Ian Fleming

From The Wall Street Journal:

From the first arresting moment in Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography “Ian Fleming: The Complete Man” it is clear that we are in good hands. At a hastily arranged funeral in a village church, Fleming’s widow arrives late, accompanying his coffin, causing the ceremony to be restarted and thereby demonstrating that, “as in life, so in death, a strong woman had played a defining role.” Eager to learn more, we gladly enter a monumental edifice of a book that at first glance seems somewhat daunting.

What lies ahead could, after all, be the literary equivalent of a country-house tour that winds through room after room of arcane objects, past portraits of the rich and reprehensible. For Fleming’s life, though relatively short (he died in 1964 at the age of 56), was crammed not only with stuff—the handmade cigarettes, the gold-plated typewriter—but also with personages. He knew everybody, from Winston Churchill and JFK to Claudette Colbert and Truman Capote, not to mention a host of military men and secret agents. Depending on whom you believe, Fleming also played a vital undercover role in World War II as well as the Cold War. Then he created James Bond and became an industry himself.

Fleming was “the son of wealth, but the grandson of poverty,” as Mr. Shakespeare tells it, his grandfather Robert having come from nothing to become, by 1928, a merchant banker controlling “maybe a trillion pounds” in today’s money. And Robert Fleming is wonderfully described here in all his canniness and thrift, keeping silver in one trouser pocket and pennies in the other for fear of overtipping. Fleming’s childhood was a fairly typical one of social privilege and emotional deprivation, shadowed by the tragedy of his father’s death when Ian was 9 and presided over by a willful, narcissistic mother. His peerless father, Val, having been killed in World War I (Churchill penned his obituary) and his older brother, Peter, being a famous explorer and writer, young Ian had more than one legend against which to measure himself.

Educated (and sadistically flogged) at Dunford and then, at the age of 13, at Eton, the academically lazy but athletically talented boy was molded to enter not only elite British society but also the shadowy world of espionage. “It was a spy network already in the making,” Mr. Shakespeare writes of Eton, “a class of English men raised to rule the Empire . . . all known to one another from boyhood.” Even in his Moscow exile, the disgraced “Cambridge Five” spy Guy Burgess still wore his old school tie.

Fleming attended Sandhurst military academy but left prematurely in 1927, having become ill with gonorrhea. Dispatched to an academy-sanatorium in Germany, he considered the enlightened theories of the Viennese psychoanalyst Alfred Adler and dallied with women. (“His general taste,” a friend observed some years later, “was for tarts who looked like nice girls.”) A love of literature was also engendered, even though Fleming was being officially trained for a career in the British foreign service. By 1930 the unruly youth had a temporary job at the League of Nations in Geneva, where “he went to work at 8.30 a.m., walking around an old dog that lay on the steps at the entrance.” Drowsy Europe too lies on the threshold of disaster.

In 1931, however, thanks to his mother’s social connections, Fleming traded diplomacy for journalism, initially working at Reuters, where his early assignments included “sport, motor-racing, business, obituaries, and politics.” The next career step was both inevitable and timely. In 1939 Fleming was recruited to be the new assistant to the head of the Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division, and his role in confounding both Nazi and Soviet intelligence networks emerges here as vital. Mr. Shakespeare finds intrigue of all kinds to untangle—personal and political, domestic and international—when his subject becomes first an espionage professional and later a novelist courted by the likes of John F. Kennedy, who turned to Fleming for assassination tips.

. . . .

Bond’s first outing, “Casino Royale,” was published on April 15, 1953, and though reviews were positive (“Ian Fleming has discovered the secret of narrative art. The reader has to go on reading”), sales were slim. “My profits from Casino will just about keep Ann in asparagus over Coronation week,” Fleming groused. Further volumes followed, but it was the Suez Crisis of 1956 that, in Mr. Shakespeare’s words, “saved Bond.” When the ailing British Prime Minister Anthony Eden decided to convalesce at Goldeneye, Fleming’s Jamaican estate, it created a sensation. Book sales of the series soared and the fictional spy’s future was assured. “Peter Pan with a gun,” as Mr. Shakespeare calls him, would never grow old. Whether airborne or underwater, trading blows or banter, the suave Bond was forever Britain as it wished itself to be.

Much of the factual detail of Fleming’s life has been examined by previous biographers, notably John Pearson (“The Life of Ian Fleming,” 1966) and Andrew Lycett (“Ian Fleming,” 1995), whose work and assistance Mr. Shakespeare acknowledges. He also lists “other excellent, if partial accounts,” including Ben Macintyre’s 2008 “For Your Eyes Only.” Given these previous exhumations, Mr. Shakespeare was cautious about conducting another. When invited to do so by the Fleming estate, however, he was gratified to unearth a fresh specimen. Not, he writes, the “prickly, self-centred bounder” he imagined but “another, more luminous person.” A Fleming of many contradictions consequently emerges: loving yet cruel, arrogant yet insecure, spiteful yet generous.

In the end he could afford to be; success made Fleming rich. In Mr. Shakespeare’s astute opinion, the inimitable Bond also retrieved for his creator “the epoch in which he had thrived, young, single and free,” while repairing the damage inflicted on the British psyche by the 1951 defection of Burgess and fellow spy Donald Maclean.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

2 thoughts on “Ian Fleming”

  1. No Time To Die was a great wrap up for Daniel Craig but what happens to 007 and/or Bond next? Should Bond veer towards non-fiction and risk its escapism value or dare it risk reverting to the more incredulous make-believe of earlier years and face the tsunami of adverse criticism that the Gray Man got recently?

    Maybe Bond should get back to the basics. If you’re an espionage aficionado, an Ian Fleming follower or a 007 devotee then you must know about puffer fish poisons and who wrote the Trout Memo and Beyond Enkription and why. If not, and you want to join the espionage illuminati, you had best Google “Trout Memo” and study The Burlington Files and Pemberton’s People in MI6.

    If Bond doesn’t get real or more realistic we reckon the final nail in wee Jimmy Bond’s coffin may have been hammered in by Jackson Lamb. Mick Herron’s anti-Bond sentiments combine lethally with the sardonic humour of the Slough House series to unreservedly mock not just Bond but also British Intelligence which has lived too long off the overly ripe fruits Fleming left to rot! Time for a fresh start based on a real spy.

    If that happens you had best browse through the news articles published after August 2021 in TheBurlingtonFiles website and then read Beyond Enkription as long as you don’t think all espionage thrillers should be written in John le Carré’s style.

    PS I may be related to the author but I don’t profit from supporting his endeavours and TheBurlingtonFiles website is refreshingly advert free!

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