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Uncle Max & the Commie Hunters


Maxwell Knight (right) and friends.

2,074 words

The spymaster’s fascist background is just one of the many obstacles in telling the Maxwell Knight  story.

One of the oddest television projects now in development is a forthcoming series about master spy Maxwell Knight, the real-life “M” of MI5. It’s based on a well received biography that came out in Britain last year and was titled, simply enough, M. The edition for the American market is called Agent M.[1] Presumably the publisher was afraid Americans would mistake it for a book about the Fritz Lang movie.

From that brief description you might think it doesn’t sound like an strange property at all; more like a thrilling, but rather conventional, true-life spy story, sure to appeal to the millions of souls who like to rewatch the original Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Foyle’s War. But here’s the catch. The actual M was a real eccentric, a huge one; one of the weirdest and most multifaceted people who ever lived. In the 1920s he lived with a bear, a baboon, and bulldog in his London flat, ran a jazz band, taught sports at a boys’ school, and did undercover intelligence work for a private Right-wing organization. And then he joined the Security Service, MI5.

During his three decades in the Service he recruited such memorable names as John LeCarré and Ian Fleming (although in the official record Fleming worked only in Naval Intelligence): both drew upon Maxwell Knight in their novels. In the 1940s and 50s, while still at MI5, he carved out a parallel career as a David Attenborough-style nature writer and presenter. Children knew him on television and the wireless as “Uncle Max.” Colleagues at the BBC hadn’t a clue about Uncle Max’s main job as spymaster, although they did sometimes wonder why he arrived at the studio in a long black government limousine.

But the most interesting thing about him, the most challenging aspect to script and direct, is that Maxwell Knight was a fascist. An actual fascist, going back to the early days of the British Fascist and Empire Loyalist organizations in the 1920s. This ur-fascism was what we’d now view as nationalism and anti-Bolshevism, or “Conservatism with knobs on” (as Arnold Leese is supposed to have called it, dismissively). It was Maxwell Knight’s work as an intelligence operative for these organizations that brought him into contact with MI6 and MI5, first as an outside agent, then as a working operative for both. [2]

Heading up his own anti-Communist-subversion section of MI5—”M Section,” they called it—Knight inevitably recruited friends and colleagues from the British Fascists and kindred organizations. One notable name he spent years bringing aboard was sometime-scholar, sometime-streetfighter William Joyce. At Knight’s urging, Joyce and his wife decamped for Berlin in August 1939, where they eventually found jobs as propaganda broadcasters. (I discussed the  Joyce-Knight connection at length in “Lord Haw-Haw of MI5.” [2])

The interplay between MI5 and fascist groups was an old story even in the 30s. One could even argue that MI5 spawned the original Fascisti in Italy, since MI5 subsidized Benito Mussolini’s anti-Bolshevik, pro-war activism beginning in 1917, paying him £100 a week.[3]

It will be interesting to see how the filmmakers at Mammoth Screen [3] finesse the richly complicated story of Maxwell Knight. Will they offer a revisionist view of 20th century British nationalism—a kinder, gentler fascism—or will they try to frame the story within the propaganda narrative that the Left has promoted since the 1930s? That is, fascism-as-bogeyman, a movement of “totalitarian” bullyboys; a Through the Looking-Glass flip-side of Bolshevism. Or will the scriptwriters just leave the good parts out, as they so often do?

I suppose it depends on how closely they adhere to the Henry Hemming biography, M or Agent M. Hemming gets around the fascist problem by continually reminding the reader that 1920s British fascism isn’t what it sounds like. No sir, it was a movement full of dotty colonels, peers, artists, and homosexuals (rather like an intelligence outfit, come to think of it). And it had women, lots of women. And the founder was a lesbian. Therefore, Hemming painfully argues, the people who founded the first British Fascist organization (originally titled British Fascisti) were not really fascists at all!

[T]he original program of the British Fascisti did not contain anything that could be described as clearly fascist. Instead of being patriarchal, anti-Semitic, and revolutionary, the British Fascisti seemed to be more interested in dressing up in uniform, organizing marches, and professing its love of the monarchy or its desire to defeat Communism. Rather than being entirely male, this group had been set up by a woman, and its original Grand Council contained more women than men.

Not patriarchal or anti-Semitic or revolutionary! This is hilarious, but you can see what Hemming is doing. It would be far too tedious to explain that fascism isn’t what you think it is, or was. So instead he concedes the brute reality of modern prejudice, and tells us that the real fascists weren’t really fascists. (The “No True Scotsman” argument.)

Rotha Lintorn-Orman, in regalia.

The founder of the British Fascists is one intriguing character. An upper-class tribadist out of a Tamara Lempicka painting, Rotha Lintorn-Orman liked fast cars, military uniforms, and eventually, opium. What screenwriter could resist her? Of course there’s no way you can stick her in the story without revising the Left’s narrative somewhat, so I suppose she’ll just be depicted as a daft daughter out of a Merchant-Ivory production. Still, that’s better than nothing. A couple of years back the Paris Review had a wonderful piece on early fascism and Lintorn-Orman (link here [5]), and that’s pretty much what the article’s author did to Rotha: made her a troubled eccentric. (“The British Fascisti afforded Lintorn-Orman some control over a world in which she felt a powerless misfit, punished by the fact of her sex and her unconventionality.”)

Mainstream publications have a great deal of trouble handling women on the Far Right. The usual coverage leans toward a kind of “Blackshirt Auxiliary” spin, where the women are basically groupies doing bake sales while the men are out marching; see for example the wow-just-wow treatment that Slate (link [6]) ran last year. So it’s good to see a female founder getting the spotlight.

Interestingly, at MI5 Maxwell Knight brought in a lot of women too. Ian Fleming’s M had one Miss Moneypenny; the real M had many, and they didn’t just sit in the outer office. Two of his biggest cases were cracked by female operatives. In those days, no one was on the lookout for female spies.

Getting back to biographer Hemming, his biggest sandtrap is not trying to apologize for fascism, but rather explaining why Maxwell Knight seemed to abjure it by 1939. Now, by this point Knight had recruited a number of Blackshirts and fascists into the Service, including his old friend William Joyce. Here a big question-mark hangs over the plot. I don’t expect any scriptwriter to resolve it. Did Maxwell Knight have a Damascene conversion, or was he just dealing with the practical realities of being a wartime spymaster?

Hemming leans toward Damascus: he says M was turned off by what he saw going on in Nazi Germany. That is, the true and good fascism that M loved had been hopelessly perverted by Hitler and his henchmen. This will be very hard to dramatize.

Hemming also finesses the 1940 Tyler Kent/Anna Wolkoff affair with a very fishy-sounding explanation. Tyler Kent of course was the American Embassy cipher clerk who copied hundreds of secret communications between FDR and Churchill. (Illicit communications, as Churchill was not yet Prime Minister and was going behind Neville Chamberlain’s back.) Kent was briefly associated with Captain Ramsay’s Right Club, a league of anti-war nationalists in and around London. One morning Maxwell Knight and some MI5 men surprised Kent in his bedsit and arrested him.

In Hemming’s telling, Knight did this out of patriotic duty, nothing more. He seized Kent’s suitcase of purloined communiqués, and the Right Club membership book, because these people were Fifth Columnists and there was a war on. This is more or less the standard received explanation of the Tyler Kent story.

But actually Maxwell Knight had another, better reason to keep an eye on Kent and his circle. Knight was in communication with William Joyce (in Berlin); the circle was in communication with Joyce too. There was a distinct possibility that the Joyce-Knight connection would come to light. To forestall this, Knight himself arrested Kent, rounded up all the principal players, and had them imprisoned. (I cannot cite an authority for this interpretation, as it is all mine own; but I believe my version makes sense and the other one doesn’t.)

A minor aspect of the Maxwell Knight legend that Hemming skims over is the question of his homosexuality. He was married three times and lived an enormously busy life, yet rumors always persisted that M liked to sneak off to the woodshed and get it on with some rough trade. Thirty-odd years ago one of M’s Moneypennys wrote a memoir in which she claimed her boss liked to hire motorcycle mechanics for purposes other than motorcycle maintenance. This story got so embedded in public consciousness that by 1990 Richard Ingrams could write in a Spectator review that not only were Maxwell Knight and Tom Driberg both homosexuals, they were probably lovers as well.[4]

My own guess is that the basic story was untrue, but that Maxwell Knight promoted it, just to keep people confused. He was certainly friends with Tom Driberg, and used him as an MI5 agent. He famously sent Driberg to Moscow in the 1950s to visit Guy Burgess and warn him not to try to return to Britain. That part of the trip was a success, and Driberg got a book out of it. But he also got “turned” by the KGB, who caught him cottaging in a public urinal. This cannot have been M’s intention when he sent Driberg to Moscow. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have surprised him.

*   *   *

An interesting postcript.  In London last Saturday (November 24, 2018) there was a Maxwell Knight Symposium at Birkbeck College, sponsored by the British Herpetological Society. The introductory lecture, now on the symposium’s website (link here [7]), is a highly readable summary of Knight’s career. However, it is less than forthcoming about Knight’s fascist associations and sympathies:

Maxwell Knight was the original ‘M’, a self-taught spymaster who, with the help of young case officers and talented agents, was responsible for counter-subversion and managed successfully to penetrate the British fascist movement.

Well, this is risible. It primes the simple, incurious listener to think that any trafficking that went on between Knight and the Far Right was in the nature of “penetration” or double-agenting. As for William Joyce, M’s man in Berlin, he’s nowhere to be found.

And the Tyler Kent case is painted as the exposure and arrest of right-wing pro-Nazis, although the people in Kent’s circle broke no laws, planned no subversion, and anyway M had been following their activities for many months.

The ‘Right Club’ arrests were to be ‘M’ organisation’s most documented war-time victory. The unveiling of Tyler Kent as a spy, a cipher clerk stationed at the United States Embassy, led to the discovery that he was found in possession of more than 1,000 official documents, including Top Secret correspondence between Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and President Franklin Roosevelt.

This, then, is the canting, bowdlerized, potted hagiography of Maxwell Knight, far more evasive than Henry Hemming’s splendid, if imperfect, M.


[1] Actually the full title of the British edition is M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, and the American one is called Agent M: The Lives and Spies of MI5’s Maxwell Knight. As noted elsewhere, the author is Henry Hemming.

[2] Anyone familiar with 20th century espionage will know that the operations of MI6—officially called SIS or Secret Intelligence Service—are generally limited to “foreign,” or non-British, territories. MI5, officially the Security Service, was chartered to operate in the British Isles and Imperial regions. The strict delineation of their remits came about in the early 1930s after a young MI6 operative named Maxwell Knight got caught straying into domestic surveillance. After that, Max got moved over into MI5.

[3] The MI5-Mussolini connection has been recounted many times. Here is an amusing take from 2009 in the Daily Telegraph:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/6321201/Italian-dictator-Benito-Mussolini-was-recruited-by-MI5.html [8]

[4] Richard Ingrams, “Uncle Tom’s Cottage.” The Spectator, 5 May 1990.