Any writer who has struggled to “do the words” would take heart from the self-effacing assessment written for himself by Ian Fleming, the raffish Englishman born 100 years ago this month who became one of the most successful authors of his time through the creation of the world’s best-loved spy, James Bond.
Fleming died in 1964, at 56, of complications from pleurisy after playing a round of golf in Oxfordshire though he had a heavy cold. But the real culprits were years of smoking up to 80 cigarettes a day, and a fondness for drink. Perhaps because of the difficulty he found in resisting life’s indulgences, he adopted a strict writing routine in his last 12 years, the period in which he wrote more than a dozen Bond novels that spawned the multibillion-dollar film franchise.
Rising early for a swim in the aquamarine waters in the cove below his idyllic Jamaican retreat, Goldeneye, Fleming tapped away at his Remington portable typewriter with six fingers for three hours in the morning and an hour in the afternoon — 2,000 words a day, a completed novel in two months, all the while keeping up the sybaritic lifestyle that led Noel Coward, a frequent guest at Goldeneye and no puritan himself, to describe the Fleming household as “golden ear, nose and throat.”
Fleming, who saw 40 million copies of his books sold in his lifetime but died before the Bond franchise went stratospheric, had no literary pretensions. He described his first Bond book, Casino Royale, as “an oafish opus,” and offered further disparagement in a 1963 BBC radio interview. “If I wait for the genius to come, it just doesn’t arrive,” he said. Asked if Bond had kept him from more serious writing, of the kind achieved by his older brother, Peter, a renowned explorer and travel writer, he replied: “I’m not in the Shakespeare stakes. I have no ambition.”
Fleming’s workaday approach to writing is among the revelations drawing crowds of Bond lovers to For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, an exhibition that opened at the Imperial War Museum in London last month and runs through March 2009. For the museum, founded in 1917 and guarded by two 18-inch guns from a World War I dreadnought, there is something — well, raffish — in the staging of an exhibition about the glamorous, gadget-wielding, womanizing, devil-may-care Bond and his creator, for whom the superspy was in many respects an alter ego.
The museum’s former curator, Alan Borg, whose 13-year tenure as director ended in 1995, encouraged innovative approaches by reminding his staff that “the three most off-putting words in the English language” were encompassed by the museum’s name.
“And we have to fight against that,” said Terry Charman, the museum’s senior historian and curator of the Bond exhibition.
The display explores the relationship between Fleming and Bond, examining how much of the fictional spy is built on the author’s character — the degree to which Bond was his “fantasy version of himself,” as Charman put it. As well, it shows how Fleming drew on his experiences as a man about town and as a prewar foreign correspondent, in the world of banking and investment, and as a World War II aide to the head of the UK’s directorate of naval intelligence, to give what he described as “verisimilitude” to Bond’s world of spies and villains and romance.