Paul Anderson, review of The Blake Escape: How We Freed George Blake and Why by Michael Randle and Pat Pottle (Harrap, £12.95), Tribune, 5 May 1989
This book tells one of the most improbable stories I’ve ever read. Three ex lags — a charismatic Irish piss-artist petty criminal and two earnest anarcho-pacifists who’ve been inside for peace movement direct action “offences”— spring one of their mates from the Scrubs.
Strange enough in itself, you might think. But the mate just happens to be doing a 42-year stretch for being (according to establishment wisdom) one of the most dangerous Soviet agents ever. What’s more, our doughty amateur threesome get the master-spy safely to East Germany in the back of a caravanette. The press, egged on by “sources close to the security services”, speculates that the KGB was responsible.
Yet all this happened, in 1966. The spy is George Blake, imprisoned . in 1961 after a secret , trial for betraying the identities of British agents in Eastern Europe to the KGB. The two anarcho-pacifists are the authors, who were activists in the Committee of 100 in the early sixties; and the piss-artist is Sean Bourke.
The story would not be known to the world today but for Bourke, whose incompetence and eccentricity (or was it simply his eye for a saleable yarn?) led first to his involvement being discovered by the police, thence to flight to the Soviet Union, and finally to his return to Ireland, where he successfully fought off British attempts to have him extradited In 1970, his somewhat romanticised version of the story was published in a book, The Springing of George Blake, that more-or-less fingered his accomplices.
After that, nothing happened until 1987, when Randle and Pottle were named in an article written by a one-time-radical Sunday Times hack, Barrie Penrose, who was following up a book on Blake by H Montgomery Hyde that had all but identified them.
Faced with calls from Tory MPs for their prosecution and press attempts to use the story to link CND with the KGB, Randle and Pottle decided to set the record straight. Hence this book.
They have done very well. Their story, as Sean Bourke knew, makes compulsive reading. Simply to tell how Blake was sprung and taken to East Germany is to deliver a two-fingered salute to the British establishment. That three green amateurs could pull off such a spectacular stunt assisted only by a handful of peacenik friends makes complete nonsense of the security state. The prison authorities, the police, the security services and the tame hacks that swallow the state’s droppings so unquestioningly are revealed as time-serving incompetents and fools. It is impossible to keep a straight face while reading this book.
But there is a serious side to it as well. For, as Randle and Pottle make clear, their reasons for getting involved in this escapade were not solely to do with cocking a. snout at those in authority. They believed, and still believe, that it is right to break the law if by doing so a greater crime is prevented. Blake was given, an inhumanely long sentence after an unfair trial, they argue.
Although they at no point condone Blake’s activities, agreeing that he probably has “blood on his hands”, they make a convincing case against rumours that the harshness of Blake’s sentence was related to the number of British agents he betrayed to imprisonment or death. Anyway, they go on, Blake’s espionage activities were certainly no worse than anything Western intelligence agencies get up to as a matter of routine — and they were a lot less reprehensible than the bloody coups and assassinations that western intelligence agencies have engineered in the Third World. Blake was simply a small part of a whole system that needs dismantling.
This is a sound moral argument, which Randle and Pottle plan to make the basis of their defence should they be brought to trial. I hope it doesn’t come to this — but we shall see. In the meantime, read their book.