Monday, 11 December 2017

Ian Fleming in A Constant Heart

Until the publication this year of her diaries, Maud Russell’s pivotal role in Ian Fleming’s James Bond career largely remained unknown. Were it not for Maud’s loan of £5000, Ian Fleming may not have been able to buy Goldeneye, his winter retreat in Jamaica where he wrote all the Bond novels. In addition, Maud’s husband, Gilbert, may have had a hand in Fleming’s wartime appointment to the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), from which Fleming derived so much inspiration.

The diaries, edited with care by Maud Russell’s granddaughter, Emily Russell, focus on a seven-year period from the eve of the Second World War in 1938 to the end of hostilities in 1945. Ian Fleming and Maud first met in December 1931, or possibly early 1932, and their friendship – and intimacy – deepened, especially during the war, when Maud became Ian’s confidant and she herself gained a position at NID. The diaries are not clear on the matter, but it is likely that Maud and Ian were lovers.

The diaries offer a personal view on the course of the war – Maud alludes to momentous events in passing as she writes about her own life and those of her family and friends – and for students of Ian Fleming (and James Bond), they provide insights into the very foundations of Fleming’s life as a novelist.

Reading the diaries, I was struck by several aspects. Ian Fleming became enchanted by Jamaica while visiting the island for a naval conference in 1942, and had vowed to return there after the war and build a home. Maud’s diaries after this time, however, suggest that it was the thought of escaping to a tropical paradise that had really attracted Ian, and that, to some extent, the choice of island had been a secondary consideration. Maud records in October 1943 that one evening she and Ian discussed ‘Tahiti – or any escape island – and the formidable future till after 12 o’clock.’ Tahiti came up again in conversation in January 1944. Maud wrote that almost every time she saw Ian, he wanted ‘to talk about cottages, seashores, Tahiti, long naked holidays on coral islands and marriage’. Tellingly, that evening, Ian had also spoken about writing ‘a novel or two’ after the war.

The diaries give us, too, an insight into Ian Fleming’s activities at NID. We tend to assume that Fleming barely saw any action during the war, and largely stayed out of harm’s way in Room 39 at the Admiralty. Maud’s diaries, however, reveal that Fleming participated in several secret missions in France and elsewhere that placed him in danger.

In November 1940, Maud records that Ian ‘has been on some dangerous job again,’ and indeed Fleming had escaped serious harm when a house at which he had been staying was ‘blown away’. Maud also described Fleming’s journey close to the end of the war to Schloss Tambach in Germany to retrieve military documents. I was surprised to read, as well, that, earlier in 1941, Ian Fleming had considered resigning from his NID duties and joining a motor torpedo boat crew where he would see more action. Of course, the idea may never have been a serious one, but it perhaps reveals an early fascination with underwater action that would be expressed later in his novels Live and Let Die and Thunderball.

These and other incidences to which Maud Russell refers confirm the impression gained from other accounts that the war was the making of Ian Fleming and that it was a very formative period for him. More generally, the diaries reveal Maud’s humanity, warmth and intelligence, and identify her as an essential witness to aspects of the war that are often left out of the history books. Emily Russell’s book is enthralling and deserves a place on the bookshelf of every Fleming aficionado, alongside those other indispensable first-hand accounts, the letters of Ian Fleming (edited by Fergus Fleming) and those of Ann Fleming (edited by Mark Amory).

A Constant Heart: The War Diaries of Maud Russell, 1938-1945, edited by Emily Russell, is Published by the Dovecote Press

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