M: Maxwell Knight
by Henry Hemming, Preface, £20
The epigraph to this fascinating book is the extraordinary statement of EM Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” It could only have been made by a member of the Bloomsbury Group, for whom friendship was the supreme value. Maxwell Knight, or “M” as he was known in intelligence circles, was, fortunately, built of sterner and more patriotic stuff than Forster.
Knight was born in 1900 into a comfortable background which changed after his father’s early death. His childhood passion, which endured throughout his life, was a love of the natural world. He had a gift for handling animals, communicating with them and nursing wild creatures back to health.
His biographer, not surprisingly, links this gift to M’s later ability to handle and look after the agents he ran as an MI5 officer or spycatcher. Spying, we learn, is “patient observation” or “watching” – something that M excelled at.
In 1923, cut off by his uncle for not being sufficiently conventional – in his flat at the time he had a bear, a bulldog, a baboon, a parrot and several grass snakes – he was searching for paid employment.
Post-World War I London was full of odd groups that sound straight out of John Buchan (who was, incidentally, M’s favourite author) and the young man attended an event staged by the British Empire Union, a right-wing political group that campaigned against the spread of communism. Its founder, Sir George Makgill, had set up his own private intelligence agency for this purpose. M was recruited. He became a “research officer” and was asked to penetrate, not Soviet circles as he assumed, but an organisation called the “British Fascisti”.
It must be remembered that in the early 1920s such a group wasn’t “fascist” as we know it today, but more an expression of right-wing patriotism, fearful of the post-war collapse of the old European dynasties and the rise of the Soviet Union. Indeed, in 1923 Churchill had called Mussolini “the Roman genius”.
It was in the British Empire Union that M came, fatefully, to befriend a fellow member by the name of William Joyce. While M straightforwardly “believed in his country, its history, its people, its countryside”, Joyce was different: brilliant, a superb speaker, attracted to violence, verbal vitriol and political extremism. M, meanwhile, found running agents came naturally to him. He knew what qualities to look for in a spy: intelligence, industry, patience, modesty and patriotism as well as to be wary “of any man or woman who seemed to enjoy deceit for its own sake, or who lied for their own pleasure”. No doubt spying attracted its own collection of those with sociopathic tendencies.
In 1929, M moved from Makgill’s organisation to join the British government’s own intelligence agency and in 1931 he became an MI5 officer. He was to remain with MI5 for the next 30 years, achieving legendary status both for his spy-catching skills and his unconventional lifestyle.
In 1932, Sir Oswald Mosley launched the British Union of Fascists, very different from the former British Fascisti – and recruited Joyce, who swiftly rose to become its director of propaganda. M was beginning to see that the fascists posed a possible threat equal to communism.
With World War II looming and long estranged from his old friend Joyce, whose loyalty to his country was now highly suspect, M nonetheless privately performed a last act of friendship. On August 24, 1939, just before the outbreak of war, a man telephoned Joyce to tip him off that he was to be arrested within two days under new security regulations. On August 26, Joyce fled to Germany. The mystery telephone call was later (unofficially) identified as coming from M. He was never again to meet the man for whom an early school report had predicted he “will either do something very great in the world or he will finish on the end of a rope”.
M’s greatest achievement, according to Hemming, was his role in bringing about the demise of British fascism. Although drawn to right-wing politics in the early 1920s, by the late 1930s he had come to see that the war was “a struggle between democracy and dictatorship”. He had “chosen his country over his friends, patriotism over personal loyalty”. M died in 1968. At his memorial service it was noticed that there were “lots of men in brown felt hats who didn’t really identify themselves”.
Hemming tells a story of great interest, bringing to light the exploits of an eccentric and magnetic personality, a man able to keep his professional and private lives rigorously separate and who fully justifies his posthumous reputation.
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