- The Life of Ian Fleming by Donald McCormick
Peter Owen, 231 pp, £18.50, July 1993, ISBN 0 7206 0888 0
The relation between daily living and fantasy life is unpredictable and often comical. A classic pattern would be failure or boredom breeding compensatory success stories. Some aspect of a job which is totally non-fulfilling in reality can be worked up by the imagination in order to satisfy private dreams. Conan Doyle started to invent Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes while waiting dejectedly for custom in his own surgery. Not only do cases or patients turn up at the Baker Street sitting-room with dramatic regularity, but each presents its own fascinating problem, which only the fantasy couple are competent to solve. What bored doctor could ask for more? Yet sometimes things seem to work the other way round. A highly competent and colourful individual, leading a dramatically energetic business and love life, might indulge in daydreams that are sensational, even spectacularly so, but at the same time are sheltered and placid, full of cosy routines, just like sitting down to tea in the nursery.
Something like that seems to have gone on with Ian Fleming. One could hardly say that his fantasy life with James Bond was a case of straightforward compensation. Employers courted him; he charmed the bosses; girls fell over each other to get to bed with him. Or so it seemed, and still seems to his latest biographer, who knew him fairly well in the wartime naval and espionage worlds, and subsequently in business journalism. Unlike Fleming’s previous biographer John Pearson, Donald McCormick makes no attempt to psychologise his subject – or to reproduce the fluency which made Pearson’s book read as easily as a James Bond thriller. His justification is to produce, among much that is already familiar, some new ‘stories’, and episodes from his own encounters with Fleming. The book is a trifle disjointed, but by no means without interest to students of the writer, and of the world he lived in.
It was the unreality of that world which produced the counter-reality of the Bond world. Espionage is as bogus as high society: a matter of showing off and hinting at knowledge, and showing yourself in the right places, and having contacts which can be made to impress others. Ian Fleming, who had enjoyed the more business-like world of Reuters, where as he said later he had his happiest years, seemed via his wartime career to take to the haut monde of gossip and socialising like a duck to water; but one wonders whether he really did. No doubt he wouldn’t have known himself, which must have helped make him melancholy and defensive. Peter Templer in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (the young man’s name oddly echoes that of the Saint in Leslie Charteris’s unreadable thrillers) has something like the Fleming panache, drive and business sense, and his lifestyle the same unreal quality. But Templer, who is killed during the war on an operation in Yugoslavia, has the sense to know that he is happier with stockbrokers and their wives than in the haut monde; Fleming seems not to have known that, or its equivalent. Certainly his eventual marriage was not a success, for the world his wife moved in was wholly uncongenial, even though it included a leader of the Opposition whom it was rumoured might have been done away with by the KGB.
James Bond may have come about as a defence mechanism, a charm against the way of life Fleming saw himself threatened with after his marriage; rather in the same way that Kenneth Grahame produced another potent bachelor fantasy, The Wind in the Willows, when he found himself committed to a matrimonial existence so definitively outside it. Perhaps the most compelling natural fantasies are composed by nature’s bachelors, forlornly trying to recapture the snug routines of a celibate existence? Certainly Fleming’s wife despised James Bond with total sincerity and virulence, and made no secret of the fact to her husband or anyone else, while at the same time, as a famous hostess, pursuing her own extravagant projects on the Bond earnings.
Not that these were colossal, at least not in Fleming’s lifetime. It comes as a slight shock to realise how long ago it all is, and how far a couple of thousand pounds – the salary of a fairly high-ranking civil servant – could be made to go in those days. Fleming is always very accurate about money (his grandfather was a canny Scots financier who had made himself a millionaire). As a second son, with no inclination to go into the family business, he had very little of his own. Like his brother Peter, whose success story was in its own way as unconventional, he was by instinct both a burrow animal and a nomadic one. Both were desert island types, with a very low boredom threshold for the rituals of the grand world which they could none the less manipulate with such effective negligence. Certainly the parallels between Bond’s way of life and that in Peter Fleming’s best travel book, News from Tartary, are remarkably close. The reader becomes wholly absorbed in the daily routines of Peter’s journey as he traverses the steppes of central Asia; and it adds to the snug domestic feel of the thing that Peter’s fellow explorer is a Swiss woman, Kiki (the name might come straight out of a James Bond), with whom he shares a tent and complete companionableness but no other form of intimacy.
The literary powers of both brothers lay, rather touchingly, in their brilliant ability to describe what they themselves best liked to do. When engrossed in this the writing of both is of a high order, with echoes of Hemingway’s similarly powerful fusion of style with enjoyment. Evenings in the Gobi, with Peter going out to shoot hares and Kiki giving medicine to sick Mongols in their caravan, have the lyrical snugness of Bond’s drinks and breakfasts, bridge and golf-games. Bond’s adventures absurdly depend on the minor rewards and compensations that all travelling brings: in Japan he has a blessed evening alone; free from dainty oriental rituals, he retires to bed with a book, a half-bottle of bourbon, and a double portion of eggs Benedict.
His wife’s coolly derisive indifference must have wounded Ian Fleming deeply, as a sensitive boy is wounded by an unsympathetic response to an attempt to confide. It probably made the inner Bond life all the stronger, and its indulgence for two months each year in the seclusion of his small Jamaican beach house all the more seductive. The alternation between stylised adventure and domestic naturalness in a Bond story corresponded to the public and private persona of Fleming himself: but in a fiction they could be harmonised as they could not be in real life. There is something gruesome about real social life in the Fleming world, just as there is something supremely innocent about the fantasy private life of the Bond world. One of McCormick’s stories is about an incident at the house in Jamaica when Fleming, wearing his public and cultural hat, asked the writer Rosamond Lehmann to come out on a visit. No sooner had she arrived than his Bond persona took fright, and he determined to palm her off on Noel Coward, who lived up the bay. In exchange Coward asked for the gift of Fleming’s polaroid camera and tripod, which he had long coveted, and the pair haggled openly over the deal in the presence of the novelist, who had no idea what they were talking about.
Juvenile fantasy and social reality seem similarly to have collided in Fleming’s wartime career. McCormick stresses how efficient Fleming was as a chief personal assistant to the admiral in charge of NID, the Naval Intelligence Department; but also makes it clear that his schemes and plots against the enemy, while always taken seriously by authority and sometimes acted on, were invariably abortive. That wasn’t unusual, however, and reflects no discredit on the wartime schemer, for whom violence in any case lay in the head, in the files and in the sound and meticulous operational planning. When Admiral Godfrey, who became a personal friend as well as boss, observed later that Fleming should have been head of the NID, and he himself the assistant, he may have been teasing. On the other hand, he may not. Fleming had the real talent for organisation that some artists possess; and his gifts on all counts were much admired by his fellow author William Plomer, who worked for Fleming during the war. Some of the stories told by fellow intelligencers of the time, like the famous Popov, were obviously intended retrospectively to take the creator of James Bond down a peg, by showing he had no nerve, or no knowledge of gambling, or that he hated the sight of blood. Maybe. But such deflationary tales about Fleming himself ring no truer than James Bond’s own inflated exploits. The reality of art, however modest its level here, is not impugned by either.
That it is art, in its own fashion, is shown by the impossibility of imitation. Anyone else’s Bond is not Bond at all, but just a mechanism for improbable adventures. In Colonel Sun, his own imitation under the alias Robert Markham, Kingsley Amis showed that he understood this, but the knowledge only deprived him of his own powers while not giving him Fleming’s. The only memorable moment in the book has Bond, at the moment just before some disaster strikes, driving quietly along, with the occasional automatic glance in the rearview mirror ‘that all good drivers give’, and placidly looking forward to his first drink of the evening. The moment is an index of that convincing naturalness which this most unnatural man seemed almost accidentally to have achieved. Bond’s true affinities are with the cosily reflective male consciences of Henry James or Hugh Walpole, or even with the heroines of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë – all of whom can make a pleasure in being themselves so endearing. Buchan’s Hannay is the only hero in the same line with whom Bond has anything in common. Fleming’s villains are totally derivative and standardised but they too have one genuinely disquieting characteristic which John Pearson noted in his biography: they possess ‘precisely the qualities children most fear in adults’.
At the same time the childish side of the Bond adventures, both satirised and exploited in the film versions, is actually misleading, for the charm of Bond’s consciousness is not that it is juvenile but that it is late middle-aged. Do the young still read him? It is not easy to find out, because though nobody minds being an addict of some intellectual thrillerist like Le Carré, a taste for Bond now seems a bit absurd as well as passé. Certainly any new reader who expects one of the soullessly ingenious and sophisticated jobs that are around nowadays would be in for a disappointing time. The all-important relation between daily living and the fantasy life does not appear to exist at all in Le Carré et al: they have become technicians of a conscientiously disillusioned world, and of a formula in which any dreams – let alone dreams of glory – would be out of place. At the same time they grow increasingly pretentious: portentous too. However much of the strong alcohol of his inner life went into Fleming’s creation, he was never solemn about it, never took it seriously. Like many memorable works it achieved something the creator had never designed or expected. And it was a joke too: not an in-joke but a simple one that can be shared by all. The signs of that humour are unobtrusive but unmistakable. On our blameless holidays most of us have taken for writing home a pad of notepaper inscribed Basildon Bond. Mr Basildon is the secretary of the club to which Bond is invited for one of his most thrilling evenings.