Thursday, 17 January 2019

MI5 and Me by Charlotte Bingham

I thought the name of the author was familiar, but it wasn’t until I read at the back that Charlotte Bingham had published, among other things, 33 best-selling novels that I remembered. Of course, that Charlotte Bingham. She also collaborated with her husband on scripts for Upstairs Downstairs, and made her publishing debut at nineteen with the memoir Coronet Among the Weeds.

In MI5 and Me, she returns decades later with a new memoir, about her time as a member of the typing pool in the 1950s British Secret Service. It was a career move foisted on her by her father, a bigwig at MI5 and reads a bit like a cross between Nancy Mitford and John Le Carré. Apparently Le Carré would later find inspiration for his character, George Smiley, in Charlotte’s father, which makes the book all the more interesting.

England at the time was wary of what went on behind the Iron Curtain and the possibilities of Communist infiltration. But the MI5 described seems very much to be making things up as it goes along, which provides lots of humour.

Her father bemoans the fact that he must always wear off-the-peg suits, so as not to draw attention to himself on his nefarious missions. There are always strange men to be entertained in the drawing room, which turn out to be Spooks. Things get livelier when her father takes on a couple of well-known actors to help with the cause, almost ruining the career by one of them when his Brechtian play is a flop.

Then there are Lottie’s co-workers – ex-Naval Commander Steerforth, who really has no idea how to be an effective MI5 manager, her much savvier chum, Arabella, with her glamorous mother who receives strange phone calls about herrings. What can it all mean?

Everything makes sense by the a final chapter which also reveals that this memoir had to be put on hold for fifty years before publication because of its sensitive material. MI5 and Me is as funny as it is surprising, capturing the silliness of the post-war reds-under-the-bed mentality of the time. Charlotte Bingham is such good company the pages fly by. Recommended.

Reviewed by JAM

Catalogue link: MI5 and Me

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