M’s Green Filing Cabinet

Maxwell Knight's filing cabinet
Copyright: Simon King


During the 1960s, Maxwell Knight ‘M’ was working on a manuscript entitled The Frightened Face of Nature, snatching moments to record his thoughts on how man had treated nature so unfairly for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. He was at the pinnacle of his career as a natural history author and broadcaster, appearing regularly in and hosting popular programmes such as Nature Parliament, Country Questions, and Naturalist. Officially, his MI5 days as one of Britain’s most talented spy-runners were behind him.

By the time of Knight’s death in 1968, The Frightened Face of Nature had swelled to over 50,000 words and contained his greatest fears for our planet’s wildlife and for the rest of the twentieth century.

In the decade of change (the 1960s) Knight was writing to encourage man to go about things in a different way. Something stopped him, however, from driving the manuscript to be published – perhaps his publisher was concerned that the manuscript was too controversial. In places, it is. Certain chapters could have angered individuals and large corporations including MI5, and documentation in Knight’s cabinet makes reference to insurance to protect him from “civil lawsuits” relating to his written works. Who was he afraid of upsetting?

There’s a degree of disdain in the manuscript about the scientific progress “at any cost” approach as per this snippet extracted from a chapter entitled The “Age of Science”:

“By all means let man use his great powers to invent new devices; let him give of his best to see that all shall benefit from his genius in curing, healing, and housing those in want. But do not suggest that this can only be done by destroying what is fine to look at or listen to whether in the arts or nature.

If human brains can find means of defying space, improving means of communication and bouncing pictures off satellites, surely he can also discover ways in which these things can be done without destruction – for destruction first is the cry of mad revolution and is the reverse of evolution.” – Maxwell Knight

Maxwell Knight would have been all too aware of the furore and criticism from chemical companies and others when Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962. She was not the only one in those years who drew attention to environmental problems and was criticised for not being “proper scientists”. Knight, of course, was openly only an amateur naturalist; however, so was Sir Peter Scott; Gerald Durrell and Charles Darwin.

When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, chemical companies condemned her findings as flawed and defended products like DDT by saying that it would be impossible to feed a country without pesticides of any kind – which neatly interlocks with Knight’s second paragraph above: “surely he (man) can also discover ways in which these things can be done without destruction.”

Maxwell Knight mentions Rachel Carson’s book and was aware that her opponents were many; she was accused of many things – many Knight would have shaken off had his manuscript been published – however, we should consider that in 1962 the western world was in a “Cold War” with the Soviet Union and Knight could not have risked being branded with the same iron Carson was branded with: unpatriotic and sympathetic to communism. How could he? He had spent much of his time post-World War II warning MI5 that he believed it had been penetrated by soviet spies. He was so confident in his hunch that he delivered an (unpopular) paper to the Security Services entitled “The Comintern is NOT dead” warning of the danger posed by the NKVD.

Given Knight’s MI5 status and the fact that four of the Cambridge “Five” Spies (Maclean, Burgess, Philby, Blunt and eventually years later John Cairncross) – recruited by Stalin’s agents in the 50s – had been exposed by 1964. How could Knight have risked being brandished a communist, too?

In 1964, five years before the moon landing, governments were spending their time and money focusing on projects that would continue to pummel nature and perhaps Knight simply felt that the 60s were not going to be the decade in which to encourage the planet’s occupants to be kinder. The world was rather preoccupied with The Soviet Union’s “Space Race” and America’s rebuttal with the “moon programme”, and all manner of changes that might have felt alien to a man like Knight, including the period of radical political change in Africa – where Knight focuses a good deal of his manuscript’s attention – as the thirty-two countries gained independence from its European colonial rulers.

Whatever the reason, Knight locked away The Frightened Face of Nature in his filing cabinet for the very last time at some point before his death in 1968, and there it sat – with a rich seam of national and natural history, until 2015.

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