The man behind 007 - Charlie Higson writes about Ian Fleming
an Fleming's time in the secret service during the war gave him the background for James Bond, but his style came from journalism and marriage gave him the impetus to write. By Charlie Higson for The Guardian
Over the last few years publicising my Young Bond books I've given countless talks to children. I usually spend the first few minutes explaining to them who Ian Fleming was. Like most people they know 007 from the films rather than the books, but by the end of this year I don't think I'll need to do any explaining. This month is Fleming's centenary and he's everywhere. The new adult Bond thriller, Devil May Care, written by Sebastian Faulks, is out this month, we've already seen the rather stylish Royal Mail stamps, there's an exhibition at the Fleming Collection Gallery of artwork from the books and films and there's a larger exhibition, with accompanying book by Ben Macintyre, at the Imperial War Museum in London, not to mention the countless radio and TV programmes that will be running right up to the release of the new Daniel Craig film. If you didn't know much about Fleming in January there will be no excuse come December. You might feel there's a certain overkill to all this, but the celebrations mark the culmination of several years hard work by his estate to put Fleming firmly back at the top of the Bond tree.
The Imperial War Museum's For Your Eyes Only exhibition is a surprisingly successful attempt to make a writer's life accessible and interesting. It's true that to us fellow writers the original manuscript of a Bond novel, complete with Fleming's handwritten notes in green ink, is absolutely fascinating, but to the general public it is not. Let's face it, writers are pretty boring. Writers never know how to pose for photographs - is it hand on chin, or hand not on chin? Some might get drunk and sleep around, some might shoot themselves in an effort to appear more interesting, but the fact is 99% of our lives are spent locked away in a small room with a keyboard. Expect to see a lot of footage in the various TV documentaries of some poor actor who looks vaguely like Fleming sitting at a typewriter, alternatively looking thoughtfully into the distance or tapping away at the keys. This tells us absolutely nothing. All the excitement in a writer's life is in his head.
Fleming was essentially no different - although he did know how to pose for a photograph; he was never snapped without a lit cigarette in his hand, his sardonic features wreathed in clouds of photogenic smoke (how he would have railed against the ban, even though the fags probably killed him). Plus, of course, there was the reflected glamour of Bond. Fleming posed several times with a gun and played up to the idea that there was only a thin line dividing him from his fictional hero. The bulk of the IWM exhibition is concerned with the parallels between Fleming and his creation, but it's perhaps more interesting to look at the ways in which they differed. For a start, Fleming didn't like guns and hated shooting, even though, as part of a wealthy Scottish family, he should have liked nothing more than tramping over the moors blasting away at small birds. It was ironic, then, that he died on August 12 - the glorious 12th - start of the grouse shooting season.
Fleming enjoyed gambling, but was cautious and none too successful. He loved fast, powerful cars, but, unlike Bond, was stopped for speeding in the United States, and his most serious accident was when he reversed into a milk float. So did he share Bond's taste in food? The books are filled with mouth-watering descriptions of lavish and exotic meals, but Fleming was a conservative and undiscerning eater who liked nothing more than a plate of scrambled eggs. His tastes in women were closer to Bond's. Fleming was certainly a womaniser, charming and witty but callous. Ben Macintyre quotes one of his conquests as saying: "For Ian women were like fishcakes. Mind you, he was very fond of fishcakes, but he never pretended there was any mystique about eating them."
Like Bond he had a fear of commitment and marriage, preferring the safety of affairs with other men's wives, and, like Bond, he eventually caved in and got spliced. But whereas Bond's wife, Tracy (for once his genius with names let him down), is conveniently killed on their honeymoon, Fleming stayed married to the end of his life - though it was a troubled, plate-throwing kind of a marriage. In fact, it was probably the shock of getting married that compelled him to finally get around to writing the books he'd had knocking around in his head for some years. Soon after the wedding he decamped to Goldeneye, his villa in Jamaica, and wrote Casino Royale in about five weeks, pausing only to go snorkelling, have a smoke and down a cocktail, though not necessarily all at the same time. Like Bond, Fleming drank and smoked heavily, but he felt the effects most acutely, whereas there are only two recorded hangovers in all of the 14 books, despite Bond's staggering consumption of booze. The first comes in Casino Royale, when, after a heavy night at the gaming tables, Bond sighs "Champagne and Benzedrine! Never again!" After this Fleming obviously decided that Bond's appeal was that he could live the life his readers dreamed about without suffering any ill effects.
Fleming became almost a sort of Dorian Grey figure, with Bond as the perfect, unblemished side of him. He died unfairly young at 56, but a punishing regime of 60 fags a day and a regular intake of spirits had taken its toll and he looked at least 10 years older. His last few years were troubled by health problems and he channelled his experiences recuperating at a health farm into Thunderball, which starts with Bond's second hangover. Fleming lived in fear of the "iron crab" that threatened to grip his heart, but he was little inclined to change his lifestyle. When his doctor warned him that he needed to stop drinking gin, he simply switched to bourbon (he doesn't seem to have been much interested in vodka, and indeed Bond rarely drinks it in the books. He's more of a whisky man).
Fleming didn't want to slow down and accept his mortality, he hated the idea of spending the rest of his life "going for long walks and looking for birds nests". Like many of his villains he feared boredom, or accidie as he called it, and felt that if he stayed still for too long he would succumb to depression. Bond's philosophy was "I shall not waste my life in trying to prolong it. I shall use my time." Once Fleming hit on Bond, he did use his time, turning out a book every year for the last 12 years of his life. Just before the end, when a major heart attack stopped him in his tracks, he even used his time in hospital to write Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
The effort of writing Bond wore him down; many times he considered killing him off. (In From Russia With Love the ending is left open, after Rosa Klebb's deadly, poisoned, toe-cap stiletto strikes home.) In the end, it was the other way around, though, Bond killed Fleming off and 40 years later he's still going strong.
What, then, is the enduing appeal of Bond? It is simply that he is the man who knows. He's a professional who always does the right thing at the right time: "Nobody does it better." This is the ultimate male fantasy, to know how to order good food and fine wine in fancy restaurants, how to charm a lady into bed, how to drive fast and how to kill. We plodders reading the novels can only dream of this level of savoir-faire, and Fleming himself knew his own limitations. Bond is very much the creation of a man who never quite felt that he was a success.
Fleming always had something of an inferiority complex, and was forever in the shadow of three great men, all hugely successful in their own way: Robert, Valentine and Peter Fleming. Robert Fleming was Ian's grandfather, whose life story was a classic rags-to-riches tale of hard work and shrewd business sense. Born into lowly circumstances in Dundee in 1845, he went on to found the merchant bank Robert Fleming & Co and died leaving a vast fortune. His son, Ian's father Valentine, was a conservative MP who died a hero in the first world war. Peter was Ian's older brother, a fine sportsman, a clever student, and a very good travel writer, celebrated in his day but now, sadly, out of print. Fleming was very much the duffer of the family, floundering about and getting into trouble. The only thing at which he excelled at Eton was athletics. In the blurb for Casino Royale he wrote that winning the Eton athletics prize two years running had only once been equalled "presumably by another second son trying to compensate for a brilliant older brother".
His mother, no doubt fearing that Ian would disgrace the family with his poor results, removed Ian from Eton before he finished his exams and sent him to Sandhurst. He never completed his training there, either. Following a spat with a girl he promptly drove to London and got a dose of the clap from a "tart" he picked up in a nightclub. Confined to his sick bed, his mother made some excuses and that was the end of his army career.
He eventually drifted into journalism, working for Reuters, where he at last found something he was good at. Why he then switched to becoming a stockbroker is not very clear, as he was perhaps "the worst stockbroker in England". In the end, it was the second world war that saved him. He joined naval intelligence and spent the war as personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the director of MI6 and model for M. Fleming seemed to have enjoyed the secret service, where he dreamt up ever more elaborate "plots" to outwit the Germans. He never saw any real action, but he knew many spies and commandos, and debriefed those few who made it back from missions. It was their accounts of horrific German torture methods that inspired many of his own vivid torture scenes. He probably was something of a sado-masochist already, and had developed a fascination with corporal punishment after one too many beatings at Eton. He always had a perverse desire to inflict as much punishment on Bond as he could. The violence in his books can be quite brutal and in his defence, Fleming said that the tame, old-fashioned, urbane style of pre-war British crime novel just wouldn't do, now that everyone had been shown just what evil mankind was capable of. His full-frontal writing style must have been startling at the time, and combined with his use of brand names ("I see no point in changing the name of the Dorchester to the Porchester . . .") and love of technical detail he pretty well invented the modern thriller.
The seeds of Bond were sown during the war, but on leaving the secret service Fleming first went to work for the Sunday Times. The war gave him his subject matter, but the journalism gave him his style. "I learnt to write fast and above all be accurate," he claimed. And then finally it was marriage that gave him his impetus. Sadly, though, despite the huge success of his books, his marriage didn't do a lot for his self-esteem. His wife, Ann, was clever, waspish and something of a snob. She surrounded herself with superior literary types and high-brows, and was embarrassed by the crude, populist appeal of Bond, forcing Fleming to be dismissive of his own work. He described his books (fairly accurately as it happens) as fairytales for grown ups and the pillow fantasies of an adolescent mind. His friend, NoÃ«l Coward stood up for him - "I would so love Ian to triumph over the sneers of Annie's intellectual friends," he wrote.
Of course, Fleming had the last laugh. Most of the 1950s British literary set are no longer read, and James Bond is one of the best-known fictional creations in the world.
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