Escape of the century - or farce?
Espionage Sean Bourke was every Englishman's idea of a stage Irishman. Good-looking, with a mass of black curly hair, a great talker, a ferocious appetite for drink, and a bad habit of ending up on the wrong side of the law. A hellraiser, like fellow Limerick man Richard Harris - but while Harris was law-abiding, Bourke was not.
Bourke was jailed in England in the 1960s for sending a parcel bomb to a policeman who suggested - wrongly, it seems - that he was targeting small boys. In Wormwood Scrubs, Bourke met George Blake, an MI6 (foreign office) operative who had admitted spying for the Soviet Union and got a 42-year jail sentence for his trouble. Also in the prison were two peace campaigners, Pat Pottle and Michael Randle, serving sentences for civil disobedience activities. Bourke got Blake over the wall of the west London prison, Randall, Pottle and others hid him and smuggled him to East Berlin in a motorised caravan.
There are many versions of this tale around. Some are even true in places. The Springing Of George Blake by Bourke himself is a rattling good read, but not the whole unvarnished truth. A similar caveat applies to versions found in the memoirs of ex-spooks who needed to finance their retirement. Or to explain the inexplicable.
This is the first real "unattached" account of a fascinating series of episodes in Cold War espionage after the Cambridge spy ring episode, and much better for not having a party line to push.
O'Connor interweaves the lives of his two protagonists, the ascetic Dutch-born Blake and the self-educated boy from the Limerick "lanes", who could do almost anything he turned his hand to, except exercise self- control. From an unpromising start in Daingean reformatory, Bourke became a skilled tailor, and printer, an actor, an accomplished writer, and one of the best self-publicists of his time. In jail, with the system to challenge him, he was astonishing. Outside, he drank himself stupid and died in his late 40s.
Blake defies categorising on grounds of nationality. Bourke could only have been Irish - or perhaps Russian. Curiously, as O'Connor takes us through the lives of both, he achieves a fuller picture of Blake, the enigmatic spy who acted not for gain but in the belief that in advancing communism he was serving mankind's greater interest. I suspect the author started with Bourke, a man from his own city, but found the focus shifting to Blake, of whom he has yielded a much rounder picture of this very private man than anything we have seen before.
It was the escape of the century - or a farce, depending on your point of view. If news management is your conspiracy theory of choice, it happened the day after the worst child death tragedy in Britain in living memory, the slag-heap collapse that engulfed a primary school in Aberfan, south Wales on October 21st, 1966, killing more than 130, mostly children. Three people had been shot dead in a botched escape attempt outside the prison just over two months earlier. For my money, this was an escape that was allowed to happen, a spy swap, one in a long series of rival intelligence services swapping their rumbled agents, despite what courts said. This book does not accept my thesis, nor do many of the participants.
In truth, it was probably neither great theatre nor farce. Just tragedy. Bourke imploded in drink, Blake's spying sent people to their deaths in pursuance of a failing doctrine. The final chapters place the whole fascinating episode in the context of the collapse of the great communist experiment.
I hope this valuable work goes to a speedy second edition and that in the meantime the annoying misprints which mar the text are corrected.
Kieran Fagan is a public relations consultant
Blake, Bourke and the End of Empires By Kevin O'Connor Prendeville, 370pp, £12