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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear