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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis