The spook who loved animals

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Max Hast­ings’

ntel­li­gence of­fi­cers and those who share Lon­don flats with pet bears named Bessie are alike off-piste hu­man be­ings. If a man who is both also de­clines to con­sum­mate any of his three mar­riages, writes atro­cious thrillers and at­tends seances with the sa­tanist Aleis­ter Crow­ley, he may rea­son­ably be char­ac­terised as un­usual.

Maxwell Knight, as Henry Hem­ming re­counts in this ex­cel­lent bi­og­ra­phy, spent 30 years in the ser­vice of MI5, and be­came an agent-run­ner cel­e­brated through­out the tiny Bri­tish se­cret world. Then, for the last seven years of his life, he be­came one of the first gen­er­a­tion of tele­vi­sion celebri­ties, con­tribut­ing to a host of wildlife pro­grams tales of re­la­tion­ships with snakes, mar­mosets, mongooses, cuck­oos — and Bessie.

He once sternly lec­tured a wife about the im­por­tance of do­mes­tic hy­giene: “Bot­tles, teats, tubes and mix­ing dishes must be washed af­ter each meal. Fail­ure to do this will mean sick­ness and pos­si­bly death.” He was here not con­cerned with the wel­fare of ba­bies, since for­tu­nately he never had any, but of mon­keys. When he died in 1968, David At­ten­bor­ough and Peter Scott headed the con­trib­u­tors to a wildlife me­mo­rial fund es­tab­lished in his name.

Hem­ming has done a ter­rific job of un­scram­bling Knight’s mud­dled life. Born in 1900 into the im­prov­i­dent up­per-mid­dle class, by 1923 he had al­ready en­dured a bru­tal naval education, a spell as a Lon­don jazz groupie, ex­pul­sion from the fam­ily cir­cle and dal­liances with all man­ner of animals. “He han­dled them bril­liantly,” said a cousin. “They came to him eas­ily, trust­ingly.”

He was ek­ing out a liv­ing as a Put­ney school games teacher when ap­proached by Ge­orge Makgill, an in­dus­tri­al­ist who ran a pri­vate in­tel­li­gence or­gan­i­sa­tion, with a pro­posal that he should pen­e­trate the Bri­tish Em­pire Union, and later the em­bry­onic fas­cist move­ment.

This Knight did with such en­thu­si­asm that he be­came not merely an in­fil­tra­tion agent but ap­par­ently a gen­uine fas­cist who par­tic­i­pated in the kid­nap­ping of the com­mu­nist Harry Pol­litt, the trash­ing of the reds’ Glas­gow of­fices, and prob­a­bly other ex­cesses as well. Hem­ming grasps an is­sue crit­i­cal to in­ter­pret­ing this era: in the decades fol­low­ing the 1917 Bol­she­vik Revol- ution, the prop­er­tied classes be­came so ter­ri­fied of com­mu­nists that, un­til the last gasp be­fore World War II, many were much less dis­mayed by fas­cists than they should have been.

Knight went from work­ing for Makgill to pre­sid­ing over a pub on Ex­moor. He was then re­cruited to serve MI6 and MI5, no longer flirt­ing with fas­cists, but ful­fill­ing the more con­ge­nial task of pen­e­trat­ing the com­mu­nists. He proved a su­perb re­cruiter and run­ner of agents, no­tably Olga Gray. She be­came a sec­re­tary at party head­quar­ters, and was a key fig­ure in the 1938 smash­ing of a Soviet spy ring at Wool­wich Arsenal. This was Knight’s finest hour.

It is one of the many cu­riosi­ties about the man that, while hope­less at the busi­ness end of mar­riage — Hem­ming writes that “sex seemed to scram­ble his radar” — he was won­der­fully suc­cess­ful at man­ag­ing pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships with women. Knight wrote: I am no be­liever in ... Mata-Hari meth­ods. I am con­vinced that more in­for­ma­tion has been ob­tained by women agents, by keep­ing out of the arms of men, than ever was ob­tained by sink­ing too will­ingly into them … Closely al­lied to sex in a woman, is the qual­ity of sym­pa­thy; and noth­ing is eas­ier than for a woman to gain a man’s con­fi­dence by the show­ing and ex­pres­sion of a lit­tle sym­pa­thy.

Among many enig­mas was Knight’s friend­ship with Wil­liam Joyce, dat­ing from their fas­cist days, which in 1939 caused him to tip off this Ir­ish-Amer­i­can that he was about to be ar­rested, in time for flight to Ger­many, where he be­came “Lord Haw-Haw”. Knight’s last coup for MI5 in­volved Anna Wolkoff, whom the Bri­tish ar­rested in 1940 along with Tyler Kent, an Amer­i­can em­bassy officer who was pass­ing se- crets to the Ger­mans. There­after, though Knight be­came a leg­end to a new gen­er­a­tion of MI5 and MI6 per­son­nel, in­clud­ing David Corn­well (later the au­thor John Le Carre), the times left him be­hind.

Dick White (MI5 di­rec­tor-gen­eral, 1953-56) dis­trusted the old boy. A col­league de­scribed Knight’s sec­tion as “de­plorable”, both for its dis­or­gan­i­sa­tion and the ex­trav­a­gance of the il­licit cou­plings among its staff. But he re­mained on the pay­roll un­til 1961, af­ter which he be­trayed to the world no hint of his past save that he called a pet ot­ter Olga and a Cairn ter­rier Kim.

His first wife died of an over­dose of bar­bi­tu­rates and his sec­ond di­vorced him for non-con­sum­ma­tion. In 1944 he mar­ried Susi Barnes, a col­league in MI5’s reg­istry, with whom he seems to have rubbed along well enough, be­cause she did not care for sex.

Des­mond Mor­ton, an­other spooky fig­ure who had deal­ings with Knight in the 1930s, de­scribed him ap­prov­ingly as “very dis­creet, and at need pre­pared to do any­thing, but … at the same time not wild”. That de­pends on what one means by wild. It is hard wholly to ap­plaud Knight, and Hem­ming over-eggs the pud­ding by dub­bing him “the great­est spy­mas­ter”. The sug­ges­tion that he in­spired Ian Flem­ing’s M seems jus­ti­fied only by their com­mon ini­tial.

Knight did ex­cel­lent work pen­e­trat­ing the Com­mu­nist Party, and has pro­vided ma­te­rial for a flu­ently writ­ten and highly en­ter­tain­ing bi­og­ra­phy. But few of us would have thought it pru­dent to go into the jun­gle with a man so frankly weird, and likely to be on first-name terms with the ana­con­das. books in­clude The Se­cret War: Spies, Codes And Guer­ril­las, 1939-45.

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