IAN FLEMINGSetting out to write the spy story to end all spy stories, Ian Fleming created one of literature’s best-loved agents, then saw his dreams realized with James Bond’s magnificent leap to the big screen
In creating the character of James Bond, Ian Fleming redefined the spy thriller fiction genre. His 12 novels and nine short stories featuring the British agent became the standard against which all other spy fiction would be measured. Fleming is, without doubt, one of the most influential authors of popular literature, and has garnered a readership of more than 100 million to date.
Born in Mayfair, London, on 28 May 1908, to Valentine and Evelyn, Ian Lancaster Fleming was the second of four sons. His older brother Peter would go on to become a world-renowned adventurer and writer. Their father, a barrister and officer in the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, was elected Member of Parliament for Henley in 1910. Life for the family changed tragically when Valentine, whose regiment had mobilized on the outbreak of World War I, was killed in action on the Western Front in May 1917 – just days before his second son’s ninth birthday. A framed copy of The Times’ obituary of his father, a warm tribute written by his friend and comrade-in-arms Winston Churchill, hung in Fleming’s bedroom all his life.
Fleming attended Durnford preparatory school in Dorset and then continued on to Eton where he excelled at athletics, twice winning the victor ludorum (champion of the games). His energetic lifestyle, however, incurred the disapproval of his housemaster, and Fleming left Eton before the final term to prepare for entry into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
A year later, feeling that he was unsuited to a career in the military, Fleming left Sandhurst and looked to a future in the Foreign Office. He went abroad in 1927 to attend the Villa Tennerhof, a school in Kitzbühel, Austria, run by Ernan Forbes-Dennis, a former British spy, and his novelist wife Phyllis Bottome. He called this a “golden time” – his talent for writing was fostered and he felt free to pursue his interests. He also honed his French and German language skills, although he did not win the Foreign Office placement he had aspired to.
Instead, in 1931 Fleming took a job as a sub-editor and journalist at Reuters news agency, where he learnt to write fast and, above all, accurately. If you did not, he recalled, you were fired. Two years later, he was sent to Russia to cover the trial of six engineers working for the British company Metropolitan-Vickers who had been accused of espionage. While there he was invited to send back informal views on the Soviet situation to the Foreign office. Despite a gift for journalism, however, in 1933 Fleming switched to a career in finance, trying his hand as a banker, then as a stockbroker with Rowe and Pitman, a respected City firm.
It was clear, however, that this was not to be Fleming’s destiny, and in the lead-up to World War II, he went to Moscow for The Times to report on a trade mission. The real purpose, though, was to report on the Soviet Union’s state of readiness for war. This led – crucially for his future writing – to an appointment in July 1939 as personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence. Fleming joined the Special Branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, where he was soon promoted to Lieutenant Commander. This was, of course, the backstory he would give his hero Bond.
On one occasion in 1941, Fleming visited a casino in neutral Portugal with Godfrey, afterwards picturing the other players as German agents whom they had cleaned out of money. Thus was the seed for Casino Royale planted. During his time in Naval Intelligence, Fleming made significant contributions to Britain’s espionage and misinformation efforts. In 1942, inspired by a German intelligence-gathering group, he formed 30AU (Assault Unit), which was tasked with seizing key enemy documents near the front lines. He was also one of the brains behind the audacious operation codenamed Mincemeat, which duped the German High Command into believing that the Allies would invade Europe via Greece and Sardinia, not Sicily – as they did, in July 1943.
In late 1944, Fleming visited Jamaica for the first time, to attend the Anglo-American naval conference. Despite atrocious weather, he fell in love with the island, declaring to his friend and host, Ivar Bryce, “When we have won this blasted war, I am going to live in Jamaica... and swim in the sea and write books.” He would indeed do so. By 1947, he had bought a plot of land – a former donkey racetrack – on the beautiful, unspoilt north coast, and built a house that he named Goldeneye.
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