Tag Archives: Ian Fleming

James Bond’s secret: he’s Jamaican

Ian Fleming on the beach near Goldeneye Photo: Getty

A review of Goldeneye: Where Bond was Born, by Matthew Parker. This biography of Bond’s creator reveals an Ian Fleming who was cruel, vain and racist.

By Lewis Jones

First published in The Spectator, 9 August 2014

Ian Fleming’s first visit to Jamaica was pure James Bond. In 1943, as assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, he flew from Miami to Kingston to attend an Anglo-American naval conference and to investigate the rumour that Axel Wenner-Gren, a rich Swede and supposed Nazi, had built a secret submarine base at Hog Island, near Nassau. He was accompanied by his old friend Ivar Bryce, who was also in intelligence, and who put him up at a house his wife had recently bought. As they left the island, Fleming told Bryce, ‘When we have won this blasted war, I am going to live in Jamaica… swim in the sea and write books.’

Three years later he duly bought 14 acres in the parish of St Mary on the north coast, with a beach and a coral reef, for £2,000 and spent the same again on building a primitive house, which he called Goldeneye. With no glass in the windows and no hot water to begin with, it was essentially a large room with some small back bedrooms and a kitchen with a stove and a sink. Bryce, who had found him the site, called the house ‘a masterpiece of striking ugliness’, but Patrick Leigh Fermor approved of its ‘enormous quadrilaterals’, which ‘framed a prospect of sea and cloud and sky’.

Fleming had negotiated two months’ annual holiday from his job as foreign news manager at the Sunday Times, and invariably spent it at Goldeneye, where his library included the 1947 edition of Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies by James Bond. In 1952 — when he also married and became a father — he wrote Casino Royale, in which James Bond’s cover at the Royale-les-Eaux casino is a ‘Jamaican plantocrat’. He wrote a Bond story there every winter until his death in 1964, aged 56.

Parker sketches the history of the island, beginning with its idyllic millennia under the Taínos, who called it Hamaika, ‘land of wood and streams’, and were wiped out within two generations of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494, leaving behind them only a few ‘heartbreakingly relaxed’ words — barbecue, hammock, canoe. Fleming’s favourite period was naturally that of the English privateers of the 17th century, as he simply adored pirates. He gave Bond various ‘piratical’ attributes — the scar on his cheek, for example — and several women admired his own ‘slightly piratical’ broken nose. The plot of Live and Let Die turns on the discovery of Sir Henry Morgan’s treasure trove.‘What I endeavour to aim at,’ explained Fleming in his essay How to Write a Thriller, ‘is a certain disciplined exoticism.’ In Goldeneye Matthew Parker makes a convincing case that Fleming’s exoticism is essentially Jamaican, and that the island is crucial to a proper understanding of the man and his work. Three of the novels — Live and Let Die, Dr No and The Man with the Golden Gun — are mainly set there, and over the years Fleming became ‘soaked’ in its atmosphere, a ‘cocktail of luxury, melancholy, imperialism, fantasy, sensuality, danger and violence’.

Fleming shared his historical preferences with Noël Coward, who built two houses nearby, and with whom he had an unlikely but close friendship. They both loved the Royal Navy, and were nostalgic for the Empire; when Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Coward wrote in his diary that it was ‘a bloody good thing, but far too late’, and after Suez the Edens recuperated at Goldeneye. Fleming and Coward both loathed the arrival of the tourism they had helped pioneer. And — unlike Fleming’s wife Ann (née Charteris), who on her visits to Goldeneye before her divorce from Esmond Rothermere used to pretend to stay with Coward — they both disliked intellectuals.

One of Ann’s intellectuals was Peter Quennell, who was apparently known as ‘Lady Rothermere’s Fan’, and was an occasional guest at Goldeneye. Quennell noted that Coward treated Fleming ‘as if he were a distinguished member of the opposite sex’ and that Fleming, most untypically, ‘seemed positively to enjoy being teased or even ridiculed’. Nor did he appear to mind when Coward lightly fictionalised his affair with Ann in the novel Pomp and Circumstance. Coward later turned down the role of Dr No in the film with a telegram reading ‘No… No… No… No!’

Fleming obviously had much more in common with Commander Bond, not least his forceful heterosexuality: ‘I loved being whipped by you,’ Ann wrote to him in 1947, after a rendezvous in Dublin. Author and hero both swam like fish, and drank like them too, mainly spirits. Quennell recorded that at Goldeneye the Commander — Fleming retained his wartime rank — ‘tended to drink in the American way’, with plenty of vodka martinis or ‘very brown whisky sodas’ before dinner, but nothing with it, so Quennell would be forced to ask for something, to his host’s annoyance.

And then there was the smoking: ‘Bond lit his 70th cigarette of the day.’ Both commanders had a weekly order of 300 from Morlands of Grosvenor Street. As early as 1949 Fleming began to experience a tightening of the chest he called the Iron Crab, and in 1956 he cut down to 50 a day, but he kept at it. When he married Ann he wrote to her brother Hugo, who disliked him, tactfully promising never to hurt her except with a slipper — but he did. In the last photograph of them together at Goldeneye, Fleming, who had been told by doctors to stop smoking and drinking, is holding his sinister cigarette holder in one hand and reaching for what looks like a very brown drink with another, while his wife stares into the camera, her ‘anguish’, as the caption notes, ‘clearly visible’.

Parker argues that Fleming and Bond were both pretty unlikeable, but that this made them more interesting. Besides his cruelty and vanity, Fleming was by today’s standards a racist. He loved Jamaicans but was also wary of them, always taking to Goldeneye his Browning .25 from the war, ‘for defence against the Blackamoors’. He was patronising about their ‘childish faults’ and ‘simple lusts and desires’, and didn’t take Independence seriously. Less heinously, he was also something of a snob. Sean Connery, who quite liked him, thought him ‘a real snob’, but in his review of Dr No Paul Johnson cleverly out-snobbed him, dismissing his snobbery as ‘very second-rate… not even the snobbery of a proper snob’.

Parker thinks Robinson Crusoe was written by Robert Louis Stevenson, and is a bit muddled about English titles, but his book makes an entertaining addendum to Andrew Lycett’s definitive 1995 biography.

Buy Goldeneye: Where Bond was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica by Matthew Parker

Bringing Bond to book

bondWe continue our series of articles looking at the work of Ian Fleming who was a friend of Paddy. Fleming was influenced by Paddy’s exploits and he used the Traveller’s Tree in particular as a source for Live and Let Die.

By Matthew Woodcock

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 14 December 2013

There is one last James Bond book from the late 1950s that remains unpublished. We will not find the typescript lurking in the archives, nor hidden amongst the papers held by Ian Fleming’s estate, for this book is not about James Bond but written by Bond himself. It is from Fleming’s 1959 novel Goldfinger that we learn that 007 spends his hours on night duty at the Secret Service compiling a manual on unarmed combat called Stay Alive!, containing the best that had been written on the subject by his peers in intelligence agencies around the world. Bond is more industrious in the field than at the typewriter and no more is heard about this great unfinished work once his thoughts drift back to his previous assignment and time spent enjoying the company of the ill-fated Jill Masterson.

It should come as no surprise that Fleming’s hero has writerly pretensions. Yet again, Bond and his creator have interests or characteristics in common, along with their shared dash of Scottish ancestry and background in naval intelligence, and a similar penchant for custom-made Morlands cigarettes. During his twenties, Fleming read widely in French and German literature — Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was a particular favourite — and he subscribed to all the avant garde literary magazines of the day. He experimented briefly with poetry, collected first editions for a while, and launched the Book Collector magazine. Ultimately, through his friend and later editor, the poet and novelist William Plomer, he entered the literary world of postwar London, met T.S. Eliot and befriended Edith Sitwell. But to what extent did these kind of literary and bibliographic interests shape or influence Fleming’s work when he began writing the Bond books?

Bond too is, of course, a man of books. Fleming took the name of his hero from the spine of a trusted ornithological guide to the West Indies. And the seemingly effortless, spontaneous genesis of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, drew as much upon the author’s reading of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and ‘Sapper’ (creator of Bulldog Drummond) as it did on his wartime experiences.

The clubland stalwarts were formative influences on Fleming, but they are — at best — literature spelt with a very small ‘l’. Bond himself has bookish impulses: the book-lined sitting-room glimpsed briefly in Moonraker is a valuable resource, used in preparations for forthcoming missions, furnishing him in this instance with a volume on card-sharping by John Scarne. Researching details of voodoo rites in Live and Let Die, Bond consults The Traveller’s Tree by Fleming’s friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. Appropriately enough, 007 also likes a good thriller and purchases the latest Raymond Chandler at the close of Goldfinger, and in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service displays a ready familiarity with the Nero Wolfe series, written by the equally well-read Rex Stout. It turns out that M too knows of Wolfe. En route to Istanbul in From Russia with Love, Bond enjoys a literary busman’s holiday by reading Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios.

One might pause to consider just how do spies respond to fictional rehearsals of their trade? Did 007 snort in derision at Ambler’s accidental hero — himself a crime writer — or nod in recognition at his frustrations and disillusionment? Would he compare the quality of Ambler’s villains with those that he himself routinely faced in the field? Fleming’s villains themselves also appreciate a good book. At the start of From Russia with Love we discover that SMERSH’s chief executioner, Red Grant, likes to unwind by reading P.G. Wodehouse, and no one in the organisation would dare question such a choice.

Literary references and analogies frequently run through Bond’s mind: an allusion to Paradise Lost appears in the short story ‘Risico’, where he is disguised, naturally, as a writer; a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson strikes him in Diamonds are Forever, when he realises that he is sharing a ship with two of the Spangled Mob’s henchmen; he even attempts composing a haiku in You Only Live Twice.

None of the above, read in context, would have found a receptive audience with the likes of Eliot and Sitwell, or indeed among the literary pals of Fleming’s wife Ann. Fleming’s at times uneasy proximity to such circles never influenced the Bond books’ plot or structure, nor determined his initial choice of genre, but it did shape the author’s conception of the ‘literary’ and his recognition of how appreciation of ‘fine’ writing and the ‘right’ kind of books might be used for rhetorical effect, to engender the desired impression of his central character. The literary references in the Bond books are comparable to the furnishing of technical details about cars, dining, drinks, gambling and the like that the author employs to ground his fantastic plots in a recognisable reality — what Kingsley Amis identified as ‘the Fleming effect’. They help to build up Bond’s characterisation in deft, if brief, brushstrokes.

It could be suggested that the spy thriller itself — certainly after Somerset Maugham’s 1928 Ashenden — became the perfect genre with which to explore so many of the anxieties about identity and its representation to which the modernist greats gave expression. Like Eliot’s Prufrock, Bond and his peers are for-ever preparing ‘a face to meet the faces’ that they meet, always working with that lurking uncertainty as to whether they are the hero or the anti-hero of their own life’s narrative. Joseph Conrad had earlier delved into similar territory in his thriller The Secret Agent.

Had Fleming lived to tell of 007’s eventual retirement from the Secret Service we would undoubtedly have witnessed Bond swap his Walther for a pen and become a writer, thus following the career path of previous agents turned authors, W. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Stella Rimington and, of course, Fleming himself. He might even have completed Stay Alive!

Related article:

Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger

More Bondage

Sean Connery and Ian Fleming

Perhaps unsurprisingly one of the most popular blog posts was something I added a couple of years ago – Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger. With the launch of the new Bond movie plus the popularity of A Fifty Shades of Grey (you should see the search terms that lead people to your favourite blog!) it seems timely to do as I promised, and publish the complete article by Geoffrey Wheatcroft which is about Ian Fleming, a close friend of Paddy and Joan.

by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

First published in the New York Review of Books, 14 August 2008.

Fifty years ago, a fictional spy who had gradually become famous suddenly became notorious. Dr. No was the sixth of the books that had been appearing since 1953 when Ian Fleming, a restless, cynical English newspaperman, published Casino Royale, and with the words “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning,” James Bond first appeared. Fewer than five thousand copies were initially printed, but sales rose with each book, Bond entered the national consciousness, and his adventures began to travel, notably to America. Then in 1958 academic and journalistic critics began to look hard at this phenomenon, and did not like what they saw.

First came Bernard Bergonzi, with “The Case of Mr Fleming.” Apart from finding the sex distasteful—male brutality and female submission, or what Bond himself called “the sweet tang of rape”—he lamented Fleming’s “vulgarity and display” and his love of luxury goods. This was true enough, as anyone knows who has read the books, or who visits the fascinating show about Fleming and Bond at the Imperial War Museum in London on which For Your Eyes Only, Ben Macintyre’s enjoyable new book of the same name, is based. Fleming pioneered brand-name-dropping, and we can see a letter he received from Floris of Jermyn Street, enclosing a bottle of that elegant emporium’s lime essence in return for a puff in Dr. No.

Then the Manchester Guardian (as it still just was) editorially deplored the decline in taste expressed by the “advertising agency world” of the books, which echoed Bergonzi unkindly contrasting Bond with “the perfectly self-assured gentlemanly life” of his obvious predecessors, the Clubland Heroes. That was the title of Richard Usborne’s book, published in the same year as Casino Royale, about the novels of John Buchan, Dornford Yates, and “Sapper,” and those earlier heroes would not, Bergonzi sniffed, have tolerated club servants talking like something out of a New Yorker ad (“If I may suggest, Sir, the Dom Perignon ‘46”). Fleming responded genially to the Guardian with “a squeak from the butterfly before any more big wheels roll down on it,” but he was dismayed by a more ferocious assault, from Paul Johnson in the New Statesman. Under a headline which almost entered the language, “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism,” Johnson denounced Dr. No as “without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read,” combining schoolboy sex fantasies with suburban “snob-cravings.”

Not that these fusillades did much material damage. Half a dozen more books were to come before Fleming died in 1964, and there was a handy endorsement when John Kennedy revealed his enthusiasm for 007. Author and president met, even discussing harebrained schemes for disposing of Dr. Castro rather than Dr. No (but is it really true that Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were both reading Bond books the night before the assassination in Dallas?). Then Bond went through the financial stratosphere when the film adaptations began in 1962, since when there have been—well, Simon Winder, in The Man Who Saved Britain, his entertainingly idiosyncratic book about Bond and “Bondage,” gives a list before breaking off, “…I’m sorry: I just can’t go on it’s all so terrible. They’re roughly the same, come out at irregular intervals and tend to have the word Die in the title.”

After Fleming’s death came the pastiche novels: Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks “writing as Ian Fleming” is the twenty-second in a line that began in 1968 with Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis—and here is a curiosity in itself. Great writers are often parodied by lesser talents, but Fleming must be the only thriller-writer to be mimicked by a Booker Prize winner, and now by another well-known literary novelist. This might have puzzled Fleming, whose ambiguous attitude toward what he shrugged off as his “kiss kiss bang bang” books has already been chronicled in biographies by John Pearson and Andrew Lycett. His life casts only a little light on the real world of espionage, but is more revealing as a rather bleak story of malaise and decline, personal and national.

For all the snobbery of which Fleming was accused, his grandfather Robert Fleming was born in a humble home in Victorian Dundee, started off as a thirteen-year-old clerk for £5 a year, and worked his way up, founding his own bank and accumulating a fortune, a house in Grosvenor Square (where the unlovely American embassy now stands), and an estate in Oxfordshire. His son Valentine became an MP and fathered four sons. The elder two were Peter and Ian, born in May 1908: Faulks’s Devil May Care was launched on the centenary itself, when a blonde in a red jumpsuit whisked the first copies to an awaiting warship (Fleming might have been half amused, while wondering whether his beloved Royal Navy had nothing better to do than host publicity stunts).

In 1917, Valentine was killed on the Western Front. Ian’s life was clouded by that memory, and he was overshadowed by Peter at Eton. Ian didn’t follow his brother to Oxford, being sent instead to Sandhurst military academy. Quite forgetting the wisdom of the Duke of Cambridge (Queen Victoria’s cousin, and commander in chief for most of her reign, visited Sandhurst at a time when there was a high incidence of venereal infection among the officer-cadets, and told them with avuncular sternness, “I understand that some of you young gentlemen have been putting yours where I wouldn’t put my walking stick”), he contracted gonorrhea in one of the first of many escapades, and was removed by his horrified mother.

After flunking out of the army, Fleming flunked out of journalism and stockbroking as well, and was in his thirties when he was rescued by the war. He worked in the Admiralty intelligence department for Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the model for Bond’s boss “M,” became a commander, the rank he gave Bond, and followed from afar the missions of Special Operations Executive in occupied Europe. It’s not hard to see an element of compensation when this desk-bound sailor came to write about derring-do he had never personally experienced. The only time Fleming literally saw action was in August 1942 when he was in a destroyer observing the Dieppe raid. Instigated by the absurd Lord Louis Mountbatten, one of Churchill’s worst appointments, that disastrous enterprise saw one thousand of six thousand men killed in a day for no discernible purpose, a shambles which might have sown the first seeds of doubt in Fleming’s mind about England’s greatness.

After the war he found a comfortable newspaper job, and resumed his liaison with Ann Rothermere, a famous London hostess. Fleming’s one child, Caspar, was born five months after they married in 1952, following her divorce from her second husband. Not that marriage cramped Fleming’s style. Amis thought that Bond was an “amalgam of what many men would like to be,” which may have said more about him than many men. The real-life Fleming showed little of the chivalry toward women with which he occasionally invests his hero. At best he was Philip Larkin’s Englishman, “too selfish, withdrawn/And easily bored to love,” at worst a heartless philanderer; as Rosamond Lehmann (a novelist of a very different kind) astutely put it, “The trouble with Ian is that he gets off with women because he cannot get on with them.”

He got on with Ann on and off, as it were, in a curious relationship. Torture is conspicuous in the books, and an early Dr. No paperback cover (the kind of thing we don’t see much in bookstores now) shows a girl with very little on dangling from manacled wrists while a vast black man stands over her to inflict horrible pain. But then Fleming knew whereof he wrote, warning Ann in one letter to ready herself for more of her own punishment and “be prepared to drink your cocktails standing for a few days.”

Then again, he might have been settling the score. Returning to the small house on the Dover coast he’d been lent by Noël Coward, Fleming heard laughter from the sitting room, which fell silent when he entered, and he realized that Ann and her friends had been guffawing over passages from galleys of Casino Royale. He never cared for Ann’s salon of writers and artists and one can almost see why. One of her friendships at least bequeathed an unforgettable legacy: amid the memorabilia—Ian’s old typewriter, or a cable from Clay Felker asking for a piece on Russian spying for Esquire—a visitor to the show is stopped in his tracks by Lucian Freud’s haunting small portrait of Ann.

And one more of the circle was Cyril Connolly (even if, come to think of it, Ann was exactly the woman he had in mind with his lethal coining “smartistic”). In 1963, Connolly published a parody of Fleming in the London Magazine. “M” has conceived an illicit passion for 007, who is told to get himself done up in drag, go to a nightclub, and entice a kinky visiting KGB general, who turns out to be “M” himself in disguise (“I’m sorry, James,” he says forlornly at the unmasking. “It was the only way I could get you,” at which Bond’s “long rangy body flared out above his black silk panties,” before he cuts his boss short: “I thought fellows like you shot themselves…. Have you got a gun—sir—?”).

This spoof was entitled “Bond Strikes Camp,” and that was the mot juste. There is sometimes a perceptible arch self-consciousness in the original books, but everything since has been one big camp meeting, the movies most obviously, but also the knockoffs. Not surprisingly, Faulks’s Devil May Care is better written than Fleming’s books. If Johnson exaggerated when he said that Fleming had “no literary skill,” so does John Bayley in claiming that “Fleming wrote so well…almost as well as Raymond Chandler.” The quality of writing in popular novels is as varied as in literary fiction, and while Fleming didn’t write as badly as Jeffrey Archer he really didn’t as well as Chandler. His prose style, such as it is, was acquired during his brief sojourn at Reuters: who-what, short sentences, a minimum of adjectives and adverbs, all of which Faulks carefully copies.

While Devil May Care is short on sex and sadism, it does begin with one unfortunate having his tongue torn out; but then Faulks’s own tongue is a little too obviously in his cheek. We get Gorner, an impossibly horrible villain, a brutal enforcer called Chagrin (nice touch), a glamorous heroine with whom James is far too diffident—and a distinctly autumnal flavor. The book is set in 1967, when Fleming not only didn’t write it but could not have written it, and 007, as he admits, is showing his age. Now and again the writing flags. Bond has been in Tehran a few days when he lunches alone on caviar and martinis, before spreading out “some maps he had bought from the hotel shop…. The country was between Turkey to the west and Afghanistan to the east. Its southern frontier was the Persian Gulf, its northern limit the Caspian Sea.” Well, yes.

There are a few other lapses which it would be tedious to list, including a tennis match that is not only implausible in itself but whose scoring goes awry. We all make mistakes, including the originator. After Fleming published On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that worldly sophisticate was mortified to receive a magisterial rebuke from his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor: Ian surely knew that Pol Roger is the only champagne never sold in half bottles.


When Philip Larkin grumbled once about the “spy rubbish” he resented having to read (along with “science-fiction rubbish, Negro-homosexual rubbish, or dope-taking nervous-breakdown rubbish”),* Fleming must have been what he had in mind, but there is more than one type of espionage novel. The Bond books can be called many things, but not grown-up, whereas a long and distinguished line of adult spy fiction runs from Conrad’s The Secret Agent (published the year before Fleming was born) by way of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden books to Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Nigel Dennis, John Le Carré, and Robert Harris, with the Americans Alan Furst and Joseph Kanon latterly carrying on the tradition.

For one thing, real-life espionage is a far grimmer business than 007’s make-believe kissing and banging. W.C. Heinz, who died recently, was one of the great American sportswriters of his age, but he first made his name as a war correspondent, and in particular with one piece from the Battle of the Bulge. Written with a harsh realism that would be unlikely today, “The Morning They Shot the Spies” describes three German soldiers who had been ordered to dress in American uniform and drive a jeep behind Allied lines, where they were soon apprehended and faced the same fate, tethered and blindfolded, as many such. (A sombre footnote in our story belongs to Erskine Childers, author of that still-readable spy yarn The Riddle of the Sands; during the savage Irish Civil War in 1922, years after his book was published, he became, as far as I know, the only thriller-writer to be himself shot by firing squad.)

From 1940, numerous often hopelessly inept agents were parachuted into England where they were caught, and usually executed, although they had a choice. They could accept a patriotic death or, as Tony Soprano would say, they could be flipped. Not a few chose discretion over valor and became double agents, radioing back carefully controlled disinformation (making sure to sound like themselves: Faulks mentions the “fist” or personal quirks by which a particular radio operator’s transmissions could be recognized). By any such standards, the story of one double agent was astounding, not to say utterly improbable, as it is told in Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag and Nicholas Booth’s ZigZag. Both books are well researched and well written; Macintyre’s is masterly.

Born in a Durham mining village in 1914, Eddie Chapman enlisted in the Coldstream Guards, but he soon discovered Soho, girls, and gambling, was discharged for going AWOL, and turned to petty crime, less petty when he graduated to gelignite and safecracking. He also entered the pre-war London equivalent of Damon Runyon’s Broadway, a demimonde of gangsters, journalists, and showbiz: stranger-than-fiction begins when he really did rub shoulders with Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and, in a still more preposterous coincidence, a young man in the film business called Terence Young. Many years later, Young would direct the first Bond movie.

On the lam from a bank robbery in 1939, Chapman took a girl to Jersey, where he was caught and imprisoned, with dramatic consequences when France fell in June 1940, and the Channel Islands were occupied by the Wehrmacht. Highly intelligent, a natural linguist, and thoroughly amoral, Chapman now offered his services to the Germans as a spy. “The life of a secret agent is dangerous enough, but the life of a double agent is infinitely more precarious,” said Sir John Cecil Masterman, Oxford don and intelligence officer; “a single slip can send him crashing to destruction.” Chapman’s iron nerve never slipped. He was inducted into the Abwehr, the intelligence service of the German high command, and in December 1942 (when both books begin with a prologue), carrying a radio, a Colt revolver, and a cyanide pill, he was dropped into a field in Cambridgeshire.

He had long been awaited. The greatest single British contribution to the defeat of the Third Reich, and possibly the greatest British achievement of the past century, is known to us as Bletchley, the unprepossessing country house halfway between Oxford and Cambridge, where an eccentric team of mathematicians, musicians, and classicists broke what the Germans had with good reason believed to be the unbreakable codes of their Enigma machines, and in the process pretty well invented modern computing: the huge creaking and whirring “bombes” of Bletchley, running over endless patterns and permutations, were the forebears of your laptop. Fleming was peripherally concerned with this operation, which is the setting for one of the best recent thrillers, Robert Harris’s Enigma. In its film version a very attentive viewer can catch a fleeting cameo performance as an RAF officer by one of the movie’s backers, Sir Mick Jagger—and we did get some satisfaction from what was done at Bletchley, enjoying the incalculable advantage of reading German radio traffic.

One intercepted Abwehr message said, “Your friend Bobby the Pig grows fatter every day. He is gorging now like a king, roars like a lion and shits like an elephant. Fritz.” The lady cipher clerks were shocked by this vulgarity, but those to whom it was funneled upward added it to their file about the latest agent who would be arriving soon, although this time the information was unneeded. Chapman immediately gave himself up and volunteered to serve his own country, as he had—perhaps and maybe—always intended to do. He was code-named “Agent Zigzag” by one of his handlers (who must have had an unconscious instinct for book titles), and was debriefed at length by such unconventional officers as Tommy “Tar” Robertson, Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, and the scientist and intrepid dismantler of unexploded bombs, Victor, Lord Rothschild: that scion of the most famous of banking dynasties now listened while Zigzag cheerfully taught him how to rob a bank.

His handlers took to this “most absorbing person,” as one of them called Chapman: “Reckless and impetuous, moody and sentimental, he becomes on acquaintance an extraordinarily likeable character,” and his work of deception soon began. One of his tasks for the Abwehr had been to sabotage an aircraft factory near London, and an explosion was duly faked, with a story planted in the Daily Express for added realism. Still more astonishingly, Zigzag then returned to occupied Europe, where he rejoined the Abwehr in Norway, and became the only British citizen ever awarded the Iron Cross. Eddie’s subsequent reward from his own country after the war was more practical, a character reference describing him as “one of the bravest men who served in the last war,” which regularly kept him out of prison.

What distinguishes the Bond books, apart from the floggings and the Floris, is the simple moral world they inhabit. James, “M,” and Felix Leiter, 007’s likeable Texan buddy, are Good; Drax, Goldfinger, and Rosa Klebb are Bad, with no shades between. When a double agent does appear, she soon gets her comeuppance. By contrast, the adult spy books from Conrad on are set in a misty marshland of compromised loyalty, personal ambiguity, betrayal, and failure. A decade after the arrival of Bond, virile and uncomplicated, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold marked a drastic change of mood with the gray, mousy cuckold George Smiley; if Le Carré had written the Bond books, Leiter would be working for the KGB as well as the CIA.

Which is why, as Tod Hoffman says in The Spy Within, his book about a CIA employee who spied for the Chinese, the spy-hunter does not assume that everyone is a spy, only that anyone might be. People spy from a variety of motives—greed, ideological commitment, or atavistic ties—which raises delicate problems in a country like the United States, with so many hyphenated citizens harboring potential mixed loyalties. Humphrey Bogart’s one truly nasty film is Across the Pacific, made in a hurry just after Pearl Harbor. The villain is a Japanese-American, the “all-American boy,” as he calls himself, who turns out to be spying for the land of his forefathers; the movie could be seen as a justification for the shameful internment of the Nisei by the Roosevelt administration. More recently, Mossad raised more awkward questions when they suborned the American intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard by appealing to his Jewish loyalty.

When the CIA realized in 1982 that there was a foreign agent working inside American intelligence, they didn’t at first guess that he was one of their own. Larry Wu-Tai Chin had originally been recruited by the US Army during the Korean War as a translator, but then moved to the Foreign Broadcast Information Service run by the CIA. He stayed with the agency for more than thirty years, all the time passing documents to the Chinese. His inducement wasn’t just ties of blood: Chin was paid handsomely enough to spend as he pleased not only on women (he was a “lecherous old scumbag” according to one colleague) and gambling but on real estate in the slums of Baltimore. Not for the first time, the fine minds of an intelligence service quite failed to notice how an employee was living way beyond his salary, and the mystery about the Chin case is not how he was finally rumbled, leading to prison, where he committed suicide in 1986, but how he went undetected for so long.

How much damage he did is hard to assess, but then so is whether most spying does any good. Sir Henry Tizard was president of Magdalen College, Oxford, a scientist as well as a public servant, and a true patriot, who may be said without exaggeration to have helped save his country and civilization: without his work in ensuring that radar was installed around the coastline by 1940, the Battle of Britain might have been lost. Ten years later, at the height of the panic over “atomic spies,” Tizard used to tell colleagues that there were no nuclear secrets. He meant that there was little the Soviets had learned through espionage that could not have been gleaned by less melodramatic means, with competent Russian physicists studying the published American scientific journals.

There might have been an element of donnish exaggeration in that, and obviously signal intelligence of the Bletchley kind is of the highest value in wartime. But a great deal of espionage is solipsistic or circular, shadows chasing shadows, spies spying on spies spying on other spies like the endlessly receding image in facing mirrors. That is something the better spy writers convey, and so intermittently does Fleming. His books also have a political and social content of sorts. While Bond likes to complain about “the cheap self-assertiveness of young labor since the war” and the “buyer’s market of the welfare state,” he is conscious as well of declining British power and prestige, and resents the way that he and his country are patronized by the Americans.

In Devil May Care, Faulks’s Bond voices one or two of his traditional views—the French intelligence services are riddled with Communists—but he also encounters a new complication in the Anglo-American relationship. Gorner is trying to precipitate a nuclear war that will destroy London, and gloats to Bond that “the Americans saved your bacon twice, but your failure to support their crazed adventure in Vietnam has made them angry with you. They will not be so generous on this occasion.”

In the original books Bond recognizes national weakness, or is made to by such foreigners as Tiger Tanaka, head of Japanese intelligence. Bond replies a little morosely that even if the country had been “bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars” and further demoralized by welfare, “we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at sports.” Everest had been climbed the day before the Coronation, in the year Bond first appeared, with Sir Winston Churchill back at Downing Street to greet the young queen and inaugurate “a new Elizabethan age.” And yet only three years later, as Tanaka sarcastically observes, the attempt to arrest decline had led to Suez, and “one of the most pitiful bungles in the history of the world.” A bungle and a folly, it would become moreover a byword for late-imperial arrogance, although it might be remembered that Nasser’s initial action had been condemned not only by Sir Anthony Eden’s Tory government but by the Labour opposition and its new leader, Hugh Gaitskell (who was also Ann Fleming’s lover; England can sometimes seem a small country). And most painful of all was the way that Washington pulled the rug from under their supposed British friends.

After the debacle, a chastened and ailing Eden flew to recuperate at Goldeneye, Fleming’s house in Jamaica where the books were written each winter. He soon resigned the premiership, ostensibly because of ill health, although he lived until his eightieth year—a contrast to his Jamaican host. Skeptics have sometimes wondered how Bond managed to shoot straight, play cards and golf so well, or fornicate at all, in view of the superhuman quantities of alcohol he consumed. Fleming indeed drank a bottle of gin a day and smoked several packs, which helped explain why he died at only fifty-six; and the story grew still more melancholy.

Although Ann survived him until her death from cancer in 1981, her heart had already been broken by something worse than Ian’s death, giving the story a bitter conclusion. Their son Caspar was attractive and amusing, as I still remember, but despairing and doomed. He was sacked from Eton (like Bond, although in Caspar’s case because he had a pistol in his room), dropped out of Oxford, and took to drugs (never a good idea for an acute manic-depressive). In 1975, at the age of twenty-three, Ian Fleming’s only child, heir to the Bond millions, ended his life with a deliberate overdose.

* Author’s note:

Larkin’s words may sound more than characteristically dyspeptic, but they were written in a generous and altruistic letter to Charles Monteith of Faber, trying to persuade him, though without success, to take on Barbara Pym and her “ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things” (August 15, 1965)

Related article:

Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger

Copy of Traveller’s Tree sold for £1,700 at James Bond book auction

A selection of highly sought after first editions of Ian Fleming’s legendary James Bond books were sold by Gloucestershire auctioneers Dominic Winter at a sale on 16 December 2010.

Casino Royale, the book that introduced 007 to the world, was anticipated to be a highlight of the auction. This rare first edition with its original dust-jacket was expected to fetch £12,000, but in fact went for £19,000.

Other first editions included a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s first book ‘The Traveller’s Tree’ (1950), signed by Ian Fleming. There are also a few of Fleming’s marks in the margins on Haitian Voodoo, which he used for the scene-setting pages at the beginning of ‘Live and Let Die’.

This inspiration for one of the greatest Bond books was expected to fetch up to £800. In fact it finally went for £1,700.

Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger

Sean Connery and Ian Fleming

As background to the Imperial War Museum’s 2008-09 exhibition For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James BondThe New York Review of Books  featured a discussion of the merits of Ian Flemings’s work by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Entitled ‘Bondage’ it is a wide-ranging review, and for shock factor it intially does tend to focus on Fleming’s penchant for what Wheatcroft calls ‘schoolboy sexual fantasies’. One critic found Fleming’s ‘sex distasteful—male brutality and female submission, or what Bond himself called “the sweet tang of rape”—he lamented Fleming’s “vulgarity and display” and his love of luxury goods.’

Well, that all makes for good reading but two things caught my eye. First of all there is some mild criticism for the overrated Sebastian Faulks and his 2008 attempt at writing a Bond story Devil May Care; more on Mr Faulks at a later date. Not only do I not particularly rate his writing (and I doubt he cares) but he is also a critic of Paddy’s.

The second was a letter that Paddy wrote to Ian Fleming picking him up on a point about Pol Roger champagne. Fleming was probably the first proponent of what would now be called ‘brand placement‘. As anyone who has read a Bond book or seen a film cannot fail to have missed, Bond does not get by with ‘Tesco Value’ when he can obtain a top brand alternative, presumably on Her Majesty’s expenses.

Paddy and Joan were friends of the Flemings, but, along with Debo Devonshire, were particularly close to Anne Fleming, and supported her through the difficult times following Ian’s death and his failure to get his estate in order. Read In Tearing Haste for more on this.

The particular part of the NYRB article that caught my attention is below, and shows Paddy’s excellent eye for detail, which we see constantly in his own work:

“While Devil May Care is short on sex and sadism, it does begin with one unfortunate having his tongue torn out; but then Faulks’s own tongue is a little too obviously in his cheek. We get Gorner, an impossibly horrible villain, a brutal enforcer called Chagrin (nice touch), a glamorous heroine with whom James is far too diffident—and a distinctly autumnal flavour. The book is set in 1967, when Fleming not only didn’t write it but could not have written it, and 007, as he admits, is showing his age. Now and again the writing flags. Bond has been in Tehran a few days when he lunches alone on caviar and martinis, before spreading out “some maps he had bought from the hotel shop…. The country was between Turkey to the west and Afghanistan to the east. Its southern frontier was the Persian Gulf, its northern limit the Caspian Sea.” Well, yes.

There are a few other lapses which it would be tedious to list, including a tennis match that is not only implausible in itself but whose scoring goes awry. We all make mistakes, including the originator. After Fleming published On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that worldly sophisticate was mortified to receive a magisterial rebuke from his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor: Ian surely knew that Pol Roger is the only champagne never sold in half bottles.”

You can read the full article from the NYRB here. I will publish it at some later date for the archive.

The Friendly Isles: in the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

Wake up. Stretch. Open eyes and look around. We’re in the most comfortable bedroom imaginable, physically and aesthetically. A great bed, soft sheets, pastel grey woodwork, white upholstery. Through the open French windows is a dream beach: a perfect crescent of pristine sand lapped by clear blue water and shaded by tall palm trees. A barefoot 50 paces across tightly mown grass and we are in the warm sea. It doesn’t get any better than this.

How different it was for Patrick Leigh Fermor and his companions 56 years ago. With Joan Eyres-Monsell, the woman who was to become his wife 20 years later, and Costa, the great Greek photographer, spent six months travelling through the Lesser and Greater Antilles. Then, the many islands they visited were thoroughly run down. The great buildings of church and state and planters’ wealth were mostly ruinous and rotten. The future in the depressed economic climate just after the Second World War looked bleak and, indeed, “King Sugar” was about to die, as it had on the abolition of slavery – only this time as a victim of sugar beet and the macro politics being played out between America and Europe.

Yet, Leigh Fermor still managed to reveal the romance and the magic of the archipelago and so start the obsession so many have since had with visiting the “Friendly Isles”. His vision saved them by helping to create a climate in which tourism could grow, and tourism has been the salvation of the Caribbean ever since.

In those immediate post-war days, the few hotels and boarding houses were grim. The tourism industry was embryonic and only when they stayed in some of the grand privately owned great houses, built by rich planters, “were we redeemed from the usual squalors of our island sojourns”. Most of these have now become hotels or “plantation inns” and they are delightful places to stay, combining old-world elegance with modern luxury.

Earlier this year, my wife, Louella, and I decided to follow in Leigh Fermor’s footsteps to see how much the islands had changed. Our pace was less leisurely than his and we were able to visit only 10 of the 15 islands he saw, but with his books as our vade-mecum we found our eyes, ears and all our senses opened and enhanced.

We started in Antigua and headed straight for the Carlisle Bay hotel. There, Gordon Campbell Gray has achieved the same understated excellence on a Caribbean beach as in his highly regarded One Aldwych in London.

Antigua has changed radically since Leigh Fermor’s day. Then, Nelson’s dockyard was in ruins. “The timbers were so eaten away,” he wrote, “that we had to step from beam to beam, for the boards between them had fallen to powder, or still hung from rusty nails in rotten fragments.” English Harbour, the great 18th-century naval base favoured by Rodney, Cochrane and Nelson and perhaps the prettiest and safest harbour in the whole Caribbean (the view of it from Shirley Heights is without equal), had no facilities whatever.

Read more here!