Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rediscovering M

The real M from the book
A little upheaval at home caused some old books to be moved around and I spotted this one called "Some of My Animals" - I remembered how I had found this bargain for a few Rupees in a big house  made up of old books (the  book seller probably lived within it) at Luz while on a walk from Mowbray's Road to the beach in Madras. Like some early natural history reading, I had merely skimmed through and it was not until many years later that I learnt more about the author of this book.


"In a Chelsea flat there once lived
happily together Maxwell Knight ...
Olga, the otter, Sadie the golden marmoset,
Florence the Mona monkey,
Pookie the bush baby,
Polly Hopkins the parrot..."
Although most people did not know much about the author during his lifetime, the KGB had a very good idea about him and when Desmond Morris, who was a good friend of Knight went to Moscow he had a strange experience. The story  was mentioned in an interview of Desmond Morris but there is a more recent article by Desmond Morris himself on this. Morris had escorted two London zoo Pandas to Moscow zoo during the Cold War to have them mated. KGB agents followed him and strangers baited him with offers to show him around top-secret locations and he found his hotel room bugged. He was puzzled and never quite found out  the cause of this until years later - when a book "The Man who was M" was published. During the day Maxwell Knight, who was a friend of Desmond Morris, was making natural history films for the BBC but after work hours  unknown to anyone his real job was as spymaster of MI5. Most of us think of Judi Dench but here was the real M. His pet otter Olga seems to have been named after one of his most successful agents, a spy named Olga Grey, who infiltrated a Soviet spy ring. Olga also visited Bombay to deliver money to the budding Indian communist party, which was then more associated with anti-imperialism than what might be called communism today. Ian Fleming was apparently a friend of M and of course as we all know his main character James Bond was based on an ornithologist in the West Indies.

Maybe someone will figure out who Florence, Pookie and Polly Hopkins really were.

Further reading

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