The vivd life and imagination of Ian Fleming

June 3, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

When Ian Fleming accompanied his boss, Admiral John Godfrey, chief of British Naval Intelligence, to America in May 1941, they had to stop over in neutral Portugal. There, they visited a casino. 

When they left the casino, Fleming said to Godfrey, “What if those men had been German secret service agents, and suppose we had cleaned them out of their money. Now, that would have been exciting.”

Twelve years later in 1953, Fleming’s Casino Royale introduced James Bond to the reading world with the following lines:

The scent and smoke of a casino are nauseating at three o’clock in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling — a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension — becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.

James Bond knew that he was tired. . . .

Bond, the gentle reader soon learns, is a secret agent for the British government, and on a mission for Her Majesty’s government. He is in the process of cleaning out an enemy agent at the gaming table.

Bond became one of the most iconic characters in all of the literature and cinema of the twentieth century. It was a remarkable beginning for a novelist who up to that point had lived an extraordinary life. With Casino Royale, Fleming had begun to put the scenes and characters of his life and his vivid imagination into a set of books that would capture the attention and devotion of millions of readers around the world.

James Bond has never lost his appeal even though Fleming has been dead for more than 50 years.

Ian Fleming was born in London in 1908 into a family that was privileged and well-connected. His father, who was a good friend of Winston Churchill, was killed in World War I, but despite that devastating loss never lacked for much. He attended Eton and Sandhurst but found himself unsuited for military life. As he grew into adulthood and search for a suitable career, he was able to travel across Europe and to develop in the end various romances.

In 1931, he took the foreign service exams and despite fluency in French and German was unable to secure a position with the foreign office. Finally, through family connections, he went to work for the Reuters news service. Journalism — and more particularly writing — was his life’s calling.

In 1933 Reuters sent him to Moscow to cover the show trial of six British engineers who were accused of espionage and sabotage. Fleming took advantage of his time in the Soviet capital to learn all he could about the USSR and its secret police. He also wrote a letter to the Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, asking for an interview. Stalin turned him down but did so with a letter that he signed himself, something that Fleming kept in treasure for the rest of his life.

Fleming’s report on the trial for vivid and well-written, and when you return to London, the Foreign Office asked him to submit his impressions of what he had seen and heard. In doing so the British government marked Fleming as a man you might be good at intelligence work should the need ever arise.

The need did indeed arise. With tensions growing among nations throughout Europe in the late 1930s, Fleming was asked by the foreign office to accompany a trade mission to Moscow. The real purpose of his trip was to find out what he could about the Soviets’ military preparedness.

Fleming landed in the office of Naval intelligence, and part of his charge was to come up with outlandish but doable schemes that would confound the Germans. Imagination was well suited for such an assignment. While he was never involved in direct combat, he oversaw or participated in the planning and execution of many such missions. One of those was Operation Mincemeat, the now-famous plan to fool the Nazis as to the location of the Allied invasion of Italy.

Next week: The writing life of Ian Fleming


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