The news of the death of George Blake startled me, as I had been thinking about Blake yesterday. The use of the term “Special Relationship” in the commentary around the UK/EU trade deal reminded me that that was also the alternative title of Ian McEwan’s 1990 novel The Innocent, which included Blake as a minor character.
The Innocent is set around the UK/US intelligence project Operation Gold, in Berlin in the mid 50s. This was a hot topic at the time since it had been revealed to the public in Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher a few years earlier, and when McEwan’s version went to press he had the great luck that Berlin was also in the news as the division there was just ending. Blake’s presence in the story is an irony that readers will appreciate: the titular hero is not only innocent of the high politics and sexual intrigue around him, he also doesn’t realise that the Operation was compromised from the start because Blake is a double agent. So in the climactic scene where our hero is struggling to dispose of some suitcases full of highly incriminating evidence, his attempt to make up an excuse on the spot inadvertently nudges Blake in to action to contact his real controllers.
He carried the cases one at a time to the lift shaft. When the lift came, he blocked the door with one case while he shoved the other in with his knee. He pressed E for Etage but he travelled only one floor down before coming to a halt. The door slid open to admit Blake. He was wearing a blue blazer with silver buttons and he was carrying an attache case. The lift compartment filled with the scent of his cologne. The descent continued.
Blake nodded coolly. ‘Pleasant party. Thank you.’
‘We were glad you could come,’ Leonard said.
The lift stopped and the doors opened. Blake was looking at the cases. ‘Aren’t they MoD bags?’ Leonard picked one up but Blake beat him to the other and lifted it out in to the lobby. ‘Good lord, what have you got in here? It certainly isn’t a tape recorder.’
The question was not rhetorical. They were standing by the open lift and Blake seemed to think he was owed an answer. Leonard fumbled. He had been going to say they were tape recorders.
Blake said, ‘You’re taking them out to Altglienicke. It’s alright, you can talk to me. I know Bill Harvey. I’m cleared for Gold.’
‘It’s decoding equipment,’ Leonard said. And then, because he had an image of Blake coming out to the warehouse to look at it, he added, ‘It’s on loan from Washington. We’re using it in the tunnel, then it goes back tomorrow.’
Blake was looking at his watch. ‘Well, I hope you’ve got secure transport laid on. I’ve got to dash.’ And he was off across the lobby without another word, and out to where his car was parked in the street.
In this novel, McEwan daringly expands beyond the remit of his earlier “serious” “literary” fiction, and takes in topical issues and also elements of popular genre fiction. I believe that’s now his standard model, but I haven’t read anything he wrote since Amsterdam (1998).
Blake’s other appearance in 90s culture was as the subject for Simon Gray’s 1995 play Cell Mates, which notoriously was in trouble after Stephen Fry walked out of playing the role of Blake after some poor reviews. Rik Mayall was his co-star (and his performance was received better); you can see some of those reviews in this site by a Rik Mayall fan. One detail that tends to be forgotten is that Fry’s disappearance was around the same time that Richey Edwards walked away from the Manic Street Preachers, and as one of them came back there was an increased expectation the other would too. At least one journalist did an opinion piece about “why don’t these whinging celebrities pull themselves together” which we’d call “clickbait” nowadays; the internet wasn’t quite a thing back then, but Comment pages weren’t so decent either. Richey Edwards has himself subsequently been fictionalised, whilst Gray at one point considered doing a play about Fry quitting his earlier play. So the historical tunnel of representations continues.