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

Biteback Publishing, pp.308, £20, ISBN: 9781849545136

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.

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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.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Biography, Communism, Espionage, George Smiley, Intelligence services, John Bingham, John le Carré, MI5, Michael Jago, Soviet Union