Introduction In the 1950s, Britain was a dowdy place, still recovering from World War II. With Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House, America was at its most conformist. Then along came a hero like no other. He was definitely on the side of the good guys, but he drank and smoked, and there is no indication that he ever went to church. Even in a foxhole, he was not a man who would say a prayer. The only vespers he knew were a cocktail he had named after his latest sexual conquest.
Bond bedded beautiful women who surrendered without a struggle. He drove fast cars and visited exotic places. He saw off a series of powerful villains and, whatever happened, James Bond could cope with the situation. For me, as a young lad, this was a revelation. Ian Fleming described his James Bond books as the “pillow of fantasy of an adolescent mind”. They certainly were for me.
Although Bond had been through the war, he did not talk about it. I had already noted in my own family that those who talked about what they had done in the war had not done anything important. Those who remained silent, I discovered, had faced real danger and wanted to forget about it. Even though he had, Bond was part of the new generation – the generation of Elvis and soon the Beatles and John F. Kennedy.
Indeed, when Bond first came to the screen in 1962 with Dr No, he wore the same sharp suits as the Kennedys. What’s more, JFK was a fan. Despite actor Sean Connery’s strong Scottish accent, his persona was curiously transatlantic. In later movies, he is equally at home in the US and the UK. But who can forget the scene when Ursula Andress emerges from the sea? It is a seminal moment in cinema history.
While the Bond of the books is vulnerable, often injured, prey to nerves, even afraid, and kills sparingly, in the films he is fearless, barely even bleeds, suffers no psychological misgivings, and slaughters on a staggering scale. Yet the two Bonds are the same tough, resourceful, stylish, sardonic, well-brought-up man of the world that I, even in my late middle age, seek to emulate – not altogether successfully, it has to be said.
Fleming said that his James Bond books were autobiographical. There are indeed similarities between Fleming and the Bond of the novels – both went to Eton; both saw wartime service in the Royal Navy. Fleming had an inside knowledge of espionage, having served in Naval Intelligence where he liaised with the Special Operations Executive and MI6, the same Special Intelligence Service that Bond worked for. He knew about the Soviet Union, visiting as a journalist to cover the Metro-Vickers spy trial in 1933 and returning in 1939. He also knew about armed assaults, at command level, from his time with 30 Assault Unit during World War II. He even carried a Beretta. But Fleming never had a licence to kill – let alone the ability to perform James Bond’s death-defying feats.
While Fleming did share Bond’s love of drinking, fast cars and women, the James Bond of the novels and the films was not Ian Fleming of Goldeneye, his Jamaican home. Bond was a fantasy born out of Britain’s post-war austerity, but he went on to become a fantasy the whole word shares.
During the author’s lifetime, Ian Fleming’s books sold over forty million copies. All are still in print and more Bond books have been written by other authors since Fleming’s death in 1964. The Bond films are the highest grossing franchise in Hollywood’s history. It is estimated that half the population of the world has seen at least one Bond movie as the legendary Cold War warrior now takes on the villains of the post-Cold War world.
Now that another Bond movie has just come to the screen it is, perhaps, a good time to go back and take a good hard look at the character and his creator, and see what Bond tells us about ourselves.
Chapter 1 – Ian Fleming Of his James Bond books, Ian Fleming once said: “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.” So for the truth about James Bond we should first look at the life of Ian Fleming, the wellspring of 007’s creation.
Like James Bond, Fleming was born to a Scottish family. His grandfather, Robert Fleming, was from a poor background in Dundee. As a clerk working in a textile company, he seized the opportunity to represent his firm in the United States. In the aftermath of the Civil War, America was desperately short of capital, so Robert Fleming set up a pioneering investment trust that took the savings of thrifty Dundonians and invested them in American railroads with yields twice that of the stock markets in Edinburgh or London.
As a wealthy banker, Robert Fleming crossed the Atlantic more than a hundred times. He married and moved to England, where he bought a large house in London’s Grosvenor Square, later demolished to make way for the US embassy, and a run-down estate at Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. He had the seventeenth-century mansion there knocked down to make way for a massive red-brick palazzo with forty-four bedrooms and a dozen bathrooms, but he retained the house's name: Joyce Grove. This was home to family gatherings until Robert died in 1933. Among the frequent visitors was Queen Mary, wife of George V and a friend of Ian’s grandmother Katie.
Ian’s father Valentine was born in 1883; his aunts Dorothy and Kathleen in 1885 and 1887; and his uncle Philip in 1889. Valentine and Philip were sent to Eton and Oxford. With a second in history, Valentine read for the Bar but never practised. He missed a rowing blue due to a misplaced boil and listed as his recreations in Who’s Who “deerstalking, salmon fishing, fox-hunting…” After working in his father’s bank in the City, Valentine became the Conservative MP for South Oxfordshire in 1910. He was also an officer in the Oxfordshire Yeomanry and used to train his men in the grounds of Joyce Grove.
At the age of twenty-four, Valentine Fleming married Evelyn St Croix Rose at St Paul’s church, Knightsbridge. Of mixed Celtic-Huguenot stock, the bride was a society beauty and was later painted several times by Augustus John. The couple moved into Mayfair. They had four boys. The eldest, Peter, excelled at school and went on to become a noted writer and soldier. The second son, Ian, lived in his brother’s shadow for most of his life.
Born in 1908, Ian Lancaster Fleming took his middle name from John of Gaunt, who his mother claimed ancestry from. At the outbreak of World War I, he was sent to boarding school. His father wrote; his mother didn’t. Then, just eight days before Ian’s ninth birthday, his father was killed in action in France. Winston Churchill wrote his obituary in The Times.
Fleming did not enjoy his prep school. He followed his older brother to Eton, where he excelled in athletics and rebelled, suffering beatings as a result. A moody child, he made no secret of preferring his own company. He read widely and made his literary debut at Eton, publishing a short story in his own, one-off magazine The Wyvern, which also included contributions from his mother’s friends, Edwin Lutyens, Vita Sackville-West and her lover Augustus John. The magazine showed some sympathy for Fascism. During the General Strike, Ian helped man the signal box at Leighton Buzzard. Soon after this, he had sex for the first time, on the floor of a box in the Royalty Kinema in Windsor, an experience retold from the woman’s point of view in The Spy Who Loved Me. To avoid having Ian expelled, his mother decided to send him to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. But first, he was shipped out to a finishing school for young gentlemen in Kitzbühel in the Austrian Tyrol, where he brushed up his German and spent time skiing, rock climbing and charming young women. By then, his mother, a wealthy widow, had moved into a house in Cheyne Walk that had once belong to the painter Turner. Here she gave birth to a daughter by Augustus John.
In the Sandhurst entrance examination, Ian came sixth in the country. His tutor, Colonel William Trevor, wrote: “He is an exceptionally nice fellow – manly and sensible beyond his years … He ought to make an excellent soldier, provided always that the ladies don’t ruin him.”
Among Fleming’s intake at Sandhurst was Ayub Khan, who later became president of Pakistan. There Fleming enjoyed shooting, but not the interminable square-bashing and horse riding. He was also taught map reading, tactics and constitutional history. And it was here that he fell in love for the first time: with Peggy Barnard, the pretty daughter of a former Indian Army colonel. He took his amour on fast drives down country lanes, to flashy restaurants and tea dances – though she was not the last woman to complain of his lack of skill at dancing. With a private income and a dress uniform, he was a popular escort for debutantes, though he disliked the debs' balls, preferring the informality of jazz clubs. He would stay up all night at the Kit Kat or the Embassy and return to Sandhurst only just in time to make morning parade.
During a fit of jealousy, Fleming had sex with a prostitute in Soho and caught gonorrhoea. His mother booked him into a nursing home for residential treatment. While there, he sent his letter of resignation to Sandhurst and his mother then sent him back to Kitzbühel. There he was in the charge of a former British diplomat and spy, Forbes Dennis, and his American wife, a successful novelist who, as Phyllis Bottome, would publish a novel about a womanizing British Secret Service officer named Mark Chalmers, who bore a striking resemblance to James Bond. Her book, The Life Line, was published in 1946, seven years before the first Bond book came out.
Dennis and his wife, devotees of the psychologist Alfred Adler, ran the school where Fleming was to receive intensive tutoring for the Foreign Office entrance exams. Meanwhile he was encouraged to take an interest in European literature and translated a German play into English, which his mother then had printed and bound. In the evening, students entertained each other with tall tales. In Fleming’s group, there were two other students who went on to become writers. Ian committed some of these impromptu stories to paper. He also slept with local girls, while writing poems to the sweetheart he had left at home. A collection was printed under the title The Black Daffodil, but later he became so embarrassed by his juvenilia that he rounded up every copy and burned them all.
During his time on the Continent, Fleming spoke for the first time of his ambition to write thrillers. He had some thrills of his own. With a passion for fast cars, he once topped a hundred miles an hour on the open road near Joyce Grove. Then in Austria the front of his Standard Tourer was sliced off by a train at a level crossing.
In 1928, Fleming enrolled at Munich University at a time when Hitler was active in the city. He was also sent for psychoanalysis, but refused to say a word. During the vacations he holidayed with the family in Scotland, Ireland and Corsica. Peter’s friend Rupert Hart-Davis, who went on to become a publisher, would often come along. Also on hand were a circle of actresses – Peggy Ashcroft, Joyce Grenfell and Celia Johnson, who later became Peter’s wife. Ian spent his time playing bridge or swimming as many as five or six times a day.
He moved on to the University of Geneva, where he studied psychology and social anthropology in French. He also learnt Russian. Meanwhile, Percy Muir, a bookseller in Bond Street, sent him titles that might interest him, including the French Surrealist magazine Transition. Ian also translated into English a treatise on the Swiss physician Paracelsus by Carl Jung. In his spare time, he played golf, drove a Buick sports car and hung around cafés where he was feared for his caustic wit, though many dismissed him as a playboy. While he could discuss Goethe and Schiller, and recite passages from Thomas Mann, his preferred reading was Georges Simenon. In his summer holiday in 1930, he worked for the League of Nations, which left him sceptical about the usefulness of international bodies. Meanwhile, he developed a passion for Picasso prints and tracked down and bought Mussolini’s passport.
Returning to London, Fleming passed his Foreign Office examinations, but was not offered a post. His mother then persuaded him to write to her friend Sir Roderick Jones, head of Reuters, asking for a job. Despite an elementary spelling mistake in the letter, he was taken on to join a coterie of high-flying journalists at the agency. But he still lived at home. When Monique Panchaud, his unofficial fiancée, turned up from Switzerland, his mother cold-shouldered her. Male friends also got short shrift at Mrs Fleming’s establishment, while lovers had to be entertained in a workmate’s flat. Otherwise life, for Fleming, was not unpleasant. He swam in the International Sportsmen’s Club and his correspondence issued from the St James’s Club.
Through Sir Roderick, Fleming mixed in high social circles, appearing as a character in a number of novels, including Public Faces by Harold Nicolson. Alaric Jacob portrayed him as a well-bred chancer with a Romanian baroness as a mistress, who otherwise had little time for women. According to Jacob, he “knew all about Stein and Rilke … played bridge beautifully and skied like a ghost”.
Fortunately, his employers found him “accurate, painstaking and methodical”. He also had an instinct for business. In the summer of 1932, he was sent back to Munich, not to cover the antics of Hitler, but to report on the Alpine motor trials where he would navigate for British rally driver Donald Healey. Then in early March 1933 Fleming returned to Switzerland, ostensibly for a skiing holiday with his fiancée, but actually to monitor German broadcasts concerning the election that was about to bring Hitler untrammelled power.
Through contacts, Fleming broke the story of the Metro-Vickers case: six British engineers working for the company in Russia had been charged with wrecking a large Soviet hydroelectric project. He was then sent to cover the trial, flying to Berlin then taking the train via Warsaw to Moscow. Staying at the National Hotel with the rest of the press corps, he began to file colour pieces. During the trial itself, he dropped his copy from an upstairs window in the court building to a messenger who rushed it to the censor, then to the telegraph office. He also indulged a Bondian taste for vodka and caviar, but bad Beluga gave him a tapeworm. Others dismissed it as hypochondria. Fleming was frequently absent from work with migraines caused by a plate that had been placed in his nose following a football accident at Eton. He also suffered from black melancholia.
After being fined in an Oxford court for driving an unlicensed car, Fleming skipped the hearing because he was attending the World Economic Conference. His mother then forced him to break off his engagement, threatening to withdraw her financial support. This brought the threat of a breach-of-promise suit in a Swiss court by his ex-fiancée’s parents. Meanwhile, he was consoling himself with an older woman, the wife of a merchant banker, the flighty granddaughter of an earl and a number of actresses and entertainers, including a bubble girl named Storm who “leapt around the stage with very little on”. They made love in the back of his mother’s Daimler, leaving the car strewn with black boa feathers.
After being sent to Berlin to cover a plebiscite over rearmament and to interview propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Fleming quit Reuters to go into merchant banking. But his time at the news agency had taught him, he said, “to write fast and, above all, to be accurate”. His decision had been precipitated by the death of his grandfather, Robert, who had left Evelyn’s children nothing in his will. Fleming’s mother now planned to marry again. With his older brother already an established travel writer, it was now time for Ian to stand on his own two feet – with a little help from family connections in the City, of course.
Fleming showed no aptitude for banking, but he enjoyed the lifestyle with its golfing trips to Gleneagles – via a private train with carriages set aside for gambling and dancing – and visits to the casinos of Le Touquet and Deauville by private plane. He became fascinated by baccarat, a game recently introduced to society by the Prince of Wales, but always played for fairly low stakes. He took up with the daughter of an earl - and this time, Mother approved. But his new girlfriend was shocked at the bad blood between Fleming and his mother, and found Ian “schizophrenic”.
“He was tough and quite cruel,” she said, “but at the same time he could be very sentimental. He was an emotional character who was good at suppressing his feelings.”
After a year and a half, Fleming quit banking to become a stockbroker, after taking a short holiday driving around the Continent with the wife of a friend. Though Fleming showed no aptitude for stockbroking either, it brought him more rich and influential friends, and he could lunch his clients at White’s or the Savoy. His boss was Lancelot “Lancy” Hugh Smith, cultivator of royalty and one-time lover of novelist Jean Rhys. Fleming maintained his position, as always, by buttering up older men. Smith had been in intelligence during World War I and his brother was deputy director of Naval Intelligence.
With little else to do, Fleming was put to work on the firm’s monthly investment newsletter. He was also employed to write a short history of the company, which was later consigned to the waste-paper bin. Colleagues complained that he was supercilious and did little for the firm. He had, for example, adopted the affectation of smoking custom-made Morland cigarettes blended from three choice Turkish tobaccos.
The company soon sent Fleming on a meet-the-client trip to the United States. Before leaving, he asked a friend at the publisher Chatto & Windus – whose magazine Night and Day Ian had invested in – for contacts among the Greenwich Village set. As a result, he was given a letter of introduction to Bennett Cerf, the proprietor of Random House.
One evening, when staying at the St Regis with a colleague, Fleming excused himself from dinner with a client on the grounds that he was ill. Checking on his health later, the colleague found Fleming in bed with a glass of whiskey and an attractive blonde. Moving on to the Mayflower in Washington, he dined with an old friend from Reuters. The conversation turned to President Roosevelt’s foreign policy and the friend got the distinct impression that Ian was snooping for the intelligence services.
Fleming used any money he made from stockbroking to buy antiquarian books, specifically those concerning technical or intellectual progress since 1800. In charge of this enterprise was his old friend Peter Muir, who was also using the book trade to smuggle money out of Germany for Jews who intended leaving the country. Fleming stored his collection in black buckram boxes adorned with the Fleming family crest.
Through Muir, Fleming became a member of the Left Book Club, a pacifist and anti-Fascist group started by the publisher Victor Gollancz. But they quit after less than a year because of the club’s increasingly Marxist leanings. Fleming remained a committed anti-Fascist, though. He mixed with people who opposed appeasement, those close to Churchill and others who were secretly charting the rise of German militarism. He was also the treasurer of a committee that arranged a tour of Britain for the psychologist Alfred Adler.
Fleming’s mother bought a country home near Joyce Grove, and here she converted the stable, which had once been home to Cromwell’s troops, into a library for Peter, making a home for the peripatetic author. Meanwhile Ian had the run of Turner’s house as a bachelor pad. Then Peter married the actress Celia Johnson. Mother did not approve - she had wanted him to take a wife from the aristocracy - but Ian talked her round. Then she quit her new house and moved back to Cheyne Walk. To get away from her, Ian moved into a flat in a converted school in Pimlico, having bought the lease from Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, whose wife, Diana Mitford was a friend of the family. The place was decorated by Rosie Reiss, a young refugee Peter Muir had helped to escape from Germany. The flat was full of avant-garde novels, copies of the Paris Review and the Surrealist photographs of Man Ray. Also on display were a framed copy of his father’s obituary, Mussolini’s passport and silver trophies Ian had won at Eton amid an autobiographic diorama of his life so far. Underneath was a quote, in German, from the eighteenth-century German Romantic poet Novalis: “We are about to wake up when we dream that we dream.” To complete the household, he had an Irish maid called Mary.
Female guests were entertained with sausages and champagne, and either seduced or repelled by his collection of French pornography. His other visitors were upper-class male friends, including at least one Fascist sympathizer. Another was John Fox-Strangways, whose name Fleming appropriated for that of the Secret Service station chief in the Caribbean in Live and Let Die and Dr. No; he also got a namecheck in Diamonds Are Forever and The Man with the Golden Gun. This circle of friends came to play bridge, a game Fleming did not excel at. At weekends, they played golf. He called them the Cercle – short for Le Cercle gastronomique et des jeux hazard.
After breaking off his engagement, Fleming boasted that he was going to be “quite bloody minded about women from now on”, claiming to be “without any scruples at all”. Women found him, if good-looking, vain and supercilious – “a man with sex on the brain”. Nevertheless, he managed to surround himself with the type of fresh-faced ingénues who would be the model for his Bond girls. The brother of one of them turned up on his doorstep with a horsewhip.
Embarrassed at being a stockbroker and still feeling that he was playing second fiddle to his brother Peter, Fleming began to talk again about writing a thriller whose villain would snort Benzedrine, as he did himself. His model at the time was Geoffrey Household’s The Third Hour. Household’s typical hero is an Englishman with a highly developed sense of honour. Another favourite was Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the story of a torrid affair where the woman makes the running. However, no one thought that he would get round to writing a novel himself, believing that he needed the discipline of office life to get anything done.
During a visit to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, Fleming suffered appendicitis. After an appendectomy, paid for by his mother, he convalesced with friends on Capri in Fascist Italy, where he had a brief affair with a Hungarian countess. Another girlfriend gave him a cigarette case that looked as if it was made of gunmetal – like James Bond’s. In fact, it was made of oxidized gold.
As part of the country house set, Fleming rubbed shoulders with a mixture of people – those who were helping Jews who were fleeing Germany, appeasers, politicians, diplomats and spies. And on his regular trips through Germany and Austria he kept his eyes and ears open for information. Although Fleming stood up for democracy against what he called the “younger and more exciting creeds, such as Fascism and Communism”, on his one visit to the House of Commons, he found the debate there hollow and infantile.