Ian Fleming was a real-life ‘spy’ with a taste for fast cars and women, but he never rose above devising missions and smuggling condoms. That’s why James Bond became everything the author wanted to be.
With his steely blue eyes, elegantly tailored suits and taste for beautiful women, Ian Fleming looked the part of his literary creation, James Bond, agent 007.
He worked for the Secret Service during World War II. He even drew up the blueprint for the organisation that became the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). But, Fleming was not 007, nor vice versa. Bond was the action man Fleming would have liked to have been if he had not been stuck behind an Admiralty desk.
How he attained this bureaucratic position is a mystery. Born into an affluent banking family in 1908, Fleming’s youth was spent in gilded insignificance. At school, Eton, he was not academic, channelling his energies into sports instead. His subsequent career was a catalogue of missed opportunities. He flunked Oxford University; failed the officer cadet course at Sandhurst, despite three years of “study” in Europe, and was rejected by the Foreign Office.
Forced into journalism, he finally gained recognition with the Reuters news agency, covering the trial of alleged British spies in Moscow in 1933. But that same year he quit this promising job to make money. He went to the City, where he was described by a colleague as the “world’s worst stockbroker”.
Along the way he enjoyed himself. He drove fast cars and usually had a pretty girl on his arm. (He dropped out of Sandhurst after contracting gonorrhoea from a sex worker in a London nightclub.) Sent abroad, initially to Austria, he appreciated the relaxed attitude to sex. Back in London in the mid-thirties, he had an archetypal bachelor pad – a converted Baptist school, where he and his male friends formed “Le Cercle Gastronomique Et Des Jeux d’Hasard” (a hedonistic group committed to good eating and gambling).
Suddenly, in March 1939 – six months before the Second World War – Fleming was plucked from his mundane City office job and asked to join a minor British minister, Robert Hudson, on a trade mission to Moscow. He was appointed Special Correspondent for the newspaper, The Times, but his reports were lacklustre, suggesting another agenda.
When his party reached the Russian-Polish border on the way home, Fleming noticed the only other reporter, Sefton Delmer of the Daily Express, tearing up his notes, “You should have swallowed them,” Fleming joked, “All the best spies do.” Delmer could not help repeating these words when minutes later, Russian customs went through Fleming’s luggage piece by piece and discovered a hidden packet of Soviet-made condoms.
Fleming, it seemed, had been on a low-key spying mission. With war looming, smart young men had been discreetly finding themselves jobs in the Secret Service.
One was Peter Fleming, Ian’s older brother, who already worked part-time in Military Intelligence and who had connections with The Times.
To prove himself, Ian had been tasked with researching Soviet rubber production. Perhaps, if his condoms had remained intact, he might have become a frontline British agent.
Instead, that June, he was invited to the Admiralty offices of the Naval Intelligence Division. Within weeks, he was ensconced as Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI).
This job was his making. Suddenly the feckless playboy had a role in life. Anyone wanting to meet his boss had to pass through him. Fleming met agents reporting back from sabotage missions to the Baltic and Brazil.
He became the DNI’s link man with the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6. With his writer’s imagination, he devised propaganda and deception exercises. One mad scheme was to transport a downed Luftwaffe plane into the Channel, put on a Nazi uniform, and wait to be picked up by a German patrol boat operating from Belgium. He and similarly attired colleagues would overpower the crew and so gain access to vital Enigma codes.
However, his superiors banned him from participating. Soon Fleming was taking responsibility for specific operations. One was a plan, known as Operation Goldeneye, to stay with agents in Spanish ports, should the Iberian Peninsula be overrun by the Germans.
Fleming enjoyed himself so much that he adopted the name of the house he built in Jamaica after the war.
He fell in love with Jamaica during an Anglo-American naval conference in 1942. The United States had only entered the war the previous December, nevertheless, the British had helped prepare the unwieldy American secret services for war. In May 1941, Fleming flew to the US, where he advised on the sort of person they might employ.
Fleming’s ideal agent turned out very much like the future James Bond. Later, back home, Fleming ran a small unit whose job was to search for scientific intelligence, as the German armies retreated through Europe.
But for most of the war, he sat behind his desk in the Admiralty, where Ann, his future wife, called him the “chocolate sailor” – partly a reference to his elaborate uniform and partly a wry dig at his flaky ability to remain outside the conflict.
In 1945, Ian Fleming told a friend he intended to write ‘the spy novel to end all spy novels”. But it took seven years before the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in April 1953. Further books followed every year until his death in 1964.
Similarities between Fleming and James Bond are much debated. According to 007’s obituary, which appeared, prematurely in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, he had a Scottish father (a tribute perhaps to Fleming’s forebears). When he was 11, Bond’s parents were killed in a climbing accident in Switzerland, an early Fleming stamping ground. Bond was asked to leave Eton after some “trouble” with a maid.
After school, Bond studied at the University of Geneva and learnt to ski in Austria (as did Fleming). He joined a branch of the Ministry of Defence, with the rank of Lieutenant (subsequently Commander) in the Special Branch of the Royal Naval Volunteers Reserves (mirroring Fleming’s own path).
From CASINO ROYALE, we learn that Bond was “very good-looking”, reminding Vesper Lynd of Hoagy Carmichael (a famous American songwriter and performer), “But there is something cold and ruthless in his…” (the sentence is unfinished). This is not unlike Fleming, particularly as 007 carried a light gun-metal box with 50 Morland cigarettes with a triple gold band (a Fleming affectation – marking the three stripes of his rank as Commander).
Both James Bond and Fleming enjoyed similar leisure pursuits. As a young man, Fleming drove a succession of sleek sports cars, including a 3-litre Bugatti and an open-top, two-seater Buick. Later, he showed a preference for American cars, which he found more reliable than British models of the era.
In 1955, he bought a five-litre Ford Thunderbird V8, the nearest thing in Britain to the extraordinary Studillac, a Studebaker powered by a Cadillac engine, owned by his friend Bill Woodward in Vermont ad appropriated by Flemimg for his book DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. Seven years later, he indulged himself by buying a Studebaker Avanti.
Bond went for more classic English vehicles – a vintage 4.5 litre Bentley in the first novels, and a customised Mark II Bentley Continental later on, with access to a company car, an Aston Martin DB III (which becomes a DB5 in the early films.)
The two men liked to gamble and play golf. A delight of the Bond books is seeing the author’s sophistication reflected in the short descriptive set pieces. No one can fail to be excited by the card game at the Blades Club in Moonraker, or Bond’s round of golf at St. Mark’s in Goldfinger. The latter drew on Fleming’s favourite, the Royal St. George’s Golf Club at Sandwich, Kent, near his country cottage. Fans argue the merits of the written or cinematic versions of this scene.
Much of Fleming’s ways are found in Bond’s domestic habits. When, as emerges from the books rather than the films, 007 returned from missions, he relaxed in his Chelsea flat, tended by a Scottish housekeeper who served an English breakfast of eggs, toast (with Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade) and strong coffee (always from De Bry in New Oxford Street).
Fleming was one of the first authors to use brand names, a nod to the consumerism of his age. Fleming and Bond shared a taste for good food and drink, including champagne and the trademark vodka martini. Both men had similar attitudes to women, appreciating glamour and casual sex.
In Goldfinger, Bond says to himself: “Some love is fire, some love is rust. But, the finest, cleanest love is lust.”
One can even argue that Fleming and 007 were old-fashioned English patriots. But there the resemblances ended. Having excelled in various hatchet jobs – hardly Fleming’s speciality – Bond was invited to stay in the secret services after the war. Essentially, he became Fleming’s fantasy agent, an unemotional professional whose duty was “to be as cool about death as a surgeon”.
In this respect, he was a post-war figure, a forerunner of LeCarré’s George Smiley, rather than a product of Fleming’s cosy wartime clubland culture.