Uncle Max

Patricia Craig

  • The man who was M: The Life of Maxwell Knight by Anthony Masters
    Blackwell, 205 pp, £9.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 631 13392 5
  • Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of the Second World War by Nigel West
    Weidenfeld, 166 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 297 78481 1
  • The Great Betrayal: The Untold Story of Kim Philby’s Biggest Coup by Nicholas Bethell
    Hodder, 214 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 340 35701 0

Like most biographers, Anthony Masters starts by announcing his subject’s date of birth; unlike most biographers, he gets it wrong. Charles Henry Maxwell Knight was born on 9 July 1900, not 4 September, under the sign of Cancer, not Virgo, however tempting it may be, for reasons which become clear in the course of the story, to assign him to the latter. Information about Maxwell Knight is pretty scanty and unreliable at most stages of his life, but a copy of his birth certificate may be obtained from the usual source, and was surely worth looking at; it is also more precise about Knight’s place of birth than Masters has chosen to be, specifying 199 Selhurst Road, South Norwood, Croydon, while he leaves it vaguely at Mitcham, Surrey.

Who was Maxwell Knight? Colleagues from MI5 still refer to him as a gifted and formidable intelligence officer, indefatigable in his efforts to scotch subversion on home ground, honourable, enigmatic, and full of relish for all kinds of intrigue. There is some evidence to suggest he contributed more than an initial to the ‘M’ figure in the James Bond books: hence Masters’s title. ‘M’, true enough, was the office sobriquet of Maxwell Knight, though not his only extra appellation. His work made it necessary for him to have a pseudonym or two at his disposal, and so we find ‘Captain King’ issuing instructions to his agents and arranging assignations in seedy hotels.

Masters resorts to cautious speculation when the facts can’t be ascertained, showing, for example, an impossible familiarity with his subject’s state of mind at 14. This was the age when Knight became a cadet on the training-ship Worcester; no doubt he ‘entered this new world ... with considerable trepidation’, as Masters assures us more than once – still, we should like to know how he knows. It’s the same when he comes to comment on Knight’s unconsummated marriages: we find a succession of wives, and at least one would-be mistress, ‘living in hope’ that ordinary sexual relations may eventually take place. Two wives were available to corroborate Masters’s statement to this effect, but not the first, poor Gwladys Knight, who swallowed a quantity of barbiturates at the Overseas Club in 1935. ‘Tall, attractive and auburn-haired ... with a passion for hunting and dogs’, Gwladys Knight, in this account, seems more like a character from the pages of Woman’s Home Journal than a candidate for breakdown and suicide. Her achievement here is to inspire the most jejune pronouncement in the book, when Masters informs us that her marriage ‘was ... one in name only’.

A rather meagre tribute to Gwladys has been extracted by Masters from an ex-guest at the Exmoor pub once owned by Knight and his tall, auburn-haired wife: this forthcoming person ‘admired her enormously for her ... determination to see that her guests had fun, apart from good food and good beds ... ’ Masters does his best with Gwladys but she remains unreclaimable, existing merely as a detail in the disquieting persona being built up by Knight. Up until the outbreak of the Second World War, Knight was busy acquiring the notable background that gave him a certain éclat in intelligence circles. He’d left HMS Worcester in 1917, spent the following year as a midshipman with the Royal Navy Reserve, visited New York and been enchanted by it, developed an enthusiasm for American jazz, returned to Putney and a spot of teaching, turned himself into an accomplished amateur naturalist, with grass snakes in the bath and parrots in the kitchen, and proved adroit enough to engage in exacting social activities on a rather poor income.

Recruitment to the Security Service came in 1924 after a happy meeting, at a dinner party, between Knight and its then Director-General Sir Vernon Kell – an event lushly described by Masters as having ‘opened a door into a completely new world for the restless and unfulfilled’ prep schoolmaster. Marriage followed, leading to further unfulfilment; the country pub was bought and run by Gwladys, with Knight putting in an appearance at weekends. (His appearances and disappearances made some local people take him for a werewolf, a detail not remarked by Masters.) He spent a lot of time on Exmoor instructing people in the techniques of fishing and lizard hunting. Less sportingly, perhaps, he used to go on salmon-poaching expeditions (we learn from the biography), stuffing the fishy booty down his trousers. One way and another – what with dead fish, live insects and the nest of adder eggs he once hatched in a pyjama pocket – Knight seems to have considered his person a fit habitat for certain unlikeable animal species.

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