Saturday, 10 October 2015

The parallel lives of Peter and Ian Fleming

He was a journalist and best-selling author, he devised ingenious deceptions while working in intelligence during the Second World War, he travelled to parts of the world tourists don't normally see, and he was in awe of his brother. I could be describing Ian Fleming, but it's his older brother, Peter, who I have in mind. 

I've just finished reading Duff Hart-Davis' brilliant 1974 biography of Peter Fleming, and was struck by just how closely Ian's life mirrored Peter's. Of course, being brothers growing up together, one would expect their childhoods to be near-identical, but even in adulthood, their paths followed remarkably similar trajectories.

Both Ian and Peter developed an interest in writing from a young age and began their literary careers in journalism. Ian joined Reuters in 1931, while, in the same year, Peter started at The Spectator as assistant literary editor. The following year, Peter was preparing for an expedition to Brazil, ostensibly to search for the explorer Colonel Fawcett, who had gone missing some years before, and was approached by The Times to become its Special Correspondent and report on the mission. Ian was also a Special Correspondent for The Times, but in 1939, when he covered a British trade mission to Moscow (by then Peter was full-time on the staff of the paper).

Throughout their journalistic careers, Ian and Peter's output was to some extent similar. In 1937, The Times sent Peter on a tour of European cities: Paris, Rome, Prague, Vienna, Berlin and Moscow. Some twenty years later, Ian took his own tour of European cities, though on behalf of the The Sunday Times, visiting Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Naples and Monte Carlo. After the war, Peter returned to The Times as a writer of fourth leaders, which were generally light-hearted takes on the news of the day, while at The Spectator, he wrote humorous and idiosyncratic pieces under the pen-name Strix. Ian's Atticus column for The Sunday Times, written between 1953 and 1955, shared something of form and function of Peter's work. And curiously, both Ian and Peter managed to write articles about shaving, Peter's article being published in 1946, Ian's appearing in 1960.

Two of Peter Fleming's books in one volume
Peter Fleming is best known for his hugely successful travel books, among them Brazilian Adventure (1933), One's Company (1934), and News from Tartary (1936). One of his earliest forays into fiction was written during the early stages of the Second World War, when Britain was threatened by German invasion. The Flying Visit (1941) imagined a Britain in which the German plan had succeeded. Peter wrote it in bed while recovering from, ironically, German measles, and though the story was not a children's book, he dedicated it to his young son, Nicholas. Ian Fleming would similarly write a book – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964) – on his sick bed for his young son.

As for the Second World War, both Peter and Ian had what might be considered 'a good war'. Both worked in intelligence, which kept them away of frontline operations (although Peter would contrive, often unofficially, to be sent where the action was). Ian worked as assistant to the director of the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), while Peter, after a variety of roles, spent much of the war in the Far East running a unit known as GSI(d), which devised and executed methods of deception.

One of Peter's ruses was to take a corpse, provide it with the equipment of a British agent, including codes and a radio, and drop it into occupied Burma in the hope that the Japanese would find the body and start using the radio, which would transmit material back to British HQ in Delhi. If the plan seems familiar, then it may be because it was inspired by Operation Mincemeat, in which a body carrying disinformation was floated onto the Spanish coast for the Nazis to pick up. It's uncertain whether Peter was aware of it at the time, but he might have been amused to learn that the idea for that operation was Ian's.

Another wartime activity undertaken by both Ian and Peter was the setting up of commando units. Ian had his 'Red Indians', the 30 Assault Unit that would raid enemy territory to gather documents and other secret material. Peter, meanwhile, organised a commando unit in Greece on behalf of the SOE, and before that the XII Corps Observation Unit or Auxiliary Unit, which was a resistance force to counter a successful German invasion.

Ian Fleming alluded to Peter's wartime work in this collection
Among Peter's creations were underground hideouts, which were dug in woodland and concealed by vegetation and accessed by means of a trapdoor and rope ladder. The hideouts of course never saw hostile action, but Peter described them in his unpublished novel, The Sett, and they are likely to have provided the inspiration for the Soviet agents' underground bunker in Ian's short story, 'From a View to a Kill'. Indeed, Ian alludes to his brother's work in the story. Remarking on the sophistication of the Russian hideout, Bond considers that it was “far more brilliant than anything England had prepared to operate in the wake of a successful German invasion.”

After the war, Peter settled more comfortably into his estate in Nettlebed in Oxfordshire, while Ian built Goldeneye, his house in Jamaica. Goldeneye was designed by Ian to admit as much of the outside – the breeze, the sounds, the smells, and occasionally the creatures – into the house as possible by means of large, spartan rooms and enormous unglazed windows. Merrimoles, Peter's house on the Nettlebed estate, was built in 1938/9 with much the same principles in mind. Peter wanted plenty of doors and french windows and, as a friend suggested, the inside of the house to be like the outside. 

More generally, Peter and Ian had a similar outlook on life. Both were fatalistic and essentially irreligious and had been immensely affected by the events and acts of heroism they witnessed in the Second World War. They believed that the war showed Britain at its best, and expressed disappointment with values of the post-war generation. As for how they regarded each other, Ian felt that he was in Peter's shadow and considered Peter a hero, while Peter looked up to Ian (quite literally, too – Ian was taller).

That's not to say that Ian and Peter saw eye-to-eye on everything. Peter was not fond of the Caribbean, while Ian detested shooting, unlike his brother, who shot throughout his life, and in fact died of a heart attack in 1971 while out shooting in Scotland.

The lives of Ian and Peter Fleming were different in a number of respects, yet both enjoyed similar careers and successes, and had a lasting cultural impact on the lives of many others. Parallel lives, indeed.


Hart-Davis, D, 1987 Peter Fleming: a biography, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: the man behind James Bond, Turner Publishing, Atlanta

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