That there’s a direct correlation between sex and spying is probably Ian Fleming’s fault. Hard to think of Bond without thinking about his women. For Charlotte Bingham, though, the connection occurred at a deeper level. When her father, John — legendary spook, long believed to be the model for George Smiley — called her into his study to reveal that he worked for MI5, she was terrified that he was about to explain the facts of life, many of which had already been revealed to her by a friend on Bognor beach: ‘I thought I was going to pass out with the horror of what was to come.’
But the particular facts he reveals are no less life-altering. Charlotte, it seems, is in danger of being a lightweight, a problem to which her father has the solution: a steady, worthwhile job at MI5. Not an immediately attractive proposition to Lottie — ‘I liked being a lightweight but of course I couldn’t tell him that’ — but as she’s not yet 21, and since this is the 1950s, she has no choice but to fall in with his wishes. Even so, she spends the night standing in front of an open window in a thin nightdress, hoping to catch pneumonia — the only available escape route, it would appear, from the path her father has chosen for her.
This isn’t, though, a feminist tract: far from it. If the young Bingham has a novelist’s eye for detail, noting all the ‘spooks in lifts wearing brown suits and matching shoes’, her immediate impact on national security is to brighten it up by taping pictures of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly to the filing cabinets. And her first lesson in tradecraft is supplied by fellow spook typist Arabella. The best way of vanquishing the Dragon she’s been assigned to, Lottie is told, is to smell of garlic, talk about the theatre, and suggest there are spiders or Roman Catholics nearby. That none of this works barely matters: Lottie’s life of subterfuge has begun.
Much fun it is, too. The spooks she’s fallen among are chaps who’ve had a good war, and are dashed if they’ll let the communists win the blasted peace. Nor, it turns out, are enemies of the state entirely immune to patriotic tugs: after organising a ‘running buffet’ for working men, a ruse to identify radicals among them by luring them into a new socialist movement, Lottie finds the would-be subversives so impressed by her hospitality that they set their politics aside. ‘It was all wartime memories… We were united then, with everyone pulling their weight.’
Other episodes skate perilously close to farce. A set of MI5 training films goes missing, and Lottie persuades her boss to defuse the issue by downgrading their security status, meaning they’ll no longer be sensitive material and their disappearance thus rendered unimportant. A nice piece of lateral thinking, which is more than justified when it turns out that one of Lottie’s colleagues, having decided the films in question were ‘stupid’, had thrown them down a lift shaft. Arabella’s mother, meanwhile, turns out to have a close friend, Sergei — ‘a second secretary at a certain embassy’ — who keeps receiving phone calls from an import-export business offering salt cod and pickled herring — a code Lottie disrupts by insisting on lobster when she intercepts one of the calls.
Such tales come thick and fast, interspersed with moments of slapstick, and much of MI5’s business seems to be a continuation of social life by other means. A budding romance is nearly quashed when Lottie accidentally opens her father’s sword-stick in front of her potential suitor: ‘We both sensed that it was one of those episodes in life when the less said the better.’
But what sometimes appears to be a random string of reminiscence knots tight when you’re least expecting, opening a door on the games the security service used to play. There’s a brilliant Producers-like scenario whereby John Bingham encourages several well-known stage actors to accept roles in ‘a load of left-wing tripe’, their involvement inspiring investment from communist organisations, which promptly lose their funds when the play receives terrible reviews and closes within days.
And if suspicions that we’re having our collective leg pulled emerge long before the sly postscript, that’s of little consequence. Spy stories are what we tell ourselves when we’re peeping behind the fabric of national life. The more cynical of us might expect treachery, backstabbing and boardroom power-grabs, but what Lottie finds is ‘good folk and true, working away in the defence of our lovely country, full of integrity, and so much fun’. Given the charming, flighty narrative that results, it would be a hard-hearted reader who’d find fault with that.