Friday, May 31, 2024

My Crime Beat Column: My Full Q&A With Nicholas Shakespeare, The Author Of The New Biography Of The Late, Great Thriller Writer Ian Fleming

In my previous post, I offered my Washington Times On Crime column on Nicholas Shakespeare, the author of the new biography of the late, great thriller writer Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond.  

You can read the post via the below link:

Paul Davis On Crime: Ian Fleming: The Complete Man: My Washington Times 'On Crime' Column On Nicholas Shakespeare, The Author Of The New Biography Of The Creator Of James Bond

You can also read my full Q&A with Nicholas Shakespeare below:  

Davis: Why did you write the biography, and why did you call the biography Ian Fleming: The Complete man? 

Shakespeare: I'm a novelist before I’m a biographer. One of Granta’s 1993 Best of Young British Novelists – with The Dancer Upstairs chosen by the American Libraries Association as the Best Novel of 1995 (it was afterwards filmed by John Malkovich in the only movie he’s directed, starring Javier Bardem). 

That’s why when approached to write a new authorized biography of Ian Fleming, the first since 1966, my initial reaction was hesitation. Could I face spending so long in the company of a melancholic cad and creator of the cold killing machine, James Bond? This incomplete image was my only image of Fleming. 

Before rejecting the proposal, I did some background research, and in the course of this due diligence, as it were, I made two important discoveries.       

First, I found to my surprise that Fleming, the sardonic bounder, was kinder than I'd hitherto imagined. Again and again, the women he'd had affairs with – There must be enough of them to fill the Albert Hall, Rebecca West wrote – looked back on him with fondness, describing his kindliness as his chief characteristic. This was not a quality I'd associated with James Bond.      

Kinder, but also a great deal more significant than his popular caricature. His many jealous critics had inferred that in WW2 he was merely in charge of in-trays, out-trays and ashtrays at the Admiralty, where he served as the personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey. In fact, IF was in the inner citadel of British Intelligence, one of only 30 people cleared to know the top wartime secrets of Bletchley Park, and one of only a handful of trusted insiders who helped set up America's first foreign intelligence organization with Colonel William Donovan, in the spring and summer of 1941; in 1947, this became the CIA. 

When Churchill (who wrote the obituary of Fleming's father Val, killed in 1917 when Fleming was 8) talked in 1946 about a special relationship, he was talking about what was first and foremost an intelligence relationship. Few had done more to make it so special than Ian Fleming, who was regarded by Admiral Godfrey as a war-winner, although IF couldn’t for security reasons talk about this, let alone boast about it. 

Oh, and Fleming wasn't just responsible for Bond: he also came up with the idea for The Man from U. N.C.L.E (he later sold the idea to MGM for £1) and for the character of Charlie in Charlie's Angels. 

Not that he was an unprickly or an easy subject to dig up. Early on, Charles de Mestral, the son of his Swiss fiancŽe Monique, sent me an envelope containing the original photos that his mother had taken of Ian in the early 1930s when they were engaged, and which she had preserved in a sort of shrine all her life. I propped up the largest on my desk, I suppose as some sort of talisman; a b & w studio portrait of him circa 1931. For four years, he stared impenetrably at me, defying my attempts to crack him. Only towards the end did I glance across and at once see IF through the veil of his cigarette smoke and have a sense that I understood him better – and more than that, quite liked him. 

It was the opposite trajectory of my experience in writing about Bruce Chatwin, someone I had known personally and admired, but whom (because of the unnatural, up-close nature of biography) I ended up becoming less enamored about. 

As for the title, this is partly an ironic nod to his somewhat extravagant wish in the 1930s, declared several times to his friend Mary Pakenham, to be a Renaissance man, the Complete Man. I then read Alan Moorehead’s account of how WW2 had transformed “the ordinary man” – and how “he was, for a moment of time, a complete man, and he had this sublimity in him.” This certainly was true of Fleming: the war was the making of him (and later of Bond).

Only after my book went to press did John le Carré’s biographer Adam Sisman alert me to this other quote, in Raymond Chandler’s essay The Simple Art of Murder: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

What I like about the phrase complete man is that it suggests one of the central themes to have emerged: there is much more to Fleming than Bond, a character he created almost as an afterthought in the last twelve years of his life, when the most interesting part of it was essentially over. To simplify horribly, there would be no James Bond had Fleming not led the life he did, but if Bond had not existed, Fleming is someone we should still want to know about.

Davis: How does your biography differ from earlier biographies? What sources and material did you have that the earlier biographies did not? 

Shakespeare: The Fleming Estate had promised access to family papers – mainly photographs and childhood letters – that had not been seen before; in order to guarantee artistic integrity, it would be up to me to find a publisher. I like to think that this new material allowed for a slightly more three-dimensional portrait of his background and upbringing – although I must stress that in most areas of his life, I felt I was merely adding to the portrait of Fleming which John Pearson (1966) and Andrew Lycett (1995) in particular had been successful in establishing. I couldn’t have written my biography without the sizeable assistance of their books. I should also add that I agreed to do it only on condition that I had total editorial control, as with my Chatwin biography. It would serve no one – not Fleming, not his Estate, not my publishers, not me – if there was the tiniest whiff that authorized also meant controlled. 

What possibly separated me from John Pearson and Andrew Lycett is that I’m a novelist before I’m a biographer. History is about storytelling if it’s about anything. The novelist’s arsenal is useful in this respect. 

I drew on fiction-writing not to invent anything, but to help structure the material, to keep the reader engaged on their toes, suspended, as well as to pry with unusual nosiness into character and motive. The structure of Ian Fleming: the Complete Man largely presented itself – save for the opening, which took many rewrites. I knew immediately that I wanted to begin with Fleming’s funeral in 1964, how it had to recommence all over again – this seemed a suitable illustration of what I was trying to persuade the reader to do, i.e. re-examine Fleming, a person we think we know (perhaps rather too well), from the start. 

I also experimented with the 1960 Kennedy dinner party as a possible opening. But that presented rather too many beginnings, so I returned the dinner to its chronological sequence. The only other subversion of order was the chapter when the Old Harrovian ornithologist James Bond visits Goldeneye in February 1964, near the end of Fleming’s life. I felt that this encounter wouldn’t work in strict chronological order, when it would risk reheating a lot of old cabbage; but to put it directly after Fleming writes Casino Royale might inject his own story with a fresh and unexpected flip. Plus, it allowed me to give an overview of the work: the idea first brilliantly mooted by Philip Larkin that each novel was a piece of stolen bullion from WW2. 

One other influence (of the suppressed novelist’s instinct) can be detected in the story of Evelyn Waugh performing the word bondsman at a family charade shortly after Fleming’s funeral. I was told this years ago by the Waugh family when I made a three-part documentary on Evelyn Waugh for Arena. It seemed a perfect encapsulation of Fleming’s sad, Frankenstein-like story and I was determined to include it somewhere; the devil was where. It appeared in various parts of the book until it settled in its present position. 

Then the dramatic end scene: Ann burning a new Bond manuscript in the drawing room fireplace at Sevenhampton. I knew as soon as I heard this, without having to justify or explain it to myself, that it somehow made for a perfect finale. I trusted the teller (Thomas Heneage) that it had happened, that he had seen it.

Davis: How would you describe Ian Fleming? And how would you describe James Bond? 

Shakespeare: Ian Fleming was a misunderstood and melancholic puritan, damaged by a controlling mother and forced into being a blacker sheep than he naturally was by the all-round dominance of his brilliant elder brother Peter. But this IF disguised a kind and loyal figure who crammed much more into his life than most of us.

James Bond was a fantasy version of Fleming, the Intelligence Officer that IF might have become during the Cold War; in 1945, IF had come close to accepting the offer of a senior Intelligence position in the overhauled SIS that he had had a hand in reshaping. He declined. His fictional agent, on the other hand, would take the job. He would work for the new Ministry, in which he would rise “to the rank of Principal Officer in the Civil Service.” Simultaneously, under the renewed direction of England’s victorious wartime Prime Minister, his modern buccaneer would do battle with a fresh enemy, Soviet Russia (every Bond villain except Jack and Serrafimo Spang in Diamonds are Forever “usually works to help Russia,” in Umberto Eco’s phrase). He would execute in modern form those plans which Ian had conceived against the Nazis. In wartime, Ian had put these ideas into life; in uneasy peace, he would put them into fiction.

Davis: The best part of the biography, in my view, is your coverage of Ian Fleming’s experience in naval intelligence in WWII. What were his major contributions to the war effort? 

Shakespeare: His American counterparts believed that he was effectively head of British Naval Intelligence. He had his fingers in every conceivable Intelligence pie. He helped set up the Propaganda unit with Sefton Delmer; the Topographical unit with Robert Harling; the intelligence-gathering commando unit, 30AU, which captured the entire German naval archives in May 1945, as well as several Enigma machines (so shortening the war, some historians argue, by as much as 18 months). Then there was his contribution to setting up the COI (see above) with Colonel Donovan, the US’s first foreign intelligence organization, largely based on British Naval Intelligence.

Davis: How big a part of his James Bond thrillers came from his service in naval intelligence? 

Shakespeare: Almost all! A perception of F’s novels that he did much to popularize is that they were a series of sensational fantasies based on “the most hopeless sounding plots”. This was not the case. They were grounded in reality and a truth that he could not reveal but had intensely experienced. He wrote what he knew. By converting his lived experience into fiction, and updating it, he released the burden of that knowledge. Iva Patcevitch, New York chairman of Condé Nast, visited F when he was typing out his first Bond novel, Casino Royale in 1952. “I think he wrote the books primarily because he had a great deal of knowledge of things like this within him, and he had to get it out.” 

Asked to calculate the percentage of himself in the Bond books, Fleming gave this estimation. 'I can say ninety per cent personal experience really.' He took the cards he had been dealt and slipped them to Bond, then re-arranged them to play a winning hand.

Davis: I was fortunate to spend a week with my wife at Goldeneye in 1984, when the villa was rustic and exotic as it was when Ian Fleming lived there. We loved it. We met Ian Fleming’s housekeeper Violet during our stay. Her eyes teared up when I asked her about Ian Fleming. The Commander was a good man, she said. Would Ian Fleming have written the Bond series had he not had Goldeneye to retreat to? 

Shakespeare: This was IF’s conviction. “Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday? I doubt it.”

Davis: Why didn’t you cover more in-depth Ian Fleming’s world travels for the Sunday Times and his research for his thrillers? Next to his time in naval intelligence, this for me was the most interesting part of his life. Sans fist and gun fights, I think Ian Fleming was a more interesting character than his creation, James Bond. 

Shakespeare: I had to make a decision about what not to write about. (As it is, I spent two months cutting 50,000 words). He had so many interests, I could easily have written a book on Fleming and golf; Fleming and cars; Fleming and women; Fleming’s Jamaica; Fleming’s New York, Fleming’s travels, Fleming’s war etc., etc. Having already written about a genuine travel writer, Bruce Chatwin (with whom F shared not a few characteristics), I personally didn’t feel that F’s travels trespassed too much beyond the borders of Sunday-supplement journalism.

Davis: Your biography covers his complicated family life well, and his late-in-life success as an author. Do you see his later life as a tragedy, considering that he didn’t live to enjoy the wealth from the Bond books, or live to see the film Goldfinger and the spy-craze that he set off with his novels? 

Shakespeare: It is a Frankenstein story, as his wife and first authorized biographer John Pearson both came to recognize. Bond was his Frankenstein's monster,” said Ann. Pearson could only agree. He wrote in notes for an article he never published, provisionally to be called The Curse of Bond: “It always reminded me of how Dr Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s scary novel suddenly realized that the monster he’d created had become too powerful, and his creator was no longer able to control or destroy him by simply ceasing to write books about him. 

IF’s niece Mary reflects, “When Ian said his fame was ashes, just saying it brings tears to my eye. I know it’s exactly how he felt.” Selby Armitage, someone he grew up with, who had known IF all his life, met him not long before he died, and they were talking under the lime trees at Nettlebed. “Ian, what’s it like, what’s it really like to be famous? It’s a thing you always wanted when you were young. Are you enjoying it now you’ve got it?” He looked very sorry for himself. “It was all right for a bit… But now, my God. Ashes, old boy. Just ashes… I’d swap the whole damned thing for a healthy heart.” 

One of my favorite stories was told me by Algy Cluff, then a young Grenadier Guards officer, who sat next to IF at a bridge evening in Boodle’s in the autumn of 1963. “He says to me how fatigued he is, exasperated, with his celebrity. It’s not what he wanted. I said rather importunately, ‘What do you want in life?’ and received the astonishing reply, ‘To be the Captain of the Royal St George’s Golf Club.’” He was Captain Designate for three days, and then he died.

Davis: Some have said that Ian Fleming would not be read today were it not for the popular film series. (The same can be said for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow). Do you think Ian Fleming would still read today if the film series had not been so successful? 

Shakespeare: There’s a measure of truth in this. Eric Ambler, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Peter Cheyney, Mickey Spillane. Not one of the authors with whom Fleming was compared created a character who has continued to prosper against traditional gambling odds. An easy answer would be that the films were exceptionally popular and have kept Bond going since Fleming death aged 56 in 1964. Yet could it be that they were only so popular because the character Fleming created was so unique and captivating, at once a hero of modernization and yet a symbol of retrospective power? In this respect, Bond is like the gold Louis that Fleming observed in Monte Carlo: an out-of-date currency unaccountably still in use. 

James Bond is a product of his era and a reflector of his times,' the writer Paul Gallico astutely said of 007 back in 1961. The same is true today. He needs no introduction. 

Those five words 'The name's Bond, James Bond' ignite a smile the world over. As IF’s niece Gilly told me, He is better known than God. All the Tibetans know of James Bond. They’ve never heard of God. The Italian film director Adolfo Celi was welcomed with feasts in forlorn villages in Africa where they had never seen or read anything, but where they had seen Thunderball. 

The lower the sun has sunk on the empire Bond was born into, the more radiant his glow. If Bond is immortal, then it's because he's at once a hero of modernization and yet a symbol of retrospective power. He serves as a modern, aspirational Everyman. IF gave his readers license to imagine themselves in Bond's shoes, in his car, in his bed, navigating the post-war world and its challenges with the aplomb of one of the elite. When Bond recommends the Edwardian Room in the Plaza, a corner table, the reader may rest assured that Bond has sat there and for a pleasurable instant is able to imagine sitting in the same seat. 

Via Bond, we are given entry to a club that feels exclusive, of which we can be temporary members. A Blades open to all. 

This is the Bond effect. He is a suave vacuum who invites us all to put ourselves in his position and say, “that is how I want to live.” Almost everyone has an element of Bond in them – or a would-be Bond, said John Pearson. He reaches so many areas of contradiction in a great mass of humanity – most people feel they’ve failed, most people feel bored, all the things that Bond suffers from – but Bond does actually have the power to go out and do something about it – he goes off and he fights Blofeld or Goldfinger, all the demons, he goes and fights and he wins.

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