This Charming Man - The Life and Times of Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming Jamaica

Ian Fleming: the Man Behind James Bond by Andrew Lycett is a comprehensively researched - with hundreds of interviews and direct access to Fleming's papers - and very readable trawl through the life and times of the suave 007 author and contains a number of fascinating details about the inspiration behind his famous fictional creation and to what extent Bond's character traits derived from Fleming's own life, tastes and attitudes. The young Fleming was a rather aimless and bohemian character for a while according to Lycett, wafting around the pre-war world on his travels with private money and becoming at one point 'the world's worst' stockbroker. But he quickly acquired the expensive tastes and habits that would play such a prominent role in the books that eventually made him famous. Born in London on May 28th, 1908, Fleming attended Eton and Sandhurst but underachieved academically and failed the Foreign Office exams, eventually turning to journalism and joining the Reuters news agency in 1931. On assignment in Moscow, Fleming developed a fondness for vodka and caviar and established contacts with British intelligence. The seeds of James Bond were slowly starting to be sown.

The fleshing out of Fleming's background is perhaps rather a slog on occasion while we wait for the James Bond years to enter the biography. There is much social detail about who Fleming drank with or played golf with but the biography picks up when war breaks out in 1939 and Fleming joins the Naval Intelligence Division to become an SIS operator. Although his activities were often far duller than anything 007 endured on his own colourful adventures, Fleming loved this world of intrigue and espionage and built up a store of information and characters to deploy in his subsequent literary Bond series. 'Bond," says Andrew Lycett. 'Gave at least fictional form to Ian's frustrated urge to have been a full-time secret agent, rather than a competent staff officer sitting, office-politicking and dreaming in Room 39 of the Admiralty.' Fleming later met with John F Kennedy to discuss plans to embarrass Castro and induce his slide from power and during the war was in charge of 30 Assault Unit, a commando force that was deployed behind German lines. He also advised the United States on setting up the OSS, the precursor to the CIA and by the end of the war Fleming was a Commander, just like James Bond. 'War,' writes Lycett. 'Proved his making.' In the final months of the conflict Fleming is promising his friends that one day, with his expert knowledge, he is going to write the spy story to end all spy stories.
Ian Fleming spy

Fleming was a bit of a carefree bounder, seducer and caddish bon vivant according to Lycett but is eventually haunted by the death of a girlfriend - that he wasn't very nice to at all - in the Blitz. 'The trouble with Ian,' says a friend. 'Is that you have to get yourself killed before he feels anything.' To Fleming, women were - 'remote, mysterious beings whom you will never hope to understand but, if you're clever, you can occasionally shoot one down.' The book has a vaguely downbeat quality in that Fleming doesn't come across as someone who was always very nice or terribly happy although Lycett tries to temper the largely unflattering portrait once or twice by highlighting his more admirable sides. 'He was in so many ways an agreeable man - good company, surprisingly thoughtful (when he could be bothered), and, despite his tendencies to moroseness, with a remarkable capacity for friendship.' Fleming's dysfunctional relationship with his mother Eve is suggested to explain the charges of misogyny in some of his work. His most important relationship was with Anne, the wife of Viscount Rothermere. They lost a child together and then married a few years later, the marriage dulling the excitement of their formerly surreptitious liaisons. 'Rothermere could not compete with Ian's easy unctuousness,' writes Lycett. Fleming was soon involved in another affair, as was Anne with none other than Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.

In 1952 he drew on his wartime experiences and began writing a spy novel called Casino Royale about a British secret agent called James Bond - the 'ordinary' name taken from the author of the book Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. On a bottle of gin a day at his GoldenEye retreat in Jamaica, where Noel Coward was his neighbour, Fleming rattled out the Bond books on his typewriter with their exotic mixture of sex and sadism in far flung places and elaborate journalistic detail soon attracting readers looking for escapist fare in the austerity of the era. Lycett does a good job in taking us into this sun drenched orbit and social circle as Fleming's new endevour changes his life and becomes an enduring and indestructible part of popular culture. According to Lycett Fleming yearned for critical and intellectual approval and the beginning of the James Bond series of films - with their glossy sheen and abundant technology - made him feel less likely to be taken seriously as a writer. It's a little ironic really when one considers how famous and known Fleming would be today without the cinematic adventures of James Bond. Would many people even read Fleming today were it not for Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman? 
Connery Fleming Bond

Like Arthur Conan-Doyle, who even tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes, Fleming became increasingly cheesed off with his legendary fictional creation and the process of writing the books, leading to some experimentation (The Spy Who Loved Me) and occasional lapses and inconsistencies in continuity and specific character traits. The origins of some of Bond's habits or attitudes are always interesting in the biography. Fleming, for example, thought that stirring drinks damaged the flavour hence Bond's familiar shaken not stirred mantra when ordering his iconic vodka martini. The reflective tone that entered the later Bond novels echoed Fleming's own increasing sense of mortality. He drank too much and smoked too much and was far too fond of rich luxury foods, meats and butter, suffering increasing heart problems - which the knotty case over the rights to Thunderball didn't help. In the end it was a price Fleming seemed willing to pay.

Like Bond, Fleming couldn't be Fleming without his taste for the high life.

- Jake


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