Desert Island Discs: Roy Plomley’s castaway is naturalist Maxwell Knight

On Monday 28 June 1965 at 13:10 on the BBC Home Service, Maxwell Knight was Roy Plomley’s castaway on Desert Island Discs and his favourite track was The Waiter, the Porter and the Upstairs Maid by Bing Crosby & Mary Martin.

His favourite book: The Cambridge Natural History 

Luxury: Microscope

Unfortunately, this episode is not currently available on BBC iPlayer Radio; however, inside M’s cabinet, there’s a letter addressed to Knight from a Mr A. P. Silk, the Manager of Eric Silk and his Southern Jazz Band – dated 29th June 1965 – the day after the Desert Island Discs broadcast. Mr Silk was “deeply interested in the programme” and remarked “how unusual it is these days to hear anything on the BBC which has any connection with real Traditional jazz.”

“Your close connection with Sydney Bechet,” writes Mr Silk “was most interesting – we had the pleasure of hearing him when we came to London.”

I wonder if, as Sydney Bechet’s track played, and, whichever one it was, it would have been delivered with aplomb; with confidence and without apology, distinctive and certainly forceful, Maxwell Knight was transported back to the early 1940s – to B5 (b)’s Country House (Llanfoist) in Camberley, Surrey. A “safe house” for agents and privacy for Knight.

Perhaps, if he was, it was to this exact moment; this passage in “One Girl’s War” (Joan Miller – 1986 – Brandon):

“I remember him (“M”) suddenly immobilised by a plan of action which came into his head,” writes Miller, “standing with a pair of drumsticks  in his hand while he worked out the details; or beating out a tune on the marble mantelpiece at Camberley – Jimmy Noon’s “Sand” most likely, “Nobody’s Sweetheart”, or “Saratoga Swing”, or “Dixieland”. These pieces were all popular at the time, and “M” certainly enjoyed them as much as anyone.”

Wouldn’t it be great to hear that Desert Island Discs recording?

Simon King

Maxwell Knight and The Frightened Face of Nature

M’s (Maxwell Knight) Spectre: The Frightened Face of Nature

M’s (Maxwell Knight) Spectre: The Frightened Face of Nature

Copyright: See acknowledgements

During the 1960’s Maxwell Knight “M” was working on a manuscript entitled The Frightened Face of Nature, snatching brief moments to record his thoughts on how man had treated nature so unfairly for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. The manuscript documented Knight’s greatest fears that, time was running out for nature and that its greatest threat was man’s destructive revolution and the reverse of evolution.

The manuscript was kept under lock and key and it remained a secret until 2015 when the (hitherto unpublished) manuscript was discovered inside M’s personal filing cabinet, which had been bequeathed to a family friend. The manuscript will be updated and released as a book to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Maxwell Knight’s death in 1968 and it is hoped that it will shine a spotlight on the unacceptable way man treats nature.

Maxwell Knight's filing cabinet
Maxwell Knight’s filing cabinet

Why this book matters more after fifty years:

This was a man who had helped defeat the Nazis and their fifth column British sympathisers, sniffed out a Communist rat in MI5 and to any herpetologist who was alive in the 1950s or 1960s the name of Maxwell Knight needs no introduction, but for all others: he was founder member of The British Herpetological Society, he was a well-known BBC broadcaster and writer who appeared in and hosted Nature Parliament, Country Questions and Naturalist. He had a special penchant for reptiles and amphibians. Many of today’s leading naturalists owe much to the influence of Maxwell Knight and the sound and practical advice which he so skilfully conveyed.

Copyright: See acknowledgements

Copyright: Simon H King

Previous books and articles on Maxwell Knight have focused on another, undeniably more headline grabbing, side of his life and character; revealing that Knight played a vital role in MI5 in the Second World War and was also one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for James Bond’s unflappable “M”, so skilfully played initially by the great Bernard Lee.

Something (or someone) stopped him, however, from driving his manuscript to be published… Was it the negative attention Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring received? Were Knight’s publishers afraid to publish – or did they just feel these were the rantings of an “amateur” naturalist?

Whatever the reason was behind “M” not publishing The Frightened Face of Nature it was written for such a time as this; when there are more and more of us ready to stare down the barrel of the truth that, we are literally frightening the life out of nature.

Today, many of his fears have sadly become our reality:

In just forty years between 1970 and 2010 the global Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than 10,000 vertebrate populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) and Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) LPI report state that “Habitat loss and degradation, and exploitation through hunting and fishing (intentionally for food or sport, or accidentally, for example as by-catch) are the primary causes of decline.”

Maxwell Knight’s hope was that the progress “at any cost” approach would change – and that, industrialised nations would stop playing the short-term nature unfriendly game of habitat destruction so often carried out in the name of progress. 

Did you know Maxwell Knight? 

We are planning a book about Maxwell Knight, with particular reference to his contributions to natural history in the late 1940s and 1950s until his death in 1968.

In the early 1960s Maxwell Knight began to think about a new, for him rather different, book. He was becoming aware of the marked environmental and social changes that had taken place in Britain and overseas since 1900 (the year of his birth) and felt that there was a need to draw these to the attention of the public. 

We would like to hear from people who might have known Maxwell Knight (MK) or been influenced by him and wonder if you would be willing to contact us – using the form below – and confirm that you are willing, in due course, to give us more details. We will then contact you again later this year or early in 2017.

Thank you in advance

Your information will not appear on this blog (or in the book) without your approval.

Living Planet Index – courtesy of WWF/ZSL/GFN

In reproducing portraits of the late Major Maxwell Knight, we pay tribute to his family, not only for giving us the pictures but also for their encouragement and hospitality in years gone by…