The Authorised Biography of 007
John Pearson was a good choice to write the first biography of author Ian Fleming, who had given the world James Bond in the 1953 novel, Casino Royale. After all, Pearson had been Fleming’s assistant when he worked at the Sunday Times and was a keen and insightful admirer of the Bond series.
When The Life of Ian Fleming hit the stands in 1966 Pearson received a lot of correspondence ‘from ballistic-minded Japanese, French teenage Bondphiles, crime-crazy Swedes and postgraduate Americans writing their theses on the modern thriller’.
On his dismissal of Fleming’s 1920s visits to the ski-resort at Kitzbühel he also received a letter from a Maria Künzler in Vienna who ended with this rather startling passage:
“So you can understand the excitement we all felt when the good-looking young James Bond appeared at Kitzbühel. He had been in Ian’s house at Eton, although of course he was much younger than Ian. Even in those days, James was engaged in some sort of undercover work, and Ian, who liked ragging people, used to make fun of him and tried to get information out of him. James would get very cross.”
Obviously Pearson was initially skeptical; but as he began to check records at Eton and in various other places (and noticed that they seemed to have been mainly removed from existence) his doubts changed to a bewildered acceptance that Fleming hadn’t made the famous British Secret Agent up at all – that in fact not only had he existed but he had been on friendly relations with him!
Finally Pearson is given the go-ahead to interview James Bond in Bermuda, where he is recuperating from an illness; and indeed he begins to write his life story in order to set the ‘facts’ straight.
Or rather a James Pearson does so. For although the author of the Fleming biography did in fact work with him, James Bond: The Authorised Biography of 007 is a fictional biography. And a damned good one. In fact, when I heard later that Pearson had once been asked to write the story of the Krays by the twins themselves I assumed it was another spoof. It wasn’t and he was. And it’s this clever mix of fact and fiction that makes this romp so enjoyable.
There must have been something in the air in the early seventies, because one year before Pearson’s book appeared in 1973, Philip Jose Farmer had done something similar with Tarzan Alive, which purported to be a look at the history of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke – better known to the world as Tarzan of the Apes.
And James Bond succeeds for the same reason that Farmer’s outing did: both of these characters are ‘pop-art icons’ that escaped many years ago from the pages of the novels written by their creators. I doubt that anyone would argue – unfortunately – with the claim that they are far better known from the films than from the books.
Another thing that they have in common is that, certainly for this reader, they both always had independent existences outside of the books. By that I mean that from the moment I discovered them as a slightly pre-teen reader, I could imagine them having a life that went on after I had closed the covers; and to a certain extent, despite the so-called sophistication that comes with forty-odd years of adulthood, I still can.
The most interesting part of this book is the first two-thirds of it, which deals with Bond’s fragmented childhood; his introduction to the life of a spy; and his exploits during World War II. Pearson imitates to a degree Fleming’s style. There is the obsession with food and the ‘poring over of things’ as I think Anthony Burgess put it. And as with Fleming’s novels we don’t particularly like Bond, something that would have bothered him not in the slightest. He comes across as an odd mixture of petulant, tough-as-nails, vain, courageous and weirdly sentimental and romantic.
As well as being a complete bastard. His first admitted murder (by order of his new boss and for supposedly patriotic reasons) is of a woman and is nothing short of appalling.
However, in these sickening times of Political Correctness, it is a delight to hear him tell Pearson that Fleming exaggerated when he had him smoking seventy cigarettes a day:
“’He was a strange fellow. With the cigarettes I’m sure it was an excuse for his own heavy smoking – he liked to think that there was someone who smoked even more than he did. In fact I never have been more than a two-pack-a-day man, and then only in times of tension.’
“’Oh, he got that about right. What did he say I drank – half a bottle of spirits daily? No one can call that excessive.’”
The last third of the book deals with the ‘facts’ behind the books and short stories and they are a delight for Bond fans. We get odd little snippets about what happened to some of those wonderful, flawed women – and indeed, during the period when Pearson is interviewing him, he is engaged to be married to an older, somewhat harder-faced Honey Rider, she of Dr. No fame – and by the way, as much as Bond disliked the books, he was horrified when Sean Connery began playing him in the films.
I enjoyed this read thoroughly – with a couple of little gripes. For a book that deals with a man who deals so greatly in minutiae there are some really annoying slips. For example, whilst in America Bond starts an ill-advised affair with a politician’s wife which leads to a real scandal:
“These things did happen, but in future Commander Bond might be advised to steer very clear of politicians’ wives…James Bond has followed his advice religiously ever since.”
Except that he didn’t. Only a few years later he has an equally disastrous affair with the wife of a British politician. And there are a couple of little inconsistencies like that.
I could also have done with what I saw as a completely pointless and faintly irritating chapter on what M. was like.
Overall, though, this is great fun. And the closing paragraphs make it pretty clear that this should have been the start of a new series of Bond novels.
I wonder what ever happened to them.