Friday, 29 April 2016

Who was the real James Bond?

Over the years, there has been no shortage of speculation about which commandos Ian Fleming meant when he said that James Bond was 'a compound of secret agent and commando types I had met [during the war]'. Among the usual names linked to Bond are Fitzroy Maclean, Patrick Dalzel-Job, Conrad O'Brien Ffrench, and Dusko Popov.

To this list we can add Forest Yeo-Thomas, whom Sophie Jackson in her 2012 book, Churchill'sWhite Rabbit, has claimed was the real inspiration for Bond. As with the others, the evidence is at best circumstantial, but what is perhaps of more interest in this and other cases is the way that the perceived connection, however tenuous, provide selling points for books about the individuals.

It must be said that the wartime exploits of Forest Yeo-Thomas – a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who was parachuted into occupied France, captured by the Gestapo, imprisoned at Buchenwald, and made a daring escape – are the very stuff of Bondian-like adventure. What's more, Ian Fleming was aware of them.

During her research into Yeo-Thomas, Sophie Jackson uncovered a top-secret letter written in May 1945 by Fleming in which he expressed his happiness on learning that Yeo-Thomas, after being sent on his mission, was still alive and had escaped, and his thoughts about the publicity value of Yeo-Thomas' remarkable story.

While the letter proves that Fleming knew Yeo-Thomas and his exploits, it does no more, and the evidence Sophie Jackson offers in addition to the letter to suggest that Yeo-Thomas was the inspiration for Bond – Yeo-Thomas' capture, torture, and escape is worthy of Bond, as is his apparent popularity with women – is hardly conclusive.

But that's firm enough evidence for Sophie Jackson's publisher, The History Press, who makes the most of the connection. The book's subtitle is 'The true story of a real-life James Bond', while associated publicity states that the book reveals how Yeo-Thomas 'provided the inspiration for Ian Fleming's famous secret agent, James Bond.'

In that regard, the book is in good company. The subtitle of the 2002 edition of Patrick Dalzel-Job's autobiography, From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, is 'The war memoirs of the real James Bond'. (This is retained in the French edition, though the Bond connection is emphasised: Le Vrai James Bond. Des neiges de l'Arctique aux sables de la Normandie 1939-1945.) The back cover blurb of Penguin's 2009 edition of Fitzroy Maclean's classic Eastern Approaches begins, 'Fitzroy Maclean was one of the real-life inspirations for super-spy James Bond'. The back-cover text of Russell Miller's 2005 account of Dusko Popov, Operation Tricycle, is more cautious but mentions James Bond all the same.

As Henry Chancellor suggests, there is probably more of Ian Fleming in James Bond than any one commando (and to my mind, judging by statements made by Fleming and the style of the Bond books, a good dash of American private-eye thrown in for good measure). Nevertheless, the link between numerous wartime heroes and Bond remains strong, thanks in part to publishers' copy-writers and continued interest in the role of secret agents and commandos in the Second World War.

References:

Chancellor, H, 2005 James Bond: The Man and his World, John Murray
Macintyre, B, 2008 For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Bloomsbury

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