“Privileged and proud of it”: Fleming in repose. Image: Express Newspapers / Getty Images

Mr Fleming, I presume?

The creator of James Bond is his own man of mystery. A new biography doesn’t quite get to the bottom of it all
January 17, 2024
Ian Fleming: The Complete Man
Nicholas Shakespeare (RRP: £30)
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org

Nicholas Shakespeare’s new biography of Ian Fleming, the fifth to have appeared since 1966, boasts access to previously unseen letters, family papers and new interviews, a process of copious research that nevertheless loops back to the same inescapable conclusion as those earlier books: that Fleming remains the most inscrutable of biographical subjects. With James Bond, Fleming might have created the most totemic and popular fictional character since Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but by instinct he dwelt in the shadows. Surely it would have pleased him to see his name scrolling without fuss or ceremony down the cinema screen at the end of James Bond films. To modern audiences, James Bond is Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Daniel Craig, as Fleming himself has slipped away discreetly, like the perfect gentleman spy. 

Before Fleming slipped away literally—he died aged 56 in 1964—the blockbusting success and considerable riches that resulted from his Bond novels left him curiously unmoved; he would have traded the lot, he said, for a healthy heart and a longer life. He came from serious money, and knew his privilege, although not in the way that phrase is deployed today; he was privileged and proud of it. His banker grandfather accrued fabulous wealth at the end of the 19th century, while his father, Valentine, became Conservative MP for Henley in 1910, but died on the front line during the First World War. Ian’s elder brother, Peter, was the one destined for fame and fortune. Sailing through Eton with distinction, graduating from Oxford with a first, before embarking on the life of a travel writer, he sent dispatches from faraway corners of the planet; the prestigious job of editing the Times was his for the taking, it was thought, once the current editor, Geoffrey Dawson, retired.

The most remarkable thing about Ian, in contrast, was how unremarkable his prospects seemed. Where Peter sailed through Eton, Ian broke just enough sweat to satisfy his teachers, no more, no less. He excelled at nothing much, apart from athletics, and already we find him seeking out that cloak of inconspicuousness that would define him, preferring to lose himself in a crowd where nobody would demand anything of him. Other aspects of his character move into focus. A chap with Ian Fleming’s impeccable credentials might expect to enrol at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, which he did in 1927, before getting kicked out after contracting gonorrhoea; his insatiable lusting after the opposite sex would land him in bother throughout the rest of his life. When Fleming failed to secure a job with the Foreign Office, mainly because he put zero effort into the entry exam, his mother had a word with Roderick Jones, a friend of the family who ran the Reuters news agency, and Ian waltzed into an editing job, which took him to Moscow, where he very nearly landed an interview with Stalin. 

This takes us to 1933 and to page 150 of a biography that will end a whopping 550 pages later (which, I’m dutybound to report, is printed on such absurdly flimsy paper that pages tear and ink smudges easily). We know, because Shakespeare has spelt it out in his introduction, that nothing substantive about James Bond will be forthcoming for another 20 years: Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was written “almost as an afterthought” in 1952 and published a year later. Perhaps anticipating criticism that the main meat of the book, as many readers will perceive it, appears only at the end, Shakespeare presses the argument that the character of Bond would have been inconceivable without the life Fleming led, but “Fleming is someone we should still want to know about” anyway, even if 007 had never existed.

Which is a fair point, although I wished at times for a pacier narrative thrust. Patterns start to repeat. With the Second World War looming, Fleming manages, via the Old Boys’ Network, to land another plum job, this time as PA to Admiral John Henry Godfrey, who oversaw naval intelligence during the war. When, a decade later, Fleming started piecing together Casino Royale, Godfrey became the model for M, Bond’s boss and chief of MI6. In the meantime, though, now “Commander” Fleming—handed the codename 17F—had found his niche. There was no better occupation than intelligence for someone who melted into the background by inclination. Fleming found himself stalking the corridors at Bletchley Park, hatching plans to snatch the Enigma Machine from the Germans, which brought him into contact with Alan Turing, and involving himself in Operation Goldeneye, which aimed to keep intelligence networks in Spain open in the event of a German takeover. After the war, two leitmotifs converge: Fleming is catapulted into yet another prized role, put in charge of the Sunday Times foreign desk after cosying up to press magnate Lord Kemsley, while he begins an affair with Ann Rothermere, wife of Daily Mail proprietor—and his friend—Lord Rothermere. 

Fleming found himself stalking the corridors at Bletchley Park, which brought him into contact with Alan Turing

The period detail is rich, especially as the milieu Shakespeare evokes feels so far removed from our own, but the narrative thread, while stolidly chronological, also has a tendency to slip its moorings. I realise that Shakespeare is unlikely to write another Fleming book and, quite legitimately, wants to flex his research muscle to the max, but sometimes I wished the man with the golden pencil had been given licence to put red lines under some over-written passages detailing the moment-by-moment minutiae of Fleming’s working day. In earlier sections, Shakespeare’s prolonged descriptions of distant family members who never appear again, and of his subject’s years at prep school, already felt like biographical water-treading. I know from bitter experience that getting the balance right between scholarly zeal and serving the reader is difficult—and I’m not sure Shakespeare has quite landed his book on the right side of that equation.

One reason why these more procedural passages drag, beyond our wanting to know more about Fleming’s own intrigues, is that the cast of characters surrounding his world becomes so eye-popping that you just want to read more about them. Having divorced Lord Rothermere in 1951, Ann and Ian married—then Ann embarked on a long affair with Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. The Flemings liked to associate with the cultural elite: Truman Capote, Errol Flynn, Stephen Spender, Cecil Beaton, Graham Greene and David Niven all make cameo appearances, often at Ann’s invitation; clearly she liked to surround herself with men she found intellectually stimulating and physically eye-catching. Fleming’s understated exasperation at—yet again—having to engage in highbrow conversation with Ann’s guests, following a tiring day at the office, raises smiles. Another friend of the couple, Noël Coward, has more than a cameo. Coward’s friendship with Fleming was unusually close, and Coward discovered the delights of Jamaica, which later he made his home, through stays at his friend’s Goldeneye estate on the island.

Once we hit that magic date of 1953, the emergence of Bond tightens the narrative and gathers up its various threads. We learn that Ian’s brother Peter, who never lived up to his childhood promise, was upset by his brother’s late blossoming as an author, achieving the mainstream success that he felt was denied him; Peter’s wife, the actress Celia Johnson, cautioned their friends to keep schtum about Casino Royale if they wanted to maintain good relations with her husband. Not that Peter could avoid Bond. Although initially slow-burning, the Bond novels eventually far exceeded anyone’s expectations, including Ian’s. President Kennedy listed From Russia, with Love as one of his favourite books, then the press could barely contain their excitement when Anthony Eden, the prime minister’s health failing him after the Suez Crisis, stayed at Goldeneye for a month to regain his strength and confidence. Then the clincher: Dr No, the first Bond film, was released in 1962, and Bond became both a cash cow and an icon of the 1960s.

Fleming, born in 1908, and determined to live his life under the radar, was an unlikely talisman of the 1960s. Yes, he knew a thing or two about sexual liberation, but nothing at all about drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. As a journalist and latterly a novelist, Fleming was concerned with communication, with the dissemination of information and ideas to his readers. As Bond took off—and the pressure increased for further novels, which Fleming delivered at a steady rate of one a year, always written during an intense three-month period at Goldeneye—the character began to mean more to him. Nobody could accuse Fleming of reinventing the wheel with each novel. The plots remained formulaic and stiff, but Bond himself became a more complex and nuanced character. 

Yet a paradox hangs over the whole story. Fleming might have found, albeit late in life, a talent for communicating to a mass audience—yet tongue-tied aloofness and the suppression of any authentic emotion become part of what holds the biography together. These days, when everyone seems to be on either a “journey” or is desperate to speak their “truth”, it takes an empathetic leap of faith to realise that, at one time, people preferred to say nothing. Was emotional detachment, never allowing that stiff upper lip to quiver, a defence mechanism? People of Fleming’s generation witnessed the genuine horror of two world wars, trauma that could never be soft-pedalled or denied. Fleming certainly knew his privilege, but also the grief of being told as a child that his father was never coming home.

The response of his family to Fleming’s own sudden death, from a heart attack at the age of 56, followed suit. In the immediate aftermath, nobody said anything much. Peter was on a shooting trip in Scotland when the news reached him and, Shakespeare writes, “not wishing to spoil the shooting” kept the news to himself; another brother, Richard, quietly slipped away to attend to the practicalities without saying anything to his family.

It takes an empathetic leap of faith to realise that, at one time, people preferred to say nothing

Bond—obviously not the caricature Bond of Roger Moore—is such a coldblooded, soulless bastard in the novels because he, too, came from that world. Although “Bond girls” have become as familiar a part of the Bond franchise as deluxe cars, women in Bond rarely come out of it well—they suffocate after being covered in gold paint or end up taking bullets for James. Women are at best plot devices, at worst dispensable tools. When we read that, at prep school, Fleming’s headteacher informed his boys that women were objects in which “a hole” presented an opportunity for a chap to “relieve himself”, we begin to understand how distant this time is from our own. Arriving at Eton on his first morning, Fleming was beaten for no other reason than his headmaster—one “Bumface” Slater—wanted to “break him”. 

Thus the “Complete Man” promised by the title is delivered. Shakespeare expertly places Fleming in his place and time, but my hope that he would also lift him out of his time was not fulfilled. Fleming’s creation continues to thrive and morph in all directions. What could the author who wrote of the “sweet tang of rape” and that “all women love semi-rape” have possibly made of the notion that sensitivity readers would one day be combing his novels to expunge passages considered misogynistic and racist? Though perhaps that humiliation might have been considered preferable to the pomp-pricking ridicule served up by Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, a hopeless failure of a man who lives a childlike fantasy of masculinity through an obsession with Bond films.

What can Bond mean in 2024? Shakespeare’s attempt to deal with this in a throwaway line, that Bond was “less modern perhaps than it was later cracked up to be” is a missed opportunity. All that casual violence and fixation with guns is nonchalantly waved through, too. Wouldn’t want to spoil the shooting, apparently.