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50 years ago, an author wrote the first of a series of books that would go on to spawn one of the most successful franchises in film history. This entry celebrates the life and works of this man - Ian Fleming.
Ian Lancaster Fleming was born in 1908 to a wealthy family (of Fleming's Bank fame). His father, Valentine Fleming, was killed in the First World War, but due to peculiarities of family legacies, young Ian did not benefit hugely from the considerable family wealth, not having been left money directly by his father or grandfather. This situation, despite him having a more privileged existence than most, and all things being relative even to the rich, dogged him for most of his life.
After a brief spell at Eton (he left after some disgrace with a girl), he continued his education at Sandhurst Military Academy. However this proved equally unfruitful, and he left without an officer's commission. His family, possibly in desperation, sent him to a progressive Austrian school-cum-university run by an Englishman in Kitzbuhel, the ski resort. After failing the Foreign Office exam he turned to journalism, and followed his brother Peter (a travel writer of note) to join the news agency, Reuters. There he enjoyed a minor scoop when covering the Metro-Vickers trial of some suspected British spies in the Soviet Union, and then went on to carry out other similar work, possibly providing the Intelligence Service with details of his foreign assignments.
When the Second World War broke out, Fleming was spotted as the ideal type for a naval intelligence officer, and became the assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) Admiral Godfrey. Later, Fleming was put in charge of a special commando unit (from behind his desk in Whitehall) and was, among other things, involved in the plot to wash up a dead body on occupied Europe containing false intelligence about Allied landings. He left naval intelligence after the war, having attained the rank of Commander, and kept up his rank with the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve for some years, having to undergo two weeks training a year. There is, sadly, little evidence that Fleming carried out any of the exploits that he later attributed to James Bond, however what is clear is that Bond would have been unlikely to come about had Fleming not spent the time he did in the intelligence services.
In the immediate post-war period, Fleming built his house, 'Goldeneye', on the north coast of Jamaica, and after joining Kemsley Newspapers, agreed a deal that would allow him two months off a year, to go to Goldeneye for a long holiday. Even though Fleming at the time would have considered himself of meagre wealth, this does serve to illustrate the wealth-relativity issue. The ability to build yourself a holiday home in the Caribbean, staff it with servants, negotiate with your employer that you want two months off (in one lump) per year, seems to suggest a level of financial comfort never attained by most ordinary people. During his early life Fleming also managed to amass a collection of (what became) valuable first editions. Incidentally, these and his manuscripts are now held in the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana campus in the USA.
In the early 1950s at the age of 44, he married his long-time lover Lady Ann Rothermere (wife of Lord Rothermere, of the Daily Mail), becoming her third husband, and to lessen the 'shock of getting married' he sat down in 1952 and wrote Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, which was published in 1953.
The James Bond Phenomenon
It is fair to say at this point that most people, when they think of James Bond, think of the films, and of the actor's face they most associate with the character. This is fair enough considering that the first book was written 50 years ago. This entry does not aim to assess the relative merits of the various actors who have portrayed Bond over the years, suffice to say that, particularly during the Roger Moore1 period in the seventies, the films probably were at their most discrete from the spirit of the novels.
However, one thing worth mentioning here is that all films and books reflect the zeitgeist of the time in which they're written or produced, (look at Star Trek, or indeed science fiction generally) more than the time in which they are actually set. In many ways, if the James Bond films had been produced in the early fifties they would have been very different, and probably a lot closer to the books. For example, there is little or no humour in the Bond books, unlike the trademark one-liners in the films ('I think he got the point...'). Likewise there are fewer gadgets. In the books, James Bond is not a qualified pilot, and is a gourmand rather than a gourmet (likes good quality food and drink in quantities, rather than being a complete 'nouvelle-cuisine' food-and-champagne snob).
Arguably, it was the lifestyle of Bond in the books that most appealed to the predominantly-male readership. Fleming has a habit of appealing to all the senses in his writing, whether it be through the exquisite flavour of Stone Crabs served with melted butter, perfectly set off by Pommery pink champagne, or the feel of a girl's skin, sweet Turkish tobacco, or the harsh tang of smoke and stale sweat in a casino at three in the morning.
Fleming himself, in an article in 1962 said:
My contribution to the art of thriller-writing has been to attempt the total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds.
... It is surely more stimulating to the reader's senses if, instead of writing 'He made a hurried meal off the Plat du Jour - excellent cottage pie and vegetables, followed by home-made trifle', you write 'Being instinctively mistrustful of all Plats du Jour, he ordered four fried eggs cooked on both sides, hot buttered toast and a large cup of black coffee.' The following points should be noted: first, we all prefer breakfast foods to the sort of food one usually gets at luncheon and dinner; secondly, this is an independent character who knows what he wants and gets it; thirdly, four fried eggs has the sound of a real man's meal and, in our imagination, a large cup of black coffee sits well on our taste buds after the rich, buttery sound of the fried eggs and the hot buttered toast.
This is pure Fleming. This Researcher can remember, in the school library, poring over passages in the Bond books where Fleming lavishly describes the food and drink not widely attainable, at least not to a 14-year-old. In fact, returning to the Bond lifestyle, most men who read Bond in the latter half of the 20th Century have fantasised about being Bond, or at least living the lifestyle, and perhaps many women have also felt a desire to possess this un-possessable man.
So, how well do Fleming's writings stand up to modern scrutiny? It has been said that his ideas of international terrorism have a poignant sense of reality after the recent attacks in the US. Re-reading Fleming in 2002 one can of course spot the many changes that have happened in society over the last 50 years. While this renders the Bond books not exactly contemporary, they are still exciting adventure stories, which is what Fleming intended. He did not set his sights on writing great literature, which he said was aimed at the head or heart, he asserted that the target of his books:
... lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh.
Fleming's books were pilloried by critic Paul Johnson as being simply 'sex, sadism and snobbery', and while Fleming's attitude towards women was undoubtedly somewhat sado-masochistic (and Bond's also), their impact on thriller writing in the latter half of the twentieth century is not insignificant.
The Chronology of the Bond Books
- Casino Royale (1953)
- Live and Let Die (1954)
- Moonraker (1955)
- Diamonds Are Forever (1956)
- From Russia With Love (1957)
- Doctor No (1958)
- Goldfinger (1959)
- For Your Eyes Only (1960)
- Thunderball (1961)
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
- On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963)
- You Only Live Twice (1964)
- The Man With The Golden Gun (1965)
- Octopussy, The Living Daylights and The Property Of A Lady (1965)
Fleming also wrote some non-fiction works. The Diamond Smugglers was based on real life, as was his travelogue Thrilling Cities, in which he analyses the relative merits of the appeal of such cities as Hong Kong and New York for a man with Fleming's (and Bond's) tastes. He also wrote the famous children's story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
One thing that comes across when one analyses Fleming's Bond is the conflict between the indulgent and the puritanical. On the one hand, Fleming undoubtedly enjoyed the finer things in life and bestowed upon his hero the same tendencies. Fleming in many ways could however be a simple man of simple tastes. His favourite food was scrambled eggs. One of his Jamaican contemporaries, writer and wit Noel Coward, often joked about the inedible nature of the meals at 'Goldeneye':
Ian Fleming's cooking always tasted to me like armpits.
This is odd when you consider the fine cuisine served up in the Bond books.
Another feature of the Bond books is the solid exactitude when naming brands - what would be called product placement nowadays. There is little evidence that Fleming benefited directly from this name-dropping style, other than to help usher in the genre that would do the same.
Ian Fleming died of heart failure in 1964 at the age of 56, the year the Bond film, From Russia With Love, was released. In John Pearson's biography, he ends stating that Fleming died, as 'Bond's only ever flesh and blood victim'. Undoubtedly, Fleming considered the Bond phenomenon to be a monster that he had created, and protracted discussions over film and television rights, including a long-running court case with Kevin McClory (which echoes to this day) took their toll.
Fleming died at the beginning of the real Bond Boom, even though by then his books had sold 30 million copies and had been translated into many languages. A similar feat nowadays would, relatively speaking, make much more money in these vacuous days of celebrity veneration and enormous advances, even to some niche authors.
Fleming's final novel, The Man With The Golden Gun, it has been alleged, was only an outline at the time of his death and various authors have been attributed to finishing it, among others, Morris Cargill and Kingsley Amis. It is certainly, in many people's opinion, the weakest of all the books and quite un-Fleming like, and either reflects the above allegation, or perhaps simply Fleming's failing health. The most recent and most comprehensive biography, written in 1996 by Andrew Lycett, asserts that Fleming did indeed write The Man With The Golden Gun in its entirety, however the manuscript was 'polished' by Kingsley Amis, a dedicated Bond fan.
2003 marks the 50 anniversary of the birth of James Bond, and, on the eve of (official) Bond film number 20, Ian Fleming's legacy lives on in many forms. The writers Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and, lately, Raymond Benson, have carried on the Bond literary theme, with varying degrees of success. John Pearson wrote an interesting fictional 'biography' of James Bond after Fleming's death, which is a good read and captures the Fleming style well.
Bond as a cultural phenomenon has moved, with varying degrees of success, through the many decades since his birth at the simple writing desk in the spartan bungalow on Jamaica's north shore. How many people in the western world couldn't answer this question; 'Who likes his Martinis shaken, not stirred?'
Numerous web sites are devoted to 007, some focussing on the films; some paying homage to the books. Meanwhile, Penguin Modern Classics are in the process of re-releasing Fleming's novels.
Fleming filled his life with adventure, living life to the full, indulging his many vices. He smoked his Morland Specials incessantly, drank too much and generally had scant regard for the weak 'Fleming' heart he had been born with. In later life he and his wife both had affairs, he with Blanche Blackwell (who lived in Jamaica and whose son founded Island Records, which he subsequently sold for £200m), while his wife Ann was involved with Hugh Gaitskell, the MP.
Had Fleming lived longer, he may have become the George Lucas of the James Bond world, presiding over films and spin-offs many years later. That would remain unknown. One thing is certain; he would have hated old age and perhaps his star, being so bright as it was, was fated to burn out quickly.
Fleming is buried in the village of Sevenhampton, a few miles off the A420, near Swindon. His last house, Sevenhampton Place, is there, though he had hardly moved in when he died. His wife Ann (who died in 1981), is buried there along with his son Caspar, who died of a drug overdose in his early 20s in 1975 after a troubled childhood in the shadow of his famous father. It is a small village church and the Fleming grave is a simple obelisk around four feet high. There is no reference to Fleming's famous creation anywhere, the plaque simply reads, 'Ian Fleming, 1908-1964' and a Latin motto. His middle name, 'Lancaster', is missing.
Perhaps it would be fitting to end with the epitaph for James Bond (which could be, indeed probably was, chosen by Fleming for himself also) suggested by Bond's secretary, in the obituary that appears for Bond near the end of You Only Live Twice:
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them; I shall use my time...
- The Official MGM/UA Movie Website
- 007 Forever
- The Commanders Club - an American-based Fan Group
- Finally, a site that details all the alcoholic drinks Bond consumes throughout the novels. Some people have too much time on their hands... all the time in the world, in fact.