The spymaster who was stranger than fiction

The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service by Alan Judd (HarperCollins, £19.99)

The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service by Alan Judd (HarperCollins, £19.99)

C WAS THE original M, the first head of the Secret Service and the prototype of James Bond's boss. The initial, standing for Cumming (not Chief) and always written in green ink, was the mark of an eccentric character. In fact, Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming, who founded what became MI6 in 1909 and ran it until his death in 1923, was the stuff of which fictional spymasters are made.

He carried a swordstick, wore a gold-rimmed monocle and possessed a "chin like the cut-water of a battleship". He had an "eye for the ladies" and took children for rides in his personal tank. He enjoyed gadgets, codes, practical jokes and tall tales. Cumming was so pleased to discover that semen made a good invisible ink that his agents adopted the motto: "Every man his own stylo".

When his Rolls-Royce crashed in France in 1914 and his leg was nearly severed, he allegedly completed the amputation with a pocket-knife so that he could crawl over to aid his dying son. Afterwards, Cumming propelled himself round Whitehall on a child's scooter. And he tested potential recruits by stabbing his wooden leg through his trousers with a paper- knife. If the applicant winced, C said: "Well, I'm afraid you won't do."

Cumming attracted myths as a statue attracts bird-droppings (another useful source of invisible ink). So Alan Judd - the pseudonym of an ex-spook - has set out to detach fact from fantasy. He has delved into Cumming's early years as a sailor, discovering little except a passion for petrol engines. He has also had access to classified documents, notably Cumming's Secret Service diary. But this turns out to be maddeningly reticent, full of trivia and initials. The latter Judd seldom spells out, though he could surely have revealed, for example, that when Cumming met "GW" at Hendon aerodrome, it was the pioneer aviator Claude Graham-White.

The diary does little more than confirm Christopher Andrew's definitive 1985 account of the Secret Service. What emerges most starkly is the sheer bumbling amateurishness of the organisation, something that time has evidently done little to amend. Conceived in the atmosphere of Germanophobic spy mania, it never really lost its fancy-bred character. One of C's prime early objectives was to locate the secret arsenals which Hun agents had established in Britain. They did not exist.

So the Secret Service, as Judd acknowledges, did more to reinforce prejudice than to gather intelligence. Even when it did acquire accurate information, the authorities had no means of assessing its worth. They were impressed by C's secret pre-war report on Zeppelins, even though everything in it was openly available.

Abroad, Cumming lost his weapons expert, who got out of a hotel lift on the wrong floor and couldn't find anyone to give him directions in English. At home, he chose transparent code-names for spies: Trench became "Counterscarp," Strange became "Queer". He was frustrated by faulty equipment, deceived by forged documents, thwarted by agents whose venality matched their ineptitude. In 1911, he wrote: "All my staff are blackguards".

Matters improved during the war, when C did score some successes. He discovered how much damage the German fleet had sustained at Jutland and used trainspotters to forecast enemy troop movements on the western front. He also won a degree of independence from his competing masters, the Admiralty, the Army and the Foreign Office. But he still employed charlatans such as Sidney Reilly, who proposed to discredit Lenin and Trotsky by debagging them and parading them around Moscow.

The fundamental problem for C's organisation was that it could not get good recruits because it was not supposed to exist. While recognising this, Judd maintains that the old-boy network "functioned very well most of the time". But his book militates against this conclusion. It demonstrates that the main secret which human (as opposed to signals) intelligence agencies have to keep is the secret of their own incompetence. Britain's Secret Service could hardly have had a more suitable creator than Cumming, who seems to have taken seriously the report that one German spy could be identified by his four rows of teeth. Perhaps C really stood for Clouseau.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders