Philip Hensher

The astonishing truth about 007

New revelations about Ian Fleming’s war work confirm that the Bond novels’ apparently preposterous plots were often based on real events

Ian Fleming in a publicity pose in the 1960s. [Bridgeman Images]

The novel as a form is a fundamentally capitalist enterprise. It was invented at the same time as capitalism – Robinson Crusoe tots up his situation in the form of double-entry bookkeeping. Its interests dwell on the disparate and unequal natures of human beings and feed off rivalry, social transformation, moneymaking, profit and loss. No rigid feudal society has managed to create an effective school of novelists; and having once struggled through Cement, Fyodor Gladkov’s classic of socialist Soviet literature, I would say that systems dedicated to forcible equality also struggle.  

Evident, astonishingly, is just how much in the novels is based on events Fleming had witnessed or engineered

Novels thrive during periods of brutal inequality, such as late Victorian Britain, but also when thrown into violent opposition to societies attempting to restrict personal enterprise. One of the most extravagant moments of fiction’s flourishing in our country came about in this mood of opposition after the second world war. With rationing continuing for years, taxation at levels approaching confiscation and a loss of all remembered excesses to a spirit of moral disapproval, the novel entered a glorious phase of opulence. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was one of the first; but if you come across a description of central heating in the fiction of this time, or an account of characters stuffing themselves with tournedos Rossini, you can be pretty sure of its appeal to a first readership shivering over a supper of snoek on toast. 

Not the least of these marvellous monuments are the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming. Reading them, one has to remember the circumstances that made those gluttonous descriptions of meals and the tossing away of fortunes at the roulette table so agreeable. The young heroine of The Spy Who Loved Me buys a £10 tin of caviar to entertain her pals one evening (it would cost north of £10,000 now), and Bond and M’s dinner at M’s club in Moonraker surely passes all precedent for extravagance: smoked salmon, caviar, lamb cutlets, asparagus with béarnaise, a slice of pineapple, strawberries and finally a marrow bone, and some Benzedrine in a glass of champagne.

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