25th October 2023
Ajay Chowdhury reports from the launch of the new Ian Fleming biography
On Tuesday, 17th October 2023, Harvill Secker publishers celebrated the release of their new biography, 'Ian Fleming: The Complete Man' by Nicholas Shakespeare. The launch event was at Tophams Hotel in Ebury Street, next door to Flat 22B where Ian lived in his formative years commemorated by an English Heritage blue plaque. Published on Global James Bond Day, 5th October 2023, the book party assembled a number of key persons from Fleming’s life. Fuelled by champagne and rather potent Vesper Martinis, the audience was addressed by the book’s editor, Liz Foley who then introduced Kate Grimond, Ian’s niece – nursing a broken arm – and then Mr Shakespeare himself.
Nicholas Shakespeare’s father was a newspaperman whose first job was working under Ian Fleming’s first official biographer, John Pearson at the Times Literary Supplement in 1953. Fate’s finger pointed at Nicholas. Pearson lent his working papers to Shakespeare’s project and the biographical baton was passed on.
The resultant 700-page-plus tome was drawn from hundreds of new interviews with the Fleming family, heirs, associates, and friends. As Grimond, daughter of Ian’s older brother Peter, observed, ‘The Life Of Ian Fleming’ by John Pearson, published in 1966 was hampered by being too proximate to family and the era in which it was written, “Bletchley Park was still to be outed!”
Grimond paid tribute to Andrew Lycett’s “comprehensive” 1995 biography, ‘Ian Fleming’, but pointed out that in the last 30 years, the amount of declassified material released had made another work worthwhile. Grimond thanked some of the notable guests present. Veteran newspaper editor and historian, Max Hastings, Shakespeare’s old boss, who Grimond recalled had opined Fleming’s work had the “highest descriptive gifts.” Ian’s step-daughter, Fionn Morgan, still a spritely presence, who Kate felt “knew Ian best” was one of the last direct connections with that era. Grimond thanked bibliographer Jon Gilbert and the many fan organizations, especially noting the US-based charity, the Ian Fleming Foundation.
From the top of the stairs, the 66-year-old author then addressed the guests packed into the bijou room. Clad in a suit, tie, and sneakers, Shakespeare was an avuncular, amusing host. He recalled Jonathan Cape author Norman Lewis attending a publishing party of old at the publisher’s Bedford Square headquarters. Ian Fleming had wryly noted the room smelled of “carbonised Irish stew.” This was a much more sophisticated affair with bottles of Smirnoff vodka, Gordon’s gin, and Kina Lillet at the bar ready to be shaken, not stirred.
At first, Shakespeare demurred from taking on the gig as he did not want to spend four years researching in “the company of a cad.” His first impressions were pithy, “The moral of Fleming’s story is don’t run off with the wife of the Daily Mail if you don’t wish for the rest of your life to be rendered into tabloid fat.” However, Shakespeare, also an acclaimed novelist, warmed to his subject who emerged to be kinder and complex than had previously been depicted. Fleming’s position at the “heart of the intelligence citadel” provided good biographical meat. As one of a select few cleared to receive ULTRA signal intelligence materials, Fleming’s Bill-Tanner-like role in Naval Intelligence helped shorten World War II. He was much more than the dismissive description of him being “an unimportant bounder to clear in-trays and out-trays and ashtrays.”
Shakespeare felt it was “ridiculous my name is stuck on the cover” when many people helped bring the book to fruition. He thanked Ian’s nephews Fergus and James, the latter with whom he journeyed to Dundee to discover Robert Fleming’s humble roots. Ian’s grandfather would go on to found an eponymous merchant bank which would make him a trillionaire in today’s money. Cultural authors historians Nicholas Rankin, Matthew Parker, and John Cork were helpful. He was grateful to Team Harvill Secker; namely Alan Masely, the picture editor who had spent months accessing the hitherto unpublished cover photo by Horst Tappe which, for eons, had been locked away in storage.
Wary of writing an official biography, Shakespeare notes in his introduction, authorised did not mean controlled and he was encouraged to find an independent publisher. He was grateful to his Harvill Secker editor, Liz Foley, who introduced the evening.
Foley came at the project like most people reading it: a novice on Fleming. Though she had read the Bond books at school – “the nuns thought I should stick to Dick Francis because ponies were more suitable for girls than promiscuous spies” – she raced through the lengthy manuscript. Foley found its Ian was “a person of greater influence and personal vulnerability than I had imagined.” Excising over 50,000 words in the final edit, the richness of Fleming’s life was put in relief when Foley observed, "Ian only wrote the Bond novels in his last 12 years.” Liz was justifiably proud of the work and asked the audience to pay particular attention to the captions of the pictures, many rarely seen. She enjoyed the bittersweet revelation at the end of the book but did not want to spoil it for the crowd. It is indeed shocking! Finally, Foley acknowledged the whole idea had been that of Ian’s nieces, Lucy Williams and Kate Grimond.
Grimond had set up the new biography with wry wit. When Raymond Chandler had admonished his pal over the quality of his writing, Ian Fleming had dismissed his fellow best-selling thriller author: “Anyone would think that I am a lazy Shakespeare. I am not in the Shakespeare stakes.” Grimond looked up and smiled, “Well here he is in the Nicholas Shakespeare stakes.”
The warmth in the room was palpable and we all felt, to quote his latest Nicholas, not William, “Fleming’s ghost among us.”
All photographs courtesy Mark Mawston.