The Apostles

T.E Lawrence was best known for his autobiographical work Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but that is not all that he wrote. He also translated books into English and wrote The Mint which was published after he had gone over his handlebars. The Mint was a sharp account of his time in the RAF. RAF you mutter? Indeed. After returning to the UK as a full Colonel, he worked in the stuffy corridors of the Foreign Office. This did not last. A bureaucratic desk job, as you might imagine for a man who had spent several years running loose across the desert in robes, held little appeal. And so he signed up to join the RAF under the name John Hume Ross.

The Mint then is his account of his time in the RAF as an ordinary airman. By all accounts it didn’t hold back, which was why Lawrence insisted it was only to be published after he had died. One man who did read the book and share his thoughts with Lawrence when he was still in his slippers, was the novelist E.M Forster who had cast an eye over it in the interests of harassing any stray comma or split infinitive off of its pages. Forster liked bits of the book, but lambasted the conclusion, a conclusion which he described as “insipid”. Golly.

Forster though knew how to nail down a book, famous as he was for Howards End and his greatest success, A Passage to India. If you’ve been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on sixteen different occasions and widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, you have swallowed the right to call other people’s work what you like. And so he did. Forster lived most of his life in King’s College, Cambridge where he was an undergraduate and honorary fellow and he too, like Lawrence, turned down a knighthood, which is something many a fleshy Tory donor can chew on if, and when, they have a minute.

It was whilst Forster was an undergraduate at Cambridge that he first became involved with the Apostles.

The Apostles is, are, probably is, given it is a singular group, is then, an intellectual society who sit around in each other’s college rooms talking about stuff; stuff that would leave you and I staring at the fruit cake wondering if anyone would notice if you took another slice. We wouldn’t have a great deal to add, save the occasional throaty grunt, consumed as we would be by a deep fear of being asked any question other than: “could you pass the fruit cake?”

The society was founded by a George Tomlinson who ended up in Gibraltar, as Gibraltar’s Bishop. A clever man you suspect. Indeed, they were all clever men, talking until the early hours, talking and debating, and voting and talking; documenting the gathering on note paper that would go in the “Ark”, a cedar chest containing papers and notes from previous meetings. It is, by all accounts, a point of honour that any vote held only had tangential bearing on the topic that had been splayed open over the course of any given evening. Make of that what you will.

As you might imagine for an intellectual Cambridge society, entry into the club is not straightforward. There are no forms. There is nothing online. Indeed, getting a mortgage is a lot easier. Undergraduates who are thought to have what it takes are invited to an ‘embryo party’, they being embryos in the eyes of the established Apostles. They are then intellectually skewered over the sausage rolls by a few committee men, who later decide whether an invitation to join the society should be posted in the embryo’s pigeon hole. The embryo has no idea he or she – for women were accepted into the cadre in the 1970s – is being appraised, and so is likely to go away thinking that everyone was all very friendly. Maybe a bit intense, but friendly. Should they later choose to become an Apostle, they then take an oath of secrecy and listen to the reading of a curse, a curse that was written by the Apostle and theologian Fenton Hort, who sported the sort of beard that suggested he could pen a mean curse.

The Apostles, given it was a society stuffed full of very clever people, rose to prominence outside of Cambridge in the years before the first World War through the group of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group, most of whom were Apostles. The Bloomsbury Group lived and worked in and around, umm, Bloomsbury, swapping ideas, dinner plates and beds. They were united by an enduring belief in the arts and their work shaped many modern beliefs towards feminism, pacifism and sexuality. The best known members included Virginia Wolf, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey who too, had a lovely beard. His, though, was a ginger beard. Even better. Keynes and Strachey were both Apostles.

Yet it was not all high teas and holidays for the Apostles, as they also hit the nine o’clock news with the exposure of the Cambridge spy ring in 1951, on account of one of the spies, Guy Burgess – or Guy Francis de Moncy Burgess – being an Apostle. So too, it turned out, was Anthony Blunt. Blunt was a few years older than Burgess, and was not only keeping an eye out for embryos, but was also keeping a keen eye out for Soviet sympathisers. Michael Straight, the American writer, and himself an Apostle, had called Blunt out, naming him as a Soviet spy. Blunt at the time had been, alongside his work at M15, an art adviser to the Queen which made an awkward situation, that little bit more awkward.*

On being confronted with Straight’s finger-pointing, Blunt put his gin down and admitted that he was indeed a Soviet spy and been drawn into Marxist ideology over cups of hot cocoa by his friend Leonard Long, himself an Apostle. He later wrote in his memoirs:

What I did not realise is that I was so naïve politically that I was not justified in committing myself to any political action of this kind. The atmosphere in Cambridge was so intense, the enthusiasm for any anti-fascist activity was so great, that I made the biggest mistake of my life.

There are also suggestions that Victor Rothschild – the 3rd Baron Rothschild – a playboy cricketer, financier and Apostle, was the fifth Cambridge spy; although this has never been proven. The suggestion seems to be based on the fact that he shared a London flat with Burgess and Blunt, worked at MI5 and had the sort of contacts book to make lots of suspicious introductions. A little fishy, you have to admit.

So that’s the Apostles then; a semi-secret, eccentric society full of very clever people that was – in the 1930s – a seething snake pit of Marxism.

Not today though.

At least, not as far as we know.

(*Unlike his fellow Apostles T.E Lawrence and E.M Forster, Anthony Blunt accepted a knighthood from the Queen. Yet, despite his monograph of the French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin still being regarded as a watershed book in art history, Anthony Blunt died just plain Anthony Blunt. Much like Fred Goodwin and Robert Mugabe will, the latter if he hasn’t done so already. Just saying. Perhaps email Beijing for further information.)


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