The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Spyography: Compton Mackenzie, Modernism, and the Intelligence Memoir

Mark David Kaufman
Alvernia University

This article traces the interwar emergence of the spyography, a mode of life-writing that shares much in common with literary modernism, including a fraught legal history. More specifically, this essay focuses on Compton Mackenzie, the Scottish novelist turned SIS agent who violated the UK Official Secrets Act by writing about his experiences in his WWI intelligence memoir, Greek Memories (1932). Taking into consideration Mackenzie’s wartime experiences, his subsequent legal battle, and his vindictive spy-farce, Water on the Brain (1933), this paper argues that spyography is a modernist genre in its own right, a contested narrative that trades on the pleasures of secrecy and revelation, blurs the line between fact and fiction, and redefines the relationship between literature and national security.

Keywords: Compton Mackenzie / Greek Memories / Water on the Brain / Official Secrets Act / espionage / life-writing / modernism / farce  

On 12 January 1933, Edward Montague Compton Mackenzie—author, broadcaster, and recently elected Lord Rector of Glasgow University—stepped into the infamous dock of the Old Bailey to stand trial for violations under the Official Secrets Act following the publication of his 1932 war memoir, Greek Memories. The charges were as follows: Mackenzie, a former officer in the wartime Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), had quoted verbatim from official documents and telegrams; he had disclosed the names of sixteen agents who might still be employed (or could be employed again) by SIS; he had revealed SIS’s use of passport control offices for the purposes of espionage; and, most scandalously, he had made public not only the name of the late Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming, the first chief of SIS, but also the secret initial “C” used as a cipher by Cumming and his successors to this day. Given the egregious nature of Mackenzie’s crimes, the Attorney General, Sir Thomas Inskip, led the prosecution himself, and the gallery that day was full of what Mackenzie would later describe as “figures in long black overcoats” (My Life 96), the presidium of Britain’s secret intelligence community. Under the provisions of the Act, the trial was held in camera, barring both press and public from the proceedings. There was no jury. Nevertheless, because of the high-profile nature of the event, London was ablaze with speculation. Many agreed with The Times that Mackenzie was being made an example of and that his trial was “a warning to those with more important secrets” (qtd. in Linklater 252). Pressured to plead guilty, the Scotsman escaped a prison sentence and was fined £100 plus £100 costs, in addition to barrister fees and professional losses that nearly bankrupted him. But the message to the public was clear: those responsible for the nation’s security were also those most likely to compromise it—not out of any treasonous intent, but simply out of an impulse to write.   

Less than a year later, Mackenzie would take his revenge on officialdom with the publication of Water on the Brain (1933), a farcical spy yarn exposing the petty rivalries and chronic misunderstandings that hamper the British intelligence community’s ability to intelligently defend the realm. While careful to avoid further prosecution—Mackenzie’s strategy ensured that another trial would effectively constitute a public admission of the secret service’s own incompetence—the former spy portrays the organization as a sprawling bureaucracy obsessed with what he elsewhere calls “secrecy for secrecy’s sake” (My Life 98), the national security counterpart to the modernist notion of “art for art’s sake.” This parallel is instructive, for what Mackenzie emphasizes throughout his work is the formalism of state secrecy, a preoccupation with the sign—the code, the cryptonym, the letter—over the content of the secret. Consequently, the spyography, a mode of life writing that developed in the wake of the First World War, emerges as a modernist genre in its own right, a legally fraught text that presents us with a case not of libel or obscenity, but of leakage.
To characterize Mackenzie as a modernist, however, is to go against the prevailing view of the writer as a modernist manqué whose career was radically interrupted by the war. Hailing from a well-known acting family—the Compton Comedy Company—the itinerant youth served briefly in the 1st Hertfordshire Volunteer Battalion before matriculating into Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1901 to study modern history. Although he shunned the idea of becoming a scholar, Mackenzie was a popular student, bibliophile, aesthete, and Oxford “Idol.” His eclectic childhood and student years provided material for his early novels, particularly the highly successful Sinister Street (1913), upon whose publication Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford) grouped Mackenzie with D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound as one of the most talented young writers of the day (Linklater 129), and Henry James hailed him as one of the most promising novelists of “The Younger Generation” (James 133).  In contrast, literary critics today, if they mention him at all, tend to characterize him as a middlebrow writer whose postwar writing never lived up to its prewar potential.1 Andro Linklater, for instance, notes that Mackenzie’s early novels should have secured him a far different reputation: 

The persistent criticism of social and sexual mores would have fallen into place between Samuel Butler and D. H. Lawrence, the steady progression of the author’s voice from godlike observation to the point of displacing the character’s thoughts would have put him as the source of stream-of-consciousness writing, and most of all the mixture of sensuous spirituality, of high living and the demimonde would have been taken as the exact reflection of the Edwardian era. (146)  

Had he died at Gallipoli, according to Linklater, this would likely have been Mackenzie’s legacy, but “[his] survival blurred this picture” (146). With the possible exception of his ambitious hexalogy, The Four Winds of Love (1937-1945), Mackenzie’s later work, exemplified by popular comic novels such as The Monarch of the Glen (1941) and Whisky Galore (1947), seems a disappointing departure from the groundbreaking fiction that had made him one of James’s anointed. 

But this perspective overlooks Mackenzie’s spyographic works, which arguably locate him within a different modernist tradition, one that reveals a larger connection between literature and secrecy. In British Modernism and Censorship (2006), Celia Marshik argues that the prevailing narrative of modernism’s heroic resistance to government strictures—the image of the embattled artist standing up to a system of suppression—elides the more complex ways in which censorship impacts artistic production. Instead, she posits a “censorship dialectic” with both “repressive and . . . productive effects” (4). Focusing on obscenity laws, Marshik explores how the threat of legal action led writers such as Shaw, Joyce, and Woolf to self-censor—often resulting in “aesthetic gains”—while also introducing ironic and satirical elements that prompted audiences to be critical of “repressive culture,” signifying “an ethical and political dimension that modernism is often thought to lack” (4). After the social purity movement began drawing questionable correlations between “obscene literature” and prostitution, for example, modernist writers “renewed and intensified British literature’s longstanding engagement with the ‘oldest profession,’” turning the figure of the prostitute into a critique of censorship (3). In this essay, I want to suggest that modernism’s engagement with what Phillip Knightley calls the “second oldest profession”—espionage—had a similar effect, transforming the spy narrative into a wry commentary on the burgeoning security state and its attendant bureaucracy. By reopening the case of Compton Mackenzie, we discover a censorship dialectic in which the injunction to protect official secrets and avoid prosecution results in a hybrid mode of writing wherein truth and fabrication—intelligence and invention—remain in precarious suspension. 

The rise of the spyography in the interwar years is, in some ways, the natural consequence of the aesthetic ideology underlying the initial recruitment of writers. During the First World War, the British secret service cultivated authors as agents under the assumption that literary sensibility—for example, the writer’s power of observation, attention to detail, and presumed expertise in human nature—could be weaponized in the interests of national defense. The “literary agent,” however, proved to be more a liability than a boon. Put simply, the problem with hiring a writer to spy is that he or she will most likely want to write about it afterwards. Such was the case with W. Somerset Maugham, who served in SIS during the war and later wrote a less-than-flattering, fictionalized account of his activities. Ashenden; or, The British Agent (1928) characterizes the life of a spy as one of tedium punctuated by acts of violence that never seem to accomplish much. Inspired by the author’s missions in Europe and Russia, the novel follows its eponymous hero from one misadventure to another, culminating in an ill-conceived attempt to halt the Bolshevik Revolution in Petrograd in 1917. “The reader,” Maugham dryly remarks in his 1941 preface, “will know that my efforts did not meet with success” (4). Chosen for his literary acumen, the agent discovers that real-life intelligence work does not obey the laws of literature—at least, not in any conventional sense. At one point, Ashenden recognizes the existential isolation of being a spy, as it were, out in the cold: 

Being no more than a tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine, he never had the advantage of seeing a completed action. He was concerned with the beginning or the end of it, perhaps, or with some incident in the middle, but what his own doings led to he had seldom a chance of discovering. It was as unsatisfactory as those modern novels that give you a number of unrelated episodes and expect you by piecing them together to construct in your mind a connected narrative. (13)

Here, too, what emerges as the literary paradigm for espionage is not melodrama but modernism, in this case a collage of fragments and enigmas. The agent’s experience is also reinforced on a formal level; instead of a single, unifying narrative, the book comprises a series of disconnected episodes, many of which end ambiguously. This effect derives, in part, from concessions the author had to make to satisfy his former employers. In spite of Maugham’s unflatteringly honest portrait of wartime secret service work, he managed to escape prosecution under the Official Secrets Act thanks to his lifelong friend and golfing partner, Winston Churchill, who, prior the novel’s publication, convinced the writer to burn the most telling tales (Morgan 206). The result is less a novel than a series of character studies, a mosaic of professional disenchantment. If Ashenden is a key text in the evolution of the ironic spy novel—the tradition that also includes Graham Greene and John le Carré—then the subgenre owes much to a censorship dialectic that transformed intimidation into innovation. 

Like Maugham, Mackenzie found his way into espionage thanks to his fame as an author, as well as to the vague notion, maintained by the powers-that-be, that literary imagination could somehow be reified as intelligence gathering. In 1915, the young Mackenzie had, in addition to Henry James, another high-profile fan: General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the British Expeditionary Forces at Gallipoli. That April, Mackenzie received a letter from an old Oxford friend, Orlo Williams, who was then serving under Hamilton. After learning that the general was an admirer of Sinister Street, Williams convinced him that the writer would prove useful in the upcoming invasion of Turkey, which—Williams assured Mackenzie—would no doubt prove “romantic to a degree” (qtd. in Linklater 142). Hamilton secured Mackenzie a marine commission, but when the Dardanelles Campaign began to go badly, the general had a change of heart. The poet Rupert Brooke had recently died of sepsis on the way to Gallipoli, and, not wanting Britain to lose yet another young talent to the war, Hamilton arranged for Mackenzie to be transferred to the intelligence service in then-neutral Greece.     

At the time, SIS—referred to during the war as MI1(c) and only later as MI6—was still a fledging spy bureau, headed in London by the eccentric Mansfield Cumming, known only as C.  The chief, who had a predilection for fast cars, airplanes, and invisible ink, ran a kind of buccaneer organization, allowing his foreign stations a great deal of freedom to carry out operations as they saw fit. From 1915 to 1916, Mackenzie, codenamed Z, served in Athens as Military Control Officer in charge of counterintelligence. There, he matched his wits against his German counterpart, the felicitously named Baron Schenk von Schweinburg. The “Z Bureau,” as it came to be known, cultivated a wide range of local informants, to whom Mackenzie gave poetic codenames such as “Milton,” “Byron,” and “Tennyson.” The information Mackenzie received from his sources allowed him to create an extensive “Black List” of suspected spies and to perfect the use of Passport Control offices to keep tabs on enemy agents (innovations he was later accused of divulging). For all his success, Mackenzie also drew a great deal of criticism for his unusual methods. He submitted intelligence reports in blank verse, prompting a rebuke from a perturbed SIS colonel in London. He likewise made little attempt to maintain his cover, choosing instead to hide in plain sight. He had realized, he would later explain,

that in a city of the size of Athens it would be impossible to achieve secrecy by the usual means of keeping oneself hidden or pretending to be something one was not. Such methods in Athens would be the methods of the ostrich who thinks himself hidden when he buries his own head. I made up my mind to create a focus of publicity, and under cover of that publicity hope to achieve a measure of secrecy. (First 130)

Accordingly, Mackenzie adopted a conspicuously public lifestyle in the Greek capital, traveling around the city in an ostentatious Sunbeam convertible, and ordering his classified code-letter Z to be monogrammed on his office stationery—making him perhaps the least secret secret agent in the whole of the European theater.   

Clearly, Mackenzie’s writerly ingenuity did lend itself to intelligence work, but not in the manner his handlers had expected. Moreover, his indiscretions brought into focus what would eventually become the central theme of his spyographic texts: the farcicality of officialdom. As the scion of a theatrical family, the author would have been familiar with farce as a genre that derives humor from miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistaken identity—all hallmarks, in Mackenzie’s experience, of life in the secret service. In early 1916, the young officer stepped on official toes when he sent a report to the British government without going through proper channels—indeed, over the head of C himself. This blunder, which would lead indirectly to his trial sixteen years later, occurred, ironically, thanks to the secret service’s own security policies, which so obscured the hierarchy of SIS that its field officers had no idea who was in charge. At the time, Mackenzie had heard of the enigmatic letter, but he had little understanding of its significance. “The initial of C was invoked to justify everything,” Mackenzie writes in his second volume of war memoirs, “but who was C and where C was and what C was and why C was we were never told” (First 344). At the suggestion of Commander William Sells, the Naval Attaché in Athens, Mackenzie decided to send his report to Admiral “Blinker” Hall, then director of the naval intelligence division in London. What neither Mackenzie nor Sells knew, of course, was that this was a violation of the chain of command. As a result, Mackenzie received a terse response—a veritable “corpse-reviver”—from Cumming himself: “I regard your behaviour in sending a report over the heads of your superior officer and over my head to my superior officer as a gross breach of discipline, and if it occurs again you will be immediately recalled” (qtd. in Greek 24).2 In fact, Cumming did eventually summon Mackenzie to London with the intention of giving him a good dressing down. In Greek Memories, the former officer describes in detail his initial visit to the wartime headquarters of SIS, even giving its exact address (2 Whitehall Court) and noting that the same building also housed, appropriately enough, the Authors' Club. Dutifully enquiring as to the whereabouts of “Captain Spencer’s flat” (393)—the codename for Cumming’s office—Mackenzie was ushered into the chief’s secluded, rooftop chamber, where he found himself in the presence of “a pale clean-shaven man, the most striking features of whose face was a Punch-like chin, a small and beautifully fine bow of a mouth, and a pair of very bright eyes” (394). In spite of their troubled history, Cumming immediately took to the intrepid young Scotsman, in whom he recognized a kindred spirit. On a later visit, the chief even presented Mackenzie with the sword cane he used during peace-time espionage missions. “That’s when this business was really interesting,” Cumming told him. “After the war is over we’ll do some amusing secret service work together. It’s capital sport” (qtd. in Greek 411-12). 

It is, perhaps, a testament to the topsyturvical logic of farce that Mackenzie was not punished for his breach of protocol, but rather rewarded. After returning to Greece, he continued to run his organization by unorthodox means, this time with the blessing of C himself. In 1917, he was promoted to Director of Aegean Intelligence, in charge of both espionage and counterespionage for the entire Mediterranean. For his services, he would end the war decorated by France and Serbia and awarded the Order of the Redeemer by Greece, and he would eventually be made OBE by the British government in March 1919. For a time, it was rumored that Cumming had Mackenzie in mind as a possible successor. “For all the hatred of officialdom and the insect state which suffused his later life,” his biographer observes, “there was a period when the name of Compton Mackenzie carried as much weight in the underworld of bureaucracy as it ever did in literature” (Linklater 162). In the end, though, it was the author who won out.

When, in the late 1920s, Mackenzie sat down to write about his work as an SIS agent, he felt that sufficient time had elapsed to render harmless any potentially compromising information he might have had about the inner workings of the secret service. In 1928, the prolific author published two spy novels, Extremes Meet and The Three Couriers, which drew, to a limited extent, upon his wartime espionage work. However, annoyed that reviewers considered these novels to be purely fiction, Mackenzie then resolved to record his experiences as a “true story.” “Perhaps I felt I owed it to myself,” he would later write, “to make it clear that my experience was the result of my own creative passion. . . I did not want it to be regarded as mere material for fiction” (qtd. in Linklater 230). The first two volumes of his war memoirs, Gallipoli Memories (1929) and First Athenian Memories (1931), were well-received and served to bolster Mackenzie’s growing reputation as a man of action and political substance, leading to his securing the Glasgow University rectorship in 1931. While these very readable memoirs focus on the more amusing aspects of life as a spy, the third volume, Greek Memories, differs from the first two installments in its textual density and investment in administrative details. This new emphasis on documentation was the result of his desire to set the record straight following the publication in 1931 of Sir Basil Thomson’s book, The Allied Secret Service in Greece, which Mackenzie believed gave a fallacious account of SIS in Athens. Since memory alone was insufficient to the task, Mackenzie wrote his 1932 memoir with the assistance of three crates of documents, which he had shipped from his former headquarters on the Aegean island of Syra to his home on Capri (Linklater 241). The result is an odd mixture of reminiscence and reportage. Simultaneously poking fun at SIS bureaucracy while bureaucratically resurrecting budgets, records, and memos, the third volume emerges as a text strangely divided against itself.   

Greek Memories blurs the distinction between two discursive modes: entertainment and documentary. On the one hand, Mackenzie’s memoir sometimes reads like a popular thriller, an adventure yarn that follows the dashing “Captain Z” in his efforts to thwart the nefarious schemes of the Germans. In an early review for the New Statesman, Harold Nicolson criticizes Mackenzie’s “portrait of the artist as an Intelligence Officer” for overemphasizing the romantic side of espionage and ignoring the fact that secret service work is rarely exciting (516). On the other hand, the memoirist’s obsessive attention to detail works against this aura of fictionality, crowding the text with numbers, names, and cryptonyms. For example, while describing the overlapping jurisdictions of the regional intelligence bureaus, Mackenzie’s prose begins to perform the very disorientation he attributes to the espionage community:

Egypt was a mesh of rival Intelligence organizations, with the Arab Bureau, the War Office, G.H.Q. Medforce at Cairo, the Egyptian Police, and probably as many more besides. The position of the E.M.S.I.B. in Alexandria was a difficult one, and likely to become more difficult unless it could achieve flexibility. Another cause of confusion was the rivalry between C and the D.I.D. . . . (Greek 117-18)   

Intended to provide objective proof that the account was not, as some might have supposed, the freewheeling fabrication of a novelist, these details nevertheless render the text opaque, prompting Mackenzie’s friend and fellow spyographer, T. E. Lawrence, to remark that “all the documentation sometimes made [Greek Memories] a little dull” (qtd. in My Life 135). While Mackenzie agreed that the memoir was “over-documented” (135), what he did not expect was that, in his obsession with accuracy, he was also condemning himself. Greek Memories was published on October 27th, 1932. That same day, the government ordered the book withdrawn, and Mackenzie learned he would be prosecuted under Section 2 of the 1911 Official Secrets Act, the clause governing unauthorized disclosure of classified information.3         

It seems that all of those administrative details that struck Lawrence as “dull” made for exciting reading in certain offices in Whitehall. In particular, the government was alarmed by the headline in the Daily Telegraph, which trumpeted what the book’s reviewers considered to be Mackenzie’s most sensational revelation: “Mystery Chief of the Secret Service,” “Captain ‘C’s’ Identity Disclosed” (Bywater n. pag.).4 But behind the scenes, SIS regarded the entire memoir to be a threat in one form or another. Mackenzie’s declassified Security Service (MI5) file housed in the UK National Archives at Kew contains the original “Schedule of Disclosures” submitted by Major Valentine Vivian of SIS to the Solicitor-General. In his introductory memo, the officer summarizes the problem:

The keynote of this book is authenticity. . . . It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the book should in effect consist of a tissue of secret documents, few in themselves having any literary or public interest, but being plainly inserted to prove that the writer had access to authentic secret information. . . . But the main effect of these documents is to lend to the non-documentary portion of the book, much of which is dangerous to the interests of the Secret Service in the present day, a well merited appearance of reliability, which must assure the whole book the earnest attention of foreign, and potentially hostile governments. (Vivian n. pag.)   

After declaring that “[there] is scarcely a page of Greek Memories which does not damage the foundation of secrecy upon which the Secret Service is built up,” Vivian goes on to produce a lengthy index of revelations that foreign powers might find useful: names of past and present agents, details concerning the function of individual departments, and methods of tradecraft and gathering information. Curiously, from this perspective, Greek Memories is no longer simply a book about spying; it is now intelligence itself. 

Major Vivian’s list of objectionable passages notwithstanding, one suspects, along with Mackenzie, that the publication of official secrets was less a factor in the government’s decision to ban Greek Memories than the book’s portrayal of SIS as an incompetent organization handicapped by its own security regulations. This theory would seem to be substantiated by the fact that not all spyographies result in legal action. As espionage historian Nigel West has pointed out, writers like Mackenzie and Maugham encountered an “unusual” amount of government resistance considering that other contemporary memoirists—Sir Paul Dukes, Samuel Hoare, William Gibson, George Hill, to name only a few—“seem to have received a measure of official approval despite revealing a good deal about SIS’s clandestine operations during the Great War” (124). As a case in point, the 1932 Cassell’s book catalogue produced as evidence at Mackenzie’s trial also advertises George Hill’s Go Spy the Land, an account of the author’s wartime undercover work in Europe and Russia.5 What sets Greek Memories and Ashenden apart is arguably their critical bent. “My own feeling,” Mackenzie later wrote, “was that [SIS and MI5] had been upset by the way I had brought out the comic side of their activities” (My Life 85). As it happens, this “comic side” was on full display during the trial itself—at least, for those who were granted access.

The proceedings were held in camera,6 but Mackenzie was later able to shed some light on what transpired at the Old Bailey on that January day in 1933. In the seventh volume of his autobiography, published over thirty years later, he characterizes the event as a “self-indulgent harlequinade” (My Life 97). Mackenzie’s choice of terms is noteworthy; closely related to farce, a harlequinade is a theatrical genre featuring masked character “types” (the scheming servant, the bumbling constable, and so on) involved in a comical conspiracy that spirals into a slapstick chase scene. Significantly, a harlequinade is also a mime act, and its silence—or speechlessness—is therefore an appropriate correlative for a case involving government secrets. In her Foucauldian analysis of national security, Secrecy and Power in the British State (1997), Ann Rogers points out that while all official secrets trials served as “stage-managed spectacles” (29) those held in camera were all the more effective and “spectacular” for being hidden:

The public naturally assumed that the matters being tried in camera must involve state secrets—for why else would public justice be waived?—while the state was saved having to attempt to justify its use of the [Official Secrets Act] to a potentially sceptical public.  In camera trials enabled the state to display to the public a relationship between national security and official information which it did not have to justify or explain. . . . (31)

In this way, Rogers contends, “[the] state used the [Official Secrets Act] and other laws to create an overt, visible security culture designed to demonstrate to the population the political boundaries it must keep itself within” (29). Moreover, as Mackenzie well knew, it is a performance with only one possible outcome for the defendant; because the Official Secrets Act gives the government the power to decide what is secret without having to justify the classification, anyone accused of violating the law is essentially guilty until proven guilty, and the trial itself becomes a mere formality.

Even so, Mackenzie’s experience bears witness to how radical security naturally gives way to farcical insecurity. With no other viable recourse, the Scotsman reluctantly chose to plead guilty in the hope of avoiding a prison sentence. Yet this did not stop the prosecution from moving forward as if the defendant had pleaded innocent. In particular, Attorney General Inskip chose to dwell upon Mackenzie’s revelations concerning the head of SIS and his now-famous cipher. In his memoir, Mackenzie describes how the judge—the admirably named Mr. Justice Hawke—became increasingly “exasperated” with the prosecution, who were unable to articulate why, exactly, the officer’s disclosure of the mysterious letter was so injurious to national security. Inskip tried to explain that “in the Army List those officers who were connected with Secret Intelligence still had M.I.1 (C) [the wartime name of SIS] after their names to show what they were engaged upon” (97). When the judge asked why “such a dangerous consonant” was still in use fifteen years after the war, Inskip responded: “That I couldn’t say, m’lud” (qtd. in My Life 97). The judge’s irritation then came to a head when, in the course of the testimonies, it became known that not only was Sir Mansfield Cumming himself no longer the chief of SIS but that he had also, inconveniently, been dead for over decade—a fact apparently lost on the Attorney General (98). Aside from proving that the prosecution and Security Service were decidedly ill-informed about the very secrets they sought to protect, this exchange demonstrates that what is often at stake in official secrecy is not the content of the secret but rather the justification and preservation of the law itself, which must—as a matter of form—be followed to the letter. Ultimately, in making it known that the “mysterious consonant” was kept in place for no discernible reason, the trial ironically realized the worst fears of the intelligence community: that the exposure of C would weaken its security, but only insofar as it disputed the effectiveness and necessity of the Official Secrets Act—which, like the sacred initial, is revealed to be something of a “dead letter.”    
In the end, Mackenzie lost—not surprisingly, considering he pleaded guilty—and was sentenced to financial ruin (or nearly so). At first, the author hoped that he could recover some of his losses by publishing a revised edition of Greek Memories, thereby turning the trial into a sort of “advertisement” (My Life 95). With this aim, he contacted the Director of Public Prosecutions and requested that the War Department send him a list of material they found objectionable in the memoir so that it could be suitably edited for rerelease. In his autobiography, Mackenzie records the government’s reaction: “A reply came to say that inasmuch as several copies had got into circulation before the book was called in a foreign agent would only have to compare the two editions to know what the British authorities considered dangerous and that therefore the book could never be allowed to appear” (105).7 In light of this final proof of the paranoia of the secret state, Mackenzie resolved to profit by his experiences and to exact revenge on the “comedians” (94) who had nearly ruined him by writing his own comical spy yarn, his 1933 novel, Water on the Brain, which circumvents the restrictions of official secrecy and contempt of court by providing a fictional frame for calling into question the intelligence of the intelligence community.

While it is beyond the scope of this essay to treat fully so intricate and delightfully absurd a novel, it should suffice to say that Water on the Brain concerns a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications between the two main branches of state security—the Secret Service or M.Q.99 (E), led by Colonel Henry Nutting, known as “N,” and the Safety of the Realm Division (S.R.D.), led by an officer known only as “P”—which are themselves thinly veiled representations of SIS and MI5, respectively. The novel’s hero (or antihero) is Major Arthur Blenkinsop, recruited into the secret service to replace another agent, Hubert Chancellor, who has been fired for writing a potentially compromising spy novel. This former officer, N tells Blenkinsop, “wrote a novel called The Foreign Agent which might have smashed up the whole of the Secret Service” (38).8 When Blenkinsop (who has now become “B”) expresses amazement that a spy would be careless enough to disclose government secrets, N explains:

He did what was almost as bad. . . He wrote what he honestly thought was a completely misleading picture of the Secret Service as it really is. The consequence is that any foreign agent who reads Chancellor’s novel knows perfectly well now what the British Secret Service is not, and to know what it is not is half-way to knowing what it is. (38)

Chancellor’s crime, it seems, is not to have revealed secrets but to have not revealed them, thereby endangering the organization through an instructively negative portrayal. Emphasizing, in a roundabout way, the arbitrary nature of security policies, Mackenzie’s satire implies that the purpose of secrecy is not, in fact, the protection of national interests from a foreign threat, but the power to censor and control information in general, a power that must be maintained by continually and publicly exercising the law. “I think people are beginning to realize,” N later remarks, “that there is such a thing as the Official Secrets Act” (190). 

In addition to lampooning the secret service’s recruitment of writers, whose literary urges are greater than their discretion, Mackenzie also pokes fun at how bureaucratic formalism becomes an end in itself. In the novel, the fictional intelligence community attempts to maintain security through self-imposed opacity, a subterfuge of signs, codenames, and cryptonyms. This paranoid reflexivity—the secret state’s preoccupation with its own mystery as a means of protecting itself not from foreign agents, but from the British public—culminates in N’s attempt to obfuscate the very name of his organization. If anyone tries to investigate M.Q.99 (E), N explains to B, “[that’s] where the Safety of the Realm Division comes in. Old P who is the D.S.R.D. has a special set of sleuths who devote the whole of their time to preventing people from finding out what M.Q.99 (E) means” (39). As a result, M.Q.99 (E) remains, for both character and reader, essentially gibberish, an empty signifier, but likewise the overdetermined center of a conspiracy whose sole purpose is to prevent the letters from meaning anything. As in Greek Memories, some passages in Water are so jargon-laden as to defy intelligibility—as when, for instance, one officer describes the relationship between the various intelligence and security services by reference to a “[War Office] Conference which merged M.Q.44 (X) and all E.I. in M.Q.99 (E) under the D.E.I. for general direction” (79). If farce, as Stephen Tifft has argued, constitutes “the overloading of space with conflicting motives and actions” (133), Mackenzie transposes the conventions of farce to the level of the signifier, to the farcical overcrowding of cryptonymic space. The resulting divestiture of sense foregrounds the lifelessness of the letter, the secret without content. Instead of Shakespeare’s “art made tongue-tied by authority” (“Sonnet 66,” l. 9), we find authority tongue-tied by its own artifice.   

In the front matter to the first edition, Mackenzie insists that Water on the Brain is nothing more than “a grotesque fairy tale” (8) and that “none of the incidents is built upon even the thinnest substratum of fact” (5). This disclaimer, however, failed to prevent the book from achieving a strange afterlife as an insider account, in a way proving Karl Marx’s dictum that history occurs twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” (Marx 15). The Duke of Westminster, among others, praised Mackenzie for producing “the only realistic book about secret service he had read” (My Life 114). This opinion appears to have been shared by both British and American intelligence services during the Second World War, who apparently considered the book a kind of espionage training manual. In his “New Preface” to the 1954 edition, Mackenzie records that the novel “at one time looked like becoming a serious textbook for neophytes of the Secret Service, and indeed if it had not for a time been so difficult to get hold of, it probably would have become a standard work” (n. pag.). After the war, Mackenzie learned that the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, “had found a copy of Water on the Brain in Cairo and had had a hundred photostat copies made to coach young American Intelligence officers in secret service work” (My Life 114). This curious fact is confirmed by Norman Holmes Pearson in his foreword to J. C. Masterman’s The Double-Cross System (1972), in which the Yale English professor and former counterintelligence officer admits that Water on the Brain was “half desperately” given to OSS trainees to prepare them for the reality of intelligence work (xi). Like Ashenden, which was similarly adopted as “required reading” for SIS personnel (Maugham 6), Water on the Brain was eventually embraced by the very community it had worked to undermine. 

The implications of this reception are twofold. On the one hand, the appropriation of Mackenzie’s novel by the intelligence services supports Jessica Milner Davis’s contention that farce is ultimately licensed and recuperated by authority, thereby demonstrating “the essential conservatism of the farcical rebellion” (42). On the other hand, this endorsement strangely confirms the truth of the text in all of its absurdity, making Water on the Brain as leaky a book as its nonfiction predecessor. In his second preface, Mackenzie notes that the British film industry was still wary, twenty years later, about making the novel into a movie for fear that “They” might be angered. In the public imagination, Water on the Brain had eclipsed Greek Memories as the violative spyography. “Quite a number of people believe,” Mackenzie observes, “that I was prosecuted for writing Water on the Brain and revealing the secrets of [M.Q.99 (E)]” (n. pag.). As odd as this reification may be, the reality of the situation was odder still. Prior to the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, which put SIS on a statutory footing for the first time in its history, the British secret service was essentially a phantom organization with no basis in law. This means that Mackenzie, Maugham, and other former agents were indeed held legally accountable for disclosing the official secrets of an organization that did not officially exist.     

Mackenzie’s legacy compels us to reexamine both the author’s relation to modernism and the role of national security in literary production, circulation, and reception. Thematically, Greek Memories and Water on the Brain present us with a world not so dissimilar from Franz Kafka’s, a bureaucratic nightmare peopled by monoliteral protagonists who find themselves at the mercy of incomprehensible processes. Like Kafka, Mackenzie offers a critique of authoritarianism that derives its power by turning the law into an object of aesthetic play. Similarly, Joyce, Woolf, and other writers incorporated what Marshik calls “self-reflexive meditations on censorship” into their fictions, which “[highlighted] the threat that banning posed to modern literature and intellectual life” (5). Moreover, the illicit reputation of Mackenzie’s spy texts—the allure of the banned, the taint of the forbidden—constitutes a modernist quality in its own right. Mackenzie’s MI5 file contains a letter sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions in August 1933, in which the editor of the trade journal The Clique enquires whether the government would object to its including certain books in its upcoming catalogue—namely, Greek Memories and Lawrence’s The Rainbow (Murray n. pag.). In associating Mackenzie’s prohibited memoir with Lawrence’s uninhibited novel, the subject of a 1915 obscenity trial and book-burning, the letter reveals an affinity between the spyography and modernism’s more famous contraband.9 (In 1917, Lawrence himself was suspected of espionage and forced to leave Cornwall under the terms of the wartime Defence of the Realm Act, eventually going into exile with his German wife, Frieda.) Mackenzie may have turned away from a Lawrentian aesthetic, but he nonetheless experienced a Lawrentian persecution, one that suggests cases involving national security should take their place among modernism’s legal trials and tribulations.10   

But the strange, dialectical metamorphosis of Water on the Brain from satirical polemic to unofficial vade mecum of the intelligence community also illustrates a case in which modernism tips over into postmodernism. For the secret agent, irony is a way of life, a sustained dissimulation. To treat such a figure ironically, then, is to compound its subterfuges and uncertainties, amplifying them to the level of farce, which Mackenzie came to feel was one of the highest forms of truth. This conclusion is arguably confirmed by the secret state, not only in its embrace of the Scotsman’s “grotesque fairy tale,” but in its anxieties over the revelatory power of similarly innocuous novels. It is telling that the only work by Graham Greene, himself a former SIS officer, to have roused the anger of the government and invited the threat of prosecution was not, as we might expect, one of his more sobering vivisections of the espionage world—for instance, The Quiet American (1955) or The Human Factor (1978)but rather Our Man in Havana (1958), a black comedy in which a vacuum-cleaner salesman turned reluctant British agent fabricates intelligence reports about Russian intrigues in Cuba and is later threatened with the Official Secrets Act himself.11 In his introduction to The Tenth Man, Greene recalls that MI5 tried to convince SIS to initiate proceedings, but the latter, thankfully, “had a better sense of humor” (11). Still, if the implication is that Greene’s absurdist “entertainment” is therefore the most true-to-life—Pearson confirms that the novel is “as good [a spy manual] as most” (xi)—it does not speak well for the secret service. Greene’s friend and former SIS supervisor, the traitor Kim Philby, corroborates in his own way this blurring of fact and fiction; in his post-defection spyography, My Silent War (1968), the KGB operative quotes Water on the Brain’s Director of Extraordinary Intelligence, who declares that “the whole point of the Secret Service is that it should be secret” (qtd. in Philby 56).    

Citing Mackenzie, Philby draws attention to the self-reflexive and ultimately self-defeating fetishization of secrecy, a phenomenon that has only intensified in the Information Age, particularly in the wake of the War on Terror. If the twenty-first century has seen an increase in unauthorized disclosures as a form of protest, we may trace the genealogy of such leakage, in part, to the advent of spyography. When a whistleblowing group such as WikiLeaks releases classified documents, the official reaction usually emphasizes the security breach, the notion that an undefined “enemy” may glean useful information. But the most detrimental effect of the leak is that the general public sees not only the skeletons in the closet but also the absurd overabundance of classified material in general. In December 2010, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the issue of WikiLeaks and the possible prosecution of Julian Assange. In the course of the testimonies, a curious pattern emerged: nearly every expert witness had less to say about the question of Assange’s guilt than about the fact that US law, like British law, offers no clear criteria for what should be deemed “secret” in the first place, resulting in too many secrets and ensuring—as Abbe D. Lowell put it in his testimony—that “when everything is classified, nothing really is classified” (United States 27). Underlining the importance of transparency in a democracy, the journalist Gabriel Schoenfeld quoted James Madison: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or, perhaps both” (qtd. in United States 50). This does not mean, of course, that governments should not protect certain types of information, but a rigid adherence to secrecy for secrecy’s sake privileges bureaucracy over democracy, allowing paranoia to prevail over common sense. The young Captain Z identified the same plague—what we today refer to as “overclassification”—nearly a century ago. 

A century. But the shadow of the Official Secrets Act is long, and the desire to rescue Mackenzie from critical obscurity must still negotiate the shoals of codified absurdity. When I began researching this topic in 2010, I was surprised to discover that both the Bodleian Library and the British Library still listed the 1932 Greek Memories as a “restricted” volume, despite the general indifference of the literary and academic communities. Nevertheless, after exhausting more melodramatic means, I was finally able to locate a first edition through the Boston Interlibrary Loan Consortium, presumably one of the copies released into circulation before the memoir was recalled. At the time of writing, Greek Memories has yet to be officially declassified.12 This means that—hypothetically speaking—I’m breaking the law by writing this article. Moreover, given that the Official Secrets Act also criminalizes the receipt of restricted information, so are you. 

1 A notable exception is Sean Latham, who discusses Mackenzie’s novel, Extraordinary Women (1928), within the context of the modernist roman à clef. Like the spyography, the roman à clef constitutes, according to Latham, a literary form “that trades on the power and pleasure of secrecy” (52), resulting in a “turbulent encounter between literature and law” that calls into question the myth of modernist aesthetic autonomy (73).   
2  Page references to Greek Memories correspond to the original 1932 edition, unless indicated otherwise.
3 Under Section 2 (“Wrongful communication, &c. of information”) of the 1911 Official Secrets Act, anyone “who holds or has held office under His Majesty” may be considered criminally liable for disclosing confidential information to anyone “other than a person to whom he is authorised to communicate it.” Long the bane of journalists and memoirists, the vague and all-encompassing Section 2 was eventually replaced by the 1989 Official Secrets Act, which stipulates that disclosures must be truly “damaging” to national security in order to justify prosecution (Section 1 [4]). Even so, most commentators tend to agree that the wording of the revised Act is not much of an improvement.
4 Mackenzie had already revealed the letter “C” in his previous memoir, First Athenian Memories (1931). But in Greek Memories he went one step further by giving Cumming’s full name. Even so, the prosecution during Mackenzie’s trial seemed to be under the impression that Greek Memories represented the first disclosure of both pieces of information.

5 In his book, Hill recalls his excitement at meeting Mackenzie while on assignment in the Aegean, not due to his fame as “Captain Z,” but because he was the author of Sinister Street (72-73).

6 “The general rule of common law,” according to legal historian Rosamund M. Thomas, “is that justice must be administered in public” (64). Nevertheless, under the amended 1920 Official Secrets Act—which served to augment the 1911 Act with provisions borrowed from the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act, effectively maintaining a wartime state of emergency beyond the armistice—formal hearings and trials involving state secrets could be held in camera. Although the term itself does not appear in the 1920 Act, Section 8 (4) grants the court the power “to order the exclusion of the public from any proceedings . . . on the ground that the publication of any evidence to be given or of any statement to be made in the course of the proceedings would be prejudicial to the national safety.” In the mind of the public, of course, this gives the trial an aura of inflated significance.
7 A new edition of Greek Memories did, in fact, appear in 1939. In the revised preface, Mackenzie insists that the memoir “has not been censored” and promises readers “that they have not been deprived of any secrets, nutritious or otherwise” (ix). However, this is not the case. Among other things, the name of Mansfield Cumming is nowhere to be found.
8 Page references to Water on the Brain correspond to the 1967 edition, unless indicated otherwise.
9 Legal historians make similar associations between prohibited spyographies and Lawrence’s much-litigated novels. David Hooper, for instance, comments that Peter Wright’s infamous MI5 tell-all, Spycatcher (1987), occasioned “interest in the publication of a book unrivalled since the prosecution of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (305).
10 Even after the Greek Memories affair, the Security Service continued to watch Mackenzie, due in no small part to the Scotsman’s very public criticisms of the British government and its security culture. His MI5 file at the National Archives shows that they kept the writer under surveillance throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, secretly vetting his books and filing reports on a range of implausible and contradictory offenses, everything from sending signals to the Germans from the Scottish coast in 1941 to espousing communist sympathies in 1951. In one 1942 report, Malcolm Frost, a BBC official working as an undercover MI5 agent, describes a conversation with Mackenzie during which the writer bemoaned the “gross incompetency” of the Security Service and indicated that he and an MP friend, Aneurin Bevan, were about to launch an “attack” on the organization from the floor of Parliament (Frost n. pag.). In one of history’s not-so-little ironies, Frost submitted his report to none other than Anthony Blunt, a member of the notorious Cambridge Five, who was then working secretly for the Soviet NKVD.          
11 In Greene’s novel, SIS eventually realizes they “[cannot] charge [James Wormold] under the Official Secrets Act. He had invented secrets, he hadn’t given them away” (213). Instead, they decide the best way to prevent Wormold from doing further harm would be to keep him on the training staff and award him an OBE.  

12 In 2011, Biteback Publishing released a reprint of the unexpurgated first edition. As Mackenzie himself suspected, the memoir’s banned status makes for an effective advertisement. The series editor, Michael Smith, ends his introduction with a tongue-in-cheek advisory: “You should not be reading this book!” (xii).
Works Cited

Bywater, Hector C. “Mystery Chief of the Secret Service.” Daily Telegraph, 27 Oct. 1932, National Archives, London, KV 2/1271/1a.

“Cassell’s Autumn Books.” 1932, National Archives, London, CRIM 1/630/5.

Davis, Jessica Milner. Farce. Methuen, 1978.

Frost, M. A. Report to A. F. Blunt. 3 June 1942, National Archives, London, KV 2/1272/103a.

Greene, Graham. Introduction. The Tenth Man, by Greene, Washington Square, 1998, pp. 1-24. 

-----. Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment. 1958. Penguin, 1971.

Hill, George. Go Spy the Land: Being the Adventures of I.K.8 of the British Secret Service. Cassell, 1932.

Hooper, David. Official Secrets: The Use and Abuse of the Act. Secker and Warburg, 1987. 

James, Henry. “The Younger Generation.” Times Literary Supplement, 19 Mar. 1914, pp. 133-34.

Knightley, Phillip. The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century. Penguin, 1988.

Latham, Sean. The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef. Oxford UP, 2009.

Linklater, Andro. Compton Mackenzie: A Life. Chatto and Windus, 1987. 

Mackenzie, Compton. First Athenian Memories. Cassell, 1931.    

-----. Greek Memories. Cassell, 1932.   

-----. Greek Memories. Chatto and Windus, 1939.

-----. My Life and Times, Octave Seven, 1931-1938. Chatto and Windus, 1968. 

-----. Water on the Brain. Cassell, 1933.

-----. Water on the Brain. Chatto and Windus, 1967. 

Marshik, Celia. British Modernism and Censorship. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 1852. International, 1967.

Maugham, W. Somerset. Ashenden; or, The British Agent. 1928. ImPress, 2006.

Morgan, Ted. Maugham: A Biography. Touchstone, 1980. 

Murray, R. A. Letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions. 23 Aug. 1933, National Archives, London, KV 2/1271.

Nicolson, Harold. “Books in General.” Review of Greek Memories, by Compton Mackenzie, New Statesman and Nation, 29 Oct. 1932, p. 516.

Official Secrets Act 1911. George V, 1911 Chapter 28, National Archives, Accessed 23 Aug. 2016.   

Official Secrets Act 1920. George V, 1920 Chapter 75, National Archives, Accessed 23 Aug. 2016.

Official Secrets Act 1989. Elizabeth II, 1989 Chapter 6, National Archives, Accessed 23 Aug. 2016.

Pearson, Norman Holmes. Foreword. The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, by J. C. Masterman, Yale UP, 1972, pp. ix-xvi.

Philby, Kim. My Silent War: The Autobiography of a Spy. 1968. Introduction by Phillip Knightley, foreword by Graham Greene, Modern Library, 2002. 

Rogers, Ann. Secrecy and Power in the British State: A History of the Official Secrets Act. Pluto, 1997. 

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 66.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th ed., edited by David Bevington, Longman, 1997, p. 1677. 

Smith, Michael. Introduction. Greek Memories, by Compton Mackenzie, Biteback, 2011, pp. xi-xii. 

Thomas, Rosamund M. Espionage and Secrecy: The Official Secrets Acts 1911-1989 of the United Kingdom. Routledge, 1991. 

Tifft, Stephen. “Drôle de Guerre: Renoir, Farce, and the Fall of France.” Representations, vol. 38, Spring 1992, pp. 131-65. 

United States, Congress, House, Judiciary Committee. Espionage Act and the Legal and Constitutional Issues Raised by WikiLeaks. Government Printing Office, 2010. 111th Congress, 2nd session, House Hearing Report 111-160.

Vivian, Valentine. Memorandum to the Solicitor-General. 4 Nov. 1932, National Archives, London, KV 2/1271/7A.  

West, Nigel. “Fiction, Faction and Intelligence.” Understanding Intelligence in the Twenty-First Century: Journeys in Shadows, edited by L. V. Scott and P. D. Jackson, Routledge, 2004, pp. 122-34. 

This page has paths: