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Thursday 29th May 2003
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REVIEWS   BY ILLTYD HARRINGTON

George Blake


Above: Sean Bourke at work in 1977; Below: the flats in Willow Road, Hampstead, the hiding place of Michael Randle

Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, leaders of the English conspirators, discuss tactics during their Old Bailey trial, 1991
Forget the train robbers, this was the great escape

Blake and Bourke and The End of Empires by Kevin O’Connor
Prendeville Publishing Ltd, £12

George Blake, the spy who was given the longest jail sentence in British history by an Old Bailey judge – 42 years – is in the news again. He is trying to retrieve £90,000 which the British Government confiscated from his deal with publishers Jonathan Cape for his biography No Other Choice. At 81, his life, times and conversion to Communism defies fictitious espionage.

Blake, born Beher in Rotterdam in 1922, was motivated by a belief in predestination. A spell in Egypt was followed by incredible bravery in the Dutch resistance. He cycled to the Spanish border, got himself interned and was repatriated to England in 1943.

He was quickly absorbed into the security services, who sent him on a crash course at Cambridge University to learn Russian. This he did before entering ‘the foreign service,’ where he was posted to Korea and captured by North Korean and Chinese forces. After deep thoughts amidst deprivation, he was converted willingly by his intellect to Communism.

He was a prize catch for the KGB, for he was a rising star in the British Secret Service. He proved his worth by exposing a telecommunications labyrinth in East Berlin, which was monitoring Russian military and political intelligence. It was a devastating blow to the CIA and MI6.
The net closed in 1961. An hour-long trial saw him jailed for 42 years. He was dispatched to Wormwood Scrubs – he would be out in 2003.
Enter Sean Bourke, a roistering young Irishman, born in Limerick, in October 1943. A catalogue of petty crime linked to a cunning intelligence brought him to Crawley, where he fell foul of the Sussex constabulary. His grudge with them ended in 1961 when he sent a parcel bomb to a constable. Bourke got seven years and joined the other inmates in the Scrubs.

Blake and Bourke’s destinies came together. Blake was now calm, studious and well-respected in the prisoners’ hierarchy, and Bourke edited the prison magazine. Among the future inmates was to be Pat Pottle for peace activism. His friend and fellow CND activist, Michael Randle, would help spring the three from jail.

On October 22 1956, George Blake went over the wall and was eventually delivered from beneath the floor of Randle’s camper van into Russian security in East Berlin on December 17.
Bourke, garrulous, a heavy drinker and the most indiscreet of all the conspirators, got to Moscow at the beginning of 1957 where he shared a KGB ‘safe apartment’ with the fastidious Blake. Eventually he got back to Ireland, avoiding extradition to England by claiming political immunity. He was found dying and drunk by the side of a country road in January 1982.

But it is the role of Randle and Pottle which is the stuff of the scarlet pimpernel. Pottle hiding the most wanted man in Britain in his grotty Hampstead flat, coping with his extravagant and dangerously unpredictable behaviour.

In 1989 Pat and Michael wrote How We Sprung George Blake And Why. It ended up with a ten-day trial at the Old Bailey. The daring duo faced up to the establishment, and 23 years after the event, both were found not guilty. Their long ordeal was over. Pat Pottle died in October 2002. A couple of odd couples in a tale well told by Kevin O’Connor, an Irish journalist who interviewed most of the cast in this dripping melodrama.