MI5 and Me by Charlotte Bingham


- A Coronet Among the Spooks

published 2018



MI5 and Me 1


[Around 1960: 18 year old Charlotte has been summoned to see her father, who has something to tell her]

‘I work for MI5,’ he announced.

‘Oh dear,’ I said.

‘What do you mean “Oh dear”?’ he asked in an even more chilly tone.

‘Well it’s not very nice, is it, MI5? It’s full of people spying.’…

‘As a matter of fact,’ he conceded after a few seconds, ‘you’re right, MI5 is not very nice, and the reason it is not very nice is quite simple: we have to fight communism,and communism is not at all nice, and what is more wer have to win, or we shall lose the very thing we have fought for during the war – our freedom…

‘However now you know, and you are sworn to secrecy, I must get on to the next subject, which is you.’ This was much better. I liked the idea of his changing the subject and getting on to me. ‘It is time you got a proper job instead of drifting about in coffee bars and working for all sorts of people who your mother tells me she could never ask to dinner. So, I have made some enquiries and decided that the best place for you to work at a steady worthwhile job is – MI5.’

I stared at him in unbridled horror.


MI5 and Me 4



commentary: This is a confoundingly strange book. It is described as a memoir, a true story: and every time you think ‘but this is impossible, she has obviously made half this up’ – well, she catches you out in her sweet way. She tells a ridiculous slapstick story of working at MI5 with other young women, all nice girls, waiting to get married. They are also keen to save the world from communism, along with their serious bosses. Files get lost, spies get followed, mysterious telephone calls are intercepted. There is a fake political party, and actors are pulled in to help. Some of them lodge in the Bingham household. It is all a farrago – and yet, and yet… It’s probably impossible to say how much of it is true. It is very funny and silly, and Charlotte Bingham, who is now 75, does an amazing job of inhabiting her own 18-year-old self. Lottie sounds na├»ve and occasionally annoying in her first person narrative, but she never sounds anything but 18, and there isn’t a whisper of an older person looking back at herself. She is wholly convincing - in some if not all ways…

After her short career at MI5, Bingham became a full-time writer. She published a book called Coronet Among the Weeds in 1963 (hence the subtitle of this book): she is the daughter of an Irish baron, Lord Clanmorris, and the book told the story of her debutante days, living in Mayfair.


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As it happens I read Coronet Among the Weeds some years later: it was serialized in the revered Jackie magazine, probably about 1970, but updated in various ways – ‘beatniks’ in the original became ‘hippies’ for the new generation. I was fascinated by the serial, and managed to find a secondhand copy of the book. I think perhaps my own obsession with debutantes may have originated with this. She went on to write TV series (including episodes of Upstairs Downstairs) and romance novels, often with her husband Terence Brady. She has produced an impressive list of work.

Her father the spy, the man in the excerpt above, has also appeared on the blog. Under his non-title name of John Bingham, he wrote dark and impressive crime novels in his spare time, and My Name is Michael Sibley appeared here. And I also discussed the fact that John le Carre says that if anyone was the role model for George Smiley, then it was John Bingham. Le Carre wrote an introduction for the Michael Sibley book, which I described as being worth the cost of the book on its own:

Le Carre says that Bingham – apparently a very senior old-school spymaster – was a man of great humanity, honour and trustworthiness, with ‘gentle old-fashioned zeal.’ He makes it clear that he doesn’t think Bingham really understood everything that was going on during the Cold War – he was ‘clinging to standards long abandoned by the world around him.’

Perhaps so. In the book, Bingham’s wife has a splendid complaint:
‘I have told your father time and time again… he is not to leave revolvers in the side drawer of the guest rooms. It is bad enough he goes around with a knuckleduster in his pocket, pulling his suit out of shape, bad enough that his swordstick came apart at the races the other day, but now here we are with guns where they definitely should not be. If only he wasn’t so absent-minded.’
Incidentally, in the publicity and reviews for this new book there are endless references to its being set in the 1950s, a window into the 1950s, but I don’t think that is the case – Charlotte Bingham turned 18 in 1960.

Anyway, MI5 And Me is a good fun read, and it’s up to the individual to decide how much poetic licence has been taken.

That’s a photograph of her when she was a debutante, and a picture of a smart party of the era.
























Comments

  1. This does sound unusual, Moira. As I was reading your post, I was thinking that that's the thing about real life. It can be that strange. Fiction has to make sense in some way for the story to be good, but real life doesn't, if I can put it that way. And it does sound well-written...

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    1. Absolutely - if she'd described it just as a novel you would think it was slapstick and humour. But she does say it is true... Intriguing.

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  2. One problem with swordsticks is that they do come apart unexpectedly. I need a walking stick and once bought an elegant second-hand one which turned out to be a swordstick when it flew apart unexpectedly and nearly got me arrested. After I'd pushed it together again I never found a way to take out the sword when I wanted to and it came apart every time I flourished it particularly exuberantly. I took it to be repaired in the end and the stick shop removed the sword - now illegal - and fixed the sheath permanently to the top so it can't come apart. The trouble is that without the sword's weight it's badly balanced now.

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    1. That's hilarious - thank you very much for those hitherto unknown insights into swordsticks!

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  3. This book sounds like great fun and interest. Thanks for reviewing it so expertly.

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  4. Priceless. Especially the bit about the knuckledusters! Though surely he would have said, 'Whom your mother tells me she could never ask to dinner'?

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    1. I thought exactly that! I read an advance copy so it may have been corrected. I was surprised, because I'm not brilliant on who and whom, but you very much expect that generation and class (both her and her mother) to get it right...

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  5. Tempted. I've not immersed myself in anything espionage related for a while now.

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    1. It would be different from your average spy novel, but it is short and funny ...

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  6. Oh, the upper classes are above who and whom!

    But isn't there a genre of farcical, slapstick pseudo-memoirs? Think the Vet books, or David Niven. There's also a genre of turning your past into a succession of funny anecdotes which you use as currency at dinner parties. And then someone tells you you should write a book...

    Interesting about the hair. Her genuine 60s hairstyle has not reached Laver's "quaint" stage. Trying to find his "fashion evolution" list but only discover I have a file called "fash crimes hist". (Those hairdos really were awful.)

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    1. Yes, you do have a point, but this book does read oddly. I did think you were the person you might be interested in this book - would love to read your opinion.
      I found Laver's Law here online: https://signalvnoise.com/posts/2474-lavers-law-of-fashion
      The way it has been tidied between pictures is very interesting...

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  7. This is the third in a row that you have me interested in, and I don't need any more books. I also generally avoid books written in the current year and wait a while. But this one is shorter, a plus.

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    1. It is short and very readable - and it is a spy book, no matter how unlikely a one!

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    2. LATER in the day yesterday I saw an excerpt from this book and it did read well. I will be looking out for the book.

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    3. It is the weirdest spy book you will ever read!

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