January 29th, 2009


A sinister totalitarian organisation seeks world domination. It's us.

As a kid I played -- innocently, guiltily -- in the shadow of the Cold War propaganda of the Bond films. I guided a model Aston Martin DB6 around the carpet and enjoyed pushing the button that activated the deadly weapons that this car, alone amongst my toy cars, possessed. I watched the films, in which the British secret agent quipped and killed his way to inevitable victory over eccentric totalitarians with foreign accents and plans for world domination. It all seemed like innocent fun.

It was only later, as my political and ethical sympathies evolved, that I began to feel the Bond franchise might be infused with toxic values. Not just the values inscribed into the Bond themes and songs -- "he's got a license to kill", "you've got to give the other fellow hell", "live and let die" -- but the stuff I started hearing about Ian Fleming himself. That he was a right-wing xenophobe who talked about "niggers" in his books, or stereotyped Koreans as "the cruelest people on earth", who boasted that he'd killed a man while working for naval intelligence, and claimed to be one of the key figures in the creation of the CIA. It was even annoying that he'd named his villain Auric Goldfinger after the Jewish, Marxist architect Ernő Goldfinger, creator of the Modernist Trellick Tower and architect of the offices of the Daily Worker newspaper and the British Communist Party HQ. And yet every time a new Bond film came out the lifestyle press spouted reams of stuff about how suits and guns and dry martini and British males who killed foreigners were sexy again.

This week a new piece of back story to the Bond saga emerged. A BBC Radio 4 documentary called M is for Maxwell Knight looked into the background of the man on whom Fleming based the character of spymaster M. Some pretty unsavory details emerged; Knight "believed that socialism, and its attack upon the British Empire and commerce, constituted an existential threat to the British way of life and British government". And so Knight joined the British Fascisti Party.

Christopher Andrew, who's writing the official history of MI5, pops up to explain this one: "At the time the only fascists who were around were Italian fascists. And there were a lot of traditional conservatives and right wing radicals who thought that the best thing that had ever happened to Italy was Benito Mussolini coming along and getting the trains to run on time. So we shouldn't confuse the British Fascisti, or the British Fascists, of the mid- and late 1920s with the British Union of Fascists of the late 1930s, still less the further-right Right Club, and still less with the Nazi party." It was at this time that Knight, who'd become the Fascisti's Director of Intelligence, started working for British government intelligence, concentrating mostly on infiltrating left wing organisations. He encouraged fellow Fascisti members to join the Communist Party of Great Britain as spies.

Knight was close with Oswald Mosley and William Joyce, who became Lord Haw Haw when he moved to Berlin to make English-language broadcasts on behalf of the Nazis. Heather Joyce, Lord Haw Haw's daughter, remembers a visit Knight made to her father in the 1930s. "I did see him twice when he was in his uniform, and looking very handsome and impressive. They undid their belts, because they were going to eat, you see, and they sat over in the corner and everybody got up and... gave the fascist salute." Just as I, as a child, was playing with James Bond toys, so Heather and her sister were walking around in black shirts made for them by their parents.

Now, one line of thinking we could legitimately follow when we learn this stuff is that the beloved M from James Bond is an extremely right wing figure, that Fleming's slurs on communist architects and Knight's infiltration of communist organisations come from the same basic worldview, and that the Bond franchise to this day -- including all those style mag features on the sexiness of Anglo-Saxons in suits carrying guns -- has reactionary attitudes deep in its DNA. But Christopher Andrew draws a very different lesson: "British intelligence became world class because it was better at using eccentric and unconventional talents," he says, successfully turning "being a fascist" into "just being terribly British and charming", an argument which clearly cuts both ways and smears a lot of charming British eccentrics with some nasty slime. Andrew has an equally British explanation for Knight's later metamorphosis into a TV presenter of animal programmes on the BBC: "He had an unusual set of social skills," he tells us. "By unusual, I mean that he got on just as well with animals as with human beings. So what he's recognised as is a wonderful British eccentric with a wonderful ability for getting humans and animals to do what he wants them to do."

A sinister totalitarian organisation is seeking world domination. It's us, the British.