Celebrating the Ian Fleming Centennial

Ian Fleming, the writer who invented the immortal character James Bond, would have been 100 years old this week. He died in 1964. Scott Simon talks to Simon Winder, author of a book about Fleming's life and colorful career.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, tales of Beelzebubs and Hullabahoos. But first, Ian Fleming was a hack with elevated tastes. He was in military intelligence during World War II, rising to the rank of Commander Fleming of the Royal Navy, but as soon as his greatest creation, 30AU, a rum operation that trained people to pick locks and crack safes, became a success, it was taken over by a senior officer.

He left journalism for a while and went into business, then returned to journalism, but pressed to make more money, Ian Fleming decided to try to write himself into prosperity and turn himself from a newspaper hack into a novelist.

He had a formula in mind, a spy who would be shaken, not stirred.

Mr. IAN FLEMING (Author): One writes what one knows, of course. Of course, you could have taste. It should start at the first page and carry you right through, and I think you've got to have violence. I think you've got to have a certain amount of sex. You've got to have basic plots. People have got to want to know what's going to happen by the end of it.

Ian Fleming would've been 100 this year, but he died in 1964 at the age of just 56, before the character that he created, James Bond 007, would become a worldwide icon and enterprise to rank with Harry Potter.

SIMON: Simon Winder is a director at Britain's distinguished Penguin Publishing House and author of the book, "James Bond: The Man Who Saved Britain." He joins us from London to talk about Ian Fleming. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SIMON WINDER (Author): Thank you (unintelligible)

SIMON: The inevitable question: To what degree was 007 Ian Fleming's alter ego?

Mr. WINDER: Well, I always find that a really difficult question to answer. I think he's based on a lot of people who Fleming met and admired in different aspects of the secret service during the war.

SIMON: I've read some biographical treatments of Ian Fleming, and there are friends who used to say that he used to say that when he was in Royal Naval Intelligence during the war, he killed a man. Any indication that was true?

Mr. WINDER: I think that's most unlikely. There was an awful lot of drunken or semi-drunken bravado from Ian Fleming over the years. Like at one point, I think he'd claimed that he was one of the key figures in creating the CIA, for example, and it's fairly clear that's not really true, though he was in Washington at the time.

SIMON: He was thrown out of Eton for keeping - forgive me for putting this in the same sentence - a car and a mistress.

(Speaking foreign language)

Mr. WINDER: Yes, indeed. One of the interesting things about Ian Fleming is the way that his younger life was so spectacularly worthless. He had a marvelous older brother, Peter, who was a brilliant travel writer and journalist, and it's almost as though all the talent in the family went into the older brother, and then the younger brother, it was a classic syndrome of chronic underachievement until suddenly he is rescued by the war.

SIMON: When "Casino Royale" came out in 1954, what was the critical reaction?

Mr. WINDER: I think it's fair to say, initially, that reaction was quite muted. Fleming always had some quite influential friends who liked his work. People like Raymond Chandler and Noel Coward, for example, were enthusiastic, but I think the sales weren't enormous to begin with, and it built up quite slowly over the first three or four novels.

SIMON: Now by the time "From Russia With Love" came out in 1957, the reviews were favorable to glowing, and a real franchise had begun.

Mr. WINDER: Yeah. No, I think for me, "From Russia With Love" is a marvelous Bond novel because it makes him into, like, such a mythic figure. It takes a long time for Bond himself to turn up in it, and it's all about the sort of machinations of the Russians planning to trap and destroy Bond. And I think that's the point where you can see there's something really serious going on, which might last.

SIMON: And to nail the story down once and for all, if not forever, the name really came from an ornithologist who wrote a book about birds.

Mr. WINDER: Yes, a great American ornithologist, James Bond, who write the standard guides of the birds of the West Indies and was constantly irritated by the fact that he was swamped, gradually, as the '60s and '70s progressed, by this alter ego, which had nothing to do with him, but I think Bond's name just came from Fleming spotting the real James Bond's name on the guidebook he had in his house in Jamaica.

SIMON: What did 007 represent in his time, as a character?

Mr. WINDER: Well I mean, he's a complicated figure in many ways. For me, what's so interesting about him is the way that his kind of progress towards world domination sort of exactly matches the way that Britain itself was going down the tubes in the same period, and it seems strange the way that Fleming himself, you know, a traditional right-wing patriot in many ways, invented this figure of James Bond as this uniquely powerful Englishman.

SIMON: To what degree were some of Bond's very vehemently expressed preferences and tastes in material things also Fleming's? You know, I'm thinking shaken, not stirred, for example.

Mr. WINDER: I think Fleming loved all that stuff, and I think that one of the things that he enjoyed about writing the books was he, himself, had very clear tastes. He loved to indulge himself. There is a marvelous series of photos by Cecil Beaton of him with his cigarette in an ornate holder with tons of bottles all around him, and you know, he was a bon viveur and lived very fast.

SIMON: He got married, didn't fit a pattern. He was known as someone who had a very successful career as a single man.

Mr. WINDER: His relationship with his eventual wife was an odd one because she was a very clever hostess and woman about town who was much admired by very powerful people of various kinds and was married to, for some years, one of the major British newspaper proprietors, and Fleming managed to win her away from him, and they had a, you know, acrimonious marriage, but it seems to have been a very important aspect of why the Bond books were written.

I tend to think that he wrote them in order to impress here, and Ann, his wife, was in some ways rather skeptical about the Bond books.

SIMON: I'm struck by a quote that we unearthed that Ian Fleming said to Kingsley Amis, quote, I'm in the business of getting intelligent, uninhibited adolescents of all ages in trains, airplanes and beds to turn over the page.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINDER: Yes, well that's a very fair summary.

SIMON: And I confess I recently just received the whole collection of Bond novels, republished in paperback, so I plead guilty. Why are we still reading them?

Mr. WINDER: Well, I just think they are well written. Probably in the '70s and '80s, they were deeply unfashionable because, in effect, the (unintelligible) attitude towards women, the xenophobia, the sort of snobbery became overpowering, and they became rather obnoxious books, but I think now so much time has gone by that effectively, they preserve in amber life in the '50s, and Fleming was also a very good journalist.

For example, in "Diamonds are Forever," you know, you feel as though you're in Las Vegas, but it's the Las Vegas of the 1950s, which was a very different face.

I think the other wonderful thing in them is the way that Fleming was obsessed, just as the films are, with what was new and exciting. So when he started writing, the very idea of passenger jet travel was brand new, for example, or when he first started writing, in "Live and Let Die," about diving underwater, no one had ever done that before using an aqualung. You know, you'd only be able to do in a clunky great suit.

And so I think by reading the books, you get back to a sense of wonder of what the world used to be like.

SIMON: And if you would recommend any one book that someone might pick up this weekend to give Ian Fleming a tumble?

Mr. WINDER: Oh, I'd go for "Dr. No" or "Goldfinger," both of which are just marvelous books, and on every page there's some attractive turn of phrase or (unintelligible) and exciting, and the villains in both cases are just the cream of the crop, really. I think they're his best villains, Dr. No and Goldfinger.

SIMON: May I throw in "From Russia With Love?"

Mr. WINDER: You certainly may. Again, a very high-quality book with a couple of superb villains.

SIMON: Mr. Winder, nice talking to you.

Mr. WINDER: Very nice to talk to you.

SIMON: Simon Winder of Penguin Publishing, author of "The Man Who Saved Britain." James Bond, not Ian Fleming, who created him. Mr. Fleming would've been 100 years old this week.

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