FFON. Written by nature detectives.

The Frightened Face of Nature (FFON) – Inspired by the lost manuscript of the real-life 'M'

‘M’, Maxwell Knight – Britain’s greatest spymaster

Copyright: Simon H King

“M”, Fleming, Bingham and le Carré – what do they have in common? 

By Simon H King

To many, Ian Fleming’s “M” (007’s boss) is a fictional character from literary history. Just a random moniker plucked from thin air during a spell of writer’s block. It was anything but random, though, as Fleming’s “M” was, at the very least, partly based on the very real Maxwell Knight – MI5’s greatest spymaster.


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 “bird watcher” 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 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 very well indeed. So much so that le Carré tipped his hat to Knight by basing his character Jack Brotherhood (A Perfect Spy) on his good friend.

John 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 undercover as a Gestapo agent. (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 Maxwell Knight’s filing cabinet suggests “M” may have suggested that he hold on to Bingham’s manuscript for “safe keeping”. Bingham’s manuscript includes elements of fascism and a Whitehall cover-up.

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 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 existing in the Bingham household. The mystery is there to solve…

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 signatureWe 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.

Maxwell Knight and John Le Carre' signature
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 Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt to anti-war activists in America. Had this information reached the United States (via the Nazis) American troops may never have come to Britain’s rescue.

Churchill and the fascist plot

In 2014, the National Archives released information confirming that there was a fifth column of Nazi sympathisers paving the way for an invasion and plotting an alliance with Adolf Hitler. The papers revealed that Maxwell Knight was the spymaster behind what was internally known as the “Jack King case” and that he recruited the key agent, Eric Roberts, who was a Bank Clerk prior to the outbreak of war in 1939.

More recent information has revealed why “M” was MI5’s greatest spymaster and more specifically that it was his observation and agent handling/recruitment skills which set him apart as a key figure within the security services.

Fleming did more than tip his felt trilby to Max Knight. He entwined him with the stuff of literary legend. We’ve grown up watching James Bond infuriate his stiff of a boss “M”. And now we know why “M” feels how he feels: he’s seen every kind of agent come and go and forgotten more than an upstart like Bond could ever know. However, that said, even the real “M” couldn’t have done what he did without the commitment of his agents.

Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” – Julius Caesar: Act 3, Scene 2. So many people give so much and so few know about their commitment until it’s too late.

At least Fleming gave us the “M” we have enjoyed for a lifetime on Christmas Day and beyond…




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