Ian Fleming: licensed to thrill...

Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett Weidenfeld, pounds 20; But James Bond's creator had more in common with his villains than with his secret service hero. By Patrick French

Andrew Lycett has made an interesting career leap. His previous book was a biography of Colonel Muammar "Mad Dog" Gaddafi, a man whose hairstyle and choice of tailor seem streets away from that of his latest subject, the creator of James Bond.

Ian Fleming is an impressive book, painstakingly researched and thoroughly convincing. It is also utterly depressing: Fleming emerges as a cruel, smarmy, vain, selfish person, with no obvious redeeming features. If you want proof that money does not bring happiness, it can be found here.

In some rather less convincing concluding paragraphs, Lycett asserts that, despite his failings, Fleming "was in so many ways an agreeable man - good company, surprisingly thoughtful (when he could be bothered), and, despite his tendencies to moroseness, with a remarkable capacity for friendship". This reminded me of the claim that Himmler, for all his faults, loved his chickens.

The destructive influence of Fleming's mother, Eve, lies at the heart of this book. After the early death of her husband during the First World War she began a period of theatrical widowhood, elevating the late father of her four sons into "the paragon of manly virtues" and using his memory as a psychological weapon with which to bludgeon her children. Ian was the particular victim of her malicious tongue; the source of his lifelong contempt for women is not hard to locate.

When she had tired of her widow's weeds, Eve decamped to the Bohemian reaches of Chelsea and had a baby, as one tended to in those days, with Augustus John. This did not stop her from being aggressively censorious towards her son when he caught a sexually transmitted disease. Fleming's first three decades were spent in a haze of private money and superficial glamour, consorting with the gilded youth of pre-war Britain. He tried half-heartedly to join the army, then the Foreign Office, then Reuters before ending up as "the world's worst stockbroker".

The story of these years makes slow reading. "At Le Touquet", Lycett tells us, "Ian bumped into Hughie Vivian Smith, nephew of Alfred Wagg's friend, Lancelot (known as Lancy) Hugh Smith..." A week or two later, we learn, he was to be found playing bridge with Bobbie Gordon-Canning, Gerald Coke and Sir George Duff-Sutherland-Dunbar, and roaring off in a fast car to play golf in Kent. We have to put up with 200 pages of this extended Jennifer's Diary before a word of the Bond books gets written.

It took the outbreak of war in 1939 to give Fleming's life a purpose. He was recruited into the Naval Intelligence Division, and remained an effective SIS operator into the Fifties. He enjoyed wartime intelligence, and would later use his comrades as prototypes for his fiction. Although his exploits were not especially remarkable, he had an imaginative and authoritative approach towards espionage, and this secured his success. When he was promoted to the rank of Commander, he had his custom-made Morland Special cigarettes emblazoned with three gold bands.

During this period Fleming was a serial seducer, passing through numerous sexual relationships with no apparent emotional attachment. One female friend remembered his attitude as being that of a schoolboy - women were "remote, mysterious beings whom you will never hope to understand but, if you're clever, you can occasionally shoot one down". He was brought down to earth when one particular girlfriend, whom he had treated like "a cowering slave", died in an air raid. "The trouble with Ian", said a colleague, "is that you have to get yourself killed before he feels anything".

The only relationship of any clear value to him in his life was with Annie, wife of Viscount Rothermere. They enjoyed a protracted affair, based on a good deal of mutual whipping and bruising, which seemed to bring them pleasure. In 1948 she had their child, but the baby died within hours. "Don't ask for double sixes too much", Fleming wrote to her afterwards, in a characteristic swoop from brittleness to sentimentality, "and accept with a shrug the twos and threes and wear your comfortable shoes and not the high heels and feel your feet good and flat on the ground".

A few years later she divorced her husband and married Fleming. It was at this time that he began work on his first book, Casino Royale. "Rothermere could not compete with Ian's easy unctuousness", writes Lycett. But once the thrill of the semi-clandestine liaison had been forsaken in favour of marriage, the sparkle died and the relationship began to collapse. They both began fresh affairs, Ian with a Jamaican matron called Blanche and Annie with, of all unlikely people, the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. Now, it is hard to imagine Mary Archer doing a thing like that with Tony Blair.

Fleming divided his time between Britain and Jamaica, where he had built a squat concrete house called "Goldeneye" as a home for his interminable Eton photographs. His friend Noel Coward found the building aesthetically unacceptable, and enjoyed directing people to the nearest "Golden eye, nose and throat clinic".

Fleming was by this time on a bottle of gin and 70 cigarettes a day, but managing to turn out Bond books fairly rapidly. The combination of pace, thrills, gimmicks and journalistic detail gave them an immediate popularity in post-war Britain. They sold well from the start, assisted by his gift for self-promotion. (When reading the proof of an interview, he insisted to the journalist that his polka dot bow-tie was knotted not "loosely", but "with Churchillian looseness".) His crude mixture of nihilism and opportunism made him an impressive sycophant, shamelessly flattering anybody with power in the world of books and newspapers.

By his early fifties, Fleming was looking old and ill. He took to "lunging suggestively" at anybody he found sexy, fortified by alcohol and his conviction that "all women love semi-rape". With the face of "a bloodhound out in the sun" and a "habitual expression of controlled fury relieved occasionally by a stark smile", he was not great company.

Despite the breakdown in their relationship, he and Annie remained married, consorting tiredly with people who shared their names with counties or London boroughs. But her more intellectual friends found both him and the success of Commander Bond ludicrous, which made Fleming feel angry and misunderstood. "Thunderbird waits morosely for midday," she wrote to Evelyn Waugh, "when he joins the golf people and drinks".

Soon he was dead, but even the sequel is dismal. His only son, a confused, fractious boy with a firearms obsession, killed himself in his early twenties. Fleming's books have faded, and all that remains are the dilated Bond films, to be dusted down for their annual Boxing Day outing. This is a good biography, but I find it hard to recommend it to anybody. Fleming was like a phantom of James Bond, with all his faults and limitations but none of his virtues. I did not enjoy reading about him.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform