Cuckoos, le Carré, and conservation: the forgotten files of the real-life “M”

Wildlife enthusiasts have discovered unpublished documents belonging to former MI5 chief Maxwell Knight – the amateur naturalist and inspiration for the James Bond spymaster.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Top secret information, redacted documents, doctored photographs, coded letters. Whatever you would expect to discover in a hitherto unopened filing cabinet belonging to a World War Two spymaster, the last thing would be a lengthy treatise about wildlife conservation.

But this is what two nature enthusiasts discovered this year when they opened a filing cabinet belonging to Maxwell Knight, the former MI5 head and amateur naturalist who was the inspiration for his good friend Ian Fleming’s fictional intelligence chief “M” in James Bond.

Maxwell Knight's forgotten filing cabinet. All photos: Simon King

Knight is best known for his role in infiltrating British fascist movements, foiling a plot to stop the Americans from entering the war, and being first to suspect the secret service had been infiltrated by Soviets. Not your classic Sixties environmentalist.

The Frightened Face of Nature, an unpublished 50,000-word manuscript, is one of over 100 documents in Knight’s possession that had never before been released. Upon Knight’s death in 1968, the filing cabinet  – full of forgotten photographs, film reels, manuscripts and letters – was given by Knight’s widow to Professor John E Cooper, a veterinary scientist at Cambridge to whom the spy had become a mentor and friend.

An early proposal for Knight's book about man's threat to nature.

Written in the mid-Sixties, The Frightened Face of Nature is a warning against humankind’s advances destroying natural habitats and threatening wildlife populations – remarkably progressive for its age. An extract reads:

“By all means let man use his great powers to invent new devices; let him give of his best to see that all shall benefit from his genius in curing, healing, and housing those in want. But do not suggest that this can only be done by destroying what is fine to look at or listen to, whether in the arts or nature.

“If human brains can find means of defying space, improving means of communication and bouncing pictures off satellites, surely he can also discover ways in which these things can be done without destruction – for destruction first is the cry of mad revolution and is the reverse of evolution.”

But it was never published.

“I imagine he didn't want to put his head over the parapet on anything political,” Cooper tells me. “We think he hid the manuscript, or it wasn't finished, or it was just hidden away.

“It’s interesting because it shows that this man who arguably played such an important part in opposing the Nazis had got to the stage where his main fear was for the planet, environmental problems – even climate change he was aware of.”

Simon King, an associate and fellow naturalist who Cooper charged with exploring the cabinet’s contents, adds: “This was back in the Fifties and Sixties. He was looking at things we are considering today.

“I don't think he could risk being called a Communist. These were times when the Cambridge spies were hitting the limelight; there was talk during the Cold War about other spies in MI5. He obviously wanted to sell a book and earn a living, but I don't think he could risk being too popular.

He adds: “He left his last thoughts about us, and about nature, locked away in a cabinet. The sad thing is the document has almost become a top secret document about nature. At that point, he was obviously a man who couldn't draw attention to himself.”

Simon King (left) and John Cooper (right), who discovered the files.

Margaret and John Cooper, who own the cabinet, are both academics.

Cooper, who is 71 and lives in Norfolk with his wife Margaret, first heard of Knight from his appearances as a nature-lover and broadcaster on the radio and television. Cooper’s family lived near him in Camberley, Surrey, and Cooper – as a 16-year-old schoolboy obsessed with the natural world – wrote to Knight, who invited his family round for tea in 1959.

Knight remained a friend and adviser throughout Cooper’s time as a veterinary medicine student at Bristol in the Sixties. It was only two decades later, when information was emerging in the press about Knight’s activities during the war, that Cooper says he had any idea of Knight’s other occupation.

“People started talking about him in the Eighties, and seemed to know more about him than I did,” recalls Cooper. “And I still had that feeling he was my personal friend, almost like a godfather – and you do feel there’s a great chunk of his life that I knew nothing about.

“But really to me he was just this mentor, adviser and a hero – I would hear him on the radio, you see!” he laughs. “I felt terribly proud of being given this [cabinet] because Maxwell Knight had taught me so much about wildlife, natural history.”

Another manuscript among the files is a complete, unpublished book by the spy novelist and former agent John Bingham, who was recruited by Knight. Its title is Fugitive From Perfection, and part of the plot concerns Whitehall.

“One of his novels that nobody seems to know about in the family for some reason has ended up in Maxwell Knight's possession,” says King. “I have this feeling he [Knight] said to John Bingham – because I don't think he sent it to him to be spell-checked – ‘look, I don’t think you should share this’ for some reason . . . his MI5 influence appears throughout the manuscript.”

Another high-profile spy novelist and ex-agent, John le Carré, appears in Knight’s lost files. There is a handwritten letter from David Cornwell (le Carré is his pseudonym) from the British Embassy in Bonn, Germany, regarding the fee for some illustrations he drew for one of Knight’s published books called Animals and Ourselves. A note at the top of the letter from le Carré reads:

“I am delighted to hear that your admirable mixture of common sense and learning has been well received as it deserved. May it be equally rewarded!”

But it’s Knight the naturalist, who had a ‘bug room’ (not the spying kind) full of insect specimens, feathers and bird pellets in his house, who stands out in this collection of files. There are pictures of him with his pet cuckoo, Goo ­– he was one of many agents feeding into the phenomenon of British spies being bird enthusiasts. ‘Birdwatcher’ is old intelligence slang for spy. And the cuckoo – which infiltrates and imitates – was an ideal muse for a spy like Knight.

“I have really mixed feelings,” admits Cooper, regarding his discoveries about his old friend’s double life. “In one way, I wish he’d just remained the great naturalist in my eyes.”

But what to do now, having pieced together this bizarre patchwork of a life?

“We would like to be able share more of what’s in the cabinet in order to help and improve the way people look at nature,” says King. “The kids may not think it's very cool sometimes to do that, but who could be cooler than M? In many respects, he was the original James Bond.”

The owner of Maxwell Knight's cabinet is Professor John E Cooper (for more information, see www.wildlifehealthservices.com); More of the cabinet’s contents will be released leading up to the 50th anniversary of Maxwell Knight’s death in 2018 (see www.thefrightenedfaceofnature.com).

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.