“Spies, Lies, And Exile” by Simon Kuper

For those of my generation, the Cold War cast a huge shadow over every corner of the globe, all the way from 1945 till 1991. One one side you had the US, the UK and their allies and on the other you had the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics( USSR) and its Communist satellite countries. Spying and counter spying was the order of the day. As a result we grew up reading many spy thrillers by writers like John Le Carre, Ian Fleming, Joe Weisberg, Karen Cleveland amongst others.

Recently, I read the story of a man who didn’t write such books but was the cause of such books to be written. This book was, ” Spies, Lies, and Exile” by Simon Kuper . It is the fascinating story of a Soviet double agent who betrayed the British who he was working for.

The story of George Blake was not as well known as others of his ilk such as Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess. He was born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, in 1922, the son of Albert Behar, a Jew and his Dutch wife, Catherine Beijderwellen. During his childhood he was known more by his Dutch pet name of Poek. His father who had fought for the British in the First World War had a British passport, so his son was born a British citizen though he saw himself as being more of a Dutch boy.

During the Second World War, Poek fought the invading Nazis by joining the Dutch Resistance as a teenager. He then undertook a long and complex route until he reached England, where his mother and sisters had taken shelter years ago. Here he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve but was soon selected by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) His British father having been a veteran of World War 1 , his own contributions fighting the Germans during World War II and his flair for languages made him a good choice for a career- as a spy! He joined the Dutch section of the SIS and after the War spent a few years in The Netherlands.

He was sent for a course in Cambridge which was to change his life. He met Professor Elizabeth Hill who proved to be a great influence on his politics. His next posting was in Korea where the War raged between the Communist North Korea and the US supported South Korea.He was taken prisoner here and it was when he was in captivity that he became a double agent for the Soviets.

The book spells out in great detail what he did as a double agent, and some of the coups he pulled off for his Russian employers while never being even remotely suspected of betraying the British. Things couldn’t go on like this for ever! He was arrested by the British in 1961 and after a famous trial was sentenced to 42 years imprisonment, the length of his sentence being considered most unusual because many other spies had been sentenced to far less sentences.

His dramatic escape, after 5 years of captivity, from the British prison at Wormwood Scrubs, how he reached Russia and stayed there for the rest of his long life make up the rest of the story.

In the course of the book, you get an understanding of how Blake’s mind worked; what drove him to do what he did; and why people sometimes make – what most would consider -unusual career and life choices.

George Blake, later known as Georgy Ivanovitch, died in Moscow in December 2020 aged 98.

Overall, an interesting book if you like spy thrillers and war stories.

Poets of The First World War

The trigger for today’s post comes from some research I was doing for our next OL Assembly. As mentioned in earlier posts, this is a virtual meeting held every second Saturday of the month. In the forthcoming issue we cover the First World War in which 18 Old Lawrencians were killed in action in different battle fields of Europe. In those days, many from my Alma Mater, The Lawrence School, Lovedale were enlisted in the British Army. They joined as ordinary soldiers as distinct from being commissioned as officers.

A look at the Honors Board for 1914 in the School gives us details of former students, who as young soldiers gained distinction for their bravery during the battles at Mons, Flanders, and Gallipolli amongst others. This in turn reminded me of a poem we learnt in School titled ” Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen. This poem mocked the sentiment- prevalent till 1916 or so amongst many English poets, like Rupert Brooke for instance – that it was sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

Owen enlisted in 1915 and saw active service in the trenches in Europe before he was wounded in action in 1916. He returned to England to recover from his war wounds. However, in 1918 he went back to the Front, won the Military Cross for his bravery but ironically was killed in November of that year aged 25 just one week before the Armistice. Like him thousands upon thousands of young men lost their lives in a bitterly fought war which saw the use of poison gas in the trenches. The Armistice signaled the end of the war which left 10 million soldiers and another 7 million civilians dead.

To appreciate what the horrors of the First World War were like, you must see an article in The Sun titled ” Blood, Mud, and Misery” published in 2018. You can understand the plight of the soldiers in the trenches over a hundred years ago.

The Poetry Foundation compiled an impressive list of poems about the Great War of 1914-1918. Here you can read poems by, apart from Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, William Butler Yeats, and Rupert Brooke. It ends with ” Then There Was A Great Calm” written by Thomas Hardy after the signing of the armistice.

“Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?'”

Virtual Founder’s in OL Assembly

My wife and I were chatting about our blogs. Shobana had posted in her popular cooking blog Cooking With Shobana, in which I lend a helping hand, but I was thinking of a topic to write about for mine. ” Write about Founder’s! ” she said. ” After all isn’t May all about Founder’s for Lawrencians?”. And, of course , she was right on that count!

The month of May is when we traditionally celebrate the Founder’s Day at my Alma Mater, The Lawrence School, Lovedale. The celebrations are very elaborate and go on for 3-4 days (a full week decades ago when we were at School) covering important events like Trooping the Colour, PT Display, The School Play, and ending with Beating Retreat. Obviously with the raging Covid 19 pandemic none of this was possible this year.

We in our Alumni Volunteer Group who put together a Virtual Variety Show on the second Saturday of every month decided to have Founder’s as the theme for the “OL Assembly” held on May 8.

The President of the Old Lawrencians Association (OLA), Johnny Paul, and the Vice President, Beena Belliappa briefed Old Lawrencians (OLs) on a new initiative taken by the OLA. This aims to help OLs and their families in these terrible days of Covid 19.

I have been intimately connected with” Glimpses of a Glorious Past” an Informal history of our school. This book resides as an ebook in the website of the OLA but we have a segment every month in the OL Assembly as mentioned in this blog post. In this month’s episode, we traced the history of the School Band and of the Founder’s celebrations in general.

The show brought to the audience recollections of OLs of their best memories of Founders. Krishnadev Rao, a former Head Boy, spoke eloquently on the remarkable leadership displayed by then Headmaster Mr L A Vyas during a Founder’s Parade in 1981. I was very impressed by what the talented current Head Boy, Kian Godhwani said about what they had learnt despite missing the cheer of celebrating a Founder’s. We must remember that only a small number of them are now at School preparing for the Board Examinations, which may or may not take place as I write this.

Some OLs who took part in a memorable event from 55 years ago, spoke of when the School Band participated in the Republic Day Parade at New Delhi in 1966. This was under the leadership of Bandmaster Denzil Prince. Elsewhere in this blog, I have written about Denzil, a former Head Boy, who studied in Lovedale from 1944 to 1954.

We also have a delightful Quiz Show called what else but QuizDale! Here the questions are centered around topics relating to the old School and school life, then and now. OLs, young and old, participate to win points for their House!

The Virtual Founder’s OL Assembly is indeed a treat for any OL. You can (and indeed, I suggest you do) see this at leisure in small chunks, according to your convenience. This is a big advantage of having it on YouTube. Happy viewing, folks!

Of Courts & Judges

The Courts in India have an unenviable task of trying to clear the backlog of cases in a litigation friendly country. As per reports there are nearly 4 crore ( 40 million) cases pending before the Courts in our country, with 10 % of them dating back to over a decade! Yet, while one cannot generalize, about Courts or Judges, as an ordinary citizen of India I am surprised by some of the things reported from the Courts.

In the past decades, what happened in the Court largely remained a mystery as the ordinary person had no idea of what went on and who said what. In the area of Industrial Disputes, in which I have some experience, it was common knowledge that between the two lawyers dates were often ” fixed”to suit their convenience. If A asked for an adjournment this week, the opposing lawyer B would ask for one on the next date which was some weeks away. Hence cases dragged on for months together, if not for years.

The pandemic brought about many changes. Most courts these days have taken to having virtual hearings. This is a welcome move. At least cases do go on and in some Courts large number of cases have been settled during the year or more of the pandemic. Also I notice that online portals such as Bar and Bench give almost ball by ball commentary of court cases, much like in a cricket match. The reader gets to know what the lawyers said, what the judge observed and so on. This is totally new to many of us as we would never have had access to such information before.

This new found transparency has sometimes embarrassed the judges and the advocates! A post that went viral on social media in August 2020 showed Senior Advoacate Rajeev Dhawan caught on camera taking puffs on his hookah while arguing a virtual case before the Rajasthan High Court ! One doesn’t know whether the learned Judge had anything to say to the senior advocate. Perhaps he didn’t as the much respected Mr Dhawan is in his ’70s, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists. Still, so much for setting a good example to your juniors and the world at large!!

In a more recent case, the Madras High Court made scathing observations about the Election Commission of India saying it was “singularly” responsible for the second wave of Covid. It even went to the extent of observing “Its officials should be booked for murder.” In a situation where deaths are mounting all over the world due to Covid- around 3.2 million as of date- even the casual reader would find these remarks rather puzzling, if not petulant.

The Election Commission naturally was stung by these observations and took the case to the Supreme Court which a few days ago agreed the “murder charge” remarks of the Madras High Court were “harsh” and the “metaphor inappropriate “. It was good that they did so! Sadly, over 230,000 people have died in India as of date due to this pandemic. Holding the Election Commission responsible for the deaths during the political rallies has become fashionable but more people are accountable too. What about the politicians – of all political parties- who organized and held these rallies? What about the people themselves, who flocked to them ? What about the media which gave the rallies such extensive coverage making each political party vie for higher eyeballs? All of them knew fully well these could be super spreader events for the Corona virus.

As mentioned earlier, we are these days becoming privy to what actually happens in Courts. Thanks to Bar and Bench, I am reading with great interest the remarks of the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court in the matter of oxygen supply to Delhi during this pandemic. While it makes for interesting reading I couldn’t quite make out what the point in law was for the Courts to decide. Surely, deciding on the amount of oxygen needed for each hospital, city, and State; the methods of reaching oxygen to hospitals; is the job of the executive rather than that of the judiciary?