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How James Bond was forged in the heat of war

15-Apr-2008 • Literary

Ian Fleming's war years lie at the heart of a new exhibition about the author and his creation, James Bond, writes Mark Monahan in The Telegraph.

'I extracted the Bond plots from my wartime memories, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain, and a heroine, and there was the book." So Ian Fleming, with characteristic sangfroid, described the genesis of one of the most famous characters the world has ever known.

It's apt that For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond should be at the Imperial War Museum, and apt, too, that you pass a panoply of heavy-duty war machines to get to the entrance.

As this centennial walk through Fleming's life makes abundantly clear - through captions, the odd bit of multimedia, and above all an impressive array of artefacts and documents - Bond may be a Cold War assassin, but he was a product of two things: not only the extravagant social skills and vices of his creator, but also the "hot" war of 1939-45.

Ian Fleming was born on May 28, 1908, into privilege, with war and the military seldom far. His grandfather Robert was a rich Scottish banker, his father Valentine a Conservative MP, killed on the Western Front in 1917. For the young Ian, Eton led to Sandhurst, then to a period studying languages in Austria. Next came a job at Reuters, then banking, then stockbroking.

One job application form is stark proof of where Fleming's interests had tended to lie at Eton. Under the category "Any Distinctions at School", Fleming includes seven sporting, and not a single academic one - and this is borne out by a display case that includes more silver sporting cups than you could carry.

Certainly, in the years between school and the war, his chief interests remained physical and social rather than cerebral: golf, smoking, drinking, gambling - and women. Fleming was even known as "Glamour Boy" to the many high-society friends he entertained at his flat in Ebury Street, London. Remind you of anyone?

But, if Fleming himself set the template for much of 007, his wartime job supplied the rest. In 1939, he became assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, director of Naval Intelligence Division (NID), and the man who - much to his chagrin - became the model for "M". Fleming's involvement in NID is well known - what's surprising is the extent of his involvement, and the enthusiasm Fleming poured into the job.

The war years feel like the heart of the exhibition. Fleming was constantly hatching plans such as "Operation Ruthless", which required "a tough bachelor, able to swim", but which Fleming, rather amusingly, later described as "nonsense". In 1942, he also created 30 Assault Unit (his "Red Indians"), a commando team charged with seizing enemy documents before they could be destroyed.

There were also early inspirations for future Bond plots in the Italian frogmen who sank Allied shipping off Gibraltar (Bond's long swim in Live and Let Die), and in the supersonic German V-2 rockets that killed 9,000 people (Moonraker). Yet, of all the original documents in this section, one comment from Fleming's subsequent superior Commodore Rushbrooke is the most significant: "He has craved active employment," he says, "but it has not been possible to release him for regular active service."

And so, the portrait emerges of an exceptional physical specimen with exceptional charm who had finally found a job that stoked his intelligence and imagination but who knew too many secrets to be allowed to participate in any derring-do. What better outlet than to invent someone who was sent into the field? Or, put another way, had Fleming been allowed to act more like Bond, would he have felt any need to invent him?

Subsequent rooms confirm that Bond was wish-fulfilment for readers, too. A colourful collection of receipts from Fleming's travels remind one not only of the effort he put into his research, but also that this was an age when the concept of getting on an aeroplane and ending up somewhere far-off and hot was both feasible and glamorous.

Fleming chose the locations for his novels with the care of a five-star tour operator, while also presenting a post-war world in which Britain, not the US, was the chief Soviet adversary - very seductive to a British readership.

Having gone through the writer's post-war existence, the exhibition includes several neat examples of real-life Cold War gadgetry, and an impressive wall of 007 editions from around the world ("El espía que me amó"; "Si vive solo due volte"), before winding up, inevitably, with Bond on film. Fun as it is to see the microlight "Little Nellie" (from You Only Live Twice) and so on, this feels the weakest section - like a short précis of another, far bigger, separate show.

Other gripes? I'd like to have seen some sort of separate look at each book both on its own terms and compared to its corresponding film. And, with more money, it would have been nice to have a three-dimensional, Madame Tussaud's-like villains' gallery rather than just very flat prints on a wall.

So, it's not exactly an exhibition to leave one (as the phrase has it) shaken or stirred, and I suspect children will be bored by most of it. But, for any grown-up Bond nut, or simply Second World War enthusiast, the diligence of the curating makes it worth a visit - on which subject, one final example.

In an unsolicited letter dated May 23, 1956, a magnificently pedantic ballistics expert, G Boothroyd, expresses his liking for the novels, but chastises Fleming for giving Bond a Beretta pistol: "This sort of gun is really a ladies' gun," he writes, "and not a really nice lady at that."

Bond soon had a new gun, and a new armourer. And glance at the credits for the film of From Russia with Love, and you'll notice that Desmond Llewellyn's character is not, in fact, called "Q", but Boothroyd.

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