Sunday, January 02, 2005

Ian and James

Who of us hasn’t heard of James Bond? For most of us, he seems always to have been around. First he was Sean Connery, then George Lazenby, then Roger Moore, then Timothy Dalton, and now Pierce Brosnan.

We have always seen James Bond as the very essence of modernity, careening through mountain passes in the latest sports car equipped with the very latest in gadgetry, skiing at breakneck sped down the steepest of slopes in the Swiss Alps, escaping Houdini-like from impregnable fortress-like captivity while displaying insouciant derring-do, beating up villains against all odds after absorbing incredible punishment, then going off with the girl.

James Bond’s undiminished visceral appeal over the last few decades is doubtless because he is something of a mythical archetype, and not be out of place as one of Joseph Campbell’s Heroes with a Thousand Faces.

When slender narrow-shouldered Pierce Brosnan was chosen as the latest James Bond I was initially incredulous. Pierce Brosnan? C’mon. I could probably beat the guy up myself. But Sean Connery, I mean, there’s no way I would even think of fighting Sean Connery.

However, Pierce Brosnan was probably the perfect choice. When Sean Connery was Bond, Britain was still a power of some importance in the world, still having the remnants of its empire. Pierce Brosnan as Bond, on the other hand, perfectly reflects the Britain of Tony Blair, the obedient lapdog of the mighty George W Bush. And a further reflection of Bond’s diminished status is that his boss, “M”, is now a woman.

Despite James Bond appearing contemporary, he is in fact a somewhat historical character, seeing as the first James Bond book, Casino Royale, came out in 1953 – fifty-one years ago - and Bond’s car was a 1953 model sports car. Thus, if the James Bond films were to have verisimilitude, they would be set in the times the books were written – between 1953 and 1964. Instead, the James Bond of film has remained the same age – 35 or so – ever since 1962, when Dr No came out, and his escapades always take place in the present.

I am, incidentally, reminded of the “William” books I read omnivorously when a young boy. The protagonist, William Brown, an 11 year-old urchin, remained obstinately 11 from when he was created by Richmal Crompton in 1923, to when she wrote the last book in 1968.

James Bond has become so much a figure of the silver screen that we have to be reminded that he was the literary creation of Ian Fleming, who created a character who he would like to have been, but wasn’t quite. Even so, James Bond does contain a lot of his creator, who, as recounted in Andrew Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming, spent much of his youth and early manhood gallivanting around Europe, skiing at resorts in Switzerland, gambling in the casinos of Monte Carlo, driving fast two-seater sports cars, and seducing scores of beautiful young women. In addition to his native English, Ian also spoke German and French fluently.

Ian began his working life as a journalist, and for a while was posted to Moscow where he engaged in lots of cloak and dagger stuff. These experiences propelled him into naval intelligence when World War 2 came. There was lots more cloak and dagger stuff during the war, at which Ian was most innovative and resourceful. At war’s end he had reached the rank of commander. After being demobilised he bought a mansion in Jamaica called “Goldeneye”, where he wrote the James Bond books.

Ian was over six feet tall and had the looks which women found attractive, and which he took advantage of. He had such a good time that he didn’t get married until forty, to a woman, Anne, with whom he’d had weekend trysts while her husband was out of town. Ian liked these trysts because they were exciting. But Anne wanted something more stable, and forced Ian to capitulate. So Anne, after divorcing her husband, dragged Ian kicking and screaming to the altar.

They stayed together for the rest of Ian’s somewhat short life. But at the end neither had been good for the other because they were so different. Anne was cerebral and had cerebral friends and they all looked down their noses at James Bond. Ian, on the other hand, was an outdoorsy convivial type who loved to play golf. He was a man’s man who, paradoxically, had homosexual friends like Noel Coward and William Plomer. Anne thought that, emotionally, Ian had not gone past the adolescent phase. Hence the James Bond books, which Ian admitted were adolescent fantasies.

For all the fame and wealth which James Bond brought him, Ian Fleming at the end of his life was a sick and unhappy man. His blood pressure was high and his arteries clogged. He and Anne quarrelled constantly and were not far off being divorced. And Ian was, for some years, involved in legal wrangles over the rights to some of the Bond books.

Ian died in 1964 at fifty-six. But his legacy continued, especially for his young son, Caspar, who developed a fascination for guns, and collected lots of them illegally, to Anne’s consternation. Friends thought Caspar had been excessively influenced by the James Bond books. He later developed severe mental problems which drugs failed to fix. He committed suicide at twenty-three.

The irony about Ian Fleming is that he was not innately a gifted writer, as his letters and other non-James Bond writings attest. It was Ian’s brother, Peter, who was the better writer, but it was Ian who discovered the formula for what sold, and he was a good publicist. Each Bond book took him only three months to write – from January to March at Goldeneye every year for the last fourteen years of his life.

The Bond books at first sold only moderately well, and it was many years before film directors took notice of them. The first Bond film, Dr No, came out in 1962 – two years before Ian died. And so another irony was that real fame and fortune came to Ian almost at the end of his life. By then he was too ill to enjoy them.

So then, what does the life of Ian Fleming have to teach us? Perhaps that someone with modest talent, but lots of chutzpah can make the world ring with his name, since the names of James Bond and his creator are known by most people in the world who watch films. So the the name of Ian Fleming has become famous, and may well still be famous a hundred years from now. And he has had several biographies written about him, something which happens to few.

Ian’s life shows us that lots of money and fame don’t necessarily bring happiness. But if even if we do have them, it should be when we still have the health and years to savour them.