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.

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