, I studied with interest the complex ornamentation of the lofty ceiling and observed the preponderance of grey uniformed officers in those parts of the auditorium visible to me.
The conductor received an ovation and the concert began with a march, “Onward, Freedom Fighters of the World!” It was funereal, gloomy. A young lady with a melancholy and intense expression sang, “Ode to all Lovers of Peace” and “Ode to the Victims of Imperialist Aggression”—pieces equally funereal and even more gloomy. The applause was enthusiastic.
“Comrade,” he said, “no other Englishman or American has requested tickets for this concert.”
There was a brief intermission. A cold breeze struck the nape of my neck and I turned around, hoping someone had come there to share my loneliness … but the door swung shut and I was still alone. Then the orchestra started Symphony Number One.
However inspired by folklore and history, it told a tale of the gallant struggle for survival through the ages of a small nation. It had beauty, it had pathos, it had the occasional flashes of gaiety. And suddenly, two rows beneath me, was a plump, middle-aged man crawling along on his stomach. He looked up at me and though the lighting was dim, I could see his features clearly. His hair was sparse and untidy, his face chubby, almost baby-like. He raised a finger to his lips, as if imploring me to be silent and in doing so knocked off his glasses. He groped for them on the floor and could not find them. Some money fell out of his pockets and rolled under the seats. He looked ridiculous.
I again felt the breeze at the back of my neck. Three men entered. They were hard-faced and grim-looking. Despite being in a concert hall, they had not removed their soft hats, coats, or mufflers. They scanned the empty seats around me and I saw that one, pallid, heavy-faced and moustached, had drawn a pistol which had a curious device at the end of the barrel. I was alarmed for my personal safety and waved my Press card before their eyes. They ignored me completely. I asked them who they were and what right they had interrupting the concert. They did not speak to or even look at me. I licked my dry lips and envied my superior sitting in comfort in London.
I saw that one, pallid, heavy-faced and moustached, had drawn a pistol which had a curious device at the end of the barrel.
The man with the pistol looked across the great hall at a box and I could discern the glint of opera glasses surveying us, though I could not see the man behind them. Without speaking a word, they departed abruptly.
I tried to concentrate on the beautiful third movement of the symphony. After a while, I saw feet wriggling from under the seats and assumed the owner must have dressed absent-mindedly, for his socks were of different colours. The rest of the body and finally the chubby face came into view and without rising from the floor, he smiled at me. I realised that without his glasses he could not see me clearly, but I smiled back. With his right hand, he began to beat time with the movement, lovingly, caressingly, and noting the sensitive hand, I guessed he was probably a music teacher or possibly a professor at some academy. His face beamed with happiness and satisfaction.
With his right hand, he began to beat time with the movement, lovingly, caressingly.
The fourth movement was short. It worked up to a triumphant crescendo—the expression of a fearless belief in the survival of a tough and hardy race. Before it had concluded, the little man rose to his feet and groped his way to the exit. Despite the disarray of his clothes and the absence of his glasses, he bore himself with a certain dignity, his face serene. He opened the door to the corridor and was gone. The final bars of the symphony did not drown a curious sound from outside. I waited for a while, conscious of the opera glasses looking at me from the box across the hall. The symphony ended, but there was no applause.
During the next piece, I slipped out. A few feet away, an old woman was mopping the floor. I asked her what had happened. Not looking up, she mumbled drearily that someone had slipped and knocked his nose on the floor. It was useless to ask her more, so I left.
On the following day, I received a cable from the London music critic, “Urgent. Balkan radio states composer Symphony Number One died peacefully after brief illness. Can you confirm.”
I cabled back, “Cannot confirm peacefully.”
Robert Hutton’s book on Eric Roberts, Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5’s Secret Nazi Hunter, is available at your local independent bookstore or on Amazon