“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” So wrote E. M. Forster and that is the heart of Hugh Whitmore’s Play – ‘Pack of Lies’.
The play is set in a London suburb and is based on something that happened in 1960. Bill and Ruth Search allowed their home to become involved in state security. From it M15 began monitoring the activities of their neighbors and good friends, Peter and Helen Kroger. They are told that the Krogers are in fact Russian spies.
From that moment Bill and Ruth Search are confronted with the choice of betraying their country or their friends. The play raises questions like whether an individual can be an ‘enemy of the state’ and at the same time remain a good person. For Ruth Search, who had established a very strong friendship with Helen Kroger, the strain becomes almost too much to bear as trust is destroyed by lies. Mind you, having to maintain a ‘normal’ conversation with a suspected Russian spy who unexpectedly calls in for a cup of sugar and a chat whilst policemen are eavesdropping in your toilet - enough to strain anybody.
I did face something similar on a much smaller scale and without policement in my toilet. I suspect many of us have, in one way or another.
Dave Thomas was an Oxford graduate, a gifted teacher, but one who cultivated a louche persona. He was also a friend, a gifted drinking partner when not in the classroom. Towards the end of the academic year, Mike Barry informed me that Dave’s contract was not to be renewed for the following year, but not to say anything for fear it might cause unpleasantness in the intervening months.
I rationalized it as best I could: Even if I told Dave he could do nothing about it, and the whole thing would sour his last two months to no good effect. Even as I rehearsed the argument so it became almost convincing, I was uneasily aware of less worthy reasons. If I told Dave, Mike Barry would know it had come from me. The choice was pragmatic. Dave was understandably bitter when he found out I’d known all along, and a friendship was lost.
As you get older bad memories like these emerge, like small islands, in the great flood of events, so if Dave Thomas ever googles his name in a spasm of narcissism or boredom, then here’s my apology. I’m sorry. (Dear me, a Gordon Brown moment)