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Tribute to Ian Fleming: James Bond, the Last Englishman

30-May-2008 • Literary

On Wednesday Ian Fleming would have turned 100 had he not died in 1964, reports The Times. Radio 4 marked the occasion with a dramatisation of Dr No – far from the best Bond novel, even if it does contain death by being buried in tons of bird poo – and a brace of documentaries. In James Bond, the Last Englishman, the historian David Cannadine made a convincing case for the theory that Bond was a reaction to Britain’s decline as a major global power. One Englishman could make a difference, even affect history, in a way his country no longer could.

But it was The Bond Correspondence that gave us a side of Fleming that would have come as a surprise to many. Perhaps it shouldn’t seem strange that Fleming was a loving husband and father – he did, after all, write the classic children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But what came through in his letters was that he was also a gentle man, if not quite a gentleman (his louche side was to kill him young, even as it had cut off his army career while he was still at Sandhurst when he picked up VD from a hooker).

Fleming’s niece Lucy went through the hundreds of letters that Bond fans wrote to him. Many were complaints, notably after Fleming had given the impression, at the end of From Russia with Love (1957) that Bond had actually died – “It’s unfair to create a character and then kill him off,” wrote Frustrated of Foxearth. Fleming wrote back to him and hundreds of others in the style of a medical bulletin to the effect that an antidote to the poison (incurable in all but cases involving 007) had been administered, and that their hero would doubtless return. By then, Fleming had tired of his creation, but he was to publish nine more Bond books.

And then there were the letters that pulled him up on errors of fact. The women who pointed out that a perfume he had ascribed to Dior was actually by Balmain, and the man who went into extreme detail about the brakes on the Orient Express (steam, apparently, not hydraulic.) Most famously there was a gunsmith named Boothroyd, who wrote to say that the pistol Fleming had given Bond, a .25 Beretta, wasn’t powerful enough to knock over a cat. This led to years of correspondence in which Boothroyd became Bond’s virtual armourer, and eventually a character in a Bond novel, the head of Q division. A typically gracious act from a surprisingly good man.

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