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Nicholas Shakespeare is Ian Fleming’s latest – and arguably definitive – biographer. His recently published masterpiece Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, skilfully draws on previous biographies – principally those by John Pearson (1966) and Andrew Lycett (1995) – while also offering a plethora of fresh ideas, insights, and information. If you’re an Ian Fleming fan or admirer, it’s quite simply a must-have item for your Bondian bookshelf.

Earlier in 2024, Shakespeare kindly agreed to be interviewed by 007 MAGAZINE chief writer LUKE G. WILLIAMS, and the results of their in-depth discussion are published here for the first time.

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man by Nicholas Shakespeare

When did you first encounter the work of Ian Fleming? What were your views on him before you wrote this book? And what factors were at play when you came to decide whether to accept the offer to write the book or not?
Like many in my generation, I discovered Fleming under a scratchy blue blanket, by fading torchlight, at prep school – along with John Buchan, Nevil Shute (who had been to the same school), Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, and Commando ‘trashmags’. The films, with their extra ingredient of humour, consolidated Bond’s hold.

About Fleming himself, I knew little. What I gathered from sideways glimpses was not especially savoury. It dawned on me only very recently that a moral of his story is this: don’t run off with the wife of the owner of the Daily Mail if you wish to avoid forever after being rendered into tabloid fat.

The cartoonish impression I formed was of an Old Etonian bounder, a desk-bound ‘Chocolate Sailor’ in the war, who after WW2 spends his life hitting the road after whipping his wife, returning home in the early hours, following an evening of bridge-playing at his club, or a day on the links at the Royal St George’s golf course, fortified on an undeviating diet of scrambled eggs, Martinis, and Turkish cigarettes. Not very appealing. That’s why, when first approached by the Fleming Estate in 2019 to write a new authorised biography, the first since 1966, my initial reaction was hesitation. Did I wish to spend the next four or five years 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.

Ian Fleming in Room 39 at the Admiralty during WWII | Ian Fleming's first biographer John Pearson (1930-2021)

ABOVE: (left) Ian Fleming in Room 39 at the Admiralty during World War II. (right) Ian Fleming's colleague, friend and first time biographer John Pearson (1930-2021). The Life of Ian Fleming was first published in 1966. In 1973 John Pearson wrote JAMES BOND: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY - A fictional account of the life of James Bond, Secret Agent 007, written from Pearson's point-of-view as he interviews the ‘real’ James Bond (now aged 53) in Bermuda.

Before rejecting the proposal, I did some background research. What clinched my decision was my stumbling on mysterious connections which suggested that Fleming might be a propitious subject after all.

By a strange set of coincidences, before he joined Fleming as his ‘leg man’ on Atticus, John Pearson, Fleming’s first authorised biographer, had shared a desk at the Times Educational Supplement with my father, who himself went on afterwards to perform an identical role for Fleming’s successor as Foreign Manager, Frank Giles. After I brought the two former colleagues together for lunch 66 years later, Pearson gave me his blessing to enter his biographical domain and handed me a gift: his ‘Fleming file’.

There were more Shakespeare links. In 1915, my paternal grandfather and Fleming’s father Val Fleming had breathed in the same cloud of chlorine gas at Ypres when Val helped Major W. G. Shakespeare carry 359 stretchers to a field. For the first months of WWII, my great-uncle Geoffrey Shakespeare worked directly above Fleming’s desk in Room 39 when Geoffrey was Churchill’s “indefatigable second in command” at the Admiralty. From a younger generation, my eldest son was in the same house at [Eton] school as Ian Fleming, and was Victor Ludorum like him.

I found connections on my mother’s side too. Her father, the prolific author S. P. B. Mais, who had taught Alec Waugh at Sherborne and got published his first novel, The Loom of Youth, had impressed on Waugh the inflexible rule for his writing: 2000 words a day without fail, sticking to a routine “from which nothing must be allowed to deter you”. Waugh would pass on this vital advice to Fleming, along with Mais’s story about our Jamaican relatives that had inspired, so Waugh’s son Peter believed, Alec’s 1955 bestseller Island in the Sun – the Hollywood film of which impressed a young music producer in Jamaica to name his company Island Records: Chris Blackwell is now the owner of ‘Goldeneye’, where Fleming wrote all 14 Bond books.

On my wife’s side, a coincidence spookier still. It was her Icelandic-Canadian father, Dr. George Johnson, who is credited with revealing the true identity of William Stephenson, ‘the Quiet Canadian’ and ‘Man called Intrepid’, whom Fleming once saluted as his chief model for Bond. In 1980, Dr. Johnson disclosed why Stephenson had not dared step foot in his Winnipeg birthplace since 1922. In that year, the quiet Canadian had fled Winnipeg as a bankrupt, having swindled 95 investors, many related to my father-in-law’s patients, following the collapse of a company fabricating can-openers. Further, Stephenson had not been called Intrepid, this was the cable address for his wartime office in New York. He was not even called Stephenson, but Stanger, the son of an Icelandic mother who had abandoned him to my wife’s relatives, the Stefánssons, whose anglicized surname he adopted. Excited to discover these tenuous links, I said yes [to writing the book].

Admiral John Henry Godfrey (1888-1970) | Ian Fleming in naval uniform

ABOVE: (left) Admiral John Henry Godfrey (1888–1970) was an officer of the Royal Navy and Royal Indian Navy, specialising in navigation. Ian Fleming is said to have based James Bond's boss, M, on Godfrey. (right) Ian Fleming in naval uniform.

What was the most interesting or unexpected thing you discovered about Ian Fleming in the course of your research?
During the two-month grace period in which I did my due diligence, as it were, I made two further 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 [Fleming] was merely in charge of ‘in-trays, out-trays and ashtrays’ at the Admiralty, where he served as PA to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey. In fact, Fleming 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 organisation, the COI, 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, killed at the front 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”.

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. After five years in his company, I came to agree with his friend Robert Harling, who described Ian Fleming as “the most generous, least malicious, most merry yet most melancholy man I ever knew”.

Ann & Ian Fleming by Norman Parkinson | Caspar Fleming with his parents

ABOVE: (left) Ann and Ian Fleming in 1963 by English portrait and fashion photographer Norman Parkinson (1913-1990). (right) Ian Fleming (1908-1964) with wife Ann (1913-1981) and [far left] his only son Caspar (1952-1975). It was whilst recovering from a heart attack in 1961 that Ian Fleming wrote the children's adventure novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for his son Caspar. Ian Fleming would suffer a fatal heart attack on August 12, 1964 - Caspar's 12th birthday. Caspar Fleming took his own life in October 1975 at the age of 23. He was buried beside his father (and later mother Ann) in Sevenhampton churchyard in Wiltshire.

Can you describe some of the previously unseen sources and information you were able to access for this book? How supportive were the Fleming family of your editorial freedom?
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 a few more brush-strokes to the portrait 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 [Bruce] Chatwin biography. It would serve no one – not Fleming, not his Estate, not my publishers, not me – if there was the tiniest whiff that ‘authorised’ also meant ‘controlled’.

the Life of Ian Fleming US edition | Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett

ABOVE: (left) The first US edition of John Pearson's The Life of Ian Fleming published my McGraw-Hill in 1966,which utilized the same cover design by Jan Pienkowski (1936-2022) seen on the UK Jonathan Cape hardcover first edition. (right) The UK first edition of Andrew Lycett's biography of Ian Fleming published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 1995.

You’re a biographer but also a novelist. How would you define your approach to biography and to what extent do you incorporate novelistic techniques within your biographical writing? I’m also interested in the book’s approach to chronology. Broadly it’s structured chronologically but there are also sections which are more thematic where the broad chronology is disrupted…
What possibly separated me from John Pearson and Andrew Lycett is that I’m a novelist before I’m a biographer. History is about story-telling, if it can be said to be about anything. The novelist’s arsenal is handy in this respect.

Six Minutes in May | James Bond meets Ian Fleming

ABOVE: (left) 2017 paperback cover of Nicholas Shakespeare's Six Minutes In May, in which the author recounts the fascinating and dramatic events that led to Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister against the odds. (right) American ornithologist James Bond (1900-1981) meets James Bond author Ian Fleming at his Jamaican home ‘Goldeneye’ on February 5, 1964.

As with my previous history, about Churchill unexpectedly becoming Prime Minister, Six Minutes In May, I drew on fiction-writing not to invent a single thing, but to help sift and 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 perfect illustration of what I was trying to persuade the reader to do, i.e. re-examine Fleming, a person we all think we know perhaps rather too well, from the start. I also experimented with the 1960 Kennedy dinner party in Washington as a possible opening. But that presented rather too many beginnings, so I returned the dinner to its correct sequence in the narrative. 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 fillip. Plus, it allowed me to give an overview of the remaining body of work: the idea first brilliantly mooted by Philip Larkin that each Bond novel was a piece of stolen bullion from WW2.

One other influence (of my 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 life 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.

The incident which forms the book’s ending is quite shocking and devastating. At what stage did you decide that this would be how you would end the book?
… the dramatic end scene: Ann [Fleming, Ian’s widow] burning a new Bond manuscript in the drawing room fire-place 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 (Caspar’s friend, the art scholar Thomas Heneage) that it had happened, that he had seen it.

Ursula Andress, Ian Fleming and Sean Connery

ABOVE: (top left) Ursula Andress and Ian Fleming have lunch on location in Jamaica during the filming of Dr. No in early 1962. The James Bond author was so taken with the Swiss-born actress that she is name checked as one of the glamorous guests at Piz Gloria in his next novel ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1963). (bottom left & right) Ian Fleming visited Pinewood Studios on March 22, 1962, and met up with Sean Connery on Ken Adam's spectacular reactor room set for Dr. No (1962).

Any tantalising details of things you had to leave out?
At the end of five years, I know Fleming well enough to know there are cards still to be played. I’m especially interested in two items that he mentions in his Sunday Times ‘Atticus’ column that might be autobiographical and about which I could unearth no further details. On 21 July 1957, Fleming writes of Prague: “I was there in 1938 when the local German Nazis were fomenting trouble.” I have found no record of such a visit. Three months later, he makes an even more tantalising claim. “I met [Albert] Camus in 1944 immediately after the liberation of Paris in the flat of a mutual friend high above the rue de Rivoli. The most trivial details of life in England fascinated him.” Fleming and Camus in newly Liberated Paris, talking about England? How I’d like to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting!

Finally – a couple of standard questions a Bond interviewer always has to ask… What is your favourite Bond novel and favourite Bond film?
My favourite Bond novel is FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE. It was written in reaction to Raymond Chandler saying Fleming could do better, and he does. “Far and away your best,” as his US publisher Al Hart said. “A real wowser, a lulu, a dilly and a smasheroo.” My favourite film is Dr. No, where all the future ingredients of the Bond movies are laid out for us to grasp in full Technicolor, like tropical fruit.

PAN Books paperback FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE (1959) | Sean Connery, Ursula Andress and director Terence Young on location in Jamaica for Dr. No (1962).

ABOVE: (left) 1959 PAN Books paperback first edition of FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE with a cover painted by Sam Peffer (1921-2014). (right) Sean Connery, Ursula Andress and director Terence Young on location in Jamaica for Dr. No (1962).

©007 MAGAZINE April 2024


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