Double Oh… Oh!

When he turned forty, Ian Fleming thought, “That’s me finished, better get married. Then what? Write something. Write what you know, spies and such.” He started with a title. It was a good title, ‘Casino Royale’. But what could it have to do with spies? He’d known an intelligence operative during the war who was a gambler and ‘womaniser’. Ian could write the first chapter. It would just about write itself. But what about the rest? Gangsters were always good material. A gangster story, then. But what could that have to do with spies and such? Well, he thought, what if this gangster involved himself in trade unions and so on. The way that everyone thought communist agents did? It didn’t matter how plausible it was. Just make the spy master a bad egg, through and through. And our hero beats him in the end. This ending haunted Ian. He could get his hero into trouble. He could involve a woman too. All that was straightforward. But how could he finish it? Well, maybe the master spy could fall foul of his Russian paymasters. Too much double dealing. They could send someone to finish him off. If he had nothing to pin on the British agent, he might let him go, more or less. Problem solved. Of course, best not to tie the hero down to one woman. Best kill her off. Leave it open for sequels. This spy master would only be a cypher, though. The agent’s boss would be, too. Just a number or a letter. Like the famous English spy master ‘C’. Ian did a quick count on his fingers. ‘A B C…’ etc. The second time around, he landed on ‘M’, the letter that shared the third finger with ‘C’. So be it. What about the secret agent, though? Ten minus three was ‘Seven’. Hm, ‘Secret Seven’. There’s the thing: the code for ‘top secret’ in Ian’s day had been, ’00’. Why not make the code for the secret agent, ‘007’. Neat, very neat. Following the same pattern, the spymaster, the cypher, could be ‘Le Chifre’ as he’s French. Has to be French if he operates out of a casino. So, what about ‘007’? He has to have a name. He’s only a cypher too, of course. But he needs a name. Doesn’t have to be anything flash. ‘Richard Hanney’ kind of name. Or ‘Joe Bloggs’. Doesn’t matter. ‘John Doe’ — let the readers project their own personality on to him. ‘We don’t want any ’Nero Wolf’ types. He’s got to be active and fit.’ Ian’s eyes fell on one of his favourite books, ‘Birds of the West Indies’ by a certain ‘James Bond’. That’ll do. A boring, ordinary name with no baggage. ‘Nobody’s going to have read that book. Not any of my readers,’ Ian thought. ‘So be it. “James Bond, agent 007 of the Secret Service”. By God! That has a good ring to it! James Bond, a boring civil servant to whom extraordinary things happen’. With a tagline like that, the book would write itself! And, if Ian crammed into it all his wartime experiences, it would be a thick book, but an exciting one.

That is about what happened, how Ian Fleming came to write, ‘Casino Royale’, the first of the James Bond books. But the truth was, by the time he wrote it, he had many contacts in publishing, including his own brother, Peter. So many, in fact, that not only did the book write itself, it published itself as well. Ian Fleming came from the kind of upper middle-class for whom anything was possible. He mixed with the kind of people that the Joe Bloggs of this world has had all on just to get them to read their inquiry letters. Fleming was also writing in the period during the Cold War, when people were curious about spies and frightened of the Russians. They were seeing ‘Reds under the bed’ all the time. That man who installed your TV set who identified himself with an Electrician’s Union card could be a Russian spy. After all, you had to be a Communist to be in a union like that, didn’t you? Everybody said so. Maybe everyone’s TV set had a secret transmitter hidden inside it, broadcasting to Moscow. That was how people thought in those days. And it all added to the thrill. Perhaps there was this organisation called ‘Smersh’. And perhaps it was running the trades unions and the crime syndicates behind the scenes. People who read the Daily Mail and the Express were inclined to think so. And part of the success of Fleming’s books depended on that climate of suspicion.

In the nineteen sixties, people became more inclined to trust the Russians. In Britain, the Labour party dominated the period. Fleming decided to retire Smersh. It was a wise decision. Now there were rumours of a kind of ‘Crime Incorporated’ organisation. Fleming came up with, ’S.P.E.C.T.R.E’, his most fanciful creation of all. The name was based on a botched acronym. ‘The Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’. Fleming drew on several models for this. The first came from the chilling words that opened Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. ‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism’. What if there were indeed a spectre haunting Europe? Not of communism, but of crime? Something like the Mafia, perhaps? No, something more on the lines of a powerful company like IBM, but a criminal one. Now that would be something. Say about twenty criminal geniuses working together, wouldn’t that be scary? Fleming had a ripe, perhaps over ripe imagination. A schoolboy’s imagination in which master criminals and master spies ran everything. It was a cloak and dagger world that I suspect Ian never believed in to a full extent. But he was the type of oversexed, under extended, upper middle class English male who needed what I would term, ‘a desk top fantasy’. When his boss told him to stay behind and work through a backlog of filing, this transmogrified into, ‘The secret’s in there, 007. Go through it and see if you can weed the bastards out.’ The 1950s and ‘60s were years of job security and full employment, if not over employment. There were many people in boring jobs with time on their hands. The Tony Hancock film, ‘The Rebel’, shows this well. Nowadays, reactionary employers and politicians alike have learned their lesson well. They keep their employees on their toes. There is less time for ‘dreaming at the desk’. When Fleming reached forty, he was well off enough to retire to Jamaica. Now he could write up those dreams. He was not a good fiction writer when he started out. Casino Royale is a chaotic book, with a blatant Deus ex Machina ending. I also got the impression that he got bored with the romantic subplot and killed off the heroine in the last page. And that was because, he wanted to finish it without loose ends. I suspect it might have been a friend, Kingsley Amis, perhaps, who suggested he did this. So that he wasn’t inconvenienced by this ‘popsy’ in a sequel. It turned out to be a stroke of genius, because it provided Bond with his motivation for a series of books. It must have always been at the back of Fleming’s mind, because he repeated the trick with “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

I have always maintained that there is only just enough material in Fleming’s corpus for one novel. A good novelist could edit it all down to under a hundred thousand words. There is a sense that Fleming was ‘learning on the job’. It’s a bit of a shame that he didn’t stop writing about 007 to write ‘a proper novel’. About the nearest he came to this was, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, which isn’t really one of the series. And one that the fans never took to. Sad, that.

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About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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