“M”, Fleming, Bingham and le Carré

To many, “M” might seem like a random letter plucked from thin air during a spell of writer’s block; a fictional character. It was, of course, anything but random as Maxwell Knight and Ian Fleming were both in the security service at the same time (Fleming was in Naval Intelligence – in charge of Operation Goldeneye during World War II). Not only did Fleming (probably) base the character of “M” on Maxwell Knight he also borrowed his trademark initial.

If there’s any doubt about this claim, watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). James Bond (George Lazenby) interrupts “M” (Bernard Lee) whilst he’s looking at his butterfly collection with a hand lens:

“Unusually small for a Nymphalis Polychloris,” says Bond looking over M’s shoulder.

“I wasn’t aware that your expertise included lepidoptery,” replies “M”.

Write what you know; Fleming knew that “M” – the contrast of the amateur naturalist and spy catcher – would be a compelling character to counterbalance the ego of Bond. (The novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was published in 1963 and would have been written during Knight’s height as a naturalist).

Knight couldn’t write about his MI5 experiences; however, spy parlance and observational strategies thread through his natural history books: “field work”; nature “detective”. Indeed, even the term “birdwatcher” was slang used by British Intelligence for a spy. If all of this makes you think that there’s an uncanny connection between natural history and national intelligence, hold that thought…

Bond himself was the receiver of yet another naturalist’s name, as Fleming took the name “James Bond” from the author of the ornithology guide Birds of the West Indies when he wrote his first Bond novel Casino Royale in 1953.

This isn’t the only example of MI5 personnel scribing their way into modern literature, though; John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964 and created the fictional character George Smiley who was, it seems, probably, based on his former mentor and MI5 colleague, John Bingham – who also penned several novels – among them was Night’s Black Agent (1961) – carefully avoiding the “K” – Knight’s Black Agents – see below [Alec Guinness starred as George Smiley in the television adaption of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1979]. John Bingham was himself recruited into MI5 by Maxwell Knight who also knew John le Carré.

Bingham was engaged in counter-subversion activity during WWII and was a member of Maxwell Knight’s “Black Agents” B5(b). He was most notably involved in assisting Maxwell Knight during the Jack King case infiltrating and containing Britain’s burgeoning fifth column under cover as a Gestapo agent…possibly. According to National Archive files, however, it was an “ordinary bank clerk” – Eric Roberts – who was the Gestapo agent.

John le Carré allegedly took his pseudonym from the nickname he bestowed on John Bingham – “le Carre”, French for “the square” – however, he cannot remember how he came to use the surname, and that’s frankly his business. 

This is relevant to this story as the cabinet also gave up an unpublished manuscript written by John Bingham entitled Fugitive from Perfection.

This manuscript was recently repatriated with Charlotte Bingham who instantly recognised her father’s notes, written by hand in the margins. Is this unpublished work the next literary big thing? We will have to wait and see. However the mere fact that the manuscript was hidden under lock and key in Knight’s filing cabinet suggests “M” may have suggested that he hold on to Bingham’s manuscript for “safe keeping”. Having been the first person to read Bingham’s manuscript for at least fifty years I (Simon King) can say that it includes elements of fascism and points at corruption in Whitehall. I’m sure if enough people scream loudly enough to read the manuscript, Charlotte Bingham might consider publishing it.

Clearly, Bingham thought enough about his old boss (Maxwell Knight) to seek his feedback on the manuscript. It seems plausible to dismiss the idea that John Bingham (the role model for George Smiley (probably)) passed his work to Knight for him to check his spelling! Funny, but unlikely. The consensus after numerous conversations with Charlotte Bingham is that there may have been something in the manuscript that was too sensitive for publication – perhaps the reference to Whitehall? Something others were not classified to see. It’s all too common that writers don’t publish every single piece of work they create – and, let’s face it, some just aren’t that good. In other words, they’re not of publishable quality; however, there is no record of this piece of work ever existing in the Bingham household. The mystery is there to solve.

Maxwell Knight knew David Cornwell (John le Carré) very well. So well in fact that David Cornwell illustrated one of Knight’s natural history books (Animals and Ourselves. Hodder and Stoughton – 1962) and the filing cabinet attests to this with letters between the two men agreeing to payment terms for the illustration work to be sent to le Carre’s German home.  The image below shows a signature “David” – this is David Cornwell’s signature (John le Carré). We hope to ask Mr Cornwell to say a word or two about his old friend Maxwell Knight and it would be helpful to know if he knew anything about The Frightened Face of Nature. We imagine his fees for illustrating have gone up considerably since this cordial exchange.

Copyright: Simon H King
Copyright: see acknowledgements

There are numerous articles on the internet suggesting that John Bingham was disgruntled with John le Carré’s cynical portrayal of the secret service – something his daughter, Charlotte Bingham, attests to. Of course, Bingham wasn’t the writer that John le Carré is, and few would argue with that.

What MI5 files have revealed though is that many years before his 1958 BBC broadcasts of “The Naturalist,” Maxwell Knight had brought down “The Right Club” stopping cypher-clerk, Tyler Kent, from handing over stolen telegrams between Churchill and Roosevelt to anti-war activists in America. Had this information reached the United States, American troops may never have come to Britain’s rescue.

If WWII counter-subversion seems irrelevant in today’s hi-tech world think again; Knight’s exploits would sit neatly in a modern day Bond script, and a bad day in the office could produce enough information to make several Tinker Tailor Soldier Spies or make headline news on the News at Ten.

As recent as 2014, the National Archives released information never before seen and hitherto dismissed as codswallop; the emergence of a fifth column during WWII. Knight was a linchpin in the Jack King case and indeed he recruited the key agent, Eric Roberts, who was a Bank Clerk prior to the outbreak of war in 1939.

Perhaps we should parallel life imitating art: some may say that today in 2016 we are incubating a fifth column of dissidents awaiting their moment to strike and rise against Britain. If we are, our safety is only down to the work of Maxwell Knight’s modern day colleagues who surrender their freedom for anonymity in defence of the realm.

Was Maxwell Knight MI5’s “M”. Yes.

Was he Ian Fleming’s “M”? Probably.



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