Thursday, 20 July 2017

"M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster" could be my non-fiction book of the year - superb!

The best of the three spy books I've read recently - one of the best I've ever read, in fact - is M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster by Henry Hemming, which came out in April. Knight was one of the most fascinating Britons of the 20th Century. A rather dissolute young man, he played clarinet in his own jazz band in London in the '20s, populated his flat with exotic animals, couldn't settle to anything, and, after his father died, was forbidden any contact with his highly respectable family by his older brother. He started his spying career (for a businessman who unofficially fed whatever information his agents gleaned to the government) by joining the British Fascisti in 1924, reporting on their activities, and simultaneously infiltrating half a dozen of his fascist colleagues into the British Communist Party...

As a committed, visceral anti-Communist, Knight was sympathetic to many of the early British fascists' aims. They saw themselves as King & Country patriots rather than ideologues wedded to a particular political theory. Convinced that a Communist coup was imminent, they felt their role was to save the country by resisting and disrupting the Bolshevists when the revolution came - and to leave the stage once order had been restored. Knight was a close friend and admirer of the charismatic little street-fighter William Joyce (later Lord Haw Haw), despite Joyce pinching and marrying his girlfriend.

When the Bolshevik coup failed to materialise, and British fascism fizzled out (albeit temporarily) in the early '30s, Knight was recruited by the government to identify domestic Communist spies - which he did successfully, breaking up a major Soviet-run spy ring passing on British military secrets. The threat of Hitler grew, Oswald Mosley hijacked and resurrected the moribund fascist movement with added anti-Semitism, military-style uniforms, mass rallies and a distinctly pro-German slant - largely funded by Mussolini - and war seemed imminent. Knight somewhat reluctantly turned his attention to identifying domestic fascist spies - and was again successful (although he probably tipped off his erstwhile chum William Joyce that he was about to be arrested, precipitating the increasingly loopy traitor's flight to Germany - whether from fear that Joyce would reveal too much of Knight's own fascist past, or out of a sentimental attachment to his old colleague, it's hard to tell. Knight always denied warning Joyce.)

Knight - who really was known as "M" - practically invented the art of "running" agents. He started as a private sector spy in 1924, and became a spymaster shortly afterwards, with no official training (he didn't start working directly for the government until 1931) and with no template to follow - he literally had to make up the rules and invent what came to be known as spycraft as he went along (which may explain his penchant for ignoring the law by breaking into suspects' homes). He also ignored the long-running British prejudice against using female agents - he thought women were in some ways better suited to the role than men, recruited six of them, and they performed brilliantly (one lady who infiltrated a fascist spy ring was an early version of today's celebrity chefs).

The oddest thing about Knight - and I suspect this could only happen in England - was that, starting in 1946, while still an MI5 chief (he wouldn't retire until 1961), he became one of the country's best-known naturalists. Using his own name, he wrote a total of 34 books about animals and made numerous appearances on BBC radio - and, later, television. The only suspicion that he might not merely be a humble animal-botherer was aroused by his habit of being deposited at Broadcasting House in large, black, official-looking, chauffeur-driven cars. Apart from a life-long fascination with animals - he would invariably turn his latest flat or house into a zoo - and a rather incongruous fondness for being in the spotlight (he wrote gung-ho, Bulldog Drummond-style spy novels in the '30s - again, under his own name!), Knight's alternative career arose from the desire to earn more money: he realised early on that his official government pension would be meagre, and he desperately needed to finance his retirement (yes, things have changed quite a bit since his day - thanks for helping keep us safe for 30 years, Max; here's a miserable pittance for you to live on).

This is a rivetting book about an utterly extraordinary, endlessly fascinating man - where are the films and TV documentaries about him? After all, this isn't the first book about the man:Anthony Masters's The Man Who Was M.: Life of Charles Henry Maxwell Knight was published in 1984. If he'd joined the Communist Party in 1924 instead of the British Fascisti, we'd probably never have heard the end of him.

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