I've just listened for the third time to an Archive Hour programme that the BBC first broadcast in August 2009. It was made by Tom Bower and based on an interview he conducted with George Blake, former British intelligence officer and traitor, some twenty years ago.
What a puzzling figure Blake was (or rather is – he is still alive, in Moscow, I believe). He was born on Armistice Day in 1922 and named after George V. Although his parents were not British born, his father had British citizenship – which meant that George did too, even though he was brought up mainly in Holland and did not set foot in Britain until he was 18. His eventual arrival in the UK arose from a need to escape the Nazis, as he’d been a fighter in the resistance in Holland while still a very young man. Once in Britain, he joined the navy and, without at first realising what was happening, found himself recruited into the secret service. Posted to Korea, he was taken prisoner during the Korean War. It was in this period, under circumstances no-one is certain of, that he became a double agent, going on to betray hundreds of people, before eventually being caught, imprisoned, escaping with the help of some 'peace activists' who regarded his long prison sentence as inhumane and ending up eventually in Moscow.
Central to the enigma of George Blake is whether he was blackmailed into being a double agent, after confessing to his role in the Secret Service while in captivity – something he determinedly denies – or whether he chose his pathway of his own free will. The interview does not establish which of these two versions is the truth but it provides such an intriguing insight into the compromises and complex accommodations a traitor must make with himself that I have transcribed a lot of it here, in case anyone else might be interested to read it.
Bower begins by asking Blake what it was like to practice deception.
‘I didn’t know I was capable of that sort of thing,’ Blake replies.
‘Of that sort of deception?’ Bower asks.
‘Yes, I didn’t know I was capable of it. But apparently I was. I thought about it later, of course; I have thought about it as a result of our many conversations – I must be able to divorce my personal relations from the work I’m doing,’ Blake tells him.
Bower presses him then, trying to probe his conscience, revealing in the process how with half truths and bent logic Blake manages to hide from himself the magnitude of what he’s done.
‘Crudely put, you’re a perfect liar,’ Bower half asks, half states.
‘If you call that lying, yes, I think I was a deceiver.’
‘You’re a professional deceiver – a master of deception.’
‘Certainly, I can do it. I’m surprised myself that I can do it. But I couldn’t do it, you see, for personal reasons.’
‘You mean you can be dishonest in a cause, but not in personal relationships?’
‘But surely that can’t be true, because you lied to Midmon,’ (a Frenchman [whose name I think I’ve misspelt] with whom Blake was imprisoned in Korea; he regarded Blake as a friend and explains during the programme that for him that is the worst thing – that Blake betrayed not only his country but his friends), ‘you lied to all your friends.’
‘I didn’t lie to him,’ says Blake, ‘I simply didn’t tell him anything.’
‘You didn’t tell your wife either.’
‘Well, of course I didn’t tell my wife.’
‘Well, that’s deception on personal terms, if you don’t tell somebody.’
‘Well, that is deception on personal terms - but I did it in her own interest.’
‘And in your own interest as well.’
‘No - in the interest of the cause.’
‘That’s playing with words.’
‘Because you don’t want to admit that you do lie to people who you love and who you live with.’
‘But I had no choice. How could I have told them?’
‘That’s true,’ Bower concedes, ‘but then you can’t surely make the distinction that you’re not deceptive to human beings and only deceptive in professional relations or in bribery. I mean you lie to people you love.’
‘If I have to do it for a higher purpose,’ Blake answers, ‘but not for personal reasons. Not to pursue my own personal interest.’
Bower proceeds then to the nuts and bolts of what Blake did, and Blake begins to come alive in a way he hasn’t earlier in the interview. He sounds at times like an eager boy scout in this section, wriggling in his chair with self-satisfaction, reporting his activities as if presenting his tally of bob-a-jobs achieved.
‘How much material did you hand over in that period [while at the MI6 Berlin Station]?', Bower asks him.
‘That I cannot tell you.’
‘Because it is so much.’
‘So much? You don’t even know how much you handed over?’
‘No, I don’t. I don’t. I have no idea.’
‘What - you mean you were just like a hoover - you sucked it up?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘And turned it over. And fooled MI6 pretty well. And, besides all the documents, you gave away the identity of every agent?
‘Every agent, yes.’
‘Every agent who was operating on behalf of MI6?
‘How many was that?’
‘I can’t say, but it must have been, I don’t know, maybe 500 to 600.’
‘You betrayed 500 to 600 agents?’
‘Maybe. In that order, maybe – I don’t know how many.’
At this point Bower raises the subject of an East German defector who - almost certainly thanks to information from Blake - was kidnapped from a ‘safe house’ in Britain and taken back to East Germany, where he was probably tortured and killed. Blake’s replies to Bower’s questions about this episode are either naïve or show a capacity for the most extraordinary self-deception:
‘All I can say is that I had nothing to do with that,’ Blake insists, ‘because, if I had, if he – I mean, I would have known - I agree with you that in many cases I don’t know the names, but I think that in this case, being such a prominent figure, I would have known.’
‘But let’s say you would have been responsible. Would that matter?’
‘Well, it would matter, because the story is that he was executed.’
‘When you did those betrayals, did you consider that it was possible one of those who you’d betrayed might be executed in punishment?’
‘Well, I had been assured that that wouldn’t be the case.’
‘By the people with whom I had been in contact.’
‘And did you believe them?’
‘And when did you ask them that?
‘Well, when the time came for me to produce the information.’
‘And you actually said to them “What’ll happen to these people?”’
‘Yes. Yes. I said to them, “I’ll only give you this information if you can assure me that these people will not be executed – will not be …” – yes.’
‘The KGB isn’t renowned for treating people with kid gloves.’
‘Well - I know that, but I - that was the only thing that I could do, and I had to accept that. And I now believe that they kept their word.’
‘They wouldn’t want to tell you contrary, would they?’
‘They wouldn’t want to tell me the contrary, but I have no reason to believe that they told me a lie.’
‘Your critics would say that that suits you very well.’
‘Well, maybe it does, but that doesn’t – it can still be true, even if it suits me.’
Bower moves on to ask about the circumstances of Blake’s unmasking in 1959. The details Blake proceeds to reveal about his capture and interrogation are strange, amateurish and somehow uniquely English. Blake’s intense desire not to be seen as a victim, a desire which led to his own defeat as a double agent, is curious and possibly the one really human trait he displays during the whole interview.
‘I reported to Broadway,’ Blake explains, (Broadway, by St James’s tube, was at the time MI6 headquarters) ‘and I was met by Harry Shergold,’ (Shergold was an MI6 officer who was expert on Soviet affairs.) ‘He said to me, “Well, there are certain questions we want to discuss with you about your work in Berlin.”’ The two men then crossed St James’s Park together to a room in Carlton Gardens. It was there that Blake was cross-examined.
At first, Blake tells Bower, he thought everything seemed manageable. Only after lunch did things begin to change.
‘In the afternoon they came what I would say nearer the bone,’ he says, ‘and they mentioned a document which I had photographed in Berlin and passed on to the Soviets … I said, “I have no idea.”’
‘What was your feeling at that time?’ Bower asks.
‘Well, I was feeling that they were onto something, that they wouldn’t ask me these questions if there wasn’t a strong suspicion in their mind. But still I continued to pretend I didn’t know any more than they did. And then, towards the end of the day, they began accusing me ... I thought I could still save myself … Then I was allowed to go home. The next day I went back. The interrogation continued, and it went on throughout the day.’
‘Where was it leading?’
‘It wasn’t leading anywhere really.’
‘Well, because they kept on saying, “We know you’re a Soviet spy,” and I kept on saying “I am not.”’
‘And what was your reaction during that day?’
Well, it was one of tension, obviously - when you are being accused of such a serious matter.’
‘Especially if it’s true.’
‘And you know it’s true - then you’re not in a very happy state. But I hoped that I’d be able to somehow get out of it.’
‘It was on the third day that Shergold dramatically changed his technique?’
‘Yes. Shortly after lunch they went onto another tack, and that, of course, proved to be very successful, from their point of view. Because what they said then was, "Well, all right you keep on saying that you’re not a Soviet spy, but we know you’re a Soviet spy, but we can understand why you’re a Soviet spy. It’s not your fault,” or words to that effect. “You were tortured in Korea and you were made to confess that you were an SIS officer, and you were then subsequently blackmailed and you just had to go on supplying information.” And, when they said that, something happened to me, which even today I may find it difficult to account for - and it certainly goes against all logic of self-preservation and the way people should behave in those sorts of situations - but my reaction - and it was a sort of gut reaction – was, “Oh no: I have not been tortured, I have not been blackmailed; I went to the Soviet intelligence service myself. I established contact with them, and I offered them my services of my own free will.”
‘You were confessing?’
‘And that amounted to a confession.’
‘What was the look on their faces?’
‘Of great amazement. And then, of course, I explained to them in great detail why I had taken that decision, why I had done so, in much the same way as I told you. I mean that was the confession. That was really the end of the matter. Then it was 6 o’clock, and it was time to go home.’
‘You’ve just confessed to being a spy, and it was time to go home?’
‘And it was time to go home – well, it was six o’clock.’
‘No thought even the next day of making a bolt for it?’
‘No, because I thought that was pretty hopeless.’
‘Well, where would I go to?’
‘You could have hidden out somewhere until you –‘
‘No, no, no, that’s not real. No, no, no, I didn’t believe in that.’
The looks of great amazement Blake describes were almost certainly real– according to Bower the confession really had been unexpected, as other double agents, such as Philby and Blunt, only confessed after extracting a guarantee that there would be no prosecution.
Bower says, however, that MI6’s 'bittersweet compensation' was Blake’s willingness to expand his confession. This he did, with several MI6 agents present, over the course of a weekend in the country. Blake’s account of the events of those few days include some of the oddest revelations of the interview:
‘Harry Shergold had a cottage, and there we were very kindly welcomed by his wife and his mother-in-law.’
‘What were you doing?’
‘Well, what we did was we talked a lot. We went for walks. The atmosphere was quite extraordinary, because it was rather like an ordinary weekend among friends. And I remember one very extraordinary afternoon really - when you come to think of it in the circumstances that here I was, a confessed spy. I was in the kitchen with the old grandmother making pancakes, because I was quite good at making pancakes and, when it was suggested that we should eat pancakes that evening, I offered to make them.’
‘And what was their reaction?’
‘Well, just normal: “Thank you, that would be very nice.”’
Only the English, surely, would balance their way politely through a weekend with someone who had betrayed them, going for walks and eating meals together as if all was well.
Finally, Bower invites Blake to look back and survey the life he’s led.
‘Any regrets about your life?’
‘No, none whatsoever.’
‘Most people have regrets though.’
‘Well, I haven’t.’
‘Why are you so self-righteous?’
‘I’m not self-righteous. Everything that happened in my life was meant to happen and there was no other possibility. And I want to remind you of the words of St Paul, who says that the potter uses the clay to form vessels, some to honour and some to dishonour, and it is not for the clay to ask the potter why he does it. And that is my outlook on life: I have been formed in this way, and it is not for me to ask why - and I would say that I have been an unusual vessel in that I have been fashioned both to shame and to honour.’
So the accommodation Blake makes with himself in the end is to argue that there is no such thing as human responsibility – that what is meant to happen does happen and there was never another possible outcome: we are but clay formed by a potter (and how odd for a lifelong Communist to use St Paul’s words to justify his actions.) He does refer to ‘shame’, but he blames it on the potter rather than himself - and he gives no indication of where in his life he thinks it lies.
Perhaps then the last word should go to Charles Wheeler, the journalist, who worked with Blake very early on in Blake’s career (before he had become a double agent.) Like Kenneth de Courcy, Blake’s very Etonian sounding fellow prisoner at Wormwood Scrubs, who says that Blake ‘had a very engaging manner’ and ‘was a very good listener … [he was] one of the most popular prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs, without a doubt,’ Wheeler recognises that Blake was likeable. ‘He was a curious person', he tells Bower, 'he was very charming. People liked him.' Wheeler pauses for a moment. ‘He smiled a lot.' he continues, 'He smiled rather too much. He smiled at breakfast.’
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