“Ian Fleming, The Complete Man” by Nicholas Shakespeare (published by Harvill Secker)

Shadows largely lifted from 007’s creator

This Christmas, hordes of tourists and the English themselves would have again enjoyed the towering Norway spruce in Trafalgar Square. Some but not all would have known that a tree is donated each year by the city of Oslo “to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45”. Even fewer could tell you that the tradition was started by Ian Fleming on a winter evening in 1942 after one of his typically convivial evenings.
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In the midst of the war Norwegian agent Mons Urangsvåg was in town and Fleming thought to reward him for all the dangers he had faced in Norway by providing a first-class meal at the Savoy hotel. Afterwards the jolly party of four discovered in their jeep two Christmas trees that the agent had brought over to present to his king, Haakon VII, living in war exile.

It was Fleming who suggested that it would be a nice gesture to put up one tree in Trafalgar Square, and it was duly fastened to a balustrade on the north side, with a couple of aircraft flares for illumination. After the agent returned to Norway and the country was subsequently liberated, the tradition began, in 1947, Shakespeare relates.

It may not rank as one of the major accomplishments of author Ian Lancaster Fleming (1908-1964), but it is surely indicative in telling of a man with much more to him than his most blatant legacy of creating the fictional English secret agent who has had a profound global impact on the culture of the 20th century and thereafter.

The 14 James Bond books, written in the last dozen years of Fleming’s life almost as an afterthought when the exciting moments were over, and beginning with “Casino Royale” in 1953, have seen their titles and the names of their characters enter the lexicon.

While Fleming might be a man eclipsed by 007, this new biography is keen to point out that in reality the author was much more substantial than the beloved secret agent and was an influential figure in his own right, someone even world leaders wished to consult. In a whopping 700 pages, the Bond years don’t enter fully until Page 445. While Fleming drew on his own fascinating life story, particularly in Naval Intelligence in the war, it was a personal history that security concerns and a strong stripe of diffidence prevented him from telling.

As Nicholas Shakespeare has put it, there would be no 007 had Fleming not led the life he did, but if Bond had not existed Fleming is someone we should still want to know about. For instance, on the personal contacts side, Winston Churchill was a family friend, Fleming was on first-name terms with Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who stayed at his house in Jamaica, and he had an intimate supper in Washington with future United States President John F. Kennedy, “giving the bewitched politician the benefit of his wartime experience in suggesting how to deal with Cuba’s Fidel Castro”, Shakespeare writes.

The last major biography of Fleming was written by Andrew Lycett in 1995, and when Shakespeare was asked by the Fleming estate if he would consider writing a new biography, it was with the promise of access to family papers unseen by the public. Before agreeing, he carried out two months of due diligence, seeking out previous biographers, speaking to Fleming’s surviving family and friends, and looking out some of the new material that has arisen since 1995. The unpublished letters and diaries, declassified files and previously uninterviewed witnesses decided him to go ahead, though one wonders if the estate might have got more than it expected with those exhaustive (and exhausting) 700 pages.

The British writer has penned eight novels that have been translated into 22 languages, and biographies of travel writer Bruce Chatwin and “Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France”, about his enigmatic aunt. A journalist too, including the BBC and The Times, Shakespeare has made several biographies for television. His publisher says he has a talent for uncovering material that casts a new light on his subjects.

A fault of biographers, at least to this mind, can be if they go too far back into their subject’s antecedents, when the reader would rather get on with the main topic. Shakespeare duly informs us that the first Flemings came to Britain from Flanders in 1066 with William the Conqueror, but then the author quickly works through the centuries to the important stuff.

We meet Ian’s financier grandfather Robert Fleming, born 1845, whose family “emerges from the mists of east Perthshire [Scotland] in the early 19th century as crofters, poachers and whisky smugglers… ” Robert’s early years are hazy but by age 30 he was a leading British financier and millionaire. He directed the bulk of British investment in America for more than 40 years, becoming the main underwriter of the New World explosion, particularly railroads.

Ian’s parents married in February 1906. His mother Eve had a motto something like, “Never say ’no’ to adventures. Always say ’yes’, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life”. This rubbed off on Ian, who used it in his children’s book “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang”. A terrific snob, her over-controlling behaviour wounded Ian, including forbidding his Swiss fiancée Monique.

The Flemings were seen as posh and rich. Ian’s father Val went to Eton public (actually private) school and was killed in heavy shelling in France in May 1917 when Ian was 8 years old. Ian and his three brothers had a privileged upbringing, overprivileged even. But Ian was an overshadowed second son to the brilliant eldest boy Peter, and the intense sibling rivalry crushed him. Ian’s stormy childhood made him “the difficult one”.

At the all-male private boarding school Durnford, a feeder for Eton, he encountered bullying, unheated dorms and toilets across a courtyard. After, Ian left Eton peremptorily four terms early, a decision taken by his mother and apparently involving a girl. He did record a string of startling athletics victories and claimed to have hated the place but kept in lifelong touch.

In 1926 aged 18 he entered Sandhurst,  the world-famous Royal Military College that has trained the British Army’s officers since 1802. But it was uncongenial: he hated taking orders, venereal trouble over a lady brought matters to a head and he made another abrupt exit.

Three years of study in Austria, Germany and Switzerland learning three languages were supposed to prepare him to sit the highly competitive Foreign Office entrance exam over 10 days. He dragged himself back to London for the exam in September 1931 but It was another failure. He came 25th out of 62 and only the top two were accepted.

At age 23 Ian Fleming was still unclear about who he was, without even a school certificate or university degree. He was still disappointing his mother, still flailing. But finally the reader can almost breathe a sign of relief when Shakespeare is able to report Fleming finding his place, at Reuters news agency, a job offered after his mother called in connections.

It was the making of the man and he was earning a good reputation, but then troublesome Mum decided it was not a suitable job after all and put him under pressure to go in the family business, banking. Probably unwisely he succumbed and spent six dead-end years as an unremarkable stockbroker in the City before entering Naval Intelligence at the Admiralty.

Fleming’s life from here on is better known, although Shakespeare is unable to fully penetrate the opaque veil of secrecy over his war role, with many questions unanswered. A scoop was in finding Bill Marshall, aged 94, the last surviving member of Fleming’s intelligence-gathering unit, 30AU. And Ian did much more than anyone had thought, though he couldn’t for security reasons talk, let alone boast, about it. His significant war career was the making of him – and later of James Bond.

The author does his utmost to get to the bottom of an elusive personality, an inward-looking and guarded man who did not like to be fathomed: here are his ambitions, eccentricities, domiciles, friends, concerns, faults, inspirations, travels and so on. Fleming was a ladies man par excellence but his typical method – hunt, acquire, shelve – leaves a rather sour taste.

In the 1930s he told journalist Mary Pakenham of his wish to be “the Renaissance ideal, the Complete Man”, and, in turn, this biography is surely so complete as to be definitive. (If further war details come out, we will have to skip the 800-page version.)

Perhaps Fleming’s tragedy is that he never fully knew what he had created. The second Bond film, “From Russia With Love”, was the last he saw before his death on August 12, 1964, a little over a month before the film of “Goldfinger” blew open Bond’s popularity worldwide.

Conversely, he was spared the travesty of the latter-day 007, with books written by other authors and films with a blond hero and computer-generated bangs and thrills for low-denominator audiences. There is that expression about turning over in your grave, though.

Finally, is it a bit of a guilty secret to be a fan of the James Bond books, to enter the exciting world of glamour and romance, gadgets and cocktails, espionage and villainy, but also the chauvinistic, cheerful sex and offhand death, and enthusiastic gambling, smoking and drinking? Well, John F. Kennedy, for one, wasn’t snobbish about it, and neither are we.

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