I’ve just finished watching Spies on Channel 4, which was intriguing. It’s essentially The Apprentice meets The Night Manager in which a series of contestants are put through their paces over four episodes to find out which one of them could cut it as an intelligence officer. Watching it was fascinating and oddly reassuring. I couldn’t help thinking that the fundamentals of espionage, or at least running agents, as they are depicted in this show, haven’t changed that much over the ninety years since Maxwell Knight began to learn his craft.

‘An intelligence officer is made, not born,’ as a former MI6 man reminds us at the start of each episode. Was the same true of Knight, or ‘M’?


Just as the contestants were judged on their ability to build up a rapport with potential agents, their charisma, and how well they listened, so too was he – albeit from more of a distance, and often by himself.

Also intriguing was the emphasis placed by the show’s former spies – one ex-GCHQ, one ex-MI6, another ex-MI5 – on the need for an intelligence officer to have some kind of x factor that draws people in and makes them want to work for them. The same was certainly true of M.

Another moment that struck a chord was when one former spook, possibly the ex-MI6 officer, Julian Fisher, said as an aside that espionage is about being able to wait.

Would M have passed the course?

I think so.

If you haven’t seen Spies yet, do. It’s great.

Image (c) Channel 4

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Maxwell Knight and Cuckoos

This remains easily the most interesting piece I’ve read about Maxwell Knight. It’s by Helen MacDonald, who wrote it a little bit before her H is for Hawk came out. I was re-reading it yesterday. I think the main reason I keep coming back to it is for the way it brings out a strand of Knight’s character that you don’t read about elsewhere, or at least I haven’t – the idea of his patriotism finding expression in his relationship with British wildlife.

Also, I like any article which mentions Goo the cuckoo, my favourite of all Knight’s pets.

Highly recommended.




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Ian Fleming vs John Le Carré

I loved the idea behind this event (which happened several days ago at the Emmanuel Centre, in Westminster, and was organised by Intelligence Squared): a debate in which two respected writers tried to convince an audience that either Ian Fleming or John Le Carré was the greatest espionage novelist. I envisaged a jolly, literary version of an MTV Celebrity Deathmatch. The ying and yang of British espionage fiction would somehow duke it out on stage. For those who came to the debate with a partisan preference (like me, JLC of course) there would be the chance to see the other writer in a more sympathetic light.

To begin with, it was all that. Anthony Horowitz made the case for Ian Fleming, and did so with real delight. I can’t think of another writer who looks so dazzlingly happy up on stage. He was followed by David Farr, the screenwriter behind the recent adaptation of The Night Manager, who, although not quite as comfortable as Horowitz, got his points across well.

Yet as the night wore on some of the initial bonhomie wore off. I came away knowing more about the supposed weaknesses of each author than their many virtues. Fleming was too much of an entertainer, we heard; Le Carré too heavy, too European in his sensibility, his characters not nearly as famous today as Fleming’s.

Everything else about the night seemed to work. The readings by a series of actors were particularly good. So too was the point made by one of them, Simon Callow, when asked to explain the difference from an actor’s perspective between playing a character written by Fleming and Le Carré. The former were much easier, as they tended to be off-the-peg archetypes, whereas the latter required more of you, as you had to look harder at the original work and interpret it more carefully.

Surely no coincidence that the adaptations of Fleming’s work have been spectacularly successful, whereas most attempts to put Le Carré’s work on screen (apart from The Night Manager, The Spy Who Came in From The Cold and the TV version of Tinker, Tailor) have not fared so well.

And who won the debate?

Le Carré, I’m glad to say. At the start of the night 43% of the audience were disciples of his. By the end of the night that was up to 60%.


Here’s a link to the podcast of the event.


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Andrew Parker Interview

There were times yesterday, reading Andrew Parker’s exclusive interview with the Guardian – the first such interview ever given by a serving head of MI5 – when it felt as though little had changed over the last hundred years. The way Parker spoke of the Russian threat to Britain, and how, to paraphrase his remarks, Moscow is now ‘using military means, propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks to achieve its foreign policy aims’, seemed reminiscent (except for the cyber-attacks) of the 1920s and 1930s, or indeed the 1950s, come to think of it the 1960s as well.

That element of the interview also read like a vindication from beyond the grave of Maxwell Knight’s conviction, one that would sometimes set him apart from his MI5 colleagues, that the most persistent threat to British national security came from Moscow.


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Maxwell Knight Biography out soon


Just seven months to go before the publication of M, as it will be in the UK, and Agent M, for everyone in North America – my biography of MI5’s Maxwell Knight.

Here are some generous pre-publication quotes. The first is from Adam Sisman, author of the acclaimed biography of John le Carré, the next from Nigel West, the renowned intelligence expert who has been writing about MI5 and its milieu for many years, and the last one is from Charles Cumming, the brilliant spy novelist and author of the bestselling A Divided Spy.


Praise for M:

‘Crammed with cracking stories and founded on sound research, Henry Hemming’s biography of Maxwell Knight – ‘M’ – stands comparison with the bestselling books of Ben Macintyre.’

ADAM SISMAN (Author of John Le Carré)


‘Absolute proof that assiduous digging in the archives can produce scoops. This is intelligence research at its best, especially in the identification of hitherto anonymous agents. Definitely a great contribution to the literature.’

NIGEL WEST (Author of MI5)


‘A fascinating portrait of a complex man. Espionage writing at its best.’

CHARLES CUMMING (Author of A Divided Spy)


Here’s roughly what it will look like,

in the UK:

And the US:

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