Sunday, 2 February 2014

Stevenson Mackenzie: naval officer, spy, James Bond fan

An obituary in the Times caught my eye recently. It marked the death, aged 95, of Lieutenant-Commander Stevenson (Steven) Moir Mackenzie, who served as a naval officer of the Secret Flotillas during the Second World War and subsequently as an officer in MI6. We learnt something else about him too: he was a James Bond fan.

Steven Mackenzie's clandestine wartime role, smuggling agents across the English Channel, brought him into contact with Ian Fleming, who no doubt was enthralled by reports of Steven Mackenzie's exciting and dangerous exploits. These were the sort of stories that might have inspired Fleming's writing, although there is no evidence that Fleming used any of Mackenzie's experiences, both during and after the war, in his James Bond adventures. However, elements of the novels match Mackenzie's background so closely that it is unsurprising that Mackenzie, as the Times revealed, enjoyed reading the books.

As a child, Steven Mackenzie attended Eton, where he excelled at sports, particularly the Wall Game, rowing, rugby and boxing. As Fleming tells us in Bond's 'obituary' in You Only Live Twice, James Bond also attended Eton and later, when he had been transferred to Fettes in Edinburgh, enjoyed considerable sporting success too, though in individual sports, notably athletics, rather than the team sports favoured by Mackenzie. Boxing, however, was a sport common to both; Bond was a strong enough boxer to have fought for the school twice.

The choice of Fettes is interesting. Bond's obituary reveals that Fettes was his father's old school, but what made Fleming pick that one? After all, while much of Bond's schooling reflects that of his creator (including attendance at Eton and sporting success), there had been no obvious connection with Fettes; Fleming's father, Valentine, had attended Eton. Fleming's Scottish heritage may have played a large part in the choice, but the obituary of Steven Mackenzie mentions a detail that suggests another intriguing possibility: Fleming took the idea from Mackenzie, whose father, Moir, went to Fettes.

The possibility that Fleming 'inherited' the meme of sending Bond to 'his father's old school' from Mackenzie seems a remote one, but Fleming and Mackenzie were well acquainted; they met during the war for operational reasons, and continued to meet after the war socially for lunch at Boodle's. It is not too unreasonable to suggest that Steven Mackenzie mentioned Fettes and his father to Fleming during their inevitable conversations about their school days at Eton. That Fleming drew inspiration from Mackenzie is of course highly speculative and I wouldn't want to claim it as fact, but the coincidence of Bond's schooling and Mackenzie's background is interesting nevertheless.

After the war, Steven Mackenzie, like Bond, was recruited into MI6, but unlike Bond followed a more conventional career path involving a series of foreign postings, among them Germany, Hong Kong, and Brazil, becoming director of the Far East and the Americas, and then Head of Station in Buenos Aires. His career path was not too dissimilar from another Bond-like figure, Peter Lunn, an Old Etonian and MI6 agent during and after the war, who served as station head in Berlin, Bonn and Beirut.

Reading about Steven Mackenzie reminded me that James Bond's background and post-war recruitment into MI6 follow that of real agents and are utterly authentic in the context of early Cold War intelligence services. Where Bond's trajectory diverges from convention is his career path. Rather than serve in a succession of foreign postings, perhaps with promotion to section head after ten or fifteen years, Bond is essentially London-based in the double-0 section, although according to John Griswold's chronology, Bond has one foreign posting in to Jamaica in 1947-9, and before is on special duties involving smuggling operations.

Steven Mackenzie's obituary, like others discussed in a previous post, illustrates how significant a figure James Bond has become in the cultural environment. Favourite books are not normally a matter for obituaries, but the success of James Bond, allied with Mackenzie's connection with Ian Fleming (the importance of which is itself elevated by the success of Bond) and Mackenzie's clandestine roles, make it a point of interest. Incidentally, the obituary of Mackenzie in the Daily Telegraph makes less reference to Fleming, a difference possibly explained by Ian Fleming's connection with Times newspapers, which has created a more receptive environment for the perpetuation of James Bond as a cultural phenomenon.

Griswold, J, 2006 Ian Fleming's James Bond: Annotations and chronologies for Ian Fleming's Bond stories, Author House

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