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Why the world still needs Ian Fleming's James Bond

By: Ajay Chowdhury
Published:
2023-04-13
Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, James Bond
On 12 January 2011 after a redevelopment spend of about $300 million, Prime Minister Bruce Golding opened a new airport on the North Shore of Jamaica. Attended by actress Lucy Williams and Island Records founder, Chris Blackwell, there was good reason why the project was given its name: the Ian Fleming International Airport. For Fleming, who wrote his books close by, adored Jamaica and Jamaicans. His niece, Lucy and Blackwell, current custodian of the author’s iconic retreat, GoldenEye, were on hand to show a unique continuity in the publishing world as a well at the all-inclusive reach and appeal of the writer and his creation, James Bond 007.

13th April 1953 was the publication date of the first Bond book, Casino Royale. Released on the eve of the coronation of the young, unexpected new monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, the title capitalised on royal fever. The United Kingdom was going through huge cultural and political changes, the fin de siècle of an Empire mindset, the faltering emergence of post-Colonial role, a once-super power now squeezed by the US and the Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a country still reeling from the privations of World War II. The United Kingdom would also face a dramatic change in its social make-up with the visitation to the mother country of citizens of the Commonwealth. The age of deference was giving way to the age of defiance. Sexual norms and gender roles were evolving in wake of a war which saw women play a vital part in that victory. All of this forward thinking, globally assured, international insight was captured in the James Bond books of Ian Fleming. The author was ahead of his time.

Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, James Bond novel
Author Ian Fleming pictured reading Casino Royale, his first James Bond novel.

13th April 2023: 70 years and 100 million copies later, with the coronation of a new monarch imminent, the fact that one family not only own, but also control and are now publishing books, the literary legacy of Ian Fleming is unparalleled. There is karmic symmetry to the fact that Ian Fleming Publications Ltd’s newly commissioned Bond novel, On His Majesty’s Secret Service, by Young Bond creator, Charlie Higson, will commemorate the crowning of King Charles III.


James Bond is still a cultural force to be reckoned with. Fleming was non-parochial, patriotic with an internationalist view of the world. Fleming’s work lasts due to the idiosyncratic, urbane, interesting and interested world view captured in the ex-journalist’s brisk, gun-metal prose. It is the reason why fans are gathering from around the world in London, fizzing with excitement, to celebrate 70 years of 007.

Most people are familiar with the films but not with Fleming. He was an early influencer, having 007 sample food, drink, cars and fashion which still ring exotic to this day. His biographer Andrew Lycett admired the writing’s “high insider’s tone.” The writer’s journalistic roots sought verisimilitude through his overt consumerism, but he was also interested in the phonetics of names. The ethos of Bond was never about the “expense account aristocracy” of brands but more the behavioural clues behind the bespoke tastes of his characters. The ex-Etonian himself eschewed convention in clothing, wearing short-sleeved shirts underneath his jackets, bow-ties, disliking shoe-laces. Ian Fleming made his own fashion.

Ian Fleming, Andrew Lycett, biography
The paperback cover for Ian Fleming: The Man Who Created James Bond by Andrew Lycett.

For a man of his class and era, the writer was atypically open-minded, curious and non-judgmental: he delighted in difference and diversity. A number of significant characters in the books are persons of colour including Bond’s Cayman Islander ally, Quarrel, the larger-than-life Turk, Kerim Bey and the head of the Japanese Secret Service, Tiger Tanaka. In life, the Englishman of Scots ancestry preferred the company and cuisine of Jamaican natives to the British ex-pat brigade settled on the island’s North Shore. He enjoyed the fayre of his cook, Violet Cummings and trips down the Rio Grande with boatman, Red Grant. In Turkey, he was enthused by the company of Nazim Kavalkan whom he fictionalised as the head of Station T. In Japan, he became the student of Tarao “Tiger” Saito, who became his sensei for all things Japanese. When different cultures were othered in the Bond books, it was the exception. Towards the end of the series, the author included some political heterodoxy. He softened his stance of the Soviets: the Bond books were amongst the first to have non-state aligned villainy. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), Bond comments on the futility of the Cold War. His creator’s journalistic lust could not resist delving deep into worlds beyond his ken. Differing viewpoints, foods, behaviours are explored with relish. Fleming, with his Austrian Tyrol education, spoke French and German like a native. To this day, how many native-English speakers know more than one language fluently?

In a time when homosexuality was illegal, Bond’s world is populated by memorable LGBTQ characters, giving them vital visibility. Yet, by the standards of the times, the writer was particularly non-judgemental and sympathetic. The infamously lesbian Pussy Galore had been the victim of abuse as a young woman yet she is sparky and not a victim. Fleming’s best friend was gay icon Noel Coward and his wife Ann often wondered about her husband’s affinities with a number of her gay friends. In 2023, the writer would be seen as an ally.

Sexually too, Fleming, was a pioneer. In the stuff espionage genre, female characters barely registered. The 007 female creations are memorable to this day: Vesper Lynd, Simone Latrelle – Solitaire, Gala Brand, Tatiana Romanova, Pussy Galore, Teresa Di Vincenzo and Kissy Suzuki all have intriguing backstories, points of view and are allowed to objectify and analyse Bond through the female gaze. The apex of this was the 1962 novel, The Spy Who Loved Me, where Canadian author, Vivienne Michel is allowed to tell the story – the spy is James Bond. It is a fascinating and worthy experiment. Some of the controversial passages depicting sex are tame now. Bond scholar Kingsley Amis noted how the spy was always tender and caring and never cruel to the heroines. In the books, Bond has romantic interests which lead, sometimes, to sexual encounters. The books are keen to explore male-female dynamics. The short story, Quantum Of Solace, is rich with human melodrama. The motivations and attitudes are an extremely important part of the Bond saga. Once again, though, Fleming drew on real-life inspirations around him: his accomplished society intellectual wife, Ann née Charteris, his Jamaican lover, food heiress Blanche Blackwell, his Washington hostess, Marion ‘Oatsie’ Leiter and his formidable mother, Evelyn. Widowed at a young age, she was a hugely dominant force in the lives of her four boys. Well before Judi Dench was cast as Bond’s boss, Ian referred to his mother as M.

The adventures and the world of James Bond still stand up today. That is why the books have been translated so widely and have been read across generations and genders around the globe. When Kim Sherwood’s World Of Bond work, Double Or Nothing was published, it was the first book I could give to my teenage niece. She devoured it. James Bond is a juggernaut of the Zeitgeist and has always evolved. But, inherent in the original works, is an enduring, inclusive appeal. Any new literary iteration – be it Young Bond, Samantha Weinberg’s The Moneypenny Diaries, John Pearson’s clever fictional biography, the new comic book series – not only keeps the Fleming end up but also serves a gateway drug to the original 12 novels and 9 short stories. Readers still find in Bond what they need: a unique, exciting, entertaining, escapist prism through which to view this ever-changing world in which we’re living.

Ian Fleming, James Bond novels, 2023 editions
The 2023 editions of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and non-fiction books.

Written by Ajay Chowdhury. Copyright © 2023 From Sweden with Love. All rights reserved.

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