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
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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.