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The Failures That Made Ian Fleming

The creator of James Bond had an unremarkable career in intelligence and considered his own books “piffle.”

Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

Ian Fleming spent the first few decades of his life evading reality through every means he could find: card games, golf, women, gambling, scuba-diving, travel, and enjoying fine meals and alcohol in his Chelsea flat with his old Eton chums. Then, in later decades, he created an escapist series of novels featuring an Eton graduate who repeatedly saves the Western world through his skills at card games, golf, women, gambling, and so on. It is hard to think of a more rigorous intelligence than Fleming’s when it came to creating escape fictions out of the rudiments of an escape-rich existence. 

The World Is Not Enough: A Biography of Ian Fleming
by Oliver Buckton
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 392 pp., $34.00

Born to a life of privilege (his paternal grandfather, a Scottish banker, was a self-made millionaire; his mother sported the aristocratic maiden name of Evelyn Sainte Croix Rose), Fleming was raised in some of the finest homes in Mayfair, Hampstead, and Oxfordshire. His maternal grandfather was captain in the Royal Buckinghamshire Militia, and his father rose quickly through the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and might have risen just as quickly in Tory politics had his life not prematurely ended in the Battle of the Somme. The family entertained and was entertained by the likes of Churchill and Disraeli; and Fleming, like most of the men in his family, attended Eton, establishing connections that would see him through a lifetime of opportunities to “fail upward.” (Just look at Boris Johnson.) 

As Oliver Buckton’s new Fleming biography, The World Is Not Enough, relays, all the superficial things that could make a young man happy were bountifully Ian’s; and yet he suffered hardships more deeply than many of his friends and family. After he lost his father, his overbearing mother dominated his life and prevented him from marrying the first woman with whom he formed an engagement. And his brothers (especially the elder, Peter) achieved greater successes in their studies and occupations than Ian ever did. Like many middle children who feel lost, Ian retreated into a love of writers who transported him into extreme landscapes of love and adventure—such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, and those early spy novelists who depicted tough-talking, well-bred men willing to fight for God and country, John Buchan and Sapper (the pseudonym of H.C. McNeile).

It’s surprising how little Fleming’s view of international politics differs from that of Sapper, even though they lived and wrote nearly half a century apart. Like Bulldog Drummond, who frets about those international forces who want to “Bolshevize” England by empowering “members of the Do-no-work-and-have-all-the-money Brigade,” the characters in Bond are filled with suspicion of working-class agitators and foreigners. As General G. brags in From Russia With Love, the Russian state is “quietly advancing” on the West through “strikes in England” and the “great political gains” of liberal governments in Europe. And as Bond reflects early in Thunderball, this postwar liberalizing of Britain is leading to a generation of soft-shelled young people who don’t understand how hard their parents worked before the war. (From Fleming’s spotty employment record, he probably wouldn’t have understood this, either.) On a taxi ride, Bond notices his taxi driver playing with a comb and takes it as a mark of disrespect. “It was typical of the cheap self-assertiveness of young labor since the war,” he thinks to himself. For the young man “born into the buyer’s market of the Welfare State,” he fulminates, “life is easy and meaningless.”

In Bond’s view, the problem with postwar British youth is that they expect good pay for their not-hard work; and they waste that money on bad haircuts and pop stars, making them ripe for Communist picking. At the same time, there are isolated, patriotic types like Bond himself, capable of rising above the world’s naturalistic soup by knowing what to wear, what to eat, and how to best serve the desires of a woman. Beneath the high-gloss glamor of his novels, Fleming’s disdain for the working class veiled his frequent bouts of incompetence, just as it masked his concerns about the country that was changing around him, turning into a place that was no longer entirely his.

Fleming had a magpie-like ability to make fictional use of every interesting place he had ever been and every clever narrative twist he had gleaned from his childhood reading. He often transposes the names of friends and private in-jokes—taking, for instance, the name of his beautiful double agent, Vesper, from a cocktail he devised with a friend, or Goldfinger’s name from a family neighbor in Hampstead. And then of course the name James Bond itself was lifted from the author of one of Fleming’s favorite books—The Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. 

What most distinguishes Fleming is how adroitly he adapted these adolescent power fantasies to his job in British Naval intelligence, where he was recruited after failing a Foreign Office civil service exam and after lackluster stints at Reuters and in the City. (His business partner famously called him “the world’s worst stockbroker.”) In the Navy, Fleming was best known for creating Assault Unit 30, also dubbed “Ian Fleming’s Commandos” or “Fleming’s Red Indians.” And while Fleming’s unit (which he directed from afar, since his superiors considered Fleming too knowledgeable to be captured) achieved several successes, many of Fleming’s wild imaginings never survived their earliest brushes with reality.

For example, there was Operation Ruthless, a plan to repair a captured German plane, fill it with British soldiers dressed in German uniforms, crash land in the Channel, capture a German U-boat, and bring home the Enigma machine. Or another one code-named Operation Goldeneye, which involved digging an underground bunker in Gibraltar, filling it with British intelligence agents and their equipment, and fighting off a predicted occupation by Germans (which never materialized). After the war, Goldeneye provided the name of Fleming’s beloved home in Jamaica, where he often went to write the first drafts of his novels (and to escape his quickly failing marriage); and the idea of an underground spy network was used in his short story, “From a View to a Kill.”

Fleming preferred fiction to reality; and whenever he could put fiction to use in real life operations, he did. Inspired by a detective novel, Basil Thomson’s The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, Fleming is credited with proposing Operation Mincemeat, in which Naval Intelligence attached an identikit of fake documents to a dead body and released it from a submarine into Spanish waters; the Spanish, as expected, passed on the false information to the Germans, causing them to leave Sicily unprotected against Allied invasion.     

Though Fleming’s operations were sometimes successful, he was largely remembered for his charm and his good taste—qualities that sometimes appeared rather obnoxious in the middle of a war. (During a field visit in France, he complained that the brandy was “undrinkable.”) After a brief trip to Russia in the 1930s, he often made a show of being that rare Brit who preferred vodka to gin; and at his all-important get-acquainted meeting with Admiral Godfrey, he ordered beef tournedos with béarnaise sauce when all the other men were sensibly eating lamb cutlets and mint sauce. “If I were ever to marry,” Fleming said at that meeting, “one of my requirements would be that my wife know how to make béarnaise sauce.” Charming, maybe; maybe even funny. But probably only with certain men of a certain class. And maybe not so funny at all at a time when most Brits didn’t know how they would eke out their next meal.

According to Bond’s universe, the West always triumphed and the East never did, and every time a memory of Germany burst forth from the motley, ethnically mixed cast of evil Bond villains that included Auric Goldfinger (Latvian but with a German-Jewish name); Hugo Drax (German former Nazi masquerading as British); Eric Blofeld (Polish-Greek raised in Germany); and even the thuggish sadist Donovan Grant (German-Irish), in From Russia With Love, they weren’t simply vanquished but took the memory of Britain’s Cold War defeats with them. During the 1950s and ’60s, the public defections of Philby, McLean, and Burgess, et al were causing people to place quotation marks around the phrase “British intelligence,” but Fleming never made the term seem remotely ironic. When the prospect of a double agent rears its ugly head in the first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), well, it’s not ugly at all. Fellow Brit–agent Vesper Lynd is beautiful and falls immediately in love and lust with Bond. Her commitment to SMERSH (Bond’s earliest arch-enemy, based on an actual Russian spy organization) isn’t ideological; rather, she has been coerced by the Russians, who captured her boyfriend. Eventually, she doesn’t (like Philby) roam off to embarrass Britain from her happy new life in Moscow but conveniently kills herself. Fleming doesn’t just rewrite British failures; he sweeps them under the rug.

In his devotion to queen and country, Bond rarely glimpses the streets, cities, and professions occupied by most of his fellow Britons—instead, he idealizes the last days of the British empire in trips to Jamaica and the Bahamas, and enjoys playing at his exclusive golf course on the Kent coast when at home. There’s no irony about the pleasure Bond takes in these privileged spaces, and it is one of the charms of these books (if you don’t think about it too much) that he makes those spaces a zone of escape for readers, especially American ones. (John F. Kennedy—another Bond wannabe, lifestyle-wise—listed From Russia With Love as one of his top 10 all-time favorite novels.) Near the end of Dr. No, Bond, sitting in the acting governor’s office in Jamaica, gazes up at portraits of King George VI and the queen, hears the distant sounds of British children playing lawn tennis, and indulges one of his few nostalgic reveries:

His mind drifted into a world of tennis courts and lily ponds and kings and queens, of London, of people being photographed with pigeons on their heads in Trafalgar Square, of the forsythia that would soon be blazing on the bypass roundabouts, of May, the treasured housekeeper in his flat off the King’s Road … of the first tube trains beginning to run, shaking the ground beneath his cool, dark bedroom.

As Kingsley Amis points out in what is probably the best, most unashamed appreciation of Fleming, The James Bond Dossier, this passage does touch on the common life of Londoners in its references to roundabouts and tube trains—but then Bond loves to drive the roundabouts in his Bentley, and his fatherly M. needs the tube train to get to work. Further afield from Royal St. George’s golf course Bond rarely goes.

Unlike his favorite contemporary writer and friend, Graham Greene, Fleming couldn’t divide his novels into the “serious” and the “entertainments,” because he considered them all uniformly poised “on the brink of corn.” “I have a rule of never looking back,” he said in one interview. “Otherwise I’d wonder, ‘How could I write such piffle?’” He wrote only for “adolescents of all ages,” and when his friend Raymond Chandler suggested that he might be capable of writing better books, Fleming fired back: “I have absolutely nothing more up my sleeve.” 

What most people remember—and seem to enjoy—about the Bond books is that they never hide anything up their sleeve. They are all surface, offering loads of style, energy, and pizzazz, and little if anything in the way of philosophical substance. Yet there was definitely talent in Fleming, and a few times he managed to write something more than “piffle,” such as his one experimental novel in the Bond series, The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), set in another of those geographical spaces where Fleming went to escape England—the Green Mountains of Vermont. Most of Spy reads like an antithesis of the usual Bond novel, told from the point of view of a young, middle-class woman who flees the England she knows and dislikes as much as Fleming: 

I was running away, I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from the drabness, fustiness, snobbery, the claustrophobia of close horizons, and from my inability, although I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race.

When Vivienne Michel’s retreat is invaded by a pair of thuggish, Spillane-like criminals, she suffers beatings, torture, and a sense of no exit from the violent naturalistic world of noir—until, late in the novel, Bond appears, and we see him “through the wrong end of the telescope,” as Fleming writes in a brief authorial introduction. The effect is unsettling; the prose is some of Fleming’s most energetic and surprising, and as often happens in the weird history of literature, the effect was so disconcerting that typical Bond fans hated it. Fleming was so embarrassed by being exposed for his failed “literary” ambitions that he refused to allow Spy to be reprinted in paperback, and it remained out of print in Britain until his death.

His short story “A Quantum of Solace” is even more interesting, and the only story in which Bond plays an entirely passive role. At a dinner party in Nassau, Bond makes a dismissive joke about a “pretty chatterbox” at the party, and the host replies by telling him about her previous marriage. By cruelly mistreating her young husband, she had destroyed that “quantum of solace” human beings require in order to live together. It’s a memorable story indicating that Fleming had more up his sleeve than he supposed.

Bond is the rare character in literature who is as well known for his tastes in brand names as for anything else. His readers are made privy to endless reams of sparkly, pointless information about the watch he wears (Rolex Oyster Perpetual), which soap he recommends to a former lover (Guerlain’s “Fleurs des Alpes”), the newspaper he reads (Daily Express—uh-oh), his preferred bourbon (Jack Daniels), the car he drives (in the first three novels it’s a 1930 Blower Bentley), and most famously of all, his preferred handgun (a Beretta 418 in a flat chamois leather holster). But not only did Bond’s too-enamored readers spend a lot of time keeping track of such things, they often wrote Fleming to argue about them—such as when a gun collector, Major Geoffrey Boothroyd, informed him that the Beretta, a “Ladies’ gun,” was not powerful enough to stop the likes of an Odd Job or a Scaramanga. As a result, in Fleming’s subsequent novel, Dr. No, M. orders Bond to exchange his beloved handgun for a Walther PPK. Fleming even uses Boothroyd’s name as Bond’s armaments supplier. 

Like most noir protagonists, Bond is an animal who requires exercise or else he turns into a “surly caged tiger.” What makes Bond Bond is an ability to control that animal quality and adjust it to suit the woman he is with. And with the morning light, he starts sounding more like a woman’s protector than her lover, as in his farewell letter to Viv at the end of Spy, when he advises her to check her car’s tire pressure. When he is not entertaining the ladies, Bond engages nature like an unrestrained Darwinian combatant: In various books he vanquishes a giant squid, spiders, a scorpion, a barracuda, and in Dr. No, even a fire-breathing dragon. (It turns out to be an armored vehicle with a flamethrower.) 

Bond’s adversaries, on the other hand, such as SMERSH agent Red Grant in From Russia With Love, usually lack both sexual interest in women and any ability to control their inner natures. Red is a thug with a dubious sense of loyalty to class or country, the “result of a midnight union between a German professional weight lifter and a Southern Irish waitress … behind a circus tent outside Belfast.” Grant’s fists are for hire to whatever nation pays the highest wages—“Sinn Feiners,” “smugglers,” or Russian intelligence. He accepts Russia’s bureaucratic life and follows orders. What he most cares about is the life “inside him,” which is “richly and excitingly populated with his thoughts.” (So don’t expect him to send you suggestions about hand soap or tire pressure.)

Unlike Red, Bond is skin-deep: There are no depths worth exploring; he is a cold, detached observer of men, women, bedrooms, casino decor, and meals; and few eyes are capable of judging him back, or seeing beneath his thin disguises. Bond is a hard, fetishized surface of clothes and ingrained affectations, as well as a series of ritualized approaches to life, whether it’s that “shaken” martini (which chills the gin better than stirring it), or his opinions about when to fly (he especially likes Friday 13).

The Bond books are rigorously consistent fantasies—which is probably part of their charm. As in all great genre fiction—from Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (of whom Bond approves, by the way) to the Richard Hannay adventures of John Buchan, each story develops and resolves itself according to a dependable set of criteria. (Umberto Eco has drawn an excellent map of the typical Bond story in his classic essay, “The Narrative Structure of Ian Fleming.”) Bond infiltrates a criminal organization run by a mixed-race psychopath—or in Dr. No’s case, a mixed-race and mixed-species one. (Dr. No bears a pair of metal, crablike pincers for arms.) Bond meets a throwaway girl or two but eventually meets that special “Bond girl” who genetically deserves all the good stuff Bond is capable of giving her. Then Bond is found out, captured, and escapes in a lengthy passage, such as when he finds his way through Dr. No’s elaborate maze, or flees on skis from Blofeld’s henchmen in Secret Service. Finally, there is a mano-a-mano duel to the death, often involving a great deal of cruelty—such as Le Chiffre’s ball-busting of Bond in a horrific torture scene near the end of Casino. At the end, only one protagonist is left standing. And it is usually (but not always) Bond.

Fleming was a careful, objective writer who never took himself too seriously. But eventually he grew so attached to his singular creation that it grew hard to tell them apart. He posed for author photos with a Beretta. He assigned details of his life to Bond—such as his birthday and his Scottish ancestry. He referred to himself as Bond’s “biographer” and even released press statements that made it hard to tell where the creator ended and his fictional iteration began. It was as if Fleming wanted to attach himself to the one thing in the world that couldn’t disappoint him—a fictional character who might suffer fugu poisoning at the end of one novel and emerge relatively undiminished by the start of the next. Unfortunately, real life intervened, as it always does, and Fleming’s lifetime of excessive smoking and drinking caught up with him. After a massive heart attack at 53, he soon lost all the pleasures that mattered to him—outdoor sports, women, boozing, socializing, and writing novels. He died a few years later, unable to complete work on his last and weakest novel, The Man With the Golden Gun.

Movie-Bond may have outlived Fleming, but “real” Bond didn’t outlive him for very long at all. Eventually, Roger Moore (one of Fleming’s original choices for the role) made comic films that seem almost like pastiches of Fleming, as if the world couldn’t believe in the “real” Bond anymore. It has grown increasingly hard to tell the good guys and bad guys apart. The once nearly prostrate-with-desire Miss Moneypenny was given a sniper rifle and a bolshie attitude. And most unforgivable of all, father-figure M. became a strict but loving Mommy. While the plot of Casino Royale (2006) partly reverted to the original blend of glamorous gamblers and Spillane-ish sadism, Bond has since looked progressively raggedier, more bitter and more used up. Which suggests that the fictional iterations of Fleming’s life may have finally gone the way of Fleming himself.

And while the “real” Bond might have been a lot of fun 50 years ago, not many of us want him back.