Tuesday 26 November 2019

Our Man in New York - a review

Hear the words ‘America First’, ‘fake news’ and ‘agents of influence’, we would probably think of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign slogan, the pernicious spread of disinformation via traditional news outlets and social media, and Russian interference in the US presidential election. To Ian Fleming, these phrases would have meant one thing – the British campaign, led by William Stephenson, to bring the United States into the Second World. In his new book, Henry Hemming reveals the full story of MI6’s head of station in New York and his audacious campaign, which till now has only partially been told.  

By June 1940, Britain was in trouble. France had fallen to the German forces as thousands of allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Merchant shipping, carrying vital supplies to the country across the Atlantic, faced constant threat from U-boat attack, and a German invasion of Britain seemed imminent. Winston Churchill knew that Britain would not win the war without America’s help. President Roosevelt was sympathetic to the cause, but his hands were tied; America was officially neutral and its population heavily anti-interventionist. Britain somehow had to overcome public opinion and break down powerful lobby groups. One man, MI6’s agent in New York, recognised that it had to be done by any means necessary. 

William Stephenson, a Canadian businessman and unlikely-looking spymaster, having brought himself to the attention of ‘C’, the head of MI6, was appointed to run an influence campaign in America. The work began uncertainly, but soon Stephenson knew what he had to do and in time built up an organisation – eventually given the cover name ‘British Security Coordination’ – that occupied an entire floor of New York’s Rockefeller Center. 

Henry Hemming has trawled through the archives and examined recently declassified files to reveal the full extent of Stephenson’s racket. The organisation run by Stephenson began rumours to discredit individuals sympathetic to Germany, devised opinion polls so that the results would appear more favourable, fed propaganda (and entirely false) stories to newspapers and radio stations, infiltrated campaign groups, set honey-traps and faked plans that seemed to put the Nazi threat on America’s doorstep. Stephenson himself cultivated a friendship with people close to the president, most importantly William Donovan, who would head-up the forerunner to the CIA.

As personal assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence, Ian Fleming weaves in and out of the narrative. Fleming’s part in the creation of what would become the CIA can be overplayed, and though Fleming was a key player, Hemming duly sets the record straight.
Hemming has not forgotten the Bond connection either. One of the two kills that earn James Bond his double-O status takes place at the Rockefeller Center. It’s worth noting, too, that William Stephenson would often meet people at the St Regis Hotel; James Bond stays there in the novel of Live and Let Die (1954).

There’s room, too, for other individuals who in time would leave a mark on James Bond lore. Ivar Bryce, Fleming’s friend and financial backer of the early attempts to bring Bond to the big screen, used his South American expertise during his time with BSC to fake a map that was almost decisive in bringing America into the war. (Interestingly, the same map is described as genuine in Room 3603, an earlier account of William Stephenson and the BSC. It’s fascinating to consider that Ian Fleming wrote a foreword to a book that he knew was far from the full story, as had been claimed on the dustjacket.) Roald Dahl, responsible for the screenplays of You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, also worked for the BSC. I would like to have read more about Roald Dahl’s knack for digging out scandal that could be used to Britain’s advantage, as well the adventures he and Fleming enjoyed during their time together in New York and Washington away from the office, but perhaps that’s another story.

Our Man in New York is a fascinating read as thrilling as any work of fiction. There aren’t many history books that you’ll want to read in one sitting, but this is one of them. Henry Hemming has written a superb book that deserves a place on every Fleming aficionado’s bookshelf. 

Our Man in New York by Henry Hemming is published by Quercus in the UK and in the US (as Agents of Influence) by PublicAffairs.

Friday 22 November 2019

On the trail of Goldfinger

During the summer, I went on an epic road-trip and retraced James Bond’s route in pursuit of Goldfinger from Le Touquet on the north coast of France to Geneva in Switzerland, as described in Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel. 

For just a few days I became Bond as I followed the same roads, drove through the same towns and villages, stopped at the same hotels and ate the same food mentioned in the novel. Along the way, I re-discovered a France before the construction of the motorway network and sights and places away from the usual tourist routes. 

An article about my journey has just been published in issue 53 of MI6 Confidential. Click here to find out more

I’ve also put together a short video, accompanied by a rocking soundtrack, that shows the route that Bond takes. Check it out! 

Thursday 7 November 2019

Atticus and Bond: the inspiration for Rosa Klebb?

Atticus and Bond: the most beautiful money in the world

Sunday 13 October 2019

James Bond in Biarritz?

During the summer, I took a road-trip from Le Touquet on the north French coast to Coppet in Switzerland, just north of Geneva, following the route that James Bond takes in the novel of Goldfinger (1959). At various points, James Bond consults a Michelin guide, and so to give me further insight into Bond's journey, I acquired a copy of a vintage edition of the guide, specifically the 1958 edition, the year in which Fleming wrote the novel.

When I returned to England, I watched On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), having also visited Piz Gloria while in Switzerland. It was then that I noticed for the first time that the book that Bond (George Lazenby) has on the passenger seat of his Aston Martin at the beginning of the film is the Michelin guide to France. Presumably, the edition used in the film is a more recent edition than mine, but it was nevertheless instantly recognisable. 

The Michelin guide, as seen on On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the guide is open at a town plan that extends across two pages. Obviously, the map could not be of Estoril in Portugal, where the hotel scenes were shot and where Bond was presumably heading to in the film. Nor is the map that of Le Touquet or any other coastal town on the north French coast that inspired the fictional seaside resort of Royale-les-Eaux that appears in Casino Royale and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. So, what place does the map show?

After consulting my Michelin, carefully studying the maps that cover two facing pages and comparing them with a screenshot of the Aston's passenger seat, I can reveal that the map is of... Biarritz, the fashionable resort on France's south-western coast that has long been popular with the international jet-set. 

The plan of Biarritz, from the 1958 edition of the Michelin guide

While Biarritz the sort of place where James Bond would feel at home, it's unlikely that he's making his way there in the film. That said, Biarritz is not without a Bondian connection. In his biography of Ian Fleming, Andrew Lycett records that during a holiday there in the 1950s, Fleming decided to write a piece about casinos. The resulting article, 'How to win at roulette with only £10' was published in various forms, appearing, for example, along with references to James Bond, within the Monte Carlo chapter of Thrilling Cities.

Returning to OHMSS, I imagine that the set dressers simply required a town plan - any plan would do - that covered two pages and had relatively little text. They chose well. It's impossible to make out the name of the town on the screen and none of the other text is legible. And though film viewers can see that the book is open at a plan, the shot is gone in a blink of an eye. Details can only be made out after pausing the film.

Whether intentional or not, the appearance of the Michelin guide in the film provides a nice link to the literary 007, serving as a nod to James Bond's adventures in France in the novels. 

Monday 15 July 2019

A proto-Q?

Tuesday 15 January 2019

James Bond Food website launched

A website that explores the food of Ian Fleming’s James Bond has been launched. James Bond Food accompanies the James Bond cookbook, Licence to Cook, which is packed full of recipes inspired by the food James Bond eats in the novels of Ian Fleming. 

The website contains Bondian recipes not in the book, as well as articles about Bond’s food from the books and films. The website is being updated constantly, so be sure to visit regularly to read the latest post, find out how to eat like James Bond, or to get inspired for your next recipe idea.

Click here to visit James Bond Food.