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)