Mick Herron

Carry on spying

It’s the 1950s, so she must fall in with his wishes. Her memoir of life in MI5 is light-hearted fun, though at times skates perilously close to farce

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.

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