The Apostles

I posted yesterday on the recording which has come to light of the voice of Guy Burgess, one of the infamous Cambridge spy ring, and I mentioned in passing that his meeting with Churchill – whom he called up by telephone and to whose house he invited himself – was in part a reflection of his privileged upbringing.

One indicator of this social and intellectual privilege was his membership, during his time at Cambridge, of the Apostles, the secret (in reality, not so secret) debating society also known as the Cambridge Conversazione Society.

The Apostles – which still, rather anachronistically, exists – is open by invitation only, usually to undergraduates, and typically only to members of King’s, Trinity, St. John’s, Jesus and Christ’s. It derives its nickname from the number of its founder members, who first dedicated themselves to the art of secret conversazione in 1820 under the direction of George Tomlinson, later the first Bishop of Gibraltar.

Among its early members were poets Alfred Tennyson and Henry Hallam, the latter the subject of the former’s In Memoriam following his early death. Subsequent members included the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein (who hated it and quickly resigned), the economist John Maynard Keynes, physicist James Clarke Maxwell and the novelist E.M Forster (along with others of the so-called Bloomsbury set which included Keynes), whose 1907 novel The Longest Journey begins with the recreation of an Apostles-like debate on the presence or absence in the room of an ideal cow (if memory serves).

Guy Burgess was not the only member of the Cambridge spy ring who was involved with the Apostles: Sir Anthony Blunt, subsequently an art historian, Director of the Courtauld Institute and Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, was a member, and was said to have recruited a number of young Apostles to the cause from what in the 1930s had become a predominantly Marxist society. Blunt was only exposed and stripped of his knighthood in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher, who was constitutionally opposed not only to Soviet spies but to the aesthetic, secretive, Establishment and, until the late 1970s, male coterie which, in nursery form, the Apostles has always represented.

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