Between Stalin’s Englishman, The Mountbattons and now The Traitor King you have investigated and peeled away layers of the twentieth century British establishment. What do you think it is which attracts you to this sort of topic?
I’m interested in revisionist biography, taking a well-known subject and looking at them with a new angle – a portrait of a marriage as in The Mountbattens , the consequences of a seismic event such as the Abdication in the case of Traitor King – and based on fresh sources. That can be private archives or interviews with people who knew the subject but largely it depends on public archives and using FOI requests. This was crucial with regard to the Guy Burgess biography and, never a natural rebel, I was shocked by the way government departments failed to adhere to Freedom of Information requests or honour the various Public Record Acts. I became increasingly enraged by the lies and obfuscation but also the fact that cover ups have simply continued. The White Paper into Burgess & Maclean’s disappearance was known as the Whitewash Paper and I became increasingly interested in how the narratives were shaped by subject or government. This became very apparent with the way Mountbatten curated his life by cooperating with tame journalists and writers and denying access to anyone who might be sceptical of his PR line. It was a pattern repeated by the Windsors. For a biographer this is fascinating. Here’s the story they want you to believe , such as we lived happily ever after, and here’s the reality.
I understand that this might seem flippant, but I mean it seriously: how do you get the time? Not only to write, but also to do the archival research necessary to produce books of this level of detail, especially when maintaining a difficult day job and then mounting various campaigns.
It is time-consuming because, as you say, I spend a lot of time on research , which I do almost entirely myself unless another language is required, yet have a demanding day job representing some 200 authors as a literary agent. The answer is I work long hours every day and I work quickly. I tend to write the books in a few months without few revisions because my research is thorough and I know exactly how I’m going to tell the story. I think the fact that I write against tough deadlines gives a certain narrative pace to the books. The research has been particularly difficult for Traitor King because archives were closed and many remain so which is very frustrating but US archives, in particular, but also the Churchill College Archives in Cambridge, provided digital access .
What is a typical writing day for you?
There is no typical day. About six months before the book is due, irrespective of where the research is because one can always do more, I sit down to aim to write 4-5,000 words, a chapter, each day. Usually that’s after a day’s work at the agency and I’ll write into the night. During this period I’ll try not to do agency work at weekends so I can have a clear two day run to immerse myself properly in the chapter. If I’m struggling at one point, I’ll just keep writing leaving a gap to be filled.The key is to keep putting words on the page even if it doesn’t look very fluent. One can always polish later.
As well as your writing and literary agency, you have been a vocal campaigner for Freedom of Information, counteracting measures by the UK government to destroy documents as well as latterly, for the University of Southampton to release the diaries of the Mountbatton. What are the latest on this and what can people do to help?
I feel very strongly that our history is being censored and we cannot tell the truth about the past unless we know the full picture. I’m very concerned that all the documents which by law should be in the National Archives – we now have a 20 year rule – are not there, that many are ‘temporarily retained’ by departments for years and when sent to the archives have been heavily weeded and that a high proportion of documents are destroyed without any record of their contents being kept.. Much of this has nothing to do with national security but rather with an over-cautious culture of secrecy in Whitehall and to cover up embarrassment. In this country the attitude of those dealing with research requests is ‘how can we keep this secret’, in the US it’s ‘how can I help you in your research’.
I’ve just mounted a six year campaign to ensure that the diaries and letters of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, bought for £4 million with public monies or in lieu of tax on the basis they would be ‘available publicly to all’ , are released. The Information Commission ruled in 2019 that they should be opened but Southampton University and the Cabinet Office appealed and managed with excuses to delay a hearing until November this year. Their approach was to hope I would give up because my book was finished and that their pockets were deeper than mine. I refused to be bullied into submission. So far it has cost me £250,000 in legal fees – all my earnings and savings- so heaven knows what public funds were spent by the Cabinet Office.
In May this year, after another delaying tactic by Southampton and the Cabinet Office, I had to crowdfund another £50,000 to ensure I could go to the hearing. People, most of whom I didn’t know, contributed because they could see the important principles at stake – freedom of speech, access to archives, the abuse of State power.
A media and parliamentary campaign, alongside pressure from my lawyers, has meant that some diaries from 1920-1960 have been released but they have been redacted and there is no sign of the diaries to 1980 or the couple’s correspondence. There also remain missing files in the inventory in the Mountbatten papers and no sign of the Edwina-Nehru correspondence. Much still needs to be done and those interested can help by joining the Campaign for Freedom of Information, lobbying MPS, writing letters to the paper and sharing the various horror stories on social media.
I’m not a natural conspiracy theorist but the destruction of documents and the restrictions placed upon academics to access records does seem Kafkaesque in its sinister implications. How structured and explicit do you think these policies are?
I think it is very calculated. Freedom of Information officers in government departments are trained in how to use exemptions to deny access, they deliberately confuse requestors by changing reference numbers or simply don’t answer.The stock response from the Met asking for files on the inter-war period is they don’t know if they have them because almost a hundred years later they have still not been catalogued. We know for a fact that material going back to Victorian era is still held in the Hanslope archive outside London and it was only a court case that forced the Foreign Office to admit to the ‘migrated’ archive there relating to Mau Mau terrors of the 1950s. Another problem is the regulator for Freedom of Information, the Information Commissioner, reports to the Cabinet Office who are one of the worst offenders for failing to answer FOI requests. The Cabinet Office simply cuts the ICO budget so they can’t do their job properly.
The Government use the excuse of resources but I would suggest they use their resources to open up papers rather than suppress them – we know the QCs used by the Cabinet Office and Southampton in our hearing cost £33,000 for a few days’ work.
I’ve heard you speak elsewhere of the way there seems to be a two tier system for historians and researchers in this country. Those willing to “tow the line” rewarded with access to releases, advanced sight and invitations to events beneficial to them whilst others labelled “difficult” are excluded. Do you think this is still the case?
Absolutely and it refers to both archivists and writers. It is noticeable that the archivists with gongs are those who ‘cooperate’ with the Government and I know plenty of well-known historians who are convinced they will be enobled or knighted if they write supportive articles about the Royal Family, cosy up to the government of the day and diss anyone who takes a more independent line. It was revealing that no historian came out in support of my campaign to open the Mountbatten diaries for everyone though it went to the heart of historical scholarship. Nor incidentally did many of the organisations set up to support free speech, support writers or academic. The two exceptions were EnglishPen and the Royal Historical Society.
Where are you on choosing your next project?
I have started a new book but am keeping quiet about it. With Traitor King, I told one of my authors and he promptly went and tried to do it himself hence the need to deliver quickly.
Andrew Lownie was born in 1961 and was educated in Britain and America. He read history at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he was President of the Union. He went on to gain an MSc at Edinburgh University and spend a year at the College of Law in London. After a period as a bookseller and journalist, he began his publishing career as the graduate trainee at Hodder & Stoughton. In 1985 became an agent at John Farquharson, now part of Curtis Brown, and the following year became the then youngest director in British publishing when he was appointed a director. He set up the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency in 1988.
Since 1984 he has written and reviewed for a range of newspapers and magazines, including The Times, Spectator and Guardian, which has given him good journalistic contacts. As an author himself, most notably of a biography of John Buchan, a literary companion to Edinburgh and a prize-winning biography of the spy Guy Burgess, he has an understanding of the issues and problems affecting writers.
He has acted as the literary agent to the international writers’ organisation PEN. In 1998 he founded The Biographers Club, a monthly dining society for biographers and those involved in promoting biography, and The Biographers’ Club Prize which supports first-time biographers. He has had a regular advice column in the writing magazine Words with Jam, written the entries on submitting to agents for The Writers Handbook and The Writers and Artists Yearbook, contributed to The Arvon Book of Life Writing and regularly gives talks on aspects of publishing.