“Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes’, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life”, says one of the characters in Ian Fleming’s classic children’s book ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ – and it’s fair to say that Fleming, the man who brought us James Bond, followed his own advice.
Tonight, I was at a talk given by Jon Gilbert – bibliophile, historian and the official biographer of Ian Fleming. Part of the Rare Books London 2017 festival, this event was held in the appropriate setting of Senate House Library, in Bloomsbury. The subject of the talk was Ian Fleming, the bibliophile – a side to the author with which many of us are not especially familiar.
As Gilbert pointed out, it’s impossible to consider Fleming’s passion for books without first looking at the author’s rich and colourful life – which itself reads like a spy thriller. Born in 1908 to Valentine Fleming, MP for Fleming, and society beauty Evelyn Saint Croix Rose, Ian Fleming grew up in relative affluence (his family had connections to the Robert Fleming & Co. banking dynasty). Like many of his peers, he was sent to boarding school aged just seven years old, firstly to Durnford School in Dorset and then to Eton College. A victim of bullying, Fleming’s school days were not a particularly happy time for him and he did not fare well academically, although he excelled at athletics. That said, he loved literature from an early age and it would remain a constant presence in his life.
Fleming’s life changed irreparably when his father was killed in action at Ypres in 1917. Leaving school a term early, he went to Sandhurst to train as a cadet, but left without qualifying, having contracted an STD – and the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War saw Fleming drift from job to job, never really succeeding in any of them. He spent some time in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where he learned to speak German fluently, and in 1933 gave in to family pressure and entered the world of banking – which he loathed. By this time he had embarked upon what would become one of the consuming passions of his life: the collection of rare books – and in this he was supported and encouraged by his life-long friend Percy Muir, a rare book dealer and one-time President of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.
The year 1939 saw Fleming’s life change drastically in several ways. He met the woman who would eventually become his wife, Ann Charteris – and he was recruited by Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence of the Royal Navy, as Godfrey’s personal assistant. Fleming was what Gilbert described as an “ideas man” during the War, concocting various schemes to bamboozle the Nazis – some more successful than others. Some of his wartime experiences would later inform his novels; all of them would stand him in good stead as an author, as would his understanding of the espionage world.
Post-War, Fleet Street and the world of journalism beckoned and saw Fleming settle into a career that he genuinely loved. He was also able to take up his bibliophilic pursuits again and throughout the course of his life would collect over 1,000 rare books. These can broadly be divided into two groups: the first being Fleming’s personal reading collection of fiction and reference books. Unsurprisingly, Fleming adored crime fiction and novels by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Leslie Charteris, Georges Simenon, Graham Greene, John Buchan and Eric Ambler all feature in this collection. Many of these authors he counted as personal friends.
What may surprise people more – and certainly made me think differently about an author who has often been derided as a misogynist and a one-trick pony – is how knowledgeable Fleming was about so many different subjects. History, biographies, travel, sport, psychology, gem stones, fire arms, engineering, ship wrecks, gastronomy and solitary confinement all feature among his reference books. Even subjects such as town planning and public transport make an appearance. And believe it or not, the name “James Bond”, which we continue to associate with that martini-swilling, gun-toting rogue 007, was “borrowed” from the author of one of Fleming’s favourite books – upon the distinctly unglamorous subject of ornithology.
The second group of books has become known as The Fleming Collection and comprises books by modern thinkers from the 19th and early 20th century. Pioneering texts on science, technology and politics form an essential element. In the rare books world, Fleming is renowned as a collector of books in the field of “milestones of human progress” or “books that made things happen”. So significant became his collection that he loaned books to a number of key events, including the Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition of printing held to mark the quincentenary of Gutenberg’s invention and the British Museum’s ‘Printing and the Mind of Man’ exhibition. Following his death, The Fleming Collection would be purchased by the Lilly Library at Indiana University.
Although Fleming had taken to the world of journalism like a duck to water, during the 1950s he also began to pursue a career in writing fiction. ‘Casino Royale’ was published in 1952, and Fleming would go on to publish one novel each spring thereafter. Moderately popular, it wasn’t until the Bond film franchise was launched in 1962, with ‘Dr No’, that the books – and Fleming – achieved real prominence. ‘Dr No’ was a huge success, achieving a £6m profit against a budget of £1m. Today – and I found this figure astonishing – it is estimated that over half the world’s population has seen a James Bond movie.
Fleming succumbed to heart disease in 1964, aged just 56, following a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking – two characteristics he shared with his protagonist James Bond, not to mention their mutual appreciation of casinos, women, the Caribbean and fast cars. The world we live in now is a very different place from the one he knew, and doubtless the Bond books and films will continue to divide public opinion, but Jon Gilbert’s talk revealed a side to Fleming that I wish was better known. “Shaken, not stirred”, is not a bad mantra by which to be remembered – but modern thinker and lover of literature would surely have pleased Fleming more.