Simon Walker recounts Fleming’s personal connection with the Institute of Directors…
I was nine years old when I had my first encounter with James Bond. It was a bitterly cold night during the Big Freeze of 1962-3. My parents had gone out for dinner and our thoughtful nanny had tucked me and my brother up in their double bed. I was restless and picked up a paperback on the bedside table. It was called For Your Eyes Only and I became engrossed in the murder of a dispatch rider carrying secret documents. By the time my parents came home I’d devoured most of the book.
A year later a bookseller insisted on phoning my mother when I handed over a grubby note to buy a copy of Moonraker. Was this suitable reading for a boy? My mother was an English teacher, far more concerned about grammar than illicit sex. She had no quarrel with Ian Fleming’s syntax, so I was allowed to take it home. Bond soon became a family enthusiasm. My grandmother took me to see Thunderball in 1966. As we left the cinema a young lad, more artful dodger than Blofeld, slipped between us and reached for the purseful of coins in my back pocket. Granny, well into her eighties, whacked him with her hefty handbag and yelled “Take that!” I like to think Commander Bond would have respected her.
Ian Fleming and the IoD
Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, was well linked into literary and political circles. His father was MP for Henley – a seat later held by both Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson. He was married to Ann, who was divorced from Viscount Rothermere, who owned the Daily Mail. Ann herself became the mistress of Hugh Gaitskell, Leader of the Labour party, who died during that grim winter I read my first Bond novel. Meanwhile, Fleming’s editor, William Plomer (to whom Goldfinger is dedicated), was a South African novelist who campaigned for racial equality, and later wrote librettos for Benjamin Britten. It’s not known if that voracious reader Harold Macmillan loved a good Bond (this is the prime minister who claimed he liked nothing better than going to bed early with a good Trollope); but his predecessor Anthony Eden certainly recuperated at Fleming’s Jamaican retreat, Goldeneye, before handing over the keys to Macmillan at Number 10.
Fleming did have a connection with the Institute of Directors. Our HQ, 116 Pall Mall, was originally the home of ‘The Senior’, the United Service Club. As befits a naval intelligence officer, Fleming was a member of the club and is said to have had lunch in our dining room every week (in the Morning Room, although I’ve drawn a blank in my efforts to identify which table would have been reserved for so regular a guest). As Fleming would have celebrated his 107th birthday this year [on 28 May, a birth date I share], it’s unlikely any of his dining companions are still around. But if anyone can help locate his table, a fine meal awaits them in our refurbished restaurant.
As Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army” put it, Franco may have won all the battles, but “we had all the good songs”; and as with songwriters, novelists tend towards the left rather than the right politically. Fleming is a clear exception to this and the Guardian’s ‘Top 10 Conservative Novels’ has Dr No in at number 10, alongside the likes of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and John Buchan’s Castle Gay. The Guardian holds it to Fleming’s credit that his violence is more implied than documented, while the instructions for seduction are rather more detailed. But it also reminds us Fleming was a man of his time – “the black man gets killed, the villain isn’t white and the pretty girl has to join the colonising classes to get on in life”.
Happily the world has evolved. The last M was a woman, Miss Moneypenny is now black and Commander Bond’s current flame, Monica Bellucci, is in her fifties. Surely it cannot be long before James Bond comes out as bisexual?