X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Books

Journalist, novelist, patriot, spy

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham Michael Jago

Biteback Publishing, pp.308, £20

When I was a new MI5 recruit, working in Leconfield House in 1970, there was a group of middle-aged men who came and went at unusual times of the day, often gathering in the late afternoons, talking loudly and cheerfully. They were the F4 agent runners and I envied them; they seemed to be having a lot more fun than I was.

F Branch, the counter subversion branch, was responsible, amongst other things, for monitoring the activities of the Communist Party of Great Britain and in particular for identifying its members, in support of Clement Attlee’s 1948 ‘Purge Procedure’, excluding communists and fascists from work vital to the security of the state. By 1970, the F4 agent runners, of whom John Bingham was one, had done a pretty thorough job. The Party’s King Street headquarters was penetrated by long-term agents, the membership records had been regularly covertly copied and the building was thoroughly bugged.

John Bingham joined MI5 before the war from Fleet Street, recruited by Maxwell Knight, a maverick but brilliant agent runner. Bingham worked on the Double X operations then, when the Service cut its staff after the war, took a post in the Allied Control Council in Hanover, trying to detect Soviet infiltrators among the flood of refugees seeking asylum in the Western zone. It was an experience which convinced him of the fragility of the security of Western Europe.


In 1950, at a time of increased focus on communism and Soviet espionage, following some sensational spy cases, the Service was recruiting again and Bingham rejoined. It was then that he began his parallel career as a crime writer, with the publication in 1952 of his first, partly autobiographical, novel, My Name is Michael Sibley.

When the much younger David Cornwell joined MI5 in 1958, Bingham became his professional mentor and also helped start him on his writing career by introducing him to his literary agent. Bingham’s son Simon records that Cornwell’s pen name, Le Carré, came from the office nickname for his father, ‘The Square’. In a radio interview in 1999 Cornwell revealed that Bingham was a model for Smiley, though in the following year, in an introduction for the re-publication  of some of Bingham’s early novels, he says that Bingham was one of two men who went into the making of George Smiley.

But the John Bingham who emerges from the pages of Michael Jago’s book seems, in everything but appearance, to be about as far from Smiley as you could get. Certainly F4, with its nurturing relationship with its agents, many of whom worked for the Service for years and ended with a pension, was a very different place from the nuanced, ethically ambiguous world of Smiley and his colleagues. Le Carré wrote that Bingham felt betrayed by his cynical portrayal of the intelligence services. Bingham himself went on to write a considerable number of successful crime stories, but though he carried on writing until his old age, he never achieved his ambition of producing a spy story to rival the success of Le Carré’s books.

Michael Jago draws on family memories and Bingham’s own papers to create an affectionate, and in places poignant account of a serious, conventional and ethical man, facing a world where certainties were constantly challenged. Born in 1908, the heir to an Anglo-Irish barony, he saw his ancestral home sold for a pittance and his parents living in genteel poverty. The French and German families with whom he had become friends in the 1920s were broken up or turned into enemies by a war which destroyed the Europe he knew. He was still in the Service when the situation in Northern Ireland  began to raise new security threats, but he retired before he saw the radical change that terrorism was to bring to agent-running and everything else about the Service. He would not have liked it.

Though some of the intelligence detail and emphasis in Jago’s biography is not entirely accurate, as a comparison with Christopher Andrew’s authorised history shows, the book is very readable for its main character: novelist, patriot and moderate man in a world of extremes.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close