Ian Fleming: The Man Who Created James Bond
By Andrew Lycett
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020, 486 pages
Ian Fleming had few pretensions about the literary merit of his James Bond novels.
As excursions into the moral and political ambiguity of the undercover world of espionage, Fleming’s books, featuring the famous fictional British secret service agent, were not exactly profound: ”James Bond is the author’s pillow fantasy”, he admitted, “very much the Walter Mitty syndrome – the feverish dreams of the author of what he might have been – bang, bang, bang, kiss, kiss, kiss, that sort of stuff”.
Fleming, says his biographer, Andrew Lycett, found his imaginary life more appealing than his real one, even though he was destined for life in the easy lane. Born into a well-connected family, Fleming was “quite the right type”, as one future employer put it approvingly.
Social connections eased Fleming into a succession of potential elite careers in the military (officer training at Sandhurst), diplomacy (the League of Nations), the media (jet-setting foreign news manager) and the city (merchant banker and stockbroker).
None of these sparked occupational joy in Fleming, however, until the ripe cherry of working for the Director of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during World War II fell into his lap. Despite earlier being a bit of an appeaser, thinking that his precious British Empire could be protected by bargaining over respective territory with an expansionist Nazi Germany, he accepted, pragmatically, that Hitler had to go.
Fleming played an effective bit-part in the defeat of fascism but he felt unfulfilled by his desk job, and the twin lures of literature and espionage spawned his new line in spy-novel writing, where Fleming’s suave Agent 007 could be, says Lycett, “the man of action Fleming would have liked to have been, a full-time secret agent controlling world destiny in the field”.
It was a simplistic fantasy, of course, populated with fictional caricatures of Cold War heroes and villains, refracted through the anti-socialist lens of Fleming, the union-busting teenager who had defended the Leighton-Buzzard railway station signal room during the 1926 General Strike and who later became a “proto-Thatcherite”.
Through his alter-ego, Fleming confronts, and triumphs over, a sinister amalgam of the KGB, ex-KGB, the Gestapo, Castro’s Cuba and assorted criminal syndicates, terrorists and extortionists, or whatever their umbrella organisation (SMERSH or SPECTRE) bundled together in malign association to criminalise the left.
Fleming wasn’t without some liberal sophistication in his crusade against socialism, however. He was no fan of the Red-hunting United States Senator, Joe McCarthy, who, Fleming felt, overplayed his otherwise admirable hand by going too far in fabricating Red infestation of the loyal state apparatus and the military and thus, he wrote, igniting a “prairie fire of fear, intolerance and hatred”. Like all liberal anti-communists, however, Fleming inexorably settled on the same witch-hunting page as his more ideologically bare-knuckled colleagues.
If Fleming’s defence of “virtue and the free world” against the threat of socialism was old school, his sexual politics were seriously antediluvian. Bond’s serial conquests of women were natural proof of his manliness, for which “the sweet tang of rape” and a side-dish of S&M were always legitimate.
In The Spy Who Loved Me, for example, one Bond sexual trophy elaborates approvingly — “it was his [Bond’s] sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful”. Like his fictional alter-ego, Fleming was of the same mind — “I would like to hurt you because you have earned it and in order to tame you like a little wild animal”, Fleming, a connoisseur of flagellation-themed French pornography, wrote, only semi-playfully, to one lover.
Fleming’s adolescent fans responded with juvenile adulation. A young Lycett, himself, recalls his own “schoolboy crush on Bond”, the combination of politically-orthodox “action adventure”, geeky spycraft gadgetry and “steamy sexual couplings”.
Not just juveniles, though. Mature males from their lofty social perches warmed to Fleming. Writer Christopher Isherwood and the playwright Noel Coward were friends (somewhat surprisingly, considering that both were gay and that Fleming called homosexuals “a herd of unhappy sexual misfits — barren and full of frustrations”). The ubiquitous Malcolm Muggeridge (conservative journalist) and the inevitable Lord Beaverbrook (powerful newspaper magnate) were similarly smitten.
One British Foreign Minister (Anthony Eden), one British War Minister (John Profumo), two CIA Directors (Allen Dulles and Richard Helms) and one US President (JFK) were chums of Fleming. That such powerful political and intelligence figures incorporated a writer of mediocre, preposterously-plotted but politically-agreeable spy thrillers into their template for Western foreign policy (overt and covert) might help explain some of the more dangerous contours of the Cold War.
Despite being a self-declared “practical man” who didn’t much care for the “smart set”, Fleming graced himself with such cerebral luminaries to show that he belonged with the intellectuals and men of power.
He bore his literary inferiority complex with apparent calm (to the extent that he joked that even he “couldn’t stand reading my own stuff”) but he was, like all writers, stung by negative assessments and pained by peer rejection. He greatly admired the crime-mystery writer, Georges Simenon, whose stylish novels of suspense Fleming compared unfavourably with his own lumpen thrillers which were “a thing of action and no psychology”.
Fleming once met “the Master” and told Simenon that he had read fifty of his Inspector Maigret novels but he was crestfallen to learn that Simenon had read no Bonds at all.
Whilst Lycett isn’t blind to Fleming’s artistic shallowness, he is firmly in Fleming’s corner. Others, however, have had a more critical view. Pravda accused Fleming of creating “a world where the laws are written with a pistol barrel, and rape and outrages on female honour are considered gallantry”.
The old GDR cultural authorities said (“ranted”, according to a disparaging Lycett) that “there is something of Bond in the snipers of the streets of Selma, Alabama. He is flying with the napalm bombers over Vietnam … Socialism is synonymous with crime. Unions are fifth columns of the Soviet Union. Slavs are killers and sneaks … Negroes are superstitious, murderous lackeys. Persons of mixed race are trash”.
If these quite accurate, but self-interested, critiques are a bit too east of the old Iron Curtain, then the West’s quality writer of spy fiction, John le Carré, might be more credible — “cultural pornography”, he wrote of Bond, “the Superman figure who is ennobled by some sort of misty, patriotic ideas and who can commit any crime and break any law”.
Fleming’s own modest self-assessment of his Bond novels was that they were “nothing more than mere entertainments” but Fleming’s conservative political primitivism, and retrograde sexism, makes his Bond novels, and their movie offspring, far from being the harmless diversions he claimed.