MI5 and Me by Charlotte Bingham, Review: Sly comic memoir

MI5 and Me by Charlotte Bingham is a charming memoir that comically recounts her experiences working with MI5 in the 1950s. Read on for our review of the audiobook narrated by Candida Gubbins.

MI5 and Me: A Coronet Among the Spooks Synopsis

MI5 and Me, A Coronet Among the Spooks by Charlotte Bingham, Book ReviewA beguiling comic memoir about a young woman who discovers her father is a spy (and was the model for John le Carré’s George Smiley) and goes to work as a secretary in 1950s MI5.

It seems to me now that everyone who came to our house in those days was a spy…

When Charlotte Bingham, daughter of an obscure aristocrat, was summoned to her father’s office aged eighteen, she never expected to discover that this aloof, soberly-dressed parent was a spy. Even more ominous than The Facts was his suggestion that she should stop drifting around working for the sort of people her mother could never ask to dinner and get a proper job, something patriotic and worthwhile.

So Lottie finds herself outside MI5’s Mayfair offices in a dreary suit, feeling naked without her false eyelashes. Miserably assigned to the formidable Dragon, Lottie wishes for pneumonia, or anything to release her from the torment of typing. But as another secretary, the serene Arabella, starts illuminating the mysteries of MI5, and Lottie’s home fills with actors doubling as spies, Lottie begins to feel well and truly spooked.

This hilarious memoir from the bestselling author of Coronet Among the Weeds is a window into 1950s Britain: a country where Russian agents infiltrate the highest echelons, where debutantes are typists and where Englishness is both a nationality and a code of behaviour. Discretion, honour and office politics meet secrecy, suspicion and film stars in this enchanting, extraordinary true story.

(Bloomsbury –  2018; 5 hours and 57 minutes audiobook, Oakhill Publishing)

Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction, Drama, Mystery, Humour, Audio

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I was a huge fan of Spooks (the TV series) back in the day, have a real soft spot for Mick Herron’s Dead Lions‘ fictional cast (washed-up MI5 operatives) and found the Crown TV-series episodes set in the 1950s most fascinating. So, it was no surprise this title from my library’s fabulous catalogue caught my eye.

I am sure we’ve all had moments in our life, that in hindsight we’d admit we took ourselves just a little too seriously. We learn from experience that our everyday trifles, and often privileged perspective, can result in well-intentioned actions that are at best insulting, at worst, harmful. It is in this vein that, in M15 and Me, Charlotte Bingham rather comically recounts her experiences working for that particular secret service, and more broadly, the mood and level of suspicion that had gripped London society at the beginning of the Cold War.

He was probably going home to change into a shabby mackintosh, and that seemed a pity because he looked really rather smart over lunch and I would have liked him to be driving off in an equally smart car like other girls’ fathers did. But, he was determined on winning the battle against communism and making sure that people could do what they wanted, unlike communists who seemed to spend the whole time sending people to Siberia for writing poems.

Nostalgic satire

She dryly pokes fun at the passionate ineptitude with which the ‘enemies hidden in plain sight’ were hunted and the dubious value of their results and man-hours, all in the context of an increasingly outdated British class system.

There must be a new campaign being mounted, or else why would your father suddenly decide to put up with lodgers? He must be planning infiltration of some new hotbed of communism.

I agreed, although inwardly I was still bemused by the intensity of the pursuit of communism since so many of the documents I typed seemed to be full of suspicion rather than fact. But I had come to the conclusion that this was what the defence of our country must be about. Deep suspicion.

Part of the wonderful charm of MI5 and Me is the absence of derision. Narrator Lottie’s naivety, earnestness and British pluck increase the memoir’s satirical potency while overlaying a particular fondness and due respect for the people that lived and breathed that history.

Audiobook narration

I highly recommend consuming this memoir in its audiobook format. Candida Gubbins’ performance of Lottie’s naive yet curious musings, Arabella’s knowing air and at times self-involved nature, and the farcical wink-wink-nudge-nudge of the spooks was a real treat to listen to. Her comic timing and delivery would certainly have amplified the deadpan humour found in the text, and I think enhanced Lottie’s likeability for a modern audience.

MI5 and Me: A Coronet Among the Spooks is an entertaining reminder of fact often being stranger (and sillier) than fiction and the perils of taking ourselves too seriously.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5  — Overall 4

Get your copy of MI5 and Me: A Coronet Among the Spooks from:

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Related Reads:
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan  /  Nancy Wake by Peter FitzSimons  /  My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff  /  The Women in Black by Madeleine St John  /  Jack of Spies by David Downing

This review counts toward my participation in the 2020 Nonfiction Reader Challenge.

About the Author, Charlotte Bingham

Charlotte Bingham wrote her first book, Coronet Among the Weeds, a memoir of her life as a debutante, at the age of 19. It was published in 1963 and became an instant bestseller. Her father, John Bingham, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, was a member of MI5 where Charlotte Bingham worked as a secretary. He was an inspiration for John le Carré’s character George Smiley. Charlotte Bingham went on to write thirty-three internationally bestselling novels and the memoir MI5 and Me. In partnership with her late husband Terence Brady, she wrote a number of successful, plays, films and TV series including Upstairs Downstairs and Take Three Girls. She lives in Somerset.