MI6 contributor David Leigh interviews John Pearson about 'The Life of Ian Fleming' and other works
Born in 1930, John Pearson was educated at King's College School, Wimbledon and Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he read history. He has worked on various newspapers, including the Economist, The Times, and the Sunday Times where for a time he wrote the Atticus column. After the success of his book The Life of Ian Fleming, he decamped with wife and family to Rome, where he lived for some years. He followed up his successful non-fiction Fleming title with the officially sanctioned novel 'James Bond: The Authorized Biography of 007' in 1973. Mr Pearson returned to England to research and write the life and times of the Kray brothers, and is now at work on a full-scale biography of the Sitwells.
MI6 contributor David Leigh caught up with the author recently to discuss his work with the Bond phenonenom, both fact and fiction.
How did the James Bond biography come
about? Prior to writing it I know you'd already
written Ian Fleming's biography, did you come up
with the idea or were you approached to write it?
His father was a great hero, Ian wasn't, he was the guy who when he worked for Naval Intelligence in room 39 in the Admiralty he sent other people off too fight or to die and he just stayed there.
I think he was always conscious that he wasn't a man of action although he would have loved to have been because he was brought up on books like Bulldog Drummond and a lot of Buchan books.
In The Life of Ian Fleming I described the prep school he went to, it was a rather happy Edwardian prep school and the headmaster on Friday nights always used to read all the boys wonderful, exciting adventure stories, and Ian really thrived on these things, they were part of a romantic streak in him that he wanted to live by. That was really the beginning of it because, in a funny way, Ian and Bond are interchangeable.
You can see that clearly from both your biography and Andrew
Lycett's book, I think that comes through quite clearly
although various other people have been put forward as the template
for Bond but I don't think that's true at all.
I think it really was Ian you see, and I think he was a very, very dissatisfied person, as you know his motto for Bond is "The World is Not Enough" but that summed up Ian really, the world wasn't enough. Although he was enormously successful with women when he was young, and I remember his wife, Ann Fleming, telling me that he said until he married her he'd never spent a whole night with any woman and that's this sort of rush of frantic one night stands which I think he must have indulged in, nipping out of the window! I does seem as though he was never satisfied by anything in life, whether it was money, success, society, the war, although in a way he was very successful in the war.
He certainly seems to have found his feet during the war.
Yes he did, and after the war he told his friend Robert Harling, who was a chap I used to know on the Sunday Times, after he'd been out on the Normandy beaches with 30 Assault Unit which he'd created, that after the war he'd write the spy story to end all spy stories, and of course he did. And it was rather incredible that he did, lots of people say this sort of thing but they never do it. But what I did find once I started writing it, I did get rather carried away by it and I felt I knew Bond very well because I'd known Ian and it was rather an uncanny feeling. I devised this idea that switching the books round that James Bond was the real character and that the books that Ian wrote of him were a cover for him and that he was asked to write them to convince SMERSH and the Russians that actually Bond didn't exist at all. It seemed quite a useful gimmick and one could produce this book on the strength of it.
Well, in "You Only Live Twice" when there's
Bond's obituary it talks about Fleming writing the books
and I think that fits in quite well.
Yes, I think it does, it's a good old formula really. This summer I was in Greece where I have a small house on the island of Ithaka, which is where Ulysses comes from and I was re-reading The Odyssey again and it's just pure Bond in many ways, all these adventures and this is the first novel that theoretically was ever written. There's Ulysses going off all around the Mediterranean on missions, he fights the sirens, the women who try to deflect him, he goes for the one eyed giant, and all these adventures and its very, very much like the formula for Bond. When you get this you realise that in a way part of the success of Fleming, rather the success of Bond, is that he follows a very well tried formula.
What was your first impression of Fleming when you met him?
He was enormously uninvolved; he was a very, very distant character! The strange thing about was that I worked with him, on and off, for about three years and in fact he did me several enormously important good turns but I don't think he realised he was doing them for me, and I didn't realise at the time what was happening, but it was through him that I got into writing books and ultimately after his death I did his biography, which made a lot of money and allowed me to go and live in Italy and change my life and all sorts and so he was a sort of life changer. And I think was with a lot of other people too. But I did have a wonderful chance to discover things about him as for me, when I worked for him, he was always a bit of a mystery and the success came very suddenly and really too early for him, he never got what he really wanted out of it or what he should have got. Everybody else benefited from Bond, including me actually, but person who didn't was the bloke who'd invented him, because again the world was not enough.
I hope it came through in the book, that the Bond I saw really was a rather melancholy figure, a lonely figure, and I think Ian was. After he died I went of around the world seeing all the characters I could who knew him and a surprising number of them were very warm about him, while I never found him a particularly warm character. But his friends were all compartmentalised, very few of them knew each other and they were all sorts of different friends for different occasions. I think he rather specialised in it. It was fascinating going on this trip tracing where he'd been and what he'd done, and the people, and that's where a lot of stuff in my life of Bond comes in.
I understand that after you wrote the James Bond Biography you
were offered the chance to continue writing more Bond books.
Is there any truth in that?
I don't think I was! I think I might have been able to but I didn't really want to. Perhaps it was vaguely suggested and there was some talk that they'd use it for the basis of a film. In fact I think it probably could do, it could be a rather good one. If they're stuck for the next Bond film they could do worse than use my book!
Absolutely! I imagine there was quite a difference between
writing Ian Fleming's biography compare with Bond's
Well there wasn't all that much difference because Ian's life, in its funny way, was so much the life of Bond himself, except that Bond was the person he wanted to be - and he wasn't! He didn't treat his women badly - shockingly - and all the rest of it in the way that Bond did - or perhaps he did, I don't know - but he wasn't the great seducer in the way that Bond was, he wasn't the man of action that Bond was, he wasn't very brave I think. There were bits of the story that I got from real life, I had Bond in Russia meeting Ian the time of the Metro-Vickers trials of these British engineers, there were bits like that that one could use as well but it was great fun to write actually.
To finish off, can you tell me you most enduring memory of Ian
My memory of him is something I didn't actually see, but was told to me by Amherst Villiers, actually I did see him when he was very ill, and he really did look like he was indulging in slow suicide, but Villiers asked him you've got everything you wanted in life, such as money and success, what's it like now. Ian replied 'Ashes dear boy, ashes.' And I think it's that, there was this tiredness with this world, a very sad story really, the fact of getting it all, but by then it was too late.
The Life of Ian Fleming
John Pearson's famous biography remains the definitive account of how only Ian Fleming could have dreamed up James Bond, for he led a life as colourful as anything in his fiction, which in turn became a covert autobiography. Charming, debonair and a ruthless womaniser, globetrotting from wartime Algiers to beachside Jamaica, Fleming was as elusive and opaque as his imaginary creation. In his new introduction, John Pearson examines the extent to which Fleming's character informs even the most recent movie portrayals of his hero, and how Bond himself has achieved immortality beyond his creator's wildest dreams.