This week is Banned Books week and to coincide with that and the attention currently given to the early days of MI6 as a result of the publication of its official history and my own book SIX: A History of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Biteback is pleased to announce that it is to publish the original version of Greek Memories. We secured the rights to publish this important book several months ago but have withheld any announcement until now. Greek Memories was the third in a series of four books of memories of wartime published in the post-war period by Compton Mackenzie, then regarded as a leading literary figure, although he is now sadly remembered largely for Whisky Galore and Monarch of the Glen.
Mackenzie was already a famous writer before the war; his breakthrough novel was the critically acclaimed Sinister Street, which has mercifully recently been reprinted by Faber, so well done them. He was serving at Gallipoli when he became ill and as a result entered the intelligence world. Gallipoli Memories is purely about military intelligence although some of the characters he comes in contact with are in fact members of the predecessor of MI6. (I’m using MI6 here to avoid confusion since that is the title we now generally know it by.) <!--more-->
First Athenian Memories covers the early months of his time in Athens, at which point he had been recruited into MI6. Mackenzie paints a very grand picture of himself as the intelligence chief in Athens, although he was in fact tasked to do counter-espionage rather than intelligence-collection. But he was no fool and though he had a penchant for creating mayhem he swiftly expanded his empire. Nevertheless, though it no doubt sailed close to the wind, First Athenian Memories did not reveal any damaging secrets.
That was not the case with Greek Memories which dealt with his secret service activities in Greece in 1916. It was published in 1932 and immediately banned. The publishers Cassell were advised politely that they should withdraw it. It was an offer they could not refuse and, while a few review copies had been issued, contemporaneous court reports state that it was withdrawn on the morning of publication and not a single copy went on sale.
Greek Memories named the wartime Chief of the secret service, Mansfield Cumming. He had been dead for nine years by the time the book was published but revealing his name was still regarded as a heinous crime. More importantly in some ways, Mackenzie had reproduced parts of various MI6 documents at various points in the text and named a number of other MI6 officers who were still living. This was a red line for the authorities who decided they had to put an end to unauthorised disclosures and hauled Mackenzie up before the courts.
Mackenzie was in fact dealt with quite lightly, being fined £100 with a further £100 costs. He took his revenge with the satirical novel Water on the Brain, ridiculing the secret service MQ9(E) and its mysterious ‘Chief’, Colonel Nutting, known only as ‘N’, whose offices at Pomona Lodge were not yet 'officially' a lunatic asylum, but would eventually become one, full of typists ‘feverishly’ typing out reports ‘that will never be read even in eternity’.
Greek Memories was eventually re-published in 1939 in a heavily censored form but the original unexpurgated version has never been published since. Technically it remains banned. But our motto here at Biteback Towers is ‘publish and be damned’ so we will be publishing a special hardback collector’s edition of the original 1932 text in February for the extraordinarily reasonable price £19.99. Since the few copies of the 1932 book trading on the internet would cost you between £120 and £250, with one uncorrected proof copy even priced at the spectacularly grand sum of £880.69, the Biteback edition would be a snip at even five times the price!
Michael Smith is a Commissioning Editor of Biteback Publishing, a former intelligence officer and award-winning journalist, as well as one of the world’s leading experts on Britain’s secret services. He is author of the No.1 bestseller Station X.
Buy your copy of Mick's book Six: A history of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service part 1: Murder and Mayhem now for £19.99.