Inside Story

Grand days

James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s war never ended

Patrick Mullins Books 27 March 2024 3997 words

Hitting the nail again and again with the same hammer: Ian Fleming in late 1963. Bela Zola/Daily Mirror/Alamy

Shakespeare famously concluded that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But what about fictional characters? Would Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street detective have won as many fans if Conan Doyle had trusted his main character’s original name, Sherrinford Hope? Would the world-in-the-balance quest that underpins The Lord of the Rings have been taken as seriously had J.R.R. Tolkien stuck with Bingo Bolger-Baggins? Would the wild fantasy of a secret agent with a licence to kill have been as captivating if Ian Fleming had kept the name in the first draft of Casino Royale, James Secretan?

In the latter case, probably not. Yet it is in so many ways both the most intriguing first choice — who, after all, would expect the creator of James Bond to allude to the nineteenth-century Swiss philosopher Charles Secretan? — and the most portentous revision. The decision to eschew the clumsy homage and instead appropriate the dull name of an American ornithologist underscores Fleming’s ruthless pruning of anything that might unnecessarily adorn the instrument he created in 1952.

That creation, and the long story of its making, is at the heart of Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, an immense biography by Nicholas Shakespeare. Building on earlier efforts by John Pearson (1966) and Andrew Lycett (1995), the book was prompted by the Fleming estate’s willingness to give Shakespeare access to unreleased archival material that illuminates the real-life source material embedded in the Bond novels. That openness may also have been the estate attempt to adjust the dominant view of Fleming as a man who, where he is not defined by Bond, is derided as a misogynistic, alcoholic wastrel with a penchant for whipping who showboated during the second world war and spent postwar summers in Jamaica fantasising about British grit, foreign villains and sexual conquest in exotic locales.

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man has plenty of whipping and wantonness, but it adds nuance to a life whose early years seem to have been spent in guileless and unknowing preparation for important wartime work — work for which he turns out to have been unusually gifted. In fact, it is the observation of one journalist — that Fleming, in this moment, with all his gifts and talents finally in use, was a “complete man” — that gave Shakespeare his title.

But what freight it brings to the book: an intimation of comprehensiveness underscored by its bulk and the vivid cultural history woven through it; an implied claim to being definitive bedevilled by the persistent haze of uncertainty around Fleming’s war record. Then there is the dramatic portent — that Fleming, even as he created the character that secured his fame, was somehow lesser or incomplete in those postwar years.

But perhaps that was merely a reversion to form. Fleming’s early life was monied but grim. His miserly Scottish grandfather was a banker who had survived considerable bereavement (three siblings had been buried before he was born, and three more, plus his mother, would follow by the time he turned fifteen) to become one of the wealthiest men in Europe. Robert Fleming’s greatest stroke of luck, however, was to be a constituent of a young Winston Churchill, who called on him for donations and provided in his friendship a glow of respectability for Robert’s sons, Val and Philip, whom Churchill nicknamed the “Fleming-oes.”

Val, elected a Conservative MP in 1910, fathered four sons — Peter (1907), Ian (1908), Richard (1911) and Michael (1913) — with socialite Evelyn Sainte Croix Rose, whom he had married in 1906. But his influence as a father was defined by his absence. After war broke out, he joined Churchill’s regiment, trained alongside the future prime minister, and was killed while serving on the Somme in 1917.

Robert Fleming is said to have bellowed in grief at the news, Evelyn painted every room in the house black, and Churchill wrote an obituary for the Times, a copy of which, framed and hung above Ian’s bed, gave the eight-year-old a nightly reminder of the greatness that he could never hope to match.

Val’s estate, meanwhile, gave Evelyn enormous wealth, but in terms that invited her to endure a lifetime of dutiful widowhood: should she ever remarry, the money would be immediately transferred to her children. She responded by elevating her dead husband “from an absent, pipe-smoking, deer-stalker to an iconic figure in the clouds with whom she alone enjoyed privileged communication,” writes Shakespeare, in one of many deft summations.

Controlling, insecure and extravagant, she played her boys off against one another, guilt-tripping them and blackmailing them with threats of disinheritance, pulling out all the stops to ensure they might never suffer the consequences of taking responsibility for their actions.

For Ian, this manifested most acutely in endless reprieves from failure and ignominy, and repeated diversions from paths that might well have led him away from Evelyn. He was pulled out of Eton ahead of trouble over a relationship with a girl and sent to Sandhurst with hopes of joining the Black Watch infantry battalion. Out less than a year later after contracting gonorrhoea in a London brothel, he was dispatched to the Tennerhof, a private school in the Austrian town of Kitzbühel, with freshly adjusted plans that he would pursue a diplomatic career.

Distance from Evelyn allowed promise to flower: linguistic versatility, some artistic ambitions, an engagement to a Swiss woman. But on his return his mother stomped on all these green shoots. After his failure to find a position in the Foreign Office she intervened to get him a job at Reuters, where he made a decent fist of covering a famous Soviet show trial of six engineers employed by a British machinery manufacturer. Then he was off again, moving at Evelyn’s insistence to join a firm of merchant bankers in the City.

Fleming had little to no interest in commerce and even less in maths: “I could never work out what a sixty-fourth of a point was,” he wrote. Yet he flourished to the point of becoming a partner at another firm only eighteen months later. The succession of environments into which he had been dropped had given him a charming veneer that allowed him to adapt and conform while keeping people at a safe distance. Even the jaded journalists he tried to scoop in Moscow had been disarmed to the point that they were willing to help him with his boss: one vouched that Fleming was “a pukha chap.”

The elite education and time spent among the privileged had also knitted Fleming into every club and network that was worth knowing about, giving him vast contacts and points of reference that he wielded readily. The “stockbroker” Fleming would talk to clients about investment strategy, wine and dine them at an appropriate club or hotel, and then turn them over to the pointy heads and bean counters in the office who could make the money flow. On the surface (and, to some, that was all there was), all this made Fleming a Wodehouse character: paid too much to do too little, all charm and glamour and self-obsession.

And yet, Shakespeare suggests, Fleming had by this time planted “miscellaneous seeds.” He could speak several languages, had solid journalistic experience, and was friendly with several notably crotchety press barons. He had contacts and networks across the financial, commercial and intelligence worlds. He even had literary credentials, via the reflected glow of elder brother Peter, who had become a successful travel writer, and his own efforts as a collector of first editions of books that had “signalised a right-angle in the thought on that particular subject.”

The book collecting might not have seemed helpful when war broke out in 1939, but the miscellaneous seeds sprouted once Fleming was recruited to the Department of Naval Intelligence as a personal assistant to its director, rear-admiral John Godfrey. His ability to deal with the press and with people — not least his irascible boss — made him indispensable. His myriad contacts became invaluable. His knowledge of distant worlds and their connections made him insightful. But perhaps most surprising of all was his creativity.

In this vein he was much like Churchill, whom Fleming grew to resemble with his polka-dot bowties and “daily prayer” memos (“Pray, could you find out…”). Under Godfrey, Fleming brainstormed all sorts of schemes, many impractical and far-fetched, to gain an advantage over the enemy. For every hare-brained idea — to have a fake U-boat captain send messages in glass bottles railing against the Third Reich, to create a fake treasure ship packed with crack commandoes (which sounds suspiciously like the Trojan horse) — there was something promising. Perhaps most notable was what Fleming took from a little-known novel, The Milliner Hat Mystery: the germ of what became Operation Mincemeat, a successful tactical deception of the Axis powers.

Placed at the near-centre of British intelligence efforts, Fleming had a wide ambit of activity that Shakespeare believes to have extended to a role in the creation of America’s foreign intelligence service. He was hardly the “chocolate sailor” some contemporaries called him. Godfrey certainly thought highly of his assistant. He called Fleming a war “winner” who was owed a debt that could never be repaid, and Shakespeare adds to this the findings of other historians: “It has taken time to realise how central Ian Fleming is,” says one. “What he was doing touched on so much of the war,” says another.

But ascertaining exactly what Fleming touched, and how lightly or heavily, is difficult. Even the claim to Operation Mincemeat is made via inference, analysis of stylistic tics and coincident timetabling. Secrecy is the issue. With friends and colleagues, Fleming was generally reticent about his wartime service; bar the blurred fantasies of the Bond books, he left few hints of his activities. Shakespeare adds to this the need for confidentiality during the war and, later, during the cold war, when archives were both weeded and closed to access. Then there is the material simply lost to time — damaged, forgotten, burned — and the records that are exaggerated or simply mistaken.

None of this is unusual, yet at other times Shakespeare strains to explain Fleming’s absences from records, or even to gainsay what exists and inveigle Fleming’s way in. “Simply because Ian is not listed in the minutes of a high-level meeting,” he writes at one point, “does not mean he was not there in the room.”

Enough well-documented rooms exist to make arguments like this unnecessary. The array of material Shakespeare proffers is enough to convince this reader, at any rate, that Fleming was an active, engaged, important and unconventional wartime player. While Shakespeare labours the point, it also serves to establish a key fact about Fleming’s literary efforts: while James Bond was depicted in a cold war world, with its dubious moralities and shifting principles, he was fundamentally a creature of the second world war and its starker divides between allies and enemies, good and bad.

The oft-made comparison with John le Carré has never been to Fleming’s advantage, but Shakespeare draws out so many connections, echoes and resemblances between Bond and the second world war that any comparison between Bond and George Smiley or between Fleming and le Carré seems like a category error. In fact, given Shakespeare’s attention to literary antecedents, the better comparison is between Bond and characters such as Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, Richard Hannay and perhaps even Sherlock Holmes — Britons who, with vigour, smarts and a willingness to do violence, save the world.

Shakespeare is a restless writer. As though to jolt the reader awake, lengthy passages of third-person past-tense narration suddenly crystallise into the first-person present as he tracks down a long-lost colleague of Fleming’s or a vague acquaintance or — in more self-indulgent moments — the descendent of some vague acquaintance. These moments fold into the story of Fleming’s life the story of the stories — of the Pearson and Lycett biographies of Fleming, and of Shakespeare’s biography.

Shakespeare quotes people crowing about their efforts to mislead his predecessors or their determination to shut up shop: “Poor Pearson,” Godfrey writes, of Fleming’s first biographer, “is like a famished man gazing, his mouth watering, into the butcher’s and confectionary shop windows and having to be content with a stale turnip (or swede) from the greengrocer.”

Shakespeare doesn’t conceal his similarities with Pearson, noting his own eager anticipation of new discoveries. But he adds in the dynamics of his interviews, poignant notes about the contingency of historical research, and observations about the dark material at the heart of the Bond novels.

In one scene he arrives in the rain outside a bungalow at Milton Keynes to interview the last surviving member of 30AU, a wartime intelligence gathering unit set up under Fleming’s influence and operating, effectively, under his command. Bill Marshall is ninety-four years old and feels a decade older. He tells Shakespeare he is a week early but beckons him inside anyway. “Later, I am glad I got the date wrong,” Shakespeare adds. “Bill Marshall will be hospitalised five days after our conversation. Had I come at the right time, I would never have heard what he tells me.”

Inside, Shakespeare listens as Marshall — who only days before has received the Légion d’Honneur and a letter from Emanual Macron praising him as a hero — confesses to murder:

On 26 June, Bill watched as German snipers fired through the windows of a hotel, killing one medical orderly and shooting another through the knee as they attended wounded American soldiers in the street. It was raining when the German riflemen surrendered. Another witness told Nicholas Rankin how not long afterwards he had seen their blood flowing in the rainwater.

Bill grows quiet, withdrawn. “I shot four Germans in cold blood.”

“What did you feel?’

“Nothing. How do you feel seeing two men trying to attend being shot?”

What happened next, whether he was reprimanded or Returned to Unit, he does not say. He has said enough. I think of another character who inherited Bill’s licence to kill. This was the compost out of which James Bond emerged.

Much as he had come into his own, Fleming was in an invidious position by the end of the war. Bound by secrecy, he could not dispel or rebut jibes about him being the “Sailor of the Strand.” He was carrying considerable emotional turmoil: his brother Michael had died in 1940 as a prisoner of the Germans; a serious romantic relationship with Muriel Wright, begun in 1935 in Austria, had come to an end with her death in a German bombing raid in 1944. He could too easily see a future in which the skills and talents he had wielded so well went to waste. He was hardly alone in this plight: in the United States, Allen Dulles described his return to the legal profession as an “appalling thing” after heading a spy network. “Most of my time,” he wrote, “is spent reliving those exciting days.”

Where Dulles went to the CIA, Fleming returned to journalism. In 1945, he took a position in the Kemsley newspaper group, handling a network of foreign correspondents. A journalist Shakespeare interviews recounts how Fleming sat in front of a canary yellow map of the world equipped with tiny flashing light bulbs — one for each man.

Shakespeare cautiously ventures that this might have been cover for continuing intelligence work, but the whole portrait has the tragic comedy of a Graham Greene novel: Fleming’s use of naval intelligence lingo with his journalists, his retention of a code and cipher book in his office, the derisive whispers of younger colleagues that his vaunted contacts were nothing but old duffers. Then, of course, there are the corporate machinations: Fleming took the position with Kemsley, which also owned the Sunday Times, on the intimation that he might become the paper’s editor and the hope that he might even get a seat on the company’s board. He also fantasised that the foreign news service he was managing might one day become a rival to Reuters — at which point Fleming would be a press proprietor in his own right.

If true, it was only ever to be a sideline, for alongside a salary of £225,000 in today’s pounds Fleming negotiated an iron-clad policy of two months of paid holiday each year. He would spend those months in Jamaica, at the rather uncomfortable bungalow he had built and initially named “Shamelady Hall” before choosing a name that harked back to a wartime operation — Goldeneye. Here, in daily bursts of 2000 words, he wrote Bond.

In Shakespeare’s telling, the novels came shortly after a burst of disappointments and disillusionments. Fleming’s hopes of advancement at Kemsley had vanished; his long-term paramour, Anne Charteris, had been divorced from her husband and fallen pregnant (again) to Fleming, necessitating a hasty marriage that neither of them much wanted. With fatherhood imminent, wedlock complete, he was looking back to a life he once had and could still have had — in intelligence, on one hand, but also in literature.

Signs of Fleming’s desire for this life recur in the book, especially during Fleming’s time attending the Tennerhof. There, according to Shakespeare, the youthful Fleming was steeped in European history and literature and imbued with ambitions to write a serious novel in the vein of James Joyce or Thomas Mann. He made attempts to act on those ambitions, planning but then aborting a co-authored translation of Paracelsus and, in 1928, self-publishing a volume of poetry titled The Black Daffodil only to become deeply embarrassed by it. “He took every copy that had been printed and consigned the whole edition pitilessly to the flames,” wrote one of Fleming’s friends.

A factor in Fleming’s constant withdrawals, Shakespeare argues, was his elder brother’s success at writing. “Of course, my brother Peter’s rather brilliant as a writer,” Fleming would say, “but I wouldn’t know how you set about writing a book myself.” In the postwar years, however, his attitude changed. One prompt was his belief that he could better his brother’s effort at an adventure novel; another was his sense that he would not be trespassing on his brother’s turf if he did so. Then there was a sense of resentment, aggravated by his failed hopes at Kemsley, as friends, acquaintances and other writers churned out thrillers and spy novels that, in many cases, claimed experiences and actions Fleming saw as his own to write about — the gag of secrecy notwithstanding.

Perhaps too there was a sense of how he might slip that gag: Shakespeare posits that Graham Greene’s difficulties with the intelligence services — it was felt he drew too closely on his first-hand knowledge — may have influenced Fleming to increase the fantastical elements of the Bond stories even as he drew on the real-life material of his wartime experiences and insights. “I think he wrote the books primarily because he had a great deal of knowledge of things like this within him, and he had to get it out,” says one acquaintance.

It is a conflux of influences that Shakespeare presents with considerable verve. He plays with the book’s internal clock, changes style and tone, moves into scenes and back out of them, and in doing so creates vivid juxtapositions and drama. The chapter on Bond’s first appearance on the page follows immediately on Fleming’s decision to marry to create the convincing argument that Bond was an escape for Fleming as much as for an exhausted postwar Britain:

Suddenly, as he floated over the reef [at Goldeneye], above barracuda he had named after battleships, Ian saw an exhilarating path back to bachelorhood — by creating a contemporary naval hero in the tradition of Drake, Morgan and Nelson, loyal to the Crown, who would reaffirm England as a world power, wipe out the shame of the Burgess–Maclean defection, and re-establish SIS as “the most dangerous” Secret Service in Russian eyes. And he would be a bachelor. “If he were to marry and settle down he would be of little value to the Secret Service.”

A chapter later, Shakespeare is looking ahead again, foreshadowing how Bond would consume Fleming. It was not only that Bond’s fame quickly came to define his author’s public persona; it was also that Fleming became reliant on Bond. Advised that it was no good to write just one book, that he had to “hit the nail again and again with the same hammer until it’s driven into the head of your potential public,” Fleming became a factory working on a one-year schedule, the brunt of the work to be done during a spell at Goldeneye.

Fleming went into this routine clear-eyed, seeing it as wholly compatible with his working life as well as a path out of financial difficulties caused by a spendthrift Anne. As he wrote to his publisher Jonathan Cape during negotiations over Casino Royale,I am only actuated by the motives of a) making as much money for myself and my publishers as possible out of the book, and b) getting as much fun as I personally can out of the project.”

But the fun, in Shakespeare’s telling, dwindled as the money poured in. Lawsuits over film and television rights, accusations of plagiarism, negative reviews and laughter from friends all corroded this late-life literary success. Then there was Fleming’s knowledge that, at some point, he would run out of material. Philip Larkin famously detected in the posthumously published Octopussy (1966) an allegory for how Fleming had used his war experiences as treasure off which to secure his heart’s desires — Bentleys, caviar, Henry Cotton golf clubs. It was acute insight that Shakespeare agrees with. “This was the draining exchange,” he writes. “Once Ian gave birth to Bond, he relied heavily on the hard-earned secret capital of the war. Each book was a different slice of stolen gold until the material ran out.”

The poor quality of Octopussy and The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), also published after Fleming’s death, suggests Shakespeare’s assessment is right. But at play in the preceding Bond books too is a sense of Fleming butting up against the limits imposed on a writer tilling in a single genre. For Your Eyes Only (1960) abandons the novel form in favour of the short story, one of which — the horribly titled “Quantum of Solace” — eschews gunfights and villains in favour of a parable about marital compassion delivered after a disappointing dinner party in a manner reminiscent of Somerset Maugham. The response to this deviation was lukewarm at best.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), meanwhile, is unique among the Bond novels for being framed by a meta-fictive introduction from Fleming, for adopting the first-person perspective of a woman, and for its brutally sleazy and violent story. The book contains the most rounded and complex of Fleming’s female characters, but its reception was so virulently hostile that Fleming, taken aback, suppressed a paperback edition, refused to allow anything but the title to be used in the film adaptations, and went back to his safe patch with the Bond that followed, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963).

One might wonder whether Fleming still yearned to write something that his younger, more highbrow self would have been proud of, and whether he had come to believe that, thanks to Bond, he could not. If so, it is all the more tragic for being a knowing compromise signalled by the early change he had made to the draft of Casino Royale.

A homage to a nineteenth-century philosopher was never going to fit into that work, into that world, and Fleming saw it quickly. He slashed a blue line through Secretan and above it wrote a new name. His protagonist would introduce himself bluntly, almost monosyllabically: “Bond. James Bond.” •

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man
By Nicholas Shakespeare | Harvill Secker | $42.99 | 830 pages