- A Coronet Among the Spooks
[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.
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 naïve 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.
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.