Authors: Ben Macintyre
Ian Fleming + James Bond
âThe scent and smoke and sweat of a casino . . .'
One morning in February 1952, in a holiday hideaway on the island of Jamaica, a middle-aged British journalist sat down at his desk and set about creating a fictional secret agent, a character that would go on to become one of the most successful, enduring and lucrative creations in literature. The circumstances were not immediately auspicious. Ian Fleming had never written a novel before, though he had done much else. He had tried his hand at banking, stockbroking and working as a newspaper correspondent. As a young man of English privilege, he had toyed with the idea of being a soldier, or a diplomat, but neither had worked out. Only during the war, working in the Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy, had he found a task â as an officer in naval intelligence dreaming up schemes to bamboozle the enemy â worthy of his vivid imagination. But by 1952, the excitement of the war was just a memory. He had settled
into a job as a writer and manager on the
, a role that involved some enjoyable travel, a little work and a lot of golf, women and lunch. Born to wealth and status, Ian Fleming found his existence undemanding but unsatisfying. Even his best friends would have snorted at the notion that he was destined for immortality.
This, then, was the man who, after a morning swim to wash out the hangover of the night before, hunched over the desk in his Jamaican home âGoldeneye' and began to type, using six fingers, on his elderly Royal portable typewriter. The opening line, after several amendments and corrections, would read: âThe scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning . . .' Fleming wrote fast, the words pouring out at the rate of two thousand a day, crammed into the space between dawn and the first cocktail, a great rush of creativity conceived in haste and a miasma of tobacco smoke.
A month after he had started writing, Fleming tapped out the words â. . . “the bitch is dead now”.'
was complete, and James Bond was born.
Like the character he had created, Ian Fleming was a great deal more complex than he seemed on first acquaintance. Beneath the sybaritic exterior, Fleming was a driven man, intensely observant, with an internal sense of romance and drama that belied his public languor and occasional cynicism. He pretended not to take his books too seriously â âthe
pillow fantasies of an adolescent mind' was how he later described them â but he approached the craft of thriller-writing with the precision of a professional, and he knew, instinctively, exactly what he was doing. He wrote for many reasons: to take his mind off his impending marriage to Ann Rothermere; increasingly, to prove to her somewhat snooty literary friends that he was a genuine novelist; to emulate his brother, the successful travel writer Peter Fleming; and to stop his friend and neighbour in Jamaica, NoÃ«l Coward, from badgering him to get on and âwrite his bloody book'. He also wrote to make money, preferably in large quantities. Fleming liked money (his lifestyle demanded it), and never felt he had quite enough. James Bond would soon help to put that right.
However, for all Fleming's apparent insouciance, this was no mere money-making venture, but an expression and extension of an extraordinary man. Bond is, in part, Fleming. The exploits of 007 grew directly out of Fleming's knowledge of wartime intelligence and espionage; they shared similar tastes and attitudes towards women; they even looked similar. Fleming would teasingly refer to the Bond books as âautobiography'. Like every good journalist, Fleming was a magpie, collecting material avidly and continuously: names, places, plots, gadgets, faces, restaurant menus and phrases; details from reality that would then be translated into fiction. He once remarked: âEverything I write has a precedent in truth.' Fleming's research extended to his own personality, which
would find expression in a handsome, attractive and conflicted secret agent.
But Bond is also, in part, what Fleming was not. He was the fantasy of what Fleming would like to have been â indeed, what every Englishman raised on Bulldog Drummond and wartime derring-do would like to have been. Bond is a grown-up romantic fairy tale, a promise that Britain, having triumphed in the World War, was still a force to be reckoned with in the dull chill of the Cold War. In the grim austerity of postwar Britain, here was a man dining on champagne and caviar, enjoying guiltless sex, glamorous foreign travel, and an apparently unlimited expense account.
This was the Bond recipe: part imagination and part truth; part Ian Fleming and part his alter ego; fiction based on fact, with a dash of journalism. This thriller cocktail was as heady and intoxicating as the weapons-grade martini James Bond orders in
: âThree measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large thick slice of lemon-peel.' Kina Lillet was a particularly bitter wine-based aperitif laced with quinine from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, or âkina kina'; vodka mixed with gin is a particularly lethal combination. Drinking one of these Bond cocktails is a little like reading one's first Bond novel: it leaves you reeling, light-headed and faintly guilty, but keen for another.
contains many of the ingredients that explain
why Bond would go on to conquer the world: beautiful, externally tough but emotionally vulnerable women; a glamorous setting; a repulsive villain; cold-blooded communist killers; sex, violence and luxury. But it is the character of Bond â established in the first novel and hardly altered thereafter â that explains the enduring appeal of the world Fleming forged: tough, resourceful, quintessentially British, but also, as Fleming intended, empty â the blunt instrument of the British secret service, a blank slate for the reader to write on.
Thirteen more Bond books would follow
. By the time of his death, just twelve years later, Ian Fleming had sold more than forty million copies, and the first two Bond films had been made, to acclaim, giving birth to a multi-billion-dollar industry that expands with every passing year. Today, more than half the world's population has seen at least one Bond film. Ann, Fleming's wife, would nickname him âThunderbeatle', as rich and celebrated as the Beatles themselves. Bond not only outlived Fleming, but continues to be reborn: new films, new books authorised by the Fleming estate, new spoofs. Every age gets the Bond it needs. He is updated with new attitudes to sex, smoking and alcohol, and remodelled with fresh tailoring, new enemies and ever more imaginative gadgets. The film Bond evolved in different ways from Fleming's creation, taking on the characteristics of actors as different as Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and now
Daniel Craig. In the books, Bond kills sparingly, while on screen the carnage is often staggering. Fleming's Bond is vulnerable, prey to nerves and even fear, whereas on screen he barely bleeds, let alone psychologically. Yet the essential Bond is the same, the brand eternal: a sardonic, stylish, seductive Englishman, with a licence not just to kill, but to perform every feat that an armchair Bond can imagine.
Back in 1952, having finished what he called his âoafish opus', Fleming stuck the sixty-thousand-word manuscript in his briefcase and for some time showed it to no one. One of the first to read it, a former girlfriend, Clare Blanchard, told him waspishly: âIf you must publish it, for heaven's sake do it under a different name' â with hindsight one of the worst pieces of advice in literary history. Fleming claimed the writing of this âthriller thing' had been easy, the distraction of a few hours, dashed off with âhalf his brain'. He would maintain this airy attitude to the end, insisting that
could be boiled down to a few key elements: âI extracted them from my wartime memories,' he remarked, âdolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.'
This nonchalance was, we can be sure, the purest bluff, something that Fleming, as a lifelong card-player and former expert in naval intelligence, was very good at. He may have pretended to dismiss his creation, and play down its literary merit, but he must have known that he had written a remarkable book, albeit remarkably fast. The idea for Bond had
been gestating in his mind, and his personality, for at least a decade. Back in 1944, as the war reached its climax, Fleming had told a friend in deep earnestness: âI am going to write the spy story to end all spy stories.'
And that is exactly what he did.
The Life: Smelling Battle From Afar
Ian Lancaster Fleming: even his name had an imagined romance sewn into it, for his mother liked to claim descent from John of Gaunt, the fourteenth-century Duke of Lancaster and the rich and powerful son of Edward III. Whether this claim to medieval royal ancestry contained any truth is unclear, and perhaps unimportant, for Fleming family myth was a powerful force, and an important element in the genetic recipe that made up James Bond.