Fifty years ago today — Aug. 12, 1964 — Ian Fleming died. He was young, only 56, but the way the man smoke and drank, it was a miracle he lasted that long. In creating James Bond, Fleming had guaranteed his immortality. Perhaps he knew this before he died, and perhaps it gave him some satisfaction. But probably not much. Asked what fame mean to him, Fleming replied, “Ashes, dear boy, ashes.”
Fleming’s importance to popular culture cannot be overestimated. The entertainment industry of the second half of the 20th century would be entirely different if Fleming had not sat down to write Casino Royale in 1952. Try to imagine a world without James Bond. You can’t, can you? Bond may not be the force he was in the 1960s, when Bond knockoffs appeared on a weekly basis, but his influence is everywhere. The modern action film exists because of Bond. Spy novels remain a viable genre because of Bond. I doubt John le Carre would be as popular as he is today if he didn’t have Bond to react against when he began his career.
Bond himself isn’t doing too badly. The last Bond film, Skyfall, was the first to gross over a billion dollars worldwide. The next one, still being called Bond 24, will arrive in autumn 2015 and is highly anticipated.
One of the sad ironies of Fleming’s life is that it ended just as the Bond phenomenon was primed to explode. The third Bond movie, Goldfinger, premiered in England scarcely five weeks after Fleming’s death. That’s when the boom dropped. The previous films, Dr. No and From Russia With Love, were successes, but Goldfinger was a sensation. Several theaters had to schedule round-the-clock showings to meet audience demand. The movie triggered a merchandising boom — toys! games! aftershave! — the likes of which would not be seen again until Star Wars arrived in 1977 (and I don’t recall any Star Wars aftershave). As big as Goldfinger was, the following year’s Thunderball was even bigger. The 1960s belonged to Bond.
Most people today know Bond through the films, which are still going strong after more than 50 years. For a time it seemed Fleming’s novels would be lost in the movies’ wake, but the books have seen a resurgence in the last decade, particularly in Great Britain. Still, I doubt enough people appreciate how truly gifted a writer Ian Fleming was. The first sentence of Casino Royale — “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” — informs us what type of man James Bond is before his name is mentioned. It is one of the great first sentence of all time. And I would match the opening two pages of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which an uncharacteristically nostalgic Bond reflects on childhood trips to the seaside, against the best passages of Dickens.
Fleming’s versatility was amazing. He wrote 12 Bond novels and nine short stories, which would be collected in two volumes, without repeating himself. I reread the books in order two summers ago, and was struck by the sequence of Diamonds Are Forever (American gangster drama), From Russia, With Love (classic between-the-wars spy story) and Doctor No (throwback to Sax Rohmer’s pulp Fu Manchu books that is practically science fiction). Diamonds is Fleming’s weakest book, in my opinion (his unfortunate fascination with American gangsters brings out the worst in his writing and also taints the last third of Goldfinger) but From Russia, With Love and Doctor No are two of his best. Fleming’s oddest book, You Only Live Twice, is another of his best. Published only a few months before his death, the book’s haunting, atmospheric prose is the work of a man who knew he was not long for this world. It is also openly metaphorical: James Bond journeys to hell to slay the devil.
As I reveal in another post, I started reading Fleming’s books 35 years ago this summer after seeing Moonraker. My friend Don Hullenbaugh and I went to our nearest library branch, in the West Erie Plaza, to look for Bond. The branch had only three books, You Only Live Twice, The Man With the Golden Gun and Octopussy. I didn’t know it at the time, but these were Fleming’s final three books, so it made sense they would be the ones a small library branch would carry. Don checked out You Only Live Twice and I checked out the other two. We thought we would have our own little Ian Fleming book club. Although he was amused that Bond played rock, paper, scissors in the opening chapter, Don didn’t make it very far into You Only Live Twice before giving up. The book club was down to me. I tore through Golden Gun and was hooked. In retrospect, I wonder why. Fleming died before he could revise the manuscript, and the posthumously published Golden Gun is awfully weak compared with the earlier books. Still, that meant the best was yet to come as I searched for the remainder of the canon (not easy to find in 1979) and reveled in the adventures I found in Casino Royale, Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Moonraker (which was nothing like the movie, I discovered).
Still hungry for Fleming after I finished the Bond novels, I read John Pearson’s biography The Life of Ian Fleming. For a biography published only two years after its subject’s death, the research is remarkably thorough and rich. I still recommend the book, even though Pearson slightly whitewashes his subject out of respect for Fleming’s widow, Ann, who was still alive at the time. No mention is made of their unhappy marriage or their infidelities. This made it easier for me to admire Fleming when I was a teenager. I admit I attempted to pattern my life on his. I wanted to write novels, too, but realized first I had to find another way to earn a living as a writer. Fleming was a journalist, so I would be a journalist. For some reason, I decided it was impractical to go into naval intelligence before becoming a journalist. That was probably for the better.
As I grew older and learned more about Fleming, I found he wasn’t always admirable. Fleming’s next significant biographer, Andrew Lycett, didn’t share Pearson’s compunctions and revealed more of Fleming’s shadier attributes. And as I reread Fleming today the racism I didn’t see in my youth is apparent (it was also toned down in American editions until Penguin used the original texts in a set of trade paperbacks published about 15 years ago). But even as I see his flaws, Ian Fleming remains a hero to me. His writing still inspires me, and there is no way I would have written my own novel without him. Fleming was a product of his time, and while he represented some of the worst aspects of British imperialism, he also carried its nobility. He was not a hateful man, though he didn’t always find it easy to express kindness. One of my favorite stories about him comes from Pearson’s biography. A servant at Fleming’s Jamaican estate, Goldeneye, wanted to kill all the bush rats on the property as pests. “Don’t kill the bush rats,” Fleming said. “They can’t help being bush rats.”
Fifty years after his death, Ian Fleming’s influence remains strong. We owe him more than we know. The most remarkable evidence of his lasting impact came during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 London Summer Olympics. In a short film shown during the ceremonies, James Bond (in the guise of Daniel Craig) escorted Queen Elizabeth II to the games via parachutes bearing the Union Jack, a nod to the fantastic opening sequence from The Spy Who Loved Me. When Queen Elizabeth did enter the stadium following this stunt, “The James Bond Theme” blared. This is mind-blowing. In the most symbolic moment of the London games, a moment the traditional “God Saves the Queen,” should have played, it was replaced by “The James Bond Theme.” This could not have happened unless the queen herself cleared it.
When I watched that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder how Ian Fleming would have reacted had someone told him a tune written for his creation would one day supplant the national anthem. Would he say, “Ashes, dear boy, ashes,” again, or would he smile? I suspect he would have done both.