Book Review: The Notes
27th July 2020
Greg Bechtloff dives deep in to John Pearson's new book on Ian Fleming
By MI6 Staff
Ian Fleming: The Notes - Book Review by Greg Bechtloff
Two years after James Bond creator Ian Fleming died in 1964 there appeared the first biography to try to explain the man who had birthed a legend. ‘The Life of Ian Fleming’ was written by John Pearson who knew Fleming himself. John Pearson was a young writer who worked with Fleming on the Sunday Times. In fact, Pearson occasionally ghostwrote the Atticus column that was Fleming’s job for the paper.
Pearson interviewed approximately 150 people to write his biography. Appearing only a few years after Fleming’s death, many of Fleming’s friends, family and colleagues were still alive and could give a penetrating insight into the man who many people thought of as James Bond incarnate.
On the flip side though, ‘The Life of Ian Fleming’ had to walk a tightrope in that some of those same friends, family, and colleagues might not appreciate the unvarnished truth about Ian Fleming appearing in print.
Subsequent books like Andrew Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming had the critical and temporal distance to present Fleming warts and all. Regardless though, Pearson’s book was the trailblazer.
To reinforce that seminal biography, the Queen Anne Press has recently published ‘Ian Fleming: The Notes’ by John Pearson. This beautifully put together edition collects the written out background materials by Pearson to help him write the biography.
As such, ‘The Notes’ comprises Pearson’s observations on Fleming locations such as New York and Jamaica. The book also contains the written out questions, answers, and authorial commentary from the multitude of interviews of people from all eras of Fleming’s life.
The wide-ranging interviewees include Ann Fleming, Peter Fleming. Ivar Bryce, Blanche Blackwell, John Godfrey and Eric Ambler among many others.
The portrait that emerges of Fleming the man from these interviews is one that is very far removed from the character of James Bond. Yes, James Bond was Ian Fleming’s projection of an idealized version of himself. That has been written of many times before.
What has not been widely reported on were the deep insecurities and hang-ups that plagued Fleming throughout his life. Marital problems, commitment issues and creeping alcoholism were chronic flaws in Ian Fleming’s own character but were absent from 007’s.
The early death of his father Valentine set the stage for Fleming’s mother Eve to be the matriarch of the Fleming clan. Her goal was to channel all her children to prominent positions in society and industry. All aspects of her children’s lives were to be arranged according to her dictates.
This controlling agenda and the rebellion that Ian Fleming waged against his mother’s influence stayed with him right up until both their deaths very close to each other in 1964.
The role of mother Eve (also known as “M”) over Ian runs throughout this book. But also revealed are many facets of Ian Fleming that have been given scant notice throughout the years. Many people mention how effeminate Fleming seemed in person. That is a far cry from the received macho Bondian image. So too are Elton John-like tantrums that Fleming was known to throw at times.
Also of interest is how many people mention that Fleming actually knew very little about food, drinks and clothing all of which are supposedly mastered by James Bond. A few mention how godawful the Jamaican food served at Goldeneye was but how much Fleming lapped it up.
The creation of the James Bond character is fully covered from many different angles in ‘The Notes’. What sticks out though is how important the author Somerset Maugham was to Ian Fleming. From the style of his writing to the lifestyle that Maugham led, Ian Fleming apparently set out to do whatever he could to gain the older author’s approval.
These insights and many others make ‘Ian Fleming: The Notes’ essential reading for any serious student of Ian Fleming and James Bond.
The main caveat though is that this book is the crude oil of what later became the more refined ‘Life of Ian Fleming’. You really have to know a lot about Fleming and/or have read the original Pearson biography (or the later Lycett book) to fully appreciate how good this new book is.
To read this book without that prior knowledge would be like watching all the supplemental material on a movie without having seen the movie.
This book though is not a dry academic exercise. In fact, it is an essential resource about who Ian Fleming was and how his unique vision created an enduring icon that lives on in a massive film series.
It’s also a testament to how good an author John Pearson is. This is the same author who also wrote about The Krays and the Getty kidnapping which formed the basis of the Ridley Scott film ‘All The Money In The World’. And we all know that Pearson went on to write the ‘biography’ of James Bond himself. The underlying knowledge for that book can all be traced back to what is in ‘Ian Fleming: The Notes’.
This new book is expensive and limited in quantity. The information contained in it though is worth the outlay. ‘Ian Fleming: The Notes’ is a substantial addition to any serious collection of Ian Fleming and James Bond reference books.
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