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Why Ian Fleming`s literary creation has a licence to endure

13-May-2008 • Literary

"Bond, James Bond." The words conjure an image, an institution, an industry that is unique in the annals of literature and film. His only rivals, if he has any, are probably Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. Fictional heroes rarely age and live forever, but Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, now long dead, would have celebrated his centenary on May 28 - reports The Australian.

According to London's The Times, Fleming is one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, coming in at No14. Thirty million copies of his books were sold in his lifetime, another 27 million in the year after his death. Three of his titles have been published as Penguin Classics: Goldfinger, Thunderball and From Russia With Love. Even the MI6 website promises recruits "a stimulating and rewarding career which, like Bond's, will be in the service of their country". The ultimate accolade.

Born in Mayfair on May 28, 1908, Ian Lancaster Fleming was the son of privilege but the grandson of a self-made man. Robert Fleming, Ian's grandfather, a Dundee book-keeper, had virtually invented the investment fund and founded his own bank. Ian's father, Valentine Fleming MP, was killed in France days before Ian's ninth birthday and Evelyn, his ambitious, flamboyant mother became and remained a commanding figure in his life.

Ian followed his father and brilliant brother to Eton where he was twice named victor ludorum (the champion athlete).

Evelyn arranged a place for Ian at Sandhurst, but he left after a nasty brush with a prostitute. He spent a few years on the Continent with a view to a diplomatic career but failed the foreign office exam. Yet all was not lost; it was said he could seduce in four languages.

He next worked for Reuters, but needing more money, he entered the City of London. His best biographer, Andrew Lycett, called him "the world's worst stockbroker, and it was not until World War II that he found his metier. In May 1939 he became personal assistant to admiral John Godfrey, the director of naval intelligence and later the inspiration for Bond's fictional boss, M. He had a knack of impressing older men of consequence and was soon promoted to commander, the rank he would give to Bond.

He never saw action (and so earned the soubriquet the Chocolate Sailor), but contributed to anti-German black propaganda. In the US in 1941 he helped write a blueprint for the forerunner of the CIA. He also oversaw Operation Goldeneye, a plan to maintain vital intelligence if the Germans invaded Spain.

Egocentric, charming and cold at whim, with a Greco-Roman profile and a languid air, he was never short of girlfriends and made love throughout the war. Although never monogamous, he increasingly fell for one of his girls.

Ann Charteris was a witty, worldly, imperiously attractive aristocrat. They met in 1934, two years after she had married a childhood friend, Lord O'Neill, head of the most ancient traceable family in Europe. Before the war, she began an affair with the newspaper heir Esmond Harmsworth and by 1940 with Fleming. The three men played bridge together. In 1944, O'Neill was killed in action in Italy. Fleming would not commit, so Ann wed Harmsworth, by now Viscount Rothermere, and a sustained career as one of London's grand post-war hostesses began. Meanwhile, Fleming's sado-masochistic affair with Ann continued unabated.

At The Sunday Times, where, in May 1945, his own press peer, Lord Kemsley employed him as foreign manager, they called him Lady Rothermere's Fan. Fleming was paid the equivalent of pound stg. 200,000 ($415,000), enjoyed regular, exotic travel and three months off.

In 1942 he had fallen for Jamaica and on its north coast he built a Spartan house called Goldeneye. It was here, in January 1952, that he sat down to write his first spy novel. By then, Ann had divorced Rothermere and was just pregnant with Fleming's son, Caspar. He claimed the prospect of marriage was his catalyst to write.

They wed in March 1952, and after Caspar's birth the smarting gave way to verbal lashings and their basic incompatibility surfaced and endured, making them both miserable. Both took lovers but remained attached.

"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning," was his opening line in Casino Royale, the novel that introduced a world-weary Bond, at the gaming tables of Royale-les-Eaux, to a world still emerging from rationing and the reality that Britain was no longer great.

According to Ben Macintyre in his centenary companion, For Your Eyes Only, Bond is a composite, inspired by as many as 25 people Fleming knew. Apart from himself, his brother Peter, who had been a secret agent during the war, may have been a source.

There was also Patrick Dalzel-Job, an intelligence commando unit member and a superb shot, who could ski backwards and pilot a mini-submarine. There was also "Biffy" Dunderdale, the station head of MI6 in France, Cartier cuff-linked and exquisitely suited, who lunched at Maxims and drove an armour-plated Rolls-Royce through the streets of Paris.

But the name leapt at Fleming from his bookshelf at Goldeneye. James Bond, now synonymous with the ultimate action-man, was the author of Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies.

The women in Fleming's books are either adoring secretaries like Miss Moneypenny, Loelia Ponsonby and Mary Goodnight, taking dictation, hanging on the commander's every word; or Bond girls, adolescent fantasy figures like Pussy Galore, Honeychile Rider, Dominetta Vitali, Kissy Suzuki, and Solitaire.

A number of critics cite John Buchan's hero Richard Hannay, clubland hero and gent, as a precursor to Bond. There is something jingoistic and racist in them both. Fleming's villains are fundamentally foreign. SMERSH is Russian, and SPECTRE "continental", Dr No is half Chinese and half German; Blofeld is half Polish, half Greek; Goldfinger is "a Balt".

And yet there are aspects of Bond which are more Bacchanalian than Buchan. His high living, epicurean tastes, penchant for brand names and use of the superlative, created a louche, luxe world for his hero and readers.

When the writer Paul Johnson attacked the Bond opus for its "sex, sadism and snobbery", Fleming nonchalantly responded, "You cannot have the thrilling hero eating rice puddings." Godfrey Smith, one of his

Sunday Times team, recently countered the charge: "This reads quaintly now when sex has become a national sport, torture is officially condoned and celebrity has usurped snobbery."

With his contacts and Ann's, good reviewers were to hand. He cultivated the Anglo-American master of the thriller, Raymond Chandler, who praised Fleming for three unique qualities: a willingness to experiment with conventional English, a flamboyant evocation of place and an "acute sense of pace".

He had struck a winning formula and a rhythm too. He wrote a book at Goldeneye in the first three months, then returned to London for the publication of the one he had written the previous northern winter, while his American publisher produced the book from two years before. He would then set off to somewhere exotic on Sunday Times business, then more travel, brushing up on his current book, before returning to Jamaica.

Fourteen Bond books appeared at regular intervals until 1965. In 1961, John F. Kennedy's fondness for Bond led to a boost in US sales. The US president was said to have been reading Bond the night before he was assassinated; so too was his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald.

In the same year, after many false starts, Fleming signed a film deal with Cubbi Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. He initially preferred David Niven (later the star of a spoof Casino Royale) or Roger Moore (whose chance came later) to little-known, working-class Sean Connery. This changed with Dr No's immediate success, which made both Connery and Fleming celebrities.

Fleming never really got to enjoy his fame. For most of his adult life he had, like Bond, smoked up to 70 custom-made cigarettes a day and swallowed lethal quantities of spirits.

A heart attack in early 1961 had little effect on the succession of Bond issues but it made him melancholic and bored, a condition he feared more than death.

He had, in his own words, "run out of puff and zest" and died on August 12, 1964, aged 56. After Fleming's death, Bond developed a life of his own. By 1999 and the film The World is Not Enough the gags and gadgets had become too much and the time was ripe for Mike Meyers' Austin Powers parodies.

The cinematic gadgetry - inflating ski trousers and secret X-ray spectacles - had increasingly turned the hero into the side-kick to a side-show. And some of the one-liners would have undone even Fleming's sangfroid. As when Q said to M in Moonraker, "I think he's attempting re-entry, sir" as Bond makes love in space.

After a long spiral, the latest film, of the very first novel, Casino Royale, has brought the celluloid Bond back, somewhat appropriately, closer to Fleming's original. While Connery enjoys high status among aficionados, Daniel Craig does seem to have revived Fleming's 007: he's fitter than the middle-aged manikin Moore, more memorable than one-off George Lazenby, more dangerous than mask-like Timothy Dalton, and less mannered, more English than New Age, Irish Pierce Brosnan.

Craig is set to star in the next of the series, Quantum of Solace, the title of a Fleming short story. This will undoubtedly add to the astonishing calculation that more than half the Earth's population has seen at least one Bond film.

To coincide with the Bond centenary, the Fleming estate appointed novelist Sebastian Faulks to revive the hero, following a line of official Bond authors: Kingsley Amis in the 1960s, John Gardner in the '80s, and Raymond Benson in the '90s. The estate also sanctioned Charlie Higson to write a Young Bond series. Faulks' Devil May Care will be set in 1967, the year after the last of Fleming's books and at the height of the Cold War, with a recently widowed Bond, more vulnerable but "both gallant and highly sexed", says Faulks, adding "if you can be both".

Both character and creator are and were seriously flawed, and yet, more than four decades on, with all the helpful gloss and hype of Hollywood, a sense of glamour and style linger and Fleming's evocative prose still manages to inspire a 21st century hero.

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