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Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.

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But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.


M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

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Review. The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, by Julian Woodford.  

boss-of-bethnal-greenSometimes you have to wonder how someone as notorious as Joseph Merceron (1764 – 1839) can become all but forgotten to history. Well, it happens, because that is exactly the case here, until historian Julian Woodford stumbled across him while investigating something else, which is so often the way. It must be said that Merceron did catch the attention of radical historians Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the early 20C, but after that, what little there was, has been based almost entirely on the Webbs’ own research. But now Woodford, who has spent over a decade investigating the life and career of Merceron, has put him firmly in the spotlight. Joseph Merceron was singularly nasty local politician who exercised total control over the a large swathe of East London for half a century during which time Bethnal Green was – according to Roy Porter – “a law unto itself”. It can be argued that his “reign” is still being felt by the area two centuries later.

As his unusual name might suggest, Merceron was born of a proud Huguenot family made good, largely thanks to his father James, a former silk weaver who had become a well-off local rent collector and pawn broker, based in Brick Lane. Not the most noble of professions in an already poor area, you might think.

Whatever the sins of the father, Joseph put these in the shade. Of James’s children, Merceron junior took to the business to the manner born, collecting rents from the benighted local poor while still in his teens. Expanding this side of the business, he quickly expanded his intrests to property development, pub management and local politics. He became all-powerful locally through control of the parish vestry and control of the finances – virtually all the finances – of Bethnal Green by dint of being its Treasurer. There were few areas of local life that Merceron’s tentacles did not reach. He became a senior magistrate, notably the licensing Magistrate for pubs. Thereby he took care of his own and clients’ pubs, many of which descended into brothels, notably and controversially in Shadwell. Equally, if you weren’t a Merceron adherent, your pub would not get licensed. Similarly, he held a seat on the Commission of Sewers while simultaneously being a director in a water company. Conflict of interest clearly didn’t apply. In addition, Joseph sat on countless committees for this, that or the other. Whatever he didn’t control utterly, he at least influenced. Like organised criminals in the modern sense, he had placemen everywhere and, if things seemed in the balance, he could summon a mob of heavies in a trice.

When corruptly amassing eye-watering wealth, you need tame bankers. Merceron placed his and Bethnal Green’s money with Chatteris & Co, run by the Mainwaring family.  He backed William and George Mainwaring, father and so respectively, to be one of the MPs for Middlesex, thus ensuring a voice in Parliament.

When you find that Merceron defrauded members of his own family of an inheritance which was relative peanuts to him, one must conclude that his avarice was pathalogical, for he did not lead an extravagant lifestyle personally.

There has never been an individual as powerful on local government before or since, including Lutfur Rahman, whose reign in Tower Hamlets quite recently was thankfully quashed (it carried many Merceron hallmarks).

Apart from being a superb and informative read, the book is very nicely constructed. Beautifully designed and peppered with well-chosen photos, illustrations and portraits, all where they belong in relation to the text. Amazingly, no known portrait of Merceron exists, though likenesses of most of the other leading players are featured. Very good end notes, bibliography and index.

The Boss of Bethnal Green is a fascinating and impeccably-researched account. It is sensational without being sensationalist, which is what makes it such a gripping read. It’s everything an accessible history book should be and I commend it to you.


The Boss of Bethnal Green: Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London, 396pp by Julian Woodford is published by Spitalfields Life Books, with a jacket price of £20. Out of stock at Amazon at time of writing, it’s available in Waterstone’s, other bookshops and directly from the publisher.

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Review: Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes

A guest post by London Historians Member, Jane Young.

Eleanor Marx A Life Rachel HolmesThe first biography of Eleanor Marx (1855 – 1898) to be written in almost four decades, the 1972 -1976 two volume biography from Yvonne Knapp is a tough act to follow and Rachel Holmes has managed it with a flourish.

Significantly more intricate than a singular rendition of the life of one person, this substantial volume is an adeptly researched piece of social history. Covering poverty in the mid nineteenth century, the plight of European immigrants, infant mortality, working class politics, bohemian society

Charting the progress of Eleanor Marx from right back to before her parents Jenny and Karl had even met; you are invited into the various and numerous homes of the Marx household. There you meet a ramshackle extended family in all its minutiae detail becoming familiar with everything from the furniture they sat on; the clothes they wore; the frequent visitors and the meals they ate. Filled with a wealth of anecdotes taken from journals and letters, this book builds an enchanting picture of a dynasty whose consistently limited housekeeping budget prioritises books, paper and ink as essentials.

Within these pages the radical might of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels become softened as the character of their inextricably linked lifelong relationship, a bond which ultimately fashioned the destiny of Eleanor herself is explained.

Well known dignitaries within the circle of social reform: William Morris; Annie Besant; Clementina Black; Clara Collett; Israel Zangwill; George Bernard Shaw; Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; Beatrice Webb enter stage left.

All human life is here, in an immensely readable well referenced format though Rachel Holmes successfully steers a course away from sentimentality through tragedy compounded by dark family secret. The feisty little girl who at the age of ten lists ‘Champagne’ as her idea of happiness and grows up to make her mark on history is revealed in the most engaging but down to earth narrative: encompassing the commonplace everyday details of friendships; failed relationships; bereavement; domesticity and the eternal problem of finding affordable accommodation in London.

So much wider than a biography, moreover a graphic journey through Victorian London, Paris and Manchester. For all who have an interest in nineteenth century social reform, this account of a family that immediately endear themselves to the reader as ‘The Tussies’ is to be highly recommended.

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Eleanor Marx: A Life (525pp) by Rachel Holmes, 2014, is published by Bloomsbury with a cover price of £25, but is available for less.

 

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A new tranche of entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is published today. I’m honoured that it includes my entry on architect Leslie Green, who designed over 50 Tube stations at the beginning of the 20C. Other Londoners included in this release are listed below, including the chap who gave us the Routemaster bus, Albert Durrant. I shan’t link them because you need a subscription to the DNB or access by virtue of membership to one of  a selection of local libraries (I highly recommend you investigate this).

Albert Durrant (1898-1984), chief engineer for London Transport and designer of the Routemaster bus. Our main theme for May’s update will be people who shaped the history of British motoring, and Durrant fits here and also with your entry on Green. I wrote this entry and attach a copy here (in case it’s of interest).

Maurice Levinson (1911-1984), London taxi driver, known for his books and articles on being a cab driver

John Henry Forshaw (1895-1973), architect, who became head of the LCC architects’ department in 1943 and assisted Patrick Abercrombie in his ‘County of London Plan’ for the redevelopment of the capital. Promoted the ‘Swedish’ over the ‘Corbusian’ model of mass housing post-war.

William Edward Riley (1852-1937), architect who, as superintending architect of the new LCC, oversaw programme of public buildings, including ‘arts and crafts’ style fire stations (like that at Euston), and the development of Aldwych and Kingsway.

Timothy Bennett (1676-1756), cordwainer, and John Lewis (1713-1792), brewer, both of whom are remembered for leading campaigns to re-establish public access in public parks – Bennett in Bushy Park and Lewis in Richmond Park in the 1750s. In both cases public rights had been denied by the monarch or members of the royal family; Bennett and Lewis led popular campaigns which successfully overturned these prohibitions. Both men were subsequently praised as champions of English liberty and are commemorated in their respective parks by walkways and monuments.

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