The Tragedy of George Blake

George Blake was convicted of five charges relating to the Official Secrets Act and sentenced to an incredible 42 years in Wormwood Scrubs prison, London. His sentence appalled fellow inmates, and even prison officers. He escaped all the way to Moscow after serving four years. We believe he was harshly treated. His life and time in prison is remembered in a 1995 play by Simon Gray.

For one thing, he was among a handful of spies discovered in the 1960s and 1970s. Not one of the Cambridge Spies, and therefore not a true member of the Establishment, he was not even British. These two facts are a significant reason why Blake believes he was sent to prison.

His offence carried a maximum sentence of 14 years. Blake argues that the Americans, having long tired of British agents defecting to Moscow, demanded a long sentence. This was achieved by splitting his single offence, treason, into five separate ones, covering entirely arbitrary periods of time. One period was five years, another just two weeks. Even more confusingly, the judge ordered some sentences to be served consecutively and others concurrently. The only reason this bizarre miscarriage of justice was allowed to stand is that Blake enlisted the help of another inmate, Sean Bourke, to escape. Both men fled to Berlin and from there to Moscow, where Blake lived out the rest of his life modestly alongside Philby, Maclean and others.

Blake also admits that the 42 year sentence seemed so ridiculous that it actively encouraged him to escape. The prison staff assumed he would try to leave, and watched him closely for years until he had finally convinced them that he was resigned to staying put. Had he been given the correct sentence, which he argues was 14 years, he would most likely have seen it out, and been released as a free man 7 or 8 years later.

Due to his escape, he was not able to appeal his sentence and felt obliged to live in exile in Moscow from where he penned his autobiography, No Other Choice, in 1990. We reviewed this edition, borrowed from the London Library.

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