Born in 1930, John Pearson was educated at
King's College School, Wimbledon and Peterhouse, Cambridge, where
He has worked on various newspapers, including the Economist,
The Times, and the Sunday Times where for a time he wrote the
Atticus column. After the success of his book The Life of Ian
Fleming, he decamped with wife and family to Rome, where he lived
some years. He followed up his successful non-fiction Fleming
title with the officially sanctioned novel 'James Bond:
The Authorized Biography of 007' in 1973. Mr Pearson returned
to England to
of the Kray
a full-scale biography of the Sitwells.
MI6 contributor David Leigh
caught up with the author recently to discuss his work with
the Bond phenonenom, both fact and fiction.
How did the James Bond biography come
about? Prior to writing it I know you’d already
written Ian Fleming’s biography, did you come up
with the idea or were you approached to write it?
What it came from really once I’d got the idea of doing it, actually I
think it was someone most unlikely, it was Lord Longford of all people, he was
in charge of the publishers Sedgwick and Jackson, it was he I think who had the
idea, because after the authorised life of Ian he said “why don’t
you do the life of Bond?” and it made a sort of sense because, and this
is the hub of the book, my theory is that Bond was Ian’s alta ego, he was
the self who he invented almost as a fantasy self to supply the various things
that were lacking in his own life.
His father was a great hero, Ian wasn’t,
he was the guy who when he worked for Naval Intelligence in room 39 in the
Admiralty he sent other people off too fight or to die
and he just stayed there.
he was always conscious that he wasn’t a man of action although he would
have loved to have been because he was brought up on books like Bulldog Drummond
and a lot of Buchan books.
Above: 'James Bond - The Authorised
Biography' is now available on Kindle.
In The Life of Ian Fleming I described the prep school he went
to, it was a rather happy Edwardian prep school and the headmaster
on Friday nights always used to read all the boys wonderful,
exciting adventure stories, and Ian really thrived on these things,
they were part of a romantic streak in him that he wanted to
live by. That was really the beginning of it because, in a funny
way, Ian and Bond are interchangeable.
You can see that clearly from both your biography and Andrew
Lycett’s book, I think that comes through quite clearly
although various other people have been put forward as the template
for Bond but I don’t think that’s true at all.
I think it really was Ian you see, and I think he was a very,
very dissatisfied person, as you know his motto for Bond is “The
World is Not Enough” but that summed up Ian really, the
world wasn’t enough. Although he was enormously successful
with women when he was young, and I remember his wife, Ann Fleming,
telling me that he said until he married her he’d never
spent a whole night with any woman and that’s this sort
of rush of frantic one night stands which I think he must have
indulged in, nipping out of the window! I does seem as though
he was never satisfied by anything in life, whether it was money,
success, society, the war, although in a way he was very successful
in the war.
He certainly seems to have found his feet during the war.
Yes he did, and after the war he told his friend Robert Harling,
who was a chap I used to know on the Sunday Times, after he’d
been out on the Normandy beaches with 30 Assault Unit which
he’d created, that after the war he’d write the
spy story to end all spy stories, and of course he did. And
it was rather incredible that he did, lots of people say this
sort of thing but they never do it. But what I did find once
I started writing it, I did get rather carried away by it and
I felt I knew Bond very well because I’d known Ian and
it was rather an uncanny feeling. I devised this idea that
switching the books round that James Bond was the real character
and that the books that Ian wrote of him were a cover for him
and that he was asked to write them to convince SMERSH and
the Russians that actually Bond didn’t exist at all.
It seemed quite a useful gimmick and one could produce this
book on the strength of it.
Well, in “You Only Live Twice” when there’s
Bond’s obituary it talks about Fleming writing the books
and I think that fits in quite well.
Yes, I think it does, it’s a good old formula really. This
summer I was in Greece where I have a small house on the island
of Ithaka, which is where Ulysses comes from and I was re-reading
The Odyssey again and it’s just pure Bond in many ways,
all these adventures and this is the first novel that theoretically
was ever written. There’s Ulysses going off all around
the Mediterranean on missions, he fights the sirens, the women
who try to deflect him, he goes for the one eyed giant, and all
these adventures and its very, very much like the formula for
Bond. When you get this you realise that in a way part of the
success of Fleming, rather the success of Bond, is that he follows
a very well tried formula.
What was your first impression of Fleming when you met him?
He was enormously uninvolved; he was a very, very distant character!
The strange thing about was that I worked with him, on and
off, for about three years and in fact he did me several enormously
important good turns but I don’t think he realised he
was doing them for me, and I didn’t realise at the time
what was happening, but it was through him that I got into
writing books and ultimately after his death I did his biography,
which made a lot of money and allowed me to go and live in
Italy and change my life and all sorts and so he was a sort
of life changer. And I think was with a lot of other people
too. But I did have a wonderful chance to discover things about
him as for me, when I worked for him, he was always a bit of
a mystery and the success came very suddenly and really too
early for him, he never got what he really wanted out of it
or what he should have got. Everybody else benefited from Bond,
including me actually, but person who didn’t was the
bloke who’d invented him, because again the world was
I hope it came through in the book, that the Bond I saw really
was a rather melancholy figure, a lonely figure, and I think
Ian was. After he died I went of around the world seeing all
the characters I could who knew him and a surprising number of
them were very warm about him, while I never found him a particularly
warm character. But his friends were all compartmentalised, very
few of them knew each other and they were all sorts of different
friends for different occasions. I think he rather specialised
in it. It was fascinating going on this trip tracing where he’d
been and what he’d done, and the people, and that’s
where a lot of stuff in my life of Bond comes in.
I understand that after you wrote the James Bond Biography you
were offered the chance to continue writing more Bond books.
Is there any truth in that?
I don’t think I was! I think I might have been able to
but I didn’t really want to. Perhaps it was vaguely suggested
and there was some talk that they’d use it for the basis
of a film. In fact I think it probably could do, it could be
a rather good one. If they’re stuck for the next Bond film
they could do worse than use my book!
Absolutely! I imagine there was quite a difference between
writing Ian Fleming’s biography compare with Bond’s
Well there wasn’t all that much difference because Ian’s
life, in its funny way, was so much the life of Bond himself,
except that Bond was the person he wanted to be – and he
wasn’t! He didn’t treat his women badly – shockingly
- and all the rest of it in the way that Bond did – or
perhaps he did, I don’t know – but he wasn’t
the great seducer in the way that Bond was, he wasn’t the
man of action that Bond was, he wasn’t very brave I think.
There were bits of the story that I got from real life, I had
Bond in Russia meeting Ian the time of the Metro-Vickers trials
of these British engineers, there were bits like that that one
could use as well but it was great fun to write actually.
To finish off, can you tell me you most enduring memory of Ian
My memory of him is something I didn’t actually see, but
was told to me by Amherst Villiers, actually I did see him when
he was very ill, and he really did look like he was indulging
in slow suicide, but Villiers asked him you’ve got everything
you wanted in life, such as money and success, what’s it
like now. Ian replied “Ashes dear boy, ashes.” And
I think it’s that, there was this tiredness with this world,
a very sad story really, the fact of getting it all, but by then
it was too late.
Many thanks to John Pearson and David Leigh of The
James Bond Dossier.
Above: John Pearson's 'The Life of
Ian Fleming' will be republished in paperback by Bloomsbury
on 25th April 2013.
The Life of Ian Fleming
It is now 50 years since the premiere
of Dr No, the very first Bond film, with Sean Connery introducting
the glamorous secret agent who would become the single
most profitable movie character in the history of cinema.
But James Bond was invented by one man, Ian Fleming, a
wartime intelligence officer and Sunday Times newspaper
man who lived to see only the very beginning of the Bond
John Pearson's famous biography remains the definitive
account of how only Ian Fleming could have dreamed up
James Bond, for he led a life as colourful as anything
fiction, which in turn became a covert autobiography.
Charming, debonair and a ruthless womaniser, globetrotting
Algiers to beachside Jamaica, Fleming was as elusive
and opaque as his imaginary creation. In his new introduction,
John Pearson examines the extent to which Fleming's character
informs even the most recent movie portrayals of his
and how Bond himself has achieved immortality beyond
his creator's wildest dreams.
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