I read yesterday that George Blake has died. I’m old enough to remember his escape from Wormwood Scrubs jail in 1966 but not old enough to recall his trial with much clarity. I walked past the jail in Hammersmith a few years ago and it was Blake’s name that came to mind. Notoriety is strangely long lived.
Three thoughts came to mind on reading the death notice yesterday. Will anyone recall the notorious Julian Assange sixty years from now? Is it really likely that an outgoing Trump could pardon treasonous Edward Snowden just to annoy the NSA? What was that thing that Robert Macfarlane wrote about George Blake?
I thought it had to be in the The Old Ways, in the chapter where Macfarlane described his father’s diplomatic career. Macfarlane tells us that his father had a habit of turning up at interesting times. I pulled the book from the shelf, thumbed my way through it until it was on the page in front of me. Anchluss in Vienna. Civil War in Barcelona. Cold War in Berlin.
‘In Berlin, he dealt with the arrest of Russian spies outside the zoo, and with the successful British and American ‘listening tunnels’ leading into East Germany (later betrayed by George Blake)’
It’s only a mention of the spy by name yet I still recall it. I wondered why a parenthetical reference could persist in memory.
Was it simply that a new piece of information about a subject of interest had seeded the memory? As kids, the British media lost no opportunity to tell readers about the vile treasons of the Cambridge Five. Spies fascinated, betrayals horrified and both sold newspapers. Win win. So it was quite proper for James Bond to be out there spying but quite an outrage to be spied upon.
Was it because I stood outside the zoo long before the wall came down? A motorcycle trip to Berlin in December 1977 almost ended in my own death when a sheet of ice slid from the roof of a cornering articulated truck. The thick sheet crashed to the pavement, intact, by my feet. The driver would probably only have known if there was a headline like ‘Long haired foreign student biker divided in divided Berlin.’
They say Blake was responsible for many terrible deaths. That was caused by treachery. This is now and we read that Trump pardons killers while approving the executions of others, as if to maintain, in his mind at least, a balance. Meanwhile George W Bush and Tony Blair walk free to be honoredUS and honouredUK wherever they go.
I’m not sure who our heroes should be. Perhaps heroes are those that prevent war, those that prosecute warriors and a new class of hero, those that die between prevention and prosecution. War is murder after all is said and done.
Caveat emptor: my daily musings may be incomplete and incorrect.
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