Superbly written, the narrative flows so easily it really is hard to stop reading once started. The immensely impressive research makes this a rare combination. In short, the biography is thoroughly enjoyable.
I confess to being curious, though, in one respect. Why did such a talented, capable biographer turn his attention to Ian Fleming of all people?
Like so many others of my age, I pretty much grew up with the Bond books and read them from prep school though high school and beyond. I found them entertaining, of course, but pretty vacuous, silly with a nasty undercurrent that couldn’t be ignored. His treatment of his female characters was a strong clue to the man’s character. It goes without saying that one has to respect and admire – if not envy – his immense and quite extraordinary commercial success – but for me, Buchan, Household, Ambler and Deighton were miles ahead when it came to the quality and maturity of the writing and story-telling. Even then, the man’s face, shown in newspaper and magazine interviews, seemed to me to carry a permanent sneer.
Fleming was a particular kind of privileged Englishman, of a particular class and era. He inherited wealth and scores of social connections, thanks to his obnoxious mother whom he replaced with an almost equally obnoxious wife. (His wife, Anne, adored Fleming to the sorry end, and he repaid her love with physical and emotional torture in spades). Yet he failed to make a go of those connections – at Reuters, Sandhurst, stock-broking and banking. He lacked grit. In peace, he was an instinctive Tory and an imperialist. No doubt he would have got along famously with the likes of the appalling Boris Johnson. His wartime work was the dilettante’s role of glorified Whitehall messenger between senior officers rather than frontline intelligence, and as for action, the closest he seems to have got to the front line was viewing the carnage at Dieppe from the deck of a destroyer, some 400 metres offshore. He was neither sailor nor combatant and disliked taking physical risks himself.
Let’s be blunt: Fleming was supercilious, arrogant, cruel, racist and misogynist with a proclivity for sadism and this splendid biography does little to change that opinion, unfortunately. Of the RNVR – the ‘Wavy Navy’ – it used to be said that it was comprised of gentlemen trying to be officers (The RNR was said to consist of officers trying to be gentlemen).
Fleming was neither. He was a rich, self-hating poseur with the emotional development of a seven-year-old. I was disappointed to read at one point that he successfully dodged a sound thrashing with a horse-whip, something he so richly deserved.
Then again, having read this biography, I realise he might have enjoyed it.