Another of the Coffee House interviews? Yes please! This time we’re going right back to nineteen twenty to meet a man who has spent fifty five years in the spying business, who has seen the world change before his eyes and who, over the last decade, has seen everything he has built threaten to fall down around him. At the door to our coffee house, on the banks on the River Mersey, I would like to introduce you, to Max.
THE SPY MASTER
The Max who greets me with a wide smile and an eccentric handshake is not the Max of yesteryear, not the svelte, athletic, Victorian gentleman who once rode the mountain wildernesses with a Romanian princess at his side. That Max is still there, somewhere, but today he’s been redecorated as a late Edwardian, is plump around the middle, and there’s a tiredness to his eyes. Mind you, it’s not surprising, he isn’t young anymore. By the standards of the time he is an old man.
‘I ought to be retired,’ he complains to me. ‘I’ll be seventy six next year. Nearly all other men of my class and age have put their feet up by now, gone into collecting butterflies or stuffed animals…’ A defiant twinkle enters his eye. ‘Still, I suppose if I were a casual labourer I might still be hard at it. Most people don’t get the luxury of sitting down and collecting butterflies.’ Does his wife, Anna, want him to retire? ‘Of course, she wants to me to retire… She’s wanted me to retire for twenty years. I doubt she’d let me collect butterflies though. Stuffed animals are well out of the question!’
To return to the beginning, Max was born in a wildly different time, 1845, the son of Albert and Lavinia Morfasson.
‘And then came Mable when I was around… Around five I think it was,’ he smiles. ‘Mother and Father, lovely people. They were kind and generous and ever so lovely. Not an ounce of cruelty in them. But Mable… Ahhh… She was a different kettle of fish. I’m often convinced that she was a succubus, implanted in my mother by the devil, disguised as my father in the way old Jove used to do it in the mythologies. She was such a horrible little squit.’ I beg him to expand further, though he is reluctant to talk. ‘That is all gone now… All in the past. She walked out not long after Father died, broke Mother’s already bleeding heart. I haven’t seen her since, though she wrote to Mother once. Mother burned the letter without reading it.’ Does Max think she’ll ever come back? ‘I sincerely doubt it. It’s been fifty years since she was last heard from and I doubt there would be any reason for her to return now. No. She’s gone forever.’
I ask him about his parents, Albert and Lavinia, and he becomes much more cheery, a boyish grin emerging from beneath his greying beard.
‘Father sometimes came across as a very forthright man, very hard working, very stiff… He was of that age. Sentiment was an alien concept to his generation. Or it was on the surface anyway. I remember, once, Nanny and I came in from our walk to find him sat on the floor of the nursery playing with my toy soldiers. Denied it of course, said he was only looking at them, but he was definitely playing. As I said before, he was never cruel. Never once. He abhorred unnecessary violence, preferred to deal in words where he could. He passed that on to me and I have tried to pass it on myself, though I’m afraid I haven’t had much luck there.’ What about Lavinia? ‘Mother? Oh, she was very playful, very sweet. She was quite at odds with the Welsh mountains, much preferred our summer residence in Yorkshire… But she taught me a lot about horses and how to ride. She had me riding about the mountains on my own by the time I was five. Mother loved horses, but I suppose anybody would if their father owned fifteen stud farms.’
Whilst Max was studying in London, at age nineteen, his father suffered a catastrophic stroke. He was required to abandon his studies and to immediately take over the family business.
‘Mother was a fantastic help in all that. I was very keen on studying law, thought it might help when it came to running the business, but when Father suffered his stroke I had to give all that up. I’ve been grateful for it in these later years though. Mother taught me a lot and Father was a great help too, when he started to recover a little. I wouldn’t have got that if I continued my studies. I’ve tried things a little different with Monty (his and Anna’s only child.) I thought, if anything were to happen to me, he’d be better off if I had taught him dribs and drabs from a young age, built him up. Then he went running off to India in pursuit of a girl and all my plans went to rot.’
This, during the First World War, was a particular low point for Max. Monty went behind his and Anna’s back and signed up to fight in France. The pair were livid, Max especially so.
‘Anna and I tried for years to get him. We’d practically given up by the time he did come along. Then he decides he wants to throw his life on the western front!’ Max’s eyes darken. He looks grim. ‘That war… What the devil was it? It was some bloody minded squabble between politicians, orchestrated by a closeted, fantasy dwelling elite. How many times does a brigade have to be cut down by machine gun fire before the generals realise that walking right into it isn’t going to work? I am actually quite glad that I managed to get Monty out of that one. Yes, he ended up in India instead and there was a bit of a hoo-hah out there, but it turned out alright in the end. Pitty the same can’t be said about the girl!’ Max rolls his eyes. He does not approve, I presume? ‘It isn’t that I don’t approve of the match. She’s a perfectly pleasant girl. I do like her… But her family,’ by which he means the Fletchers of Nuneaton, “are another matter entirely. Count Fletcher was jailed for fraud and defamation a couple of years ago. His wife ought to have got the same but she ran away to the continent and took a lover, or so my own wife tells me. I don’t like the family at all. They’re trouble.’
He clearly does not want to talk about them so I push Max onto another topic, the spying game, that which he has dedicated his life to. In his early years he had his pick of the crop, lucrative contracts and a genial relationship with the British government, despite Queen Victoria’s dislike of the family.
‘We never got anything from Victoria,” Max explains. “She held a grudge because Father refused to dedicate a memorial to Prince Albert. He said it might be taken as constructing a monument to himself. Edward VII was the same as his mother, though George has been a bit more genial. Mostly we got things direct from whoever was in charge. Liberal governments were always giving us things but in Tory times we could go months without a contract. We had other things to keep us busy though.’
Max is overcome by a rage all of a sudden. It is not often he becomes angry but this, which he is about to enter into, is one of the topics which sets him off. In 1909 the British Government founded the Secret Service Bureau, later to become MI5 and 6, and Max was pushed out into the cold.
‘It was like we didn’t matter. It was a brutal kicking, especially from a government which we’d had dealings with only the year before. We weren’t even consulted, weren’t asked for advice or assistance or anything. I know the game better than anybody who was a part of that whatever they called it. I’ve been doing it all my life. You’d have thought that somebody might have given me a cursory nod.’ Was the SSB not, I question, set up because of the threat posed by the German Empire? Was it not founded on a need to have a continuously operating force rather than relying on a mercenary agency? ‘Yes… That I have no problem with, though I’m sure the threat from Germany was exaggerated, at least it was to some extent. What annoys me is that we were ignored, pushed aside. They went behind our backs. After that thing was set up we got nothing from the government for years. Monty did some work for them out in India and since then they’ve been a bit more genial, but it isn’t what it was.’ Max looks glum, morose, out of sorts. He is clearly still upset by the snub, even all these years later.
As well as witnessing the formation of the SSB, Max has also lived through increasingly turbulent times. He was born at the height of the British Empire, during a time of relative peace, but in his lifetime the world has become ever more violent and volatile.
‘I don’t like it,’ Max admits. ‘I saw the last war coming with all the anti-German bollocks that was being stirred up by the likes of Northcliffe, but nobody in charge seems to have learned anything. The aristocrats are still going around as though nothing has changed, they’re still as empty headed as they ever were, especially the ones who are coming through now, the ones who weren’t old enough to fight in the war. There are bleak times ahead. The next generation might not see the end of them, and nor might the one after or the one after them.” I see he is worried for the future, for the twentieth century. Dare I tell him of what is to come? Of the Second World War and the rise of fascism, of what is to come after with the Cold War, of the increasingly turbulent situation in the Middle East? Dare I tell him of the chain reaction ignited by the first war and of the events which he himself has lived through? I don’t think I need to for I sense that he already knows the answers. He already knows the answers and though he will not live to see it, the future terrifies him. “What happened to the world? What happened to the people in it? Things never used to be perfect but there was always polity and morality and respect. There was never all this extreme xenophobia that’s been going around these last twenty years. There was never all this selfish cruelty towards other people. There certainly wasn’t this same tendency for bloody minded incompetence.’
And what of his family, of the future of his dynasty? Does he ever wonder if that is in safe hands?
‘It is for the immediate future. Monty shall be a fair enough head for the business. He’ll get the job done. After that I couldn’t possibly comment. It depends on the times and what Monty’s children get up to. If the Fletchers are anything to go by, and there is some especially bad blood in that family, those children could prove our undoing…’ He raises an ominous eyebrow. ‘Then again, I have the strongest conviction that so long as Monty is around those children won’t be allowed to put a single toe out of line.’ Max looks into his cup and realises that his coffee is finished. He puffs himself up and readjusts the buttons on his waistcoat. ‘Whatever the future brings, we’ll face it. We’ll muddle through, bad blood or no. We Morfas have survived the worst this world can throw at us and we’ll survive a lot more before it all comes crushing down!’ He has no idea how right he is.
For more of Max, of how he met Anna, you can check out ‘Max & Anna’ which is available from Amazon (in paperback) and from most major eBook retailers. He also appears in The Khyber, which you can read an extract of here. All of Max’s family can also be found making random comments on twitter @Morfas_Family– Apart from Will. Will isn’t allowed on social media.
Above image is by John Atkinson Grimshaw, courtesy of worldgallery.co.uk