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3 October 2023

Ian Fleming, eternal adolescent

Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography reveals a boy more reminiscent of Peter Rabbit than James Bond.

By Lyndall Gordon

“Naughty” was how Ian Fleming’s exemplary eldest brother described him. Restless, often in disgrace, Ian dropped out of Eton, then Sandhurst. There Fleming would have learnt to use firearms, and his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare opens up convincing links between Fleming and his fictional creation, the gun-toting James Bond, but the boy Ian reminds me of Peter Rabbit: naughty and courting risk as he pulls whatever he wants from Mr McGregor’s vegetable garden. In Beatrix Potter’s watercolour, this wilful one stands apart, eyes averted from his siblings, the three obedient bunnies belonging to Mrs Rabbit whose husband, sadly, is no more. A photograph of Mrs Fleming with her four boys has the biddable three bunched together, while Ian scowls to one side.

Was his singularity determined by nature or did experience shape his wayward character? His father, Valentine Fleming, a dashing war hero and model for Bond, was killed in 1917 when Ian was eight. Before Val vanished in clouds of glory, he sent two coercive letters to his son. The first, when the child was three, forbids crying on pain of ridicule by other boys, then offers a big-boy image of himself: a photograph of Val shooting a stag. A second letter silences his son at prep school in Dorset, when he misses his mother and finds no friend among the beastly boys. Val, writing from the trenches, says it’s not done to speak of problems.

“Forgetful of feeling as a Fleming” was a saying associated with migrants from the Low Countries who came to Britain to teach weaving skills during the 14th century. With his offhand candour, Fleming spoke of forebears who were “nasty” Dutch merchants, and also of “Jewish blood” traced to a great-grandmother, Elizabeth Amos. But the Flemings identified themselves as Scottish, reinforced for Ian by his own streak of melancholy. His grandfather, Robert Fleming, a banker, had risen from a Dundee slum to enormous riches and, crashing through class barriers, an influential position in English society.

The biography offers mitigating circumstances, sibling rivalry in particular, to explain a self-willed character, who used looks, excuses and eloquence to have his way, smoothing over harm to others. Fleming’s future relationships with myriad women may go back to the headmaster of Durnford, the prep school, who called boys to his office before they left, to tell them the facts of life: there’s a “hole” in which a man can “relieve himself”. A woman could be a useful gadget.

Then there was sadism. A beating had greeted his arrival at prep school. “I’m going to break you, Fleming,” was the welcome of “Bumface” Slater, the housemaster at Eton, as soon as Mrs Fleming’s Rolls-Royce, having delivered Ian from Hampstead, departed. Slater was one of the last masters to cane bare bottoms. Members of the elite Eton club called Pop were free to use bamboo canes on other boys. Shakespeare does not fail to link what Cyril Connolly called Eton’s “silken barbarity” with Fleming’s later taste for whipping as part of love-play.

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Fleming confided to his close friend, the writer Mary Pakenham, his wish to be a Renaissance man, the complete man of this book’s title. It’s the aim of a gifted individual trailing a history of failures and unable to have a stable tie except with schoolmates.

[See also: How Dr No made James Bond a global brand]

The Complete Man is packed with women, their characters and stories carefully filled in, the juiciest detail being a lover’s report that he was adept but selfish in bed. There was Monique, the “lissom” Swiss woman with blue-black hair to whom Fleming was engaged for three years (his mother saw her off as not posh enough); “Moo”, a vibrant dispatch rider who was killed by a bomb in 1944; Maud Russell, an older woman who became his confidante and bought him a house in Jamaica. Then, in his forties and fifties, there was the woman who eventually married him, Ann Rothermere, with her “flick-knife remarks”, whose intellectual circle looked down on Bond; and finally the kindest and most independent of them, Blanche Blackwell, a neighbour in Jamaica. The jealous Ann gave her son Caspar to understand that Blanche was black; in time Caspar was astonished to meet a white woman of the upper middle class. These women come to seem almost interchangeable, because their stories are the same. Fleming fails to sustain his attachment. Each thinks herself the one, yet inevitably falls victim to the exploiter’s pattern. It was serial deception with conquest as the terminal aim.

This highly accomplished and readable biography will please many readers. Others will find it hard to warm to the subject apart from spurts of pity: pity for the unloved child left in the power of a snobbish, manipulative mother; pity for the cruelties in his schooling; and pity too for Ann, who wouldn’t have wanted it. After her marriage to Fleming – forced on him because she was pregnant – he ended their premarital love-life of five years. Abject, she blamed minor blemishes: scars left by two life-saving caesarean births (both babies fathered by Fleming). Odd that the intelligent Ann did not see the pattern. He had no idea of commitment and seems to have been a permanent adolescent.

This is a man who remains unreachable, sealed in his act – cosying up to a woman on his backless sofa, with a fire burning beside them, he occupied the irresistible role of a kindred being. In this beguiling guise he eludes even the fullest of full-scale biographies. As Shakespeare suggests, Fleming might not have been able to reach himself.

Prior to his late-life success with Bond (the first novel, Casino Royale, was published a month before he turned 45), there were two less celebrated high points in his life. In early adulthood he found himself at Reuters. Investigative journalism honed his style: brief and to the point. His model was Hemingway, so much so that Connolly called him “Flemingway”. He was in his element, yet the restlessness returned and he left, apparently in quest of better pay.

War was the making of him: a top job as right-hand man to Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, director of naval intelligence. Fleming was among fewer than 30 people who were privy to the most closely guarded secrets. This is not the most riveting part of the biography, as details remain hard to come by: after VJ Day, Fleming and his colleagues signed pledges to never discuss their work.

Fleming was not decorated and his “brilliant” wartime efforts went unrecognised. Shakespeare makes a compelling suggestion that Bond’s exploits provided a fictional outlet: a way of releasing to the public schemes Fleming conceived, some of which were overruled and some carried out. It makes sense to ally the enigma of Fleming’s nature with the Enigma code-breakers at Bletchley Park. The biographic “mission”, Shakespeare writes, is to “unscramble” or decrypt this sample of a “complete man”.

The Fleming estate commissioned this biography, following an array of others. Understandably, Shakespeare is dependent on the first authorised biographer, John Pearson, who knew his subject personally and produced his biography of 1966 at a time when memories were hot, soon after Fleming’s early death, aged 56, in 1964. Another biography came out as recently as 2021. The hurrahs at the close of Shakespeare’s book seem to answer the aims of an estate, yet a claim to impartiality is borne out in the extensive and always even-handed quoting of contacts – Noël Coward, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin and, most discerningly, Mary Pakenham. We do hear a fair amount about the “rotter”, the whipper of women and, worst, Fleming’s “betrayal” of Lord Rothermere by stealing the wife of his friend.

“Epilogues” to The Complete Man testify to the longevity of the Bond brand. At first, between 1953 and 1956, the novels sold in respectable but not huge numbers. Then came a publicity boost during the Suez Crisis, when a collapsing Anthony Eden went to recuperate at Fleming’s beach-house in Jamaica. A further uplift came in 1961 when President Kennedy put From Russia, with Love at number nine in his list of ten favourite books. The following year the screen adaptation of Dr No launched one of cinema’s most successful franchises.

A question remains: how does the old-fashioned brand of manhood survive? It’s now half a century since women’s liberation revolutionised ideas of gender. And still Bond fans swallow the gun-toting fantasy of defence and rescue. For the gun itself is really a fetish, an extension of toxic masculinity, its lurking insecurity and appetite for power. Has this fetish a biological source in innate aggression, present in the female but in greater quantity in the male of the species? The single most disturbing revelation in The Complete Man is that, building on Bond in 2023, a laboratory under the Ministry of Defence has commissioned novelists to provide “useful fiction” to foretell “the future of conflict from a human perspective”. Bond and his fans call up an unforgettable graffito scrawled on the outside wall of a supermarket in Oxford: “Testosterone is the most dangerous substance on our planet.”

Lyndall Gordon’s “The Hyacinth Girl: TS Eliot’s Hidden Muse” is published in paperback by Virago

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man
Nicholas Shakespeare
Harvill Secker, 864pp, £30

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[See also: The true meaning of James Bond]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power