It all started when we opened Maxwell Knight’s filing cabinet…What we found inside is a reminder that time is running out for nature. This is a story worth sharing with everyone who cares about natural history and those most concerned about our fragile planet.Maxwell Knight was MI5’s Greatest Spymaster – the man ‘they’ called “M” and who foiled a fascist plot to topple Churchill. It turns out, he was more content in the role of humble Nature Detective. Perhaps Britain’s first Nature Detective; the Attenborough of his day. This we know because he poured his soul into a document he called “The Frightened Face of Nature“. But he was unable to share his most prescient piece of work, which is why it’s remained a secret for so many years.Maxwell Knight’s greatest fear was not communist Russia. It was man’s inhumanity to nature and the reverse of evolution. He predicted the wildlife population declines we’re experiencing today.Maxwell Knight’s words come to life through this heartfelt manuscript. And the timing couldn’t be better as nature needs our help.
The manuscript was kept under lock and key and it remained a secret until 2015 when the (hitherto unpublished) manuscript was discovered inside M’s personal filing cabinet, which had been bequeathed to a family friend.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.
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.
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 boss, “M”.
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.
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.
Unless we act now, wildlife populations will decline by 67% by 2020 – WWF
Nature is disappearing before our very eyes. Species declines are the everyday norm and this loss is too important to ignore. Knight’s manuscript reminds us that we’ve been on this destructive path for many years and that decline has become the status quo. If this loss of natural capital is unappealing to you, please join our efforts and connect with us as we might all be able to do more if there are more voices to be heard.
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Simon, John and Margaret.
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…
Thank you in advance
In the meantime, have you read Henry Hemming’s M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster
‘Fascinating… Hemming has done a superb job’ – Ben Macintyre, The Times, Book of the Week
Maxwell Knight was a paradox. A jazz obsessive and nature enthusiast (he is the author of the definitive work on how to look after a gorilla), he is seen today as one of MI5’s greatest spymasters, a man who did more than any other to break up British fascism during the Second World War – in spite of having once belonged to the British Fascisti himself. He was known to his agents and colleagues simply as M, and was rumoured to be part of the inspiration for the character M in the James Bond series.
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…