Reviewed: The Greatest Traitor - the Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston

A perfect spy.

The Greatest Traitor: the Secret Lives of Agent George Blake
Roger Hermiston
Aurum Press, 384pp, £20

George Blake is now 90. He has lived for so long beyond the events for which he became notorious that he seems almost detached from the person of the same name who betrayed his country to the Soviet Union. If size is what matters, he is the greatest traitor in our recent history: no one else in his line of business has ever received anything like a 42-year sentence. That, though, is what the lord chief justice gave Blake at the Old Bailey in May 1961, on five counts of passing secret information to the Russians. The judge imposed the maximum of 14 years on each of the five counts but made three of them run consecutively. Blake, his supporters and even many of those who deplored him thought the sentence was excessive. He – and they – had expected a single stretch of 14 years.

But this was the height of the cold war, just three months before the Berlin Wall went up; Blake was a member of the Secret Intelligence Service; and the five counts were really just the tip of the iceberg. An urban myth has it that the judge, Lord Parker of Waddington, was secretly told that 42 British agents had lost their lives as a result of Blake’s treachery, hence the sentence. What is beyond doubt, as Roger Hermiston writes, is that Blake undermined much of what Britain was trying to do in the field of anti-Soviet espionage in the late 1950s. It is estimated Blake betrayed the activities of 400 MI6 operatives to the Russians.

Hermiston’s book tells Blake’s backstory in fascinating detail. He was half Dutch and part Jewish, born George Behar in Rotterdam in 1922. His Dutch mother married an Egyptian-Jewish man who was a naturalised Briton. Young George’s father died when he was in his teens and he was farmed out to an exotic uncle in Cairo. By the time war broke out, he had added English and a smattering of Arabic (a language he later studied in more depth) to his Dutch but returned to Holland to find that his mother and sister had escaped to England. Behar (he became Blake later) joined the resistance after the Nazi invasion and behaved with great heroism: the climax of which was an escape across Belgium, France and the Pyrenees into Spain and thence to Gibraltar and Britain.

Like James Bond, Blake joined the navy and, like him, was spotted as suitable for intelligence duties. He picked up some German and was in Berlin after the Nazi defeat; but he recognised the importance of Russia in the postwar world and did an intensive course in that country’s language at Cambridge in 1948-49. He was sent to Korea as hostilities broke out in 1950 and held captive for more than two years by the North Koreans.

It was at this time that he was “turned”. Blake had always been religious and Hermiston suggests that his path to communism had been by way of a religious-style conversion. While in Korea, Blake formed a loathing of the Americans, he said, because of their bombing of Korean civilians. He was unmoved by the atrocities North Koreans inflicted upon some of their American captives, which Hermiston details. He and the Soviets made contact and he agreed to work for them. Blake’s views on the subject show an alarming naivety and a blithe disregard for the consequences for his fellow operatives of his betrayal.

Blake and his fellow captives returned from North Korea to a hero’s welcome. A spell in Germany allowed him to pass significant amounts of information to the Russians, notably about the tunnelling and surveillance system the British and Americans put in place in Berlin. Blake and his family moved to Lebanon in 1960 where, among other things, he had intensive training in Arabic. Yet he was already under suspicion and being watched and a Polish defector confirmed that he was a double agent.

It seems that Blake was resigned to 14 years but the infliction of so long a sentence forced him to consider escape. With the help of an Irish chancer and two peace activists, who had met him in Wormwood Scrubs while serving short sentences for public order offences, he finally accomplished that escape in October 1966; and, after hiding in various safe houses, he was spirited out of the country in a Dormobile just before Christmas that year.

Blake turned himself in to the Russians in East Berlin and, eventually, was used as a great propaganda coup by his spymasters. His 46 years (so far) as their guest provide the book with something of an anti-climax. Hermiston tells the story well; but, perhaps because he feels constrained by official secrecy, he never properly describes the damage that Blake caused. Blake is a folk hero to some people, as was shown in 1991 when the belated prosecution of the two peace campaigners who assisted his escape ended in an acquittal. He was the servant of a repressive and murderous regime and his role in it was to retard the cause of liberty and democracy. Good though Hermiston’s book is, a better account of the evil that Blake did remains to be written.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail

A portrait of double-spy George Blake issued by Scotland Yard after his escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison in October 1966. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism