The Spanish Civil War is perhaps best known to readers through the works of writers like George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway. The Francoists are characterised as the villains of the piece who invited Hitler in to practice total war on hapless Spanish peasants. Of course it wasn’t as simple as this, as Burns’ memoir of his father, Tom, makes clear. Tom Burns, devout Catholic and English patriot, thought Franco the lesser of two evils when compared with the Communists. His support for Franco led to a posting to Madrid in 1940 to the British Embassy with a covert brief to keep Spain neutral during the Second World War. MI6’s head of station in Madrid at the time was Kim Philby. The girlfriend Burns left behind him was Ann Bowes-Lyon, cousin of the Queen.
Burns’ life should read like a John Le Carré novel, but this memoir is marred by a somewhat pedantic and repetitive style. I was left with a sense of diffidence, as though Burns junior felt slightly squeamish about digging too deeply into his father’s life. The book is worth reading for the angle of the light it sheds on this period of history, but is ultimately a disappointing reading experience.