Saturday, 8 February 2014

THE GREATEST TRAITOR: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by ROGER HERMISTON

THE GREATEST TRAITOR: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake
Aurum, 2013, 362 pages, $39.99 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

George Blake was smart, resourceful and committed.  A teenage courier with the Dutch anti-Nazi Resistance during the war and a British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) spy after it, Blake then picked, says Roger Hermiston in The Greatest Traitor, the wrong cause, converting to Marxism and becoming a Soviet mole in the SIS.

The British Establishment’s vengeance would be severe - a 42 year prison term - only for the ever-ingenious Blake to escape over the walls of Wormwood Scrubs via a rope-ladder made from knitting needles, finding refuge in Moscow where, on an intelligence service pension, he still resides, unrepentant.

Blake first turned leftwards when he headed the SIS station in post-war South Korea, mingling with distasteful Korean businessmen lining their pockets from US aid whilst the rest of the population festered in poverty, ruled over by a corrupt regime which was to survive thanks only to brutal US military tactics in the Korean War.

Communism, Blake decided, compared more than favourably with the capitalist class system, despite his three-year privations as a prisoner of North Korean and Chinese troops during the peninsular war.  In 1951, the ideologically-converted Blake began passing on copies of secret SIS documents to the KGB.

After nine years of dead-letter drops and clandestine meetings with his KGB ‘handlers’, Blake fell under suspicion but he only confessed after being goaded by his SIS interrogators’ suggestion that he had spied for financial gain or under duress of torture in North Korea.  On the contrary, an indignant Blake maintained, he had acted from political conviction.

Conviction was not lacking, however, by the British political and judicial Establishment which sought to make an example of Blake with an unprecedented sentence.  Blake’s response was to become an escapee, in 1966, aided by willing helpers, including two peace campaigners who had done time with Blake for non-violent civil disobedience and who assisted Blake from humanitarian affront at his virtual life term rather than from any sympathies for Stalinist dictatorships.

Like most who took up spying for Moscow, Blake did so from high-minded socialist idealism, equating this with protecting the Soviet Union from Western imperialism, a not unworthy aim given that imperialist threats against the Stalinist state were the Cold War ideological and military umbrella sheltering, under the guise of ‘fighting Communism’, the real Western agenda to seize eastern European and post-colonial societies for Western capital.

Alas, Hermiston has a different take on Blake, to whom the words ‘traitor’ and ‘treachery’ are freely applied at all opportunities.  Hermiston can not conceive of anyone who believes they ‘have no country’, as both Blake and Marx averred, and who act out of internationalism, however much hindsight may now show this to have been distorted by Stalinist travesties of socialism for some members of a past generation of Marxists.  In Blake versus capitalist Establishment, the red mole still comes out on top.

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