At the heart of Sympathy for the Devil, there’s a real-life spy exchange. In April 1964, a young, idealistic British lecturer visiting the Soviet Union with his wife Barbara stumbled into the arms of the Soviet intelligence services, the KGB. What exactly Gerald Brooke was doing in Russia remains a bit of a mystery, to me at least. All we know for sure was that he was carrying some anti-Soviet leaflets. He was arrested, charged with “subversive anti-Soviet activity on the territory of the Soviet Union” and sentenced to five years’ detention, including four years in the Soviet Union’s notorious labour camps.
The arrest of a British citizen was a huge embarrassment to the British government. To make matters worse, the public were outraged at the detention of an “innocent” citizen, especially when reports filtered back – deliberately fed by Soviet sources – that Brooke was in poor health. By 1969 Prime Minister Harold Wilson was under pressure to find a way to bring him home. And one of the MPs who was most vociferous in her calls to get Brooke repatriated was the strident young Margaret Thatcher, in whose Finchley constituency the lecturer and his wife lived.
Wilson’s opportunity came in the summer of 1969. Eight years earlier the British intelligence had captured the notorious Portland Spy Ring. For years, the Portland Spy Ring had paid and blackmailed naval officers to provide documents about the ships and weaponry. The documents were passed to a house in Ruislip, where the occupants, Morris and Lona Cohen, aka Peter and Helen Kroger, either transmitted or smuggled them back to the Soviet Union. Busting the ring was one of the biggest coups of British post-war counter-intelligence. The Soviets were remarkably loyal to their spies, and always keen to get them home. As a consequence the fifties and sixties were punctuated by several high-level spy exchanges – as celebrated in the Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies. In 1962, the American pilot Gary Powers had been swapped for the KGB’s Rudold Abel. In 1964, MI6 spy Greville Wynne was traded for Gordon Lonsdale, the mastermind behind the Portland Spy ring. In 1969, the Soviets offered to exchange Gerald Brooke for Morris and Lona Cohen.
Desperate to get Brooke home, Harold Wilson agreed. But unlike all the other spy exchanges, this was a totally asymmetrical one. There were howls of protest against Wilson’s apparent weakness. He had capitulated to Soviet pressure, howled politicans and the press. The Cohens were major figures; Brooke was a nobody.
Or was he?
Researching Brooke, I came across one small article in The Sunday Times that hinted that Brooke was a far more heavyweight figure than British intelligence was admitting to. That was the spark that set my imagination going for Sympathy for The Devil. You’d have to read the book to find out what my own theory about Brooke is.
But after 1969, Gerald Brooke disappeared back to obscurity again. He was born in 1935, so would be in his 80s now.
I’m curious to know what happened to him. If anyone knows, please get in touch!
EDIT. I’ve had several readers get in touch to update me with news about Gerald Brooke – including former students. He is alive and well. Many thanks for those who contacted me.