Sunday, 6 July 2014

Ian Fleming's heroes

I've written before about Ian Fleming's heroes, but I was reminded of his hero-worship recently when I read his foreword to the biography of Sir William Stephenson, Room 3603: The story of the British Intelligence Centre in New York during World War II (1963), by H Montgomery Hyde (published in the UK without the foreword as The Quiet Canadian).

Naturally Fleming identified Stephenson, who in 1940 on Churchill's orders set up and directed the British Security Co-ordination to garner support in the US for the British war effort, train US and Canadian agents, crack codes, and gather intelligence, as one of his heroes. Fleming described Stephenson as “one of the great secret agents of the last war”, and a man that “has a magnetic personality and the quality of making anyone ready to follow him to the ends of the earth.” (There will be more on Sir William Stephenson, his fascinating life and his connection with Fleming – and James Bond – in a later post.)

Fleming alludes to his other heroes in his foreword. “In this era of the anti-hero,” Fleming writes, “when anyone on a pedestal is assaulted (how has Nelson survived?), unfashionably and obstinately I have my heroes.” Fleming had been fascinated since childhood with Horatio Nelson. It was a profound interest that remained with Fleming throughout his life. Nelson's connection with Jamaica – he sailed out from Jamaica on expeditions against the Spanish, French and American navies in the late 18th century – helped persuade Fleming to buy land and build a house on the island. Fleming also decided to conduct a metal-detecting survey of Creake Abbey in Norfolk partly because Nelson's birthplace was in the neighbouring village of Burnham Thorpe. Back in London, a painting of Nelson hung on the wall of Fleming's study.

In his foreword, Fleming speaks of “hero-worshipping” his elder brother, Peter, suggesting that this began when Peter become the head of the household when their father, Valentine, was killed in France in 1917 during the First World War. Fleming never lost this sense of awe, which was enhanced by Peter's successful travel writing and his daring wartime exploits in military intelligence during the Second World War. Even when Ian Fleming published his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, he could not help deferring to Peter. In his self-penned back-cover blurb of the first edition, Ian writes that his achievement at Eton of being awarded the Victor Ludorum two years in succession was down to his compensating for having a “brilliant elder brother.”

Other heroes Fleming mentions in his foreword are the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Sir Winston Churchill, and many “other ranks”, whom he admired for their “courage, fortitude, and service to a cause or a country.” Fleming's admiration of Churchill stemmed largely, of course, from Churchill's leadership during the Second World War, but it began much earlier. Churchill and Fleming's father, Valentine, served in the same regiment, the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and the two became close friends. When Valentine was killed on the Western Front, Churchill wrote an appreciation of his friend for the Times. Through this elegiac piece, Churchill offered Fleming a connection with his father. Ian treasured Churchill's words, which were framed and also placed in his study.

Ian Fleming's foreword in the biography of Sir William Stephenson is about heroes. Fleming had many, with some having profound influence on Fleming's life and direction. It is little wonder, but entirely fitting, that he should write a series of novels about a heroic figure, which has seen enormous success and has influenced other writers, as well as film-makers and other creative efforts. Fleming has himself become a hero to many, not just for his creation, but for his own wartime exploits, which have deservedly been gaining more attention in recent times.

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