Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From Bonds to James Bond: Reflections on Ian Fleming and his Fictional Hero

I find it interesting that three of the most prominent fictional characters in English Literature were created by authors who were of Scottish parentage: Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes; and Ian Fleming's James Bond.
Scottish? Ian Fleming? Yes, it is difficult to see him as being Scottish, brought up as he was in a privileged household in Oxfordshire, attending Eton, a brief stint at Sandhurst, a European school to prep him for the Foreign Office, his entry into journalism then stock brokerage in the city, before becoming highly involved in Naval Intelligence during World War II and having close friends in William Plomer, Edith Sitwell, Amherst Villiers, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Lord Beaverbrook and Sir William Stephenson to name but a few. It is doubtful whether he thought of himself as other than English on the exterior, but his Scottish non-conformist upbringing remained within the core. The Fleming family owns the 80,000 acre Black Mount Estate in Argyll and Bute, and Ian's elder brother Peter Fleming died in 1971 while in Scotland out on a shoot. (After a lifetime of adventure and overseeing the squiredom of Nettlebed, Peter Fleming would probably have wanted to go with his boots on as he did.)

Ian Fleming's great-grandfather, John Fleming, escaped the family farm and Kirk in Scotland near Braemar, and began a
lint mill which, unfortunately, failed. In Dundee he worked as an overseer in a jute works and sired seven children, all but two died of diphtheria. One of the surviving sons, Robert, Ian's grandfather, was good at mathematics and became a clerk with a Dundee textile firm. Sent to the United States to represent the firm, he discovered a country in need of capital investment. In 1873, at the age of twenty-eight he created the Scottish-American Investment Trust, and went on to become a very wealthy and influential financier and in 1909, formed the merchant bank, Robert Fleming and Company. In 1903, he purchased the Joyce Grove Estate in Oxfordshire which included 2,000 acres, cottages and clayworks. The original William and Mary house had taken its name from Cornet Joyce from Cromwell's day. This smaller house was demolished and the new Joyce Grove, an enormous Jacobean-style house of red brick and stone dressing boasting 44 bedrooms and the most ornate and carved interior available, took its place. He had two sons, Valentine and Philip, and both attended Eton and Oxford. Valentine, Ian's father, married Evelyn St. Croix Rose in 1906 at the age of 24. She was of Irish, Scots and Huguenot descent with connections to John of Gaunt and the physician Sir Richard Quain. She gave birth to their first son, Robert Peter Fleming in May 1907 and the following May, she gave birth to their second of four sons, Ian Lancaster Fleming, the creator of James Bond.

Their father, a Major in the
Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, was killed in France in 1917. His wife inherited a sizable fortune--if she did not remarry. She did have an affair with Augustus John whose sketches, paintings and portraits of family members became part of the decorative backdrop to their lives. She even gave birth, with possibly some subtle subterfuge, to a daughter in 1925, Amaryllis Fleming, by the famous painter.

According to John Pearson's The Life of Ian Fleming (London: Jonathan Cape, 1966), from which I have gleaned much of the information here, Ian from an early age had always wanted to be a writer of spy t
hrillers. This fact does tend to take some of the mystery out of Ian's settling down in his 43rd year and spinning out Casino Royale in less than a few months. A half of a lifetime of experience, a healthy imagination, the right timing and setting all helped him as he plumbed the depths to create his fictional world.

I think that one of the many spurs to his finally settling down to write his thrillers (beside the one so publicly revealed that he wanted to get one written before his marriage, and the one provided by his future wife that she had her painting and she suggested that he do something too, like write a book), was possibly the underlying competitive experience with his brother Peter whose satiric novel of intelligence services published in 1951, may have been a gentle nudge towards his younger brother towards that lifetime goal.

Although Ian had been a great athlete at Eton, his elder brother was a high academic achiever both at Eton and later at Oxford. He then acquired a name for himself as an adventurer and travel writer with three travel books in the 1930s, Brazilian Adventure (1933), One's Company (1934) and News From Tartary (1936). He inherited the squiredom at Nettlebed, and in 1940, donated Joyce
Grove to St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, to be used as a convalescent home. He wrote as "Strix" for the Spectator and continued writing non-fiction and occasional fiction up to the early 1960s. His comic novel, The Sixth Column: A Singular Tale of Our Times (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1951), was a satire of the Intelligence Services after the war involving a Russian communist threat, a novel that could be put on the shelf beside Compton Mackenzie's Water on the Brain (1933).

Peter Fleming dedicated this satiric novel: "To My Brother Ian."

In 1951, Ian had yet to gain recognition beyond his playboy journalistic lifestyle. He worked for The Sunday Times, took up the mantle of Atticus at the paper, and struck a dashing figure with his famous friends, clothes, cars and lodgings. He smoked his Morland Specials in his ebonite Dunhill cigarette holder--70 a day man--and managed to finagle a two month vacation each year to visit his spot of land in Jamaica which he acquired in 1946, and where a modest home was built which altogether was known as Goldeneye. He was interested in book collecting and actually acquired The Book Collector magazine for only 50 pounds off Lord Kemsley. He was not active in its day to day, leaving it up to John Hayward and Percy H. Muir. (It is interesting that Ian Fleming for a time had lived in a flat above John Hayward who shared a flat with T. S. Eliot in Carlyle Mansions on Cheyne Walk. Considering how much everyone smoked in those days it must have been one smokey apartment block. It is odd to think that all three of these literary figures died fairly close in time: Fleming: August 1964; Eliot: January 1965; Hayward: a few months after Eliot in 1965. Poor John Hayward, he had overseen Eliot's archive while sharing the flat for eleven years, only to have Eliot, 68 years old, eloping in the night to marry his 30 year old secretary at 6:30 in the morning. Life does tend to be stranger than fiction.)
Peter Fleming of course knew of his brother's interest in writing spy thrillers and for him to write a spoof on the genre could be seen as nothing more than friendly fun, but it could also be seen as an older brother's unconscious competitive drive to spur on his brother's desires. In the end, it may have been just the needed impetus to prove himself capable of writing the spy novel he always wanted to write. This belief on my part has been with me ever since I acquired a copy of Peter Fleming's The Sixth Column back in the late 1970s at a library sale for less than a dollar. There are some amusing parts and descriptions. Peter Fleming resorted to odd character names akin to those that can be found in Compton Mackenzie's satire (in the P. G. Wodehouse realm) and this is something that Ian Fleming did not want in his novels. He wanted to get away from the aristocratic names such as "Peregrine Carruthers" and famously used the name of the American ornithologist and author of Birds of the West Indies, James Bond, for his great fictional/fantasy hero.

Peter Fleming has some perceptive views of society at the time and some amusing parts in his satire as well, such as his description of the rival to M15 named H.2.O, or in real life the SIS, MI6:

The initials do not
stand for anything in particular. The organisation is, theoretically, of so secret a nature that the mere fact of its existence must never be mentioned; and its designation was selected in the hopes that, if anyone ever did let it slip past his lips, those who overheard him would, or anyhow might, suppose that he was merely talking, in a rather pedantic way, about water. (p. 167)

In this satire there is a character named Archie Strume who lives in a similar fashion to its author
on an estate after having given over the enormous family home to the government for their Welfare Department, and he writes adventurous thrillers under the name of J. Coverley Grendon. His fictional hero is a Colonel Hackforth who appeared to great success in Hackforth of the Commandos and is currently being written about in Doom from Caucasia. Peter Fleming writes:

Almost any form of exciting fiction provided, of course, a welcome antidote to the restrictions and frustrations o
f life in England at that time; but the streak of anarchy, the pseudo-American toughness which the writers of thrillers had come, at this period to regard as a more or less obligatory part of their heroes' make-up, was not wholly to the British taste. The size of the stakes for which Colonel Hackforth, the resourceful protagonist of J. Cloverley Grendon's novels, invariably played made an irresistible appeal to a nation which, not very long ago, had been thinking in terms of big risks, mighty endeavours and prizes of a cosmic consequence. The enterprises to which Hackforth was committed did not have as their goal the recovery of a prima donna's necklace, the rescue of a millionaire's niece, or the dispersal of a dope-ring. He operated on a higher level altogether, and when he was called in you could be sure that it was to save from imminent peril one of his country's better-known assets, such as the Home Fleet, or Hongkong, or the Houses of Parliament. People liked that sort of thing. They derived, also, a particular pleasure from Hackforth's relations with Authority. They spent so much of their own lives in petty and seldom successful controversies with the junior branches of His Majesty's Civil Service that Hackforth's brusque handling of the Powers That Be came as balm to their souls. (pp. 28-29)

And here he describes his hero:

Gratified though they were by Colonel Hackforth's discomfiture of the King's enemies, the results obtained by his cavalier and peremptory treatment of the principal servants of the Crown afforded them an equal pleasure. Combining as he did the sober, clear-eyed resource of Captain Hornblower with the urbane, faintly swashbuckling sangfroid of Raffles and Rupert of Hentzau, Colonel Hackforth made an instant, and, as it seemed, enduring appeal to a nation consciously or unconsciously, voluntarily or involuntarily, deservedly
or undeservedly, gravitating towards Pooterdom. (pp. 29-30)

These descriptions of England at the time and his fictional protagonist do rather ring true with Ian F
leming's creation, James Bond. People wanted to escape their slide towards Pooterdom and Bond's attitude to his overseers is rather spot on with Peter Fleming's "cavalier and peremptory treatment of the principal servants of the Crown."

Peter Fleming created characters with names out of the P. G. Wodehouse and Compton Mackenzie scrapbook, such as Major Foxley-Ebbe, Sir Gurney Copfoss, Hilary Sibthrope, Brigadier Pigham and a subtle self-effacing H.2.O character named Boy Endover described as follows:

Boy Endover was a tall, rather stooping young man in his middle thirties. With his thinning hair, his
horn-rimmed spectacles, his well-cut clothes and his air of deferential solemnity, you might have placed him in the Foreign Office or in the more intellectual strata of the Conservative back-benches; he looked a serious, hardworking, conventional sort of person. In point of fact, a more frivolous, idle and unorthodox member of the community would have been hard to find. "Idle" is perhaps not the right epithet to apply to a man of great physical energy who spent most of the winter hunting in Ireland and most of the summer sailing a small boat in different parts of the world; but from the standpoint of the economist or the sociologist Boy Endover's contribution to the material needs of society was negligible. (p. 173)

This reminded me of a passage out of Compton Mackenzie's satire on Intelligence Services, equally full of odd names such as Major Blenkinsop, Mr. Pinches, Miss Houldsworth etc., and this rather amusing insight:

Blenkinsop saw seated at a desk a spare grizzled man of middle age, the most conspicuous feature of whose countenance were the large dark horn-rimmed spectacles which made his aquiline nose look absolutely owlish. Before long Blenkinsop was to learn that all senior Intelligence officers wore large dark horn-rimmed spectacles and that the first step to advancement in Intelligence work was a pair of dark horn-rimmed spectacles. (Water on the Brain / London: Chatto & Windus, [1933], 1954, p.9.)

Well, all the influences of half a lifetime came together when he sat down at his desk at Goldeneye in front of his Imperial portable typewriter and began his first novel in mid-January of 1952 and went on writing till March 18th, completing the first draft of Casino Royale.
As John Pearson writes in his biography of Ian Fleming:

In his contact with the Secret Service world during the war, Fleming had been the man behind the desk. In Bond he got his own back, slipped his Beretta with the skeleton grip into his chamois leather shoulder
-holster and went off to face death on his own account.

For Bond is the man who would always succeed where Fleming failed. He was not a spy--he was a man of action; and although he suffered from almost all the weaknesses Fleming pretended to despise in himself--his fear, his materialism, his drinking and womanizing--he could always turn these weaknesses to good account and always win: the ideal Mitty figure for Fleming and for all of us who watch and want but do not do.

It is a sad moment later in his life, when recuperating from a heart attack in the south of England, his sick mother had returned to England and was convalescing just down the coast from her son. She died on July 24, 1964 and Ian passed away on August 12, 1964. A short life but certainly a full one. His smoking, drinking, and the active life of golfing, mountain climbing, and underwater swimming or snorkling caught up with him.

During his last days Somerset Maugham who was one of Ian's dearest friends wrote to him:

Forgive me for not having acknowledged it [You Only Live Twice] before but I have been ve
ry seedy and distraught. I have just returned from Venice, but with the realization that my travelling days are over--it is a great grief to me . . . I think of you with great affection and would like to see you once more. (Pearson, p. 343)

Ian Fleming would never get down to Nice to visit the older writer again, passing away from a haemorrhage a few weeks later. It must have been a shock to Somerset Maugham that he should outlive such a robust character such as Ian Fleming who only reached the age of 56. Somerset Maugham managed another year and passed away at 91 in December of 1965.

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