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Doris Lessing - A Life Behind the Scenes

The Files of the British Intelligence Service MI5

Peter Raina

In March 1949 the security service MI5 received notice of a suspect person about to enter Britain and went to great pains to keep her under surveillance. This person was the author Doris Lessing. She would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature as an «epicist … who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny». And it was precisely this scrutiny that troubled the guardians of the status quo. Lessing grew up in colonial Rhodesia and hated the scorn with which the colonists treated the native population. She worked tirelessly for a more just society and this drove her into support for communism. But a communist, as one of her fictional characters says, «is hated, despised, feared and hunted». Peter Raina’s book, reproducing the secret files kept on Lessing, shows that this was largely true, even though her emphasis in these troubled times was always on Peace. Lessing was eventually disillusioned by communism, and sought a better understanding of human relations than Soviet-conforming clichés could provide. However, her understanding was much enriched by the experiences of her activism and knowledge of the opposition it aroused. The secret files show how strongly Lessing followed her convictions and throw new light on how her perceptions of society evolved. Peter Raina elucidates this in a short Introduction and an Epilogue discussing aspects of her writings.

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MI5 – The British Security Service


The British security service, MI5 (Military Intelligence) was formally established in 1909 as an espionage bureau to counter the German intelligence operations developed by Kaiser Wilhelm II. 1 The tensions that led to World War I were already developing, and Wilhelm saw to the organization of a wide circle of spies in Great Britain to gather strategic information lest Germany should invade Britain. Such information had proved extremely effective in the rapid, crushing defeat the Germans had imposed on the French in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1. The Kaiser wanted to obtain all possible strategic military information for a future war that would possibly break out. MI5 was formed as a counter-move to this scheme.

MI5 had had predecessors in two diminutive departments with other names. They were MO 2 and MO 3 (‘MO’ standing for ‘Military Operations’). Both were founded at the War Office in 1903 to monitor the German naval build-up. MO 3 was renamed MO 5 in 1907 when it reported on operations during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. MO 5 was eventually renamed MI5. With the outbreak of World War I, MI5 and its sister organization, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), extended their operations, becoming became ‘more than national’: they covered the British Empire and then Commonwealth, SIS becoming MI6. 2

MI5 recruited its staff chiefly from army and navy officers who had gained some distinction in their careers, but Oxbridge graduates who had read Greats had easy access to...

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