Cam’s Kremlin and Gay Cruising Spot Recruitment: Ungentle’s Secret Story of Sex and Spying | Art and design

A A drowned deckchair floats in a foam of dead seaweed and weeds on the lake in St James’s Park. Young rowboats on the River Cam, Christopher Wren’s King’s College Chapel basking in the sun, evoking a world of continuity, the fractures of which are invisible. It could be a century old scene. Nightlife in central London street bordering Soho and theaters seen from above. Perhaps the latter is a view from a smudged window in John Le Carré’s fictional intelligence house on Cambridge Circus. Who is watching ?

Windows and shadows, buildings we cannot enter and rooms whose destination we can only guess. Shaded paths, a wooded valley sheltered from prying eyes, the edge of a cornfield after harvest. We tour from place to place, following rumors and tormented by uncertainties.

Ungentle is a kind of psychogeographical tour of England for a spy, mapping the collisions and intersections of at least two secret worlds. As writer and artist (and occasional Guardian contributor) Huw Lemmey writes in his blog Utopian Drivel, “the skill set of gay men and spies in mid-twentieth-century Britain had a significant degree of overlap “. Lemmey’s Ungentle explores territory, both physical and psychological, through the voice of a lone off-screen protagonist, an unnamed double agent played by Ben Whishaw. He recounts his intertwined sexual and political awakenings, and what led him into his life of intrigue, as the camera scours the scene of his trysts and betrayals. Whoever this man is, the fabric of his world is very real, as are his fellow secret agents, save for one, another Cambridge student and future spy, and also the narrator’s lover, named Edwin.

54 Broadway, London, where Secret Intelligence Service had its offices. Photography: Steve Brown

Almost nothing happens in this terrifically rich yet deceptively simple 16mm film, beautifully shot, filmed and edited by artist Onyeka Igwe. There are blind windows and ducks on the water, country estates and posh hotels, passing buses, strolling taxis, men meandering to secret missions in the park, cows in the fields and buildings in the sun, roses blooming in their beds, a fountain in the courtyard, a summerhouse overlooking the Solent.

Everything is pretty prosaic except the voice: the narrator is a man whose moral compass falters and deceives at every turn, in Whishaw’s lulling, evenly cadenced, precisely enunciated voice. There is a certain spiciness there, and what we are told is both heartfelt and selfish. Carefree in confession, Lemmey’s narrator takes us from post-WW1 youth, fucking with a laborer in a field at harvest time, Cambridge, and his membership in the Apostles and seduction in his lives secrets of double and queer agents. Is the narrator a Fifth, Sixth, or even Seventh Agent of the Cambridge Comintern, along with the Cambridge Five and their associates, Blunt and Philby, Burgess and Maclean, Cairncross and Liddell?

It’s a story of collisions and spirals, the worlds of intelligence officers and double agents, and an illegal gay world that hid in plain sight. Collisions also between class and empire, architecture and heritage, university and politics. Ungentle maps points of assignment and affinities and codes of recognition, and habits of intrigue and concealment.

Filled with idealism and longing, secrets and self-justifications, indiscretions and unmaskings, Ungentle takes us to Cambridge’s Red House, “a little red-brick Kremlin by the Cam”, and St Ermin’s Hotel in Mayfair, where the Special Operations Executive was founded, and where Philby and Maclean met their Russian handlers, at 54 Broadway, where the Secret Intelligence Service had its offices, in St James’s Park, where spies met and where queers crossed paths, and at the beach house on the Beaulieu estate in Hampshire, where the young Lord Montagu was arrested following a police raid, before being sentenced to a year in prison in 1954 for throwing a gay party.

St Ermin's Hotel, London, where the Special Operations Executive was based.
St Ermin’s Hotel, London, where the Special Operations Executive was based. Photography: Studio Voltaire

The narration is interrupted only by George Butterworth’s setting of Is My Team Plowing from A. E. Housman’s 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, sung by Bryn Terfel. Butterworth was killed by a sniper’s bullet on the Somme in 1916, while Housman’s poem is about youth and love and loss, and death for the cause of empire. Housman was gay, and the music here is far from incidental. There are echoes and hints all over Ungentle. The only other interruption is the muffled sound of a cell door closing as the narrator talks about his confession. For all the bucolic views and city scenes, there are no birdsong, no traffic, no screams of late-night West End revelers spied through the window of Cambridge Circus, no not echoing over the Tin and Stone Bridge in St James’s Park, where new recruits were welcomed into the Secret Service, right in the middle of a historic cruising ground.

What we have instead is perfectly visual: a slow panning of the camera, a lens pointing (on a window, a rose), or speeding up and jumping as it scans sidewalks and pedestrians, as if was looking for a tail or contact. The camera dives into shadows and ledges, corners and paths in the woods, and peers into the landscaped courtyard of Dolphin Square, the home of many deputies and lords and members of the secret world, real and fictional. The camera becomes almost paranoid in its gaze, seeking either a face or a way out. I watch Ungentle as if searching for clues and on the lookout for misdirection, seduced by the camera and Whishaw’s voice. At the end of Ungentle, the camera settles on two Isle of Wight ferries as they merge and separate in the sunny haze, sailing in opposite directions, crossing sides and back again.

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