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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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

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