Blake Escape: book reviews

Peace activists Pat Pottle and Michael Randle outside the Old Bailey
Peace activists Pat Pottle and Michael Randle outside the Old Bailey, where they were both acquitted on 26 June 1991

Reviews of books by Geroge Blake and the two libertarian activists who helped him to escape from prison in 1966.

Submitted by Fozzie on January 11, 2022

The Great Escape, starring Hackman, Costner and Cruise

Michael Randle & Pat Pottle - The Blake Escape: How We Freed George Blake and Why Harrap, £12.95
George Blake – No Other Choice Jonathan Cape, £12.99

In late June twelve good folk and true weighed the case of Regina vs. Michael Randle and Pat Pottle in the scales of justice and acquitted them of helping George Blake, super-spy, escape from Brixton jail in 1966. Because they had the sense to ignore the judge and the prosecution, justice was served. Had they weighed the case according to case-law and rules of evidence as they had been instructed to by the judge, the only victors would have been a gaggle of die-hard Tory MPs, and their mentors on the top floors of the Daily Mail and Daily Express buildings. The jury proved that you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to spot a political trial when you see one.

Unusual as that sort of common-sense is these days, such a verdict would have been obvious to anyone reading The Blake Escape, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle's own justification of why they delivered, unbidden, to Moscow one of its most stunning Cold War propaganda coups while steadfastly maintaining their own independence. In No Other Choice the long silent George Blake justifies his betrayal of the West in favour of the East. All three authors are making their peace with a world that looks upon them as outcasts. Like so many outcasts in their own time, their stature is likely to grow as years pass and new generations whose imaginations are unbowed by the Cold War will recognise their courage and sacrifices in the name of their respective political convictions.

Sufficient time has already passed, one might think, for such a re-assessment to occur. Randle and Pottle are off the hook, but Blake will never see England again, and he cannot even bequeath his book royalties to his children. Perhaps the establishment realised that the Randle and Pottle prosecution was slipping away from them. With the Treasury Solicitor's injunction on Blake's royalties at least some action was taken that could not be challenged and would pacify the Tory back benches.

Difficult as it is to separate ideology from anything that goes on in Britain, let's imagine this case without it. We would have a completely different story. For months after the books were published Hollywood agents would have been putting up their last Porsches for the film rights. After that, Gene Hackman as Blake, with Kevin Costner as Randle and Tom Cruise as Pottle, would have immortalised this ripping yarn (with only slight inaccuracies) for the silver screen, and their real life counterparts would be living the life of Riley on the back of their percent-ages of gross box-office take. It is not too surprising that things did not happen this way. Initially, nobody in government, East or West, could have really believed that the Blake escape was not the devious work of the other side. Indeed, Randle and Pottle did well to leave Blake with the East Berlin police and go home. Otherwise they might have faced the same sort of hostile interrogation from a bemused KGB as they might have had from MI5.

Moscow cannot have been overjoyed to see its super-spy back home, since they had a little explaining to do. One can easily imagine Blake angrily thumping a table in the Lubyanka demanding to know why they hadn't swapped him for an American tourist with one too many cameras. Blake had even met KGB man Konol Malady (convicted in Britain as Gordon Lansdale) while in jail, and he said it would be a breeze. But Blake did time for four years before it dawned on him that he was not being saved a place at the Bolshoi. Unfortunately, Blake does not tell us why this was, although of course, he may not know. He is sure, however, that he was not offered the immunity tendered to Blunt and Philby because he was not only from humble origins, but a bloody foreigner to boot. Some puzzlement on Randle and Pottle's part would have been in order too. Why hadn't they been given a roasting by MI5?

When Sean Bourke, the flamboyant IRA man who was also part of the escape, published his book on the affair in 1969, leaving Michael Randle and Pat Pottle's identities glaringly obvious, the government chose not to prosecute. One can only surmise that it feared undermining the ideological pillars of the anti-Communist crusade by giving an airing to Randle and Pottle's real motives in the course of a trial. Publicity would also have revived official embarrassment at the escape of Blake in the first place, and accentuated it by revealing that the perpetrators were not specially selected warriors from the massed ranks of Communist 'sleepers' and Cambridge KGB colonels, but a couple of peaceniks. Last but not least, MI6, which was only slowly recovering from a string of scandals revealing lunatic incompetence, would have been sent to Coventry by an irate CIA, aghast that yet another farrago of English muddling had taken place.

Trying Randle and Pottle then would have cast new light on the State's vindictiveness in handing down the heaviest-ever prison sentence in modern legal history on Blake. In the peace movement of the early 1960's Randle and Pottle had proved themselves as highly competent operators in the service of no foreign power, with skills in putting the anti-bomb case and in embarrassing the British government that many foreign powers might dearly have loved to emulate. Characteristically for pacifists of that era they had no fear of the authorities in pursuing peaceful direct action. They did not find their freedom of action circumscribed by the paranoia typical of later left-wingers, who often found greater comfort in inaction born of ‘certainty’ that MI5 was bugging their phones, or by other imaginative magnifications of the power of the state. And they have carried on in this vein, among other anti-war and anti-nuclear activities helping American deserters find sanctuary from the obscenity of the Vietnam war.

The sheer audacity of the Blake escape deserves unqualified admiration. The KGB, steeped in Stalinist bureaucratic traditions, would never have dared to plan such an operation, no more than any Western intelligence service. Indeed, neither the KGB, MI6 nor the CIA have ever sprung one of their own from the dungeons of the other. The truth of this escapade is far stranger than realistic spy fiction.

But Randle and Pottle's book is also a serious consideration of the issues involved in the Blake case. They trash the idea that Blake was shown at his trial to have betrayed agents to their deaths, citing Blake's defence counsel on the point. They even managed a little interview with the petulant Chapman Pincher - 'Our Curzon Street Correspondent' - who was used by the then Home Secretary, George Brown, to circulate the notion on the day of Blake's appeal against sentence that Blake had the blood of others on his hands. Pincher and Brown's smear was allowed to stand because the trial was closed and no one could challenge it.

George Blake's forty-two-year sentence enraged Randle and Pottle and the knowledge that it was out of all proportion, especially because it was unprecedented, provided the motivation for their act. They probably saw Blake as just as much a political prisoner as they were (they were serving sentences for their involvement in a sit-in as Wethersfield US Airbase, Essex), even though their distaste for Communism would have been almost as great as the State's. The inability of the British media to accept this has clouded their view of what really happened and meant that every media encounter with Randle and Pottle, even after acquittal, has been characterised by large helpings of 'moral outrage'. Michael Randle and Pat Pottle deserve our congratulations for standing their ground so eloquently in court and out.

George Blake's own story is not quite so inspiring, and not half as exciting, as Randle and Pottle's, despite the fact that this was real-life espionage. As the spooks never tire of telling us, real-life espionage is not how it is in the novels, and poor Blake gets tired of repeating the truism. Grilled by Tom Bower in the BBC TV documentary about him, his boredom with the endless harping on betrayal and patriotism is almost palpable. You can see he views his acts in themselves as totally undeserving of such attention, and he labours against the assumption of the media that grand philosophising and thorough ideological theorising proceeded his every act. The myth-makers of espionage would have us believe every spy tussles with their conscience the way Flaubert would tussle with a sentence. Blake is no genius, maybe not even particularly thoughtful. He fought extremely bravely in the Second World War (as a youngster with the Dutch Resistance, and later in the Royal Navy), and after that "ended up" in intelligence in the late 1940s the way other people end up in teaching. His 'good war' set him up as a spy without his having to think about it much.

However, the war over, his life of daily danger eased up, and he slowed down. He entered academic life to learn Russian; now he had time to think about his work and his future, and now he decided he was a Communist. Reverting to his good soldier type, he did the only thing he thought he could do, switch sides and work for the great socialist motherland. "My aim", he told a Guardian writer last year, "was simply to prevent Western intelligence services - the opposition - from undermining what I believe to be a valuable experiment, namely building a new society". This is the point at which we, as honest bourgeois citizens, are supposed to fall over in shock and dismay. But his action was in all the best traditions of espionage.

Betrayal lies at the heart of intelligence work, and only the slightest change in direction makes it treason. That is why intelligence services are so obsessed by moles. Professional intelligence officers know that even when they are being 'loyal' every good spy plays informer, makes friends on false pretences, betrays their confidences to other people, lies about their motives, and then uses ideology, bribes or blackmail to lock the unfortunate agent into cooperation. This is what the CIA chillingly calls a "controlled environment" - you or I would say "having them by the short and curlies". If this is the daily toil of being a spy, then the surprising thing is that more of them do not decide to play on their masters the game they play with their agents.

Perhaps the wisest comment on George Blake was a throwaway remark by Robert Cecil, who was once an assistant to the director of MI6 and spoke for the record on the 'This Week' programme. "One talks about loyalties", the aged spook said, "but what were his loyalties?". Cecil was puzzled. He knew that Blake was loyal to his friends. After all, he had helped organise fellow prisoners when he and other British diplomats were captured by the North Koreans during the Korean war and suffered appalling hardships. He had risked a gruesome death at the hands of the Gestapo. And yet he was capable of recruiting somebody and cheerfully despatching them to the wolves of the steppes. He was in other words, a perfect spy.