Saturday, April 13

Ian Fleming: The Man Behind the Spy

Nicholas Shakespeare’s classy biography of the James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, dives into the life of the man who gave us the iconic 007. But it’s not just about Bond; it’s about the intriguing fellow behind the spy novels.

Shakespeare tantalisingly hints at Fleming being a “complete man” during his stint with British naval intelligence in World War II. Now, that’s quite the pitch, right? Are we about to uncover juicy bits left out in previous bios like John Pearson’s compact authorised version from 1966?

Fleming, also known as “Flemingway” by his pal Noël Coward, wasn’t just a writer. He dabbled in journalism, stockbroking, and led a life akin to his famous creation – a playboy who puffed away 70 cigarettes a day. Sadly, he passed away at just 56 during a plagiarism row over his ninth Bond novel, Thunderball.

Before he took on the mantle of the famous spy novelist, we learn about his rocky childhood after his dad’s demise in World War I. He bounced around, got kicked out of Eton due to some hanky-panky, and then left Sandhurst with a dose of gonorrhea. His exams weren’t good enough for the Foreign Office, and his engagement to a Swiss lover ended with a threat to cut off his allowance. He eventually landed a gig at Reuters, honing his skills for scoops.

Shakespeare weaves together interviews, papers, and diaries to give us a taste of oral history. He goes to great lengths to show that Fleming’s wartime service was more than just paperwork. The first half of the book paints a picture of a man deeply involved in military and journalism history. Think German weapons of mass destruction, the race to expose the Cambridge spies, and a dash of high-society bedroom drama.

While some might know Fleming as the brains behind James Bond, Shakespeare aims to reveal there’s more to the man. He’s eager to prove Fleming’s interests go beyond what initially draws readers to the book. There’s even a case for Fleming’s CIA inception and the idea of putting an Oslo Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.

But what about those iconic Bond novels? Shakespeare suggests they were Fleming’s literary response to a midlife crisis intensified by fatherhood and a rocky marriage to Ann Charteris, who had her own affair with Hugh Gaitskell. As he put it, the “sex, violence, alcohol” combo in Bond novels was irresistible to some.

Fleming introduced a dash of American noir into British thrillers, giving birth to 007. His creation thrived in the gloomy era of Attlee’s Britain, and Fleming was candid about writing to make money and have fun. JFK’s fondness for “From Russia, with Love” sent sales soaring, and the movies were still on the horizon. Fleming was humble about his novels, calling them “straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.” Still, he didn’t shy away from voicing his dismay when the director of the first Bond film threatened to mess up his work.

Shakespeare doesn’t delve too deep into the novels; instead, he serves them as supporting evidence. There’s a nod to how Bond’s treatment of women reflected the sexual climate of his time. Maybe there’s no need to overanalyze Fleming’s literary prowess – Bond’s malleable nature allows us to see him as we want, be it a symbol of British greatness or a debatable portrayal of women.

One thing’s for sure, Fleming’s choice of “James Bond” over “James Secretan” was a literary game-changer. The rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

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