Book Review: MI5 and Me (2018) by Charlotte Bingham

It is difficult to be critical of Ms Bingham. This may well be the last book she ever writes and she seems like a perfectly charming old lady with impeccable manners. She is an absolutely first class writer – as she should be with more than thirty internationally successful novels to her name – and this little book goes down as smoothly as one of the teacakes that she and her friends used to devour at Fenwick’s. But, from an intelligence professional’s point of view, her account is too much like one of those Fenwick’s teacakes  – initially enticing, but so full of sugar and hot air that ultimately one wishes that you hadn’t bothered in the first place.

Her cover photograph shows that she was typical of service secretaries of that era: eminently … kissable. (Or “…a pretty young popsy” as one senior MI5 officer called her). Many secretaries in both services seemed to be picked for this quality back in “the good old days”. Visitors used to remark on it. Ian Fleming, who was in Naval Intelligence and visited both services many times used it as a factor in his Bond novels. In those days, service secretaries were divided into “bunnies and battle-axes” and it is a cause of great regret for some male officers that the use of computers means that there are far fewer “bunnies” in the services now than there used to be. These days, some of the personal assistants to senior managers (as they are now called) are actually male. Enough to make some of the old timers slump unconscious into their porridge. But there is not even a hint of sex in this book even though it is well known that the officers of the day and their secretaries were at it like proverbial rabbits. As noted above, Ms Bingham has the impeccable manners of her generation. Her principal aim is to write for gentle comedic effect and any suggestion of sexual attraction would smack too much of uncomfortable reality.

Indeed, Ms Bingham has that most vital quality of intelligence service employees – discretion. She is apparently happy to tell tales from her days in the service, but she never actually says anything that might be useful to anyone. This is a rare, particular and highly valued skill in intelligence work. But despite her best efforts to say nothing that might be useful an enemy (or an historian) certain truths do emerge. In her era, intelligence was a game played by the upper classes. It was a time when one still had domestic servants and evening dress might still be worn to dinner. It was in this atmosphere that the Cambridge Five were able to infiltrate the British intelligence services. They were from the right class and therefore they were admitted to secret work even though the most cursory security check would have revealed the extent of their Communist affiliations. What is perhaps more worrying is that those attitudes were prevalent in the nineteen forties and Ms Bingham’s book shows that the same attitude was prevalent almost twenty years later. (Admittedly the real shake up in the British intelligence world did not come until Philby’s defection in 1963 which was the final slap across the face for the upper class types who had always backed him despite the wealth of evidence against him.) Ms Bingham describes how she didn’t want the job and completed her initial Positive Vetting questionnaire by admitting information that she felt certain would have her refused clearance. But her Vetting Officer does not even look at it. After all, she was the only daughter of the 7th Baron Clanmorris so she must be trustworthy, musn’t she? This is quite funny – until one reflects on what this attitude must have really meant for security in those days (and to a great extent still does).

“MI5 and Me” is a gentle read and perhaps that is all that Ms Bingham wanted. But her book compares unfavourably with Spike Milligan’s early war memoirs such as “Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall” and “Rommel – Gunner Who?”. Of course, Milligan exaggerated his memories for comic effect just as Ms Bingham does. But he also told the uncomfortable truths about wartime life. That is what makes his accounts both useful as well as funny. Ms Bingham is too concerned to hand out rose tinted spectacles to her readers and to make everything from the fifties seem simply wonderful. It is her opinion, perhaps inherited from her father, that the truth about intelligence work is the sort of stuff that the upper classes are supposed to know about – but certainly not ordinary people.

[NB Our book reviews are not assessments of the literary value of the work. They are written by intelligence professionals and are concerned with the book’s accuracy, relevance to the realities of espionage, place in espionage history, etc.]

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