Thanet Writers Spotlight Ian Fleming

Seb Reilly highlights the life, works and legacy of writer Ian Fleming, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

Image Credit: 
Stock / Fair Use

Best known as the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming was a renowned author whose writing still holds great influence. A British Intelligence officer known for his detached nature, expensive taste, gambling, and womanising, Fleming put much of his life into creating Britain’s most famous fictional spy, and it was in the strange twists of reality that the fiction was conceived.

Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, was released in 1953, with a cover designed by the author himself. Despite the publishers not expecting great things from it, the book was a huge success. At the time Fleming was working as the Foreign Manager for the then owners of the Sunday Times, the Kemsley newspaper group, overseeing their foreign correspondents. He held an office in London where he employed a red-haired secretary who partially inspired Miss Moneypenny. Fleming used many people from his life in his writing, along with injecting his interests into his stories.

Fleming was a keen bird-watcher, and the name James Bond was taken from an American ornithologist. Fleming felt it was exactly the kind of dull, unassuming moniker his character needed. He based Bond on the various commandos and intelligence agents he had met throughout the Second World War, along with taking inspiration from his older brother, Peter, whom he reportedly idolised.

When I wrote the first one in 1953, I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be a blunt instrument.

Interview with The New Yorker, 1962

Fleming was born and raised in London with his brothers, although his family also had an estate in Scotland. Much like his most famous character he was well-educated, attending Durnford preparatory school and then Eton College, where incidentally he edited The Wyvern, a school magazine. He was then prepared for entry to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in a specialised school but left after contracting gonorrhoea, a side-effect of his main hobby which brought much disapproval upon him. This was not his only brush with the forces, however, and his continued interaction with both the military and intelligence sectors of Great Britain would greatly impact his later writing.

Stock / Fair Use

Stock / Fair Use

The next logical step for Fleming seemed to be the Foreign Office. Fleming was sent by his mother, who was a strong influence over his early choices in life, to a school in Austria run by a former British spy and his wife, a novelist. He then studied at universities in both Munich and Geneva, where he was briefly engaged until his mother intervened. After completing his studies Fleming applied to the Foreign Office but failed to qualify. He was eventually given a job as a sub-editor and journalist within Reuters News Agency, with quite a lot of help from his mother. The two years Fleming spent as a journalist involved much travel, including to Moscow, but he then gave in to the pressure of his family and went into banking and finance for six years, a trade which he neither enjoyed nor excelled in. Unlike Bond, Fleming was not an orphan, as although his father was killed eight days before his ninth birthday whilst fighting in the Great War, his mother lived for almost the entirety of Fleming’s life. Perhaps this was written into the character’s backstory as a way for Fleming to rewrite his own past.

Fleming was a regular gambler, and spent all his life drinking and smoking heavily. He enjoyed fine foods and expensive alcohol, and paid great attention to his clothes and accessories, all of which is reflected in his writing. Fleming’s style of prose is relatively cold and detached, as was reportedly his nature in person. He felt that detailing the items a person had on them would tell a lot about them, which is why his descriptions focused on personal effects rather than character or emotion. As a result his main protagonist, Bond, is often perceived as callous and uncaring, though as a sanctioned assassin for the British government they would hardly seem to be unsuitable traits.

It’s just that I’d rather die of drink than of thirst.

Thunderball, 1961

Shortly before the Second World War, Fleming was recruited by the Foreign Office and sent to Russia as a journalist for The Times. Having already reported from there, Fleming had contacts, and his presence would not be seen as suspicious. He reported back on Russian military strength, and this led to a position at the Royal Navy.

Fleming was appointed the personal assistant to Admiral Godfrey, the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division, and given the codename 17F. He was quickly promoted to Commander, a rank he passed on to James Bond. Throughout the early years of the war Fleming liaised on the Admiral’s behalf with the Political Warfare Executive, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Prime Minister’s staff, the Special Operations Executive, and Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. During this time a memo was circulated, often referred to as the Trout Memo, which suggested various disinformation tactics, including planting faked intelligence on a corpse for the enemy to discover. The concept bears a striking similarity to Operation Mincemeat, a successful mission that was carried out some years later, towards the end of the war. The Trout Memo was issued under the name of the Admiral; however it has been argued by historians that it was in fact authored by Ian Fleming.

President Roosevelt had sent William Donovan, known as Wild Bill, to London as special representative on intelligence co-operation, and he and Fleming worked closely together, much like Bond does with CIA operative Felix Leiter. In 1941 Fleming and Donovan travelled to the US and were involved in creating the blueprint for the Office of the Coordinator of Information. That department later turned into the Office of Strategic Services, and eventually the CIA. Fleming was also running Operation Goldeneye at this time for the Naval Intelligence Division, a contingency plan to maintain an intelligence framework in Spain, should the country come under German occupation.

Intelligence operations and tactical disinformation formed the basis of some of Bond’s most intricate plots, and it was during Fleming’s time in the NID that these interests were piqued. The German and Russian command also played some part in his concept of villains, as the majority of Bond’s antagonists were from European or Slavic backgrounds with non-specific heritage and often obscure origins. Blofeld, for example, was born in Imperial Germany to a Polish father and Greek mother, raised in Poland, sold state secrets to the Nazis, destroyed all trace of his existence before the invasion of Warsaw, and dealt information to both sides during the war. This tendency towards foreign villains has been noted by some as a sign of Fleming embedding his personal racism into his novels, whilst others take it as commentary of public fear of the Eastern Bloc and communism during the Cold War. One aspect of Fleming’s antagonists that is agreed upon, however, is that his inclination to physically scar or deform them is both outdated and insensitive.

History is moving pretty quickly these days, and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.

Casino Royale, 1953

Fleming became known for his audacious yet calculated plans, including plotting to steal an Enigma machine by purposefully crashing a stolen German bomber and ambushing the enemy rescue party. This particular plan was never carried out, much to Alan Turing’s annoyance, as it relied on the bomber floating in the English Channel, something that was not physically possible; but the ability to plan out schemes would go on to serve Fleming well, both in his military intelligence career and later when writing the Bond books.

Throughout the war Fleming’s brother, Peter, was heavily involved in operations behind enemy lines in Norway and Greece. Ian, on the other hand, formed a unit of specialist intelligence-trained commando troops, 30AU, which he coordinated, but he did not fight with them. If they were his double-0 unit, he was their M, although he did travel with them to Normandy, Germany, and the Pacific. The men were trained in safe-cracking and lock-picking, along with unarmed combat, and were instrumental in intelligence gathering before D-Day.

After the success of 30AU, Fleming sat on the committee that ran Target Force, or T-Force; a specialised division that secured high-value targets including nuclear research facilities and rocket scientists. Fleming used the strategies and techniques of T-Force in the novel Moonraker.

Towards the end of the war, after visiting Jamaica, Fleming decided to purchase some land near to Noël Coward’s Jamaican property, and had a house built, which he named Goldeneye. Once the war was over Fleming spent his winters there for several years whilst working for the Kemsley group and started a family, although domestic bliss was far from the top of his agenda.

Much is made of Bond’s romantic liaisons and his promiscuity. As a self-styled bachelor, Fleming was constantly engaging in relationships with women, many of whom were married. Letters he sent to lovers have included cruel remarks and references to an interest in sadomasochism, and it has been suggested that he viewed women as second-class citizens for him to use as he saw fit.

If I were to say ‘love’ you would only argue, and then I would have to whip you and you would cry and I don’t want that.

Letter to Edith Morpurgo, 1930s (undated)

Since working as a banker, Fleming had maintained a long-term affair with Ann Charteris, whose first husband died in battle and whose second husband divorced her due to her relationship with Fleming. She gave birth to Fleming’s daughter, Mary, in 1948, but the child was stillborn. In 1951 she became pregnant again, and so she and Fleming prepared to wed.

In early 1952 Fleming began work on Casino Royale. He claimed this was both to fulfil an ambition of writing a spy thriller, and also to distract himself from his forthcoming wedding. As a lifelong philanderer, monogamy did not apparently appeal to Fleming or his bride-to-be. Although they did marry, both continued to remain unfaithful to each other throughout the relationship. A few months after their wedding their son, Caspar, was born.

Along with having a somewhat narrow attitude towards women, Fleming’s writing reflected a possible ingrained homophobia. His contemporary during the war, Turing, was prosecuted for homosexual acts the same year that Fleming married and began writing fiction; so culturally, at least, homophobia was not as unacceptable as it would be today. That being said, it is noticeable how many of Bond’s antagonists are either homosexual or have no sexuality whatsoever. Bond was the ultimate alpha-male, in the eyes of Fleming, and he highlighted this by both sexualising Bond’s female companions and often desexualising any and all other male characters.

Fleming developed a habit of working throughout the year for the Kemsley group, living in either London or Kent, and frequenting his favourite golf club; and then taking three months off each winter to be spent in Jamaica writing another book. From 1953, when Casino Royale was first published, to 1966 there was a new Bond book every year: twelve novels, and two short story collections in total. Fleming combined much of his past with current affairs at the time—predominantly the Cold War—to create his fictional world of spies licensed to kill.

Many staple tropes from the spy genre originated with or were popularised by Fleming, and he would be arguably best recognised in this respect for his choice of character names. Fleming had a tendency to name his primary antagonists after people he knew or knew of: Thomas Blofeld and George Scaramanga both attended Eton with Fleming; Ernő Goldfinger was an architect whose buildings Fleming despised; Hugo Drax, the villain from Moonraker, was named after Fleming’s wartime friend Admiral Sir Reginald Drax as a tribute; and Drax’s assistant, Krebbs, inherited his name from Hitler’s final Chief of Staff. His female characters were usually given interesting yet realistic names; a trait that was not continued in the Bond film series due to the popularity of Fleming’s most blatant pun—and only real innuendo-based given name—Pussy Galore.

As Caspar, Fleming’s son, grew older, Fleming would tell him a particular bedtime story. This tale evolved and changed the more it was told. Eventually, after some persuading by a friend, and a period of doctor-prescribed recovery from a heart attack, that story became Fleming’s only children’s book: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It was published posthumously, just two months after his death.

I am writing a children’s book, so you will see there is never a moment, even on the edge of the tomb, when I am not slaving for you.

Letter to Michael Howard of Jonathan Cape, 1961

Throughout the latter part of his life, Fleming would regularly stay in Thanet, in both Sandwich and Pegwell Bay. He also purchased a house along the coast in St. Margaret’s at Cliffe near Dover, close to his Jamaican neighbour Noël Coward, who later sold his own house to Fleming. This was due to both Fleming’s love of the Kent countryside, and so he could regularly visit his favourite golf club: Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, Thanet.

Fleming’s last day was spent at the Royal St. George’s, where he was due to be elected Captain. He retired to his hotel in Canterbury, where he ate with some friends, and shortly after dinner he suffered another heart attack and collapsed. He was rushed to hospital, his last words being an apology to the paramedics en route for troubling them. The following morning, on his son’s twelfth birthday in 1964, Fleming died. He was fifty-six years old.

The legacy Fleming left behind still inspires and excites to this day, and James Bond has entered history as one of, if not the greatest fictional spy ever created. Fleming put so much of himself and his world into his novels that his loves and passions are evident on the pages, as are the places that meant the most to him. Amongst those locations are several in Thanet.

Moonraker is predominantly set in and around St. Margaret’s, and features Manston airport and Thanet as a whole in various parts of the story, along with other locations along the coast including Dover and Folkestone. Fleming also set part of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang off the coast of Thanet and nearby Deal, on the Goodwin Sands; a ten mile sandbank that at low-tide protrudes above the water.

Arguably Fleming’s most well-known and influential work is Goldfinger; the story of Bond’s infiltration of Auric Goldfinger’s organisation and foiling of his plan to steal bullion from Fort Knox. After Bond’s initial encounter with Goldfinger in Miami, they meet for a round of golf at Royal St. Mark’s, a fictional club based on and located at the same site as Royal St. George’s. They then retire to Goldfinger’s mansion by Reculver on the edge of Thanet. A large part of the narrative involves the suspected gold smuggling operation Bond has been sent to investigate, and that is run by Goldfinger out of his factory, called ‘Thanet Alloys’ and based in Ramsgate, with the gold shipped in and out via Ramsgate’s port.

Fleming was renowned for his attention to detail. From locations and clothing to food and weaponry, he was fastidious in his research and accuracy; yet he consistently proved his ability to deliver a gripping and exciting story that was not waylaid by these specifics.

There is only one recipe for a bestseller and it is a very simple one. If you look at all the bestsellers you have read you will find that they all have one quality: you simply have to turn the page.

‘How to Write a Thriller’ Article, 1962

Having read my first James Bond novel at ten years old, I then scoured second-hand bookshops and charity shops to find the complete set, borrowing those I could not acquire from the local library, and had read them all before I even reached my teens. I also, as everyone has, watched all the films, and continue to do so as new ones are released.

The books I bought, all of which were editions published before I was born, still hold pride of place on my bookshelves. Fleming’s style, pacing, and structure influenced my own writing, and as a reader these are books that I love. What he has left for us all to enjoy is something beyond most writers’ dreams, and I, for one, will always be grateful.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

Join the Discussion

Please ensure all comments abide by the Thanet Writers Comments Policy

Add a Comment