Book of the week: The Happy Traitor by Simon Kuper
Kuper tells the story of the ‘least known but the most damaging of all the British double agents’
George Blake, the subject of The Happy Traitor, was the “least known but the most damaging of all the British double agents”, said Ben Macintyre in The Times. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he “betrayed more agents to the Soviet Union” than all the Cambridge spies combined. Unmasked in 1961, he was sentenced to 42 years in prison – then the longest sentence ever handed out in Britain. In 1966, he escaped from Wormwood Scrubs and fled to Moscow, where he died last month at the age of 98. So “remarkable” was his life that Alfred Hitchcock planned to make a film about it – but died before he got the chance. Now Simon Kuper’s “comprehensive and insightful biography”, embargoed until Blake’s death, fleshes out this “shadowy figure”.
If the Cambridge spies were Establishment types, Blake was definitely an outsider, said Owen Matthews in The Spectator. He was born in Rotterdam in 1922 to a Dutch mother and a Jewish father, and briefly served with the Dutch Resistance before escaping to England in 1943. Recruited by MI6, he was posted to Korea – and was captured by North Korean communists after war broke out. During a “hellish two-year internment”, he was given Das Kapital and other Marxist tomes to read – and returned to England a committed communist.
Astonishingly, MI6 returned Blake to his espionage duties, without examining the possibility that he had been turned, said Max Hastings in The Sunday Times. As a result, he supplied the KGB with information that not only “doomed scores of Western agents in the East”, but also exposed the spy tunnel dug by the CIA under East Berlin. Although the Russians were on to this audacious project from the start, they let it operate for 11 months in the mid-1950s because they wanted to protect Blake, their most valuable mole. Only in 1961 was he trapped by circumstantial evidence.
If Blake’s betrayals were serious stuff, his escape from prison was pure “Ealing comedy”, said Noel Malcolm in The Daily Telegraph. He jumped over a wall using a rope ladder thrown by a “wild” Irish ex-con, and was smuggled to the Iron Curtain in a camper van driven by two “peace activists”. In Moscow, he settled into a quiet life as an intelligence analyst, joining Kim Philby on “jolly social occasions”. Kuper is sometimes overly kind to Blake: he accepts his claim that he acted “on grounds of principle alone”. Still, he has dug out some fascinating material – and does at least acknowledge that some 40 agents “are thought to have lost their lives because of Blake’s self-gratifying treachery”.
Profile 288pp £14.99; The Week bookshop £11.99
The Week bookshop
To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.