Sunday, 10 January 2016

Aspects of the James Bond books possibly inspired by Robert Harling

One of the most fascinating books among the recent crop of Bond-related publications is Ian Fleming: A Personal Memoir (2015) by Robert Harling, published by the Robson Press. Robert Harling became a close friend of Ian Fleming, having met him just before the outbreak of the Second World War, then serving in the Fleming's commando unit, the 30 Assault Unit, and meeting regularly after the war to dine and talk about their shared interests: printing, typography, intrigue, and women.

In the book, Robert Harling reminisces about his time with Fleming and recounts their numerous conversations (some, particularly those concerning women and sex, making slightly uncomfortable reading). The book offers a unique insight into Fleming's wartime experiences, his complicated and troubled personal life during and after the war, and his decline in health.

The book also identifies some of the seeds that would lead to the creation of James Bond. It was, after all, to Harling, following a visit to Oxford together, that Fleming announced that after the war, he was going to write the spy novel to end all spy novels.

As I was reading the book, a number of incidences and conversations reminded me of aspects of the Bond novels. Harling does not explicitly make the connections, but it is interesting to speculate that Harling was responsible for introducing ideas into Fleming's mind that would later be expressed in Bond's adventures.

For example, during a meal at Scott's, Fleming and Harling discussed a trip that Harling had made to Turkey. Harling described to Fleming a remarkable man he met in Istanbul: one Vladimir Wolfson, a White Russian who defected to Britain, attended Cambridge, was recruited by naval intelligence, and became SIS's resident in Istanbul. Something of a fixer, Wolfson supplied Harling with much-needed maps and charts, ensure that Harling was able to freely explore the city, and generally made Harling's stay in the city a very comfortable one. “Made for the job?”, Fleming asked of Wolfson. “Absolutely” came Harling's reply. Reading this, one cannot help recalling Darko Kerim, head of station T (Turkey) in From Russia, with Love (1957).

We also meet Captain Lewes, who during the war was an intelligence chief-of-staff with Allied Naval Commander Expeditionary Force and was naturally known to Fleming. Harling describes Lewes as a pompous, officious officer, whose busy-bodying rubbed members of 30 AU the wrong way. Lewes “had also become a tetchy stickler for traditional naval discipline and dignity,” writes Harling. Remind you of anyone? Possibly Captain Troop, the Secret Service's paymaster, who, according to Fleming in From Russia, with Love, has “qualities which irritate and abrade”, and is “parsimonious, observant, prying and meticulous” and “a strong disciplinarian and indifferent to opinion”.

During one of their many conversations after the war, Ian Fleming revealed to Robert Harling that he had finished writing his first spy book – Casino Royale (1953). Fleming asked Harling what he thought of the name of his hero, James Bond. “Not in the same league as Sherlock Holmes... but brief and memorable,” Harling decided. When asked what name he would choose, Harling replied that he might borrow the name of one of Fleming's friends, Hilary Bray. Fleming must have thought he was onto something, because ten years later Bond would assume the identity of a fictional Hilary Bray in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963).

Harling also imagined Bond as a married man, suggesting to Fleming during lunch in the late 1950s or early 1960s that he write a new set of novels featuring the action duo of James and Jemima Bond. Fleming jokingly dismissed the suggestion, but curiously Bond would marry in, once again, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (although it is worth noting that thriller writer Raymond Chandler also discussed the idea with Fleming of Bond marrying) and Jemima would be used as the name of one of Commander Pott's children in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964).

Robert Harling's recollections are funny, engaging, surprising and moving. They are also self-effacing; Harling omits to mention that he was immortalised in two Bond novels – Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me – or that he was responsible for the tea-chest font that adorned the celebrated Chopping covers of the Bond series, and does not entertain the possibility that he was an inspiration for the character of Bond. 

Reading his book, it seems possible that Harling left his mark on the Bond books in other ways. Robert Harling's memoir is essential reading that no aficionado of Fleming and Bond fan should be without.

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