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The links between WWII and 007

13-Apr-2008 • Literary

He may be a fictional hero but a new show reveals how James Bond is rooted in wartime reality - reports Nigel Kendall in The Times.

The book Live and Let Die was published in 1954, nine years after the end of the Second World War. In the United Kingdom, meat had just come off rationing after 14 years. And in Manhattan, a place you could only dream of going, a new fictional character called James Bond was living a life of unimaginable luxury, and making you proud to be British. James Bond was a new kind of hero, a secret agent on the front line of what George Orwell in 1945 called the “Cold War”. Bond was an appropriately cold hero for the new age, but, like his creator Ian Fleming, his experiences were forged by real warfare.

The link between creator, character and military history is the subject of For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London. James Taylor, the exhibition’s curator, acknowledges that the link between a fictional character and real history can seem tenuous, but is adamant that both Fleming and Bond belong.

“Fleming’s wartime career informs so much of the Bond novels,” he says. “He takes a wartime chassis and grafts Cold War body parts on to it. Some of the key moments of Fleming’s life relate to war, not least the death of his father in 1917, when Fleming was just a few days short of his ninth birthday. Also, the exhibition is a way of making the Cold War interesting to people. The very word ‘cold’ tends to put them off. Fleming is a very good way of getting to the distinction between an era when Britain went from being the most highly mobilised nation of the Second World War, and an era when the people on the front line were spies, sportsmen, chess players, journalists.”

During the Second World War, Ian Fleming, a successful Reuters journalist who became an unsuccessful stockbroker, served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, acting as adviser to Rear Admiral John Henry Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence. Fleming proved capable of wild flights of fancy in proposing military operations, but despite persistent rumours, there is no evidence that he was himself an active agent.

“I had, like everybody else, bought into the myths and legends surrounding Fleming,” Taylor says. “I’d taken it for granted that he had done espionage work, but he was more involved behind the scenes.”

One of Fleming’s wilder schemes, as outlined in Ben Macintyre’s excellent book that accompanies the exhibition, was to steal a German naval codebook by the following means: “Obtain from the Air Ministry an air-worthy German bomber. Pick a tough crew of five, including pilot, W/T (wireless/telegraph) officer and word-perfect German speaker. Dress them in German Air Force uniforms, add blood and bandages to suit. Crash plane in the Channel after making SOS to rescue service. Once aboard rescue boat, shoot German crew, dump overboard, bring boat back to English port.”

The plan was deemed too risky, and came to nothing. It’s worth noting, though, that Fleming himself was a “word-perfect German speaker”. Was he casting himself in the role of hero, and did he continue to do so in the Bond books?

“Fleming always tried to make clear that he wasn’t James Bond,” Taylor says, “but often when asked whether he was, he would mischievously reply, ‘I couldn't say.’ Which was actually true. He’d signed the Official Secrets Act, which was taken far more seriously in those days. He couldn’t.”

The truth, Taylor believes, is more mundane. “Bond is a composite figure. There are 25 people who could in some measure have informed Bond, including Fleming’s father and elder brother. Bond is a big mixture of influences, with characteristics drawn from many sources.”

Fleming may have kept quiet about his own experiences, but to contemporary readers, the Bond novels were alive with wartime references. “When Fleming was writing,” Taylor explains, “he used a kind of shorthand that perhaps a reader today wouldn’t pick up on. Irma Bunt for instance, Blofeld’s righthand woman (in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), in the mind of the contemporary reader would call to mind Irma Grese, the Belsen guard. With a colleague I went through and found every single wartime reference we could, and there are so many of them.

“With the villains it’s particularly noticeable. At the time he’s writing he has to out-Nazi the Nazis. This is the time of ongoing war crimes trials.

People are reading on a regular basis reports of all manner of atrocities, and Fleming somehow has to make his villains even more truly evil.”

The dastardly baddie would subsequently pose the same challenge to the makers of the Bond films, the first of which, Dr No, was released in 1962. Fleming, by now living at his home in Jamaica, wanted someone able to combine suave sophistication with a hard edge. Cary Grant was suggested. When Sean Connery was cast, Fleming was appalled. “I’m looking for Commander James Bond, not an overgrown stunt man,” he growled, although after seeing Connery’s performance he gave the Bond of his later books a Scottish ancestry by way of apology.

It’s roughly at this point in the exhibition, as in Fleming’s life, that the fictional character takes over from his creator. “The first half of the show is Fleming biographical, the second half is almost a biography of Bond,” Taylor says. “By 1964, Fleming has really handed over control of Bond to the film industry.” This, of course, creates its own problems for the exhibition’s organisers, since there are effectively two James Bonds – the one in the novels, and the one on the screen.

“Actually, it’s not a very difficult line to draw,” says Taylor. “There are key areas where the films differ from the books, the gadgets being the most obvious example. We’ll have a number on display, including the gyrocopter.” Unfortunately, there’s no room for the Aston Martin DB5 first seen in Goldfinger, but material from the most recent film, Casino Royale, will also be on show for the first time, alongside Rosa Klebb’s shoe-dagger, first seen in From Russia With Love.

For Taylor, though, there is only one prize exhibit. “We have the original manuscript of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale. It may just be a sheaf of type-written pages, but it represents the birth of a character who ranks alongside Sherlock Holmes and Dracula as one of the great literary creations. And here he is, still going strong 56 years on.” Indeed. And still waving the flag for a Britain that vanished with meat rationing.

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