Ian Fleming went to Eton in the autumn of 1921 and left, aged 17, in 1926 for a crammer in Newport Pagnell to be prepared for Sandhurst and a career in the army. At Eton he was in the same house, the Timbralls, as his older brother, Peter. There was a new house master, E.V. ‘Sam’ Slater, described by one old boy as an ‘abrupt, red-faced bachelor with a loud voice and a liking for port’. Sam Slater had no liking for Ian Fleming, and Fleming’s few years at Eton under Slater’s tutelage did not bring out the best in him.
This unsatisfactory situation was no doubt complicated by the fact that Peter Fleming (just a year older) was turning out to be a storybook Etonian hero. A serious boy, an outstanding scholar, liked by everyone, Peter Fleming’s refulgence was bound to obscure the complex, moody character that his younger brother was already becoming. You either liked or you didn’t like Fleming minor, it seemed, and he didn’t encourage popularity, pointedly choosing to spend time each day alone, enjoying his own company — an eccentricity that, in the fervid proximity of an all-male boarding school, almost seems designed to be provocative.
Fleming did excel at one thing, however: athletics. He became the outstanding athlete — victor ludorum — of the school two years running, in 1925 and 1926. But little kudos was attached to athletics at Eton. Ian excelled — but in the wrong sport.
Because of Peter Fleming’s acclaim and influence Ian was put up for ‘Pop’, Eton’s elite boys’ society with its own arcane privileges. Even with the demigod Peter as his sponsor it took five goes to get Ian elected — he was black-balled on the first four proposals.
But it was Ian’s widowed mother, Eve, who really influenced the course of his education. Ian was the second of her four sons. Peter was destined for Oxford, ready to storm the heights of the intelligentsia; Ian, she decided, would become a soldier (like his father, Valentine, who had died in the war) so she had Ian enrolled in the Army Class at Eton, where boys were prepared for the military colleges at Sandhurst or Woolwich. This was a real fall in the Eton caste system — Army Class boys were dullards and simpletons. Ian joined their number, but not for long. His mother removed him from the school at the age of 17 and sent him to a special crammer for boys applying to Sandhurst. Newport Pagnell became his home for the remaining months of his secondary education.
So what did Fleming make of Eton? It wasn’t a happy time, one feels, but he did make some lasting friends. In any event, one’s life at a single-sex public school achieves its mythic personal significance in hindsight, most often. Many a miserable, persecuted boy has donned the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia and reinvented his schooldays from the fond perspective of secure adulthood.
Paul Gallico, the American novelist, who was a friend of Ian Fleming, wrote in an introduction to a James Bond omnibus that Fleming had an ‘implacable distaste for Eton which has lasted to this day’. Fleming corrected the manuscript, deleting ‘implacable distaste’ and substituting ‘mysterious affection’. I suspect that is close to the truth but there is some other evidence to suggest that the memories were more tarnished when one considers what Fleming provided for James Bond by way of education.
Like Fleming, Bond was sent to Eton, but only managed two terms, ‘a brief and undistinguished’ career, before being expelled, according to Bond’s obituary in You Only Live Twice, because of a dalliance with one of the school’s maids. A precocious 13-year-old, indeed. Bond then went on to Fettes College in Edinburgh, his father’s old school, where he spent the next four years or so before lying about his age and joining the Special Branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1941.
It’s an intriguing choice. Why Fettes? Why Scotland? Fettes is one of Scotland’s grander public schools (alumni include Michael Tippett, Tilda Swinton, Tony Blair and a lot of Scottish rugby players). The consensus is that this late delineation of Bond’s life in You Only Live Twice — published in 1964 and the last completed Bond novel that Fleming wrote before he died — was influenced by the casting of Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr No (1962). Fleming’s Bond was now flesh and blood and indisputably Scottish. The triumphant success of Connery as Bond, it can plausibly be argued, must have begun to shape the backstory that Fleming now envisaged for his world-famous protagonist.
My feeling was that the Connery influence was more profound and was the catalyst for a new emphasis on Scotland and the Scots in Fleming’s final novels that is hard to ignore. The Flemings were, of course, of Scottish descent but had been thoroughly anglicised. I detect in the choice of Fettes over Eton, in the nationality of Bond himself (half Scottish, half Swiss) a growing and distinct distancing from England and the values of English high society in Fleming.
This was his world but you can see in the timeline and biography he was constructing for Bond in the late novels a return to his Scottish Fleming roots. It’s particularly obvious in The Man with the Golden Gun — Fleming’s final, uncompleted Bond novel. In the novel Bond says he regards himself as ‘a Scottish peasant and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant’. On one page alone Bond refers to himself three times as a Scot. I think it was the Connery effect that brought this about but it may also be an oblique comment on Fleming’s time at school.
Deep down he really didn’t want James Bond to be an Old Etonian.
William Boyd is the author of the James Bond novel Solo (2013). His new novel, Sweet Caress, will be published in September