A celebration of Ian Fleming on the anniversary of his birth

Today marks the anniversary of the birth Ian Fleming, the author who introduced the world to James Bond in Casino Royale and went on to write a total of fourteen James Bond books.

Assorted paperback editions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Photo by David Leigh.

Born in Mayfair on 28 May 1908, during the war Fleming excelled as assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. In this capacity he was privy to intelligence of the highest level with a broad remit that saw him operate far above his rank of commander. It was also here where he came into contact with various spies, double agents, commandos and saboteurs, and dreamt of the post-war years when he would write, as he put it, “the spy story to end all spy stories”.

Fleming was introduced to Jamaica while attending a wartime naval conference and fell in love with the country. It was then he decided to build a holiday home there and towards the end of the war colleagues would find him at his desk sketching out his plans for a house.

Once the war was over he bought the site of an old donkey track on the north shore of the island. It was there he built his house, which he named Goldeneye. Working for the Sunday Times as Foreign Manager, his brief was to build a network of journalists based on his experience of running spies. And additionally to a comfortable salary, Fleming negotiated a two month holiday at the start of each year.

From then on he would escape London’s winter gloom in Jamaica each year. In the Caribbean he enjoyed the climate and wildlife, donning a facemask to explore the sub-aquatic world off the small beach at the end of his property.

Fleming finally got down to work on Casino Royale in early 1952 while holidaying in Jamaica. That winter Fleming’s life was about to change. He and Ann Rothermere had been having an affair for years, which continued through her two marriages. But she was recently divorced from her second husband and pregnant with Fleming’s child. And so, while in Jamaica, they were to be married.

Although he had spoken about writing a spy novel years earlier, he later joked he only started writing to take his mind off his imminent wedding. Hammering out his first draft in weeks, he turned to one of his favourite books for the kind of name he wanted for his hero. That book was A Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies by a well-known ornithologist named James Bond.

Fleming returned to London on March when he set about polishing the manuscript and adding the details that made his writing so authentic. He also set to work about finding a publisher, calling in enough favours to secure a deal with Jonathan Cape.

When published the following year, Casino Royale became such a success that it was reprinted almost immediately. The book was the first of what became a series of twelve novels and two short story collections written prior to his early death in 1964.

But although Casino Royale achieved modest success from the start, Fleming could never have imagined just how successful his creation would become. Not bad for someone known for athletics rather than academic achievement while at school.

Fleming continued to smoke and drink as heavily as is creation throughout his life. In the end his lifestyle caught up with him and he died in 1964 from a massive heart attack at the age of 56. Although the author attended the premieres of the first two James Bond films and visited the set of the third, Goldfinger, he was never to experience the full heights of Bond-mania as it hit its peak. Although overshadowed today by the enormously successful movie series, the books are still worthwhile reading and have remained in print.

They often feature exotic locations, glamorous women, fast cars and expensive brand names. You’ll find James Bond drinks far more than just vodka martinis though, and his character is often melancholy. You’ll find little in the way of gadgets and when they are included it is often the villain that used them rather than Bond. Fleming also wrote some mouth-watering descriptions of meals and exciting card games.

Fleming was born into a world of privilege, something often reflected in his books, and some of his views are outdated. But his writing is also vivid, full of imagination and insights gained from his time in naval intelligence. And even at its most fantastic his writing seems grounded in reality.

A number of authors have picked up the mantle of Bond since, commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications who now guard Fleming’s legacy. The first was Kingsley Amis’s Colonel Sun but most recently these include additions to the James Bond series from Sebastian Faulks, Jefferey Deaver, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz.

David Leigh founded The James Bond Dossier in 2002. A fan of 007 since the age of 8, he is also author of The Complete Guide to the Drinks of James Bond. You can order a copy here if you don't own it already.

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