Ian Fleming: In His Own Words

In concluding the centenary year of Ian Fleming’s birth, AJB has gone to the archives of legendary Playboy magazine, which in December 1964 published an interview with the creator of James Bond 007 just months after his untimely death.  It is presented here, in the form of extended monologues by Fleming himself, from across the gulf of time…for your enjoyment.

Pussy...what?  Pussy Deluxe?  No...
Pussy…what? Pussy Deluxe? No…
© Horste Tappe/Hulton Archive – Getty Images

Playboy writes: “It is with pride and pleasure —tinged with a very real sadness—that we present in this issue the last interview granted by Ian Fleming…The late creator of the irrepressible Bond was engagingly candid with our interviewer who, deeply moved by the author’s death, writes from England that the always thoughtful Fleming graciously informed him, after reading a copy of the interview, that it was the best that had ever been done with him.”

On writing at Goldeneye, in Jamaica

“I get up with the birds, which is about half past seven, because they wake one up, and then I go and bathe in the ocean before breakfast.  We don’t have to wear a swimsuit there, because it’s so private; my wife and I bathe and swim a hundred yards or so and come back and have a marvelous proper breakfast with some splendid scrambled eggs made by my housekeeper, who’s particularly good at them, and then I sit out in the garden to get a sunburn until about ten.  Only then do I set to work.  I sit in my bedroom and type about fifteen hundred words straightaway, without looking back on what I wrote the day before.  I have more or less thought out what I’m going to write, and, in any case, even if I make a lot of mistakes, I think, well, hell, when the book’s finished I can change it all.  I think the main thing is to write fast and cursively in order to get narrative speed.

Author at work.
Author at work.
© Getty Images

“Then, about quarter past twelve, I chuck that and go down, with a snorkle and a spear, around the reefs looking for lobsters or whatever there may be, sometimes find them, sometimes don’t, and then I come back, I have a couple of pink gins, and we have a very good lunch, ordinary Jamaican food, and I have a siesta from about half past two until four.  The I sit again in the garden for an hour or so, have another swim, and then I spend from six to seven—the dusk comes very suddenly in Jamaica; at six o’clock it suddenly gets very dark—doing another five hundred words.  I then number the pages, of which by that time there are about seven, put them away in a folder, and have a couple of powerful drinks, then dinner, occasionally a game of Scrabble with my wife—at which she thinks she is very much better than I am, but I know I’m the best—and straight off to bed and into a deep sleep.”

On the “Fleming Two-Day Week”

“…I keep a small but comfortable flat on Pegwell Bay in Sandwich; that’s in Kent…I try to spend at least four days and five nights in the country and only two nights up in London, because I don’t like big towns.  Generally I come up on Monday night and I go down again to Sandwich on Thursday morning, with any luck…I get up late, about half past eight or nine, have breakfast, coffee and a boiled egg—three and a half minutes, not three and two thirds, like James Bond.  I read newspapers and deal with a certain amount of mail and then I go off to the golf course; the one I play on is in Sandwich—the Royal St. George—a course known to a great many Americans, and one that Bobby Jones and all the great men have played; Jack Nicklaus won the Gold Vase on that course three or four years ago.  And I meet some friends there and we have a drink or two and lunch and then I go out and play a tough game of golf for fairly high stakes, foursomes generally, not American fourball, but each pair hitting the ball in turn.  And we laugh a lot and it’s great fun.  Then I go back home in the evening and sit down and have a couple of very powerful bourbons and waters with ice and read awhile, and then I have whatever my wife has decided to cook for me and I go straight off to bed.

“In London we have…a very nice little house—but it hasn’t got any trees around it, which I would like, and I would prefer to live higher up, somewhere like Hampstead, on the heights above London, with birds and trees and a bit of garden.  But my wife, who likes to entertain, feels that this would be too far from the House of Commons for our friends to come, and altogether too suburban.  In any case, I get up in the morning about the same time as in the country, have the same breakfast, and at about half past ten I drive to my office, where my secretary has the mail ready for me, which I cope with and then dictate a few letters.  Then I correct some proofs or go over whatever I happen to be working on at the moment and have lunch with a friend—always a male friend; I don’t like having lunch with women—and perhaps I go to my club, Boodles, or the Turf, where I sit by myself and read in that highly civilized privacy which is the great thing about some English clubs.  In the afternoon I have more or less the same routine correcting proofs.  I go home and have three large drinks and then we either stay in for dinner or have people in, or go out: but more often we have dinner together and go to bed.”

On Gambling

“I do like to gamble.  I play bridge for what might be called serious stakes.  I like chemin de fer.  I play at clubs here in London, private clubs.  And I may go to Le Touquet, places like that on the Continent.  I like to think that I am reasonably competent at the gaming tables—we all think so, I suppose—but still, I win as much as I lose, or a bit more.  I like that, which I suppose demonstrates that I am not a true compulsive gamber, because the compulsive gambler doesn’t care much whether he wins or loses.  He is interested primarily in the “action.”  I remember one occasion on which I very much wanted to win.  I was on my way to America with the Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral Godfrey.  We were in Estoril in Portugal, and while we were waiting for transport, we killed some time in the casino.  While there, I recognized some German agents, and I thought it would be a brilliant coup to play with them, break them, and take their money.  Instead, they took mine.  Most embarrassing.  This incident appears in Casino Royale, my first book—but, of course, Bond does not lose.  In fact, he totally and coldly vanquishes his opponent.”

On Guns

“Quite honestly, the whole question of expertise in these matters bores me.  Obviously, I want to know the facts.  If a Gaylord holster is better than a Berns-Martin, I want to know about it, but there is where my interest rather ends.  However, I’m not a bad shot; in fact, I shot for Sandhurst against West Point at one time.  And just to see that my hand isn’t trembling too much, I like to have a shot at a tin can or something now and again…I’m not keen on killing things, except to eat them.  We have big bush rats in Jamaica, and one time when I’d lent the place for a bit to Anthony Eden, he couldn’t sleep, they made such a racket scurrying about, and a number of them had to be shot by his private detective, which I didn’t like.  But to go back to the matter of expertise, I’ve been pestiferated ever since Sports Illustrated ran that article about Bond’s weapons; you saw it, I’m sure—the one which told how I’d been persuaded to take Bond’s .25 Beretta away from him and make him use a 7.65mm Walther instead.  That idea had originated with Geoffrey Boothroyd, a genuine expert, and since the article appeared I’ve had hundreds of letters from weapon maniacs—and they are maniacs; it’s terrifying—and Boothroyd gets all those letters sent on to him.  I never look at them; he deals with them himself or he doesn’t.  I wouldn’t dream of attempting it.  I’m just not sufficiently expert.”

On Cars

“I probably chose the supercharged Bentley because Amherst Villiers was and is a great friend of mine, and I knew something about it from my friendship with him.  I put Bond into a Bentley simply because I like him to use dashing, interesting things…I’d like to have a supercharged Bentley myself, but nowadays—I’m fifty-six, after all—I like a car I can leave out in the street all night and which will start at once in the morning and still go a hundred miles an hour when you want it to and yet give a fairly comfortable ride.  I can’t be bothered with a car that needs tuning, or one that will give me a lot of trouble and expenditure.  So I’ve had a Thunderbird for six years, and it’s done me very well.  In fact, I have two of them, the good two-seater and the less-good four-seater.  I leave them both in the street, and when I get in and press the starter, off they go, which doesn’t happen to a lot of motorcars.  Now, the Studebaker supercharged Avanti is the same thing.  It will start as soon as you get out in the morning; it has a very nice, sexy exhaust note and will do well over a hundred and has got really tremendous acceleration and much better, tighter road holding and steering than the Thunderbird.  Excellent disc brakes, too.  I’ve cut a good deal of time off the run between London and Sandwich in the Avanti, on braking and power alone.  So I’m very pleased with it for the time being.”

Early publicity shot
Early publicity shot
© Express Newspapers/Hulton Archive – Getty Images

 

On Violence…and the ‘Perfect Murder’

“The simple fact is that, like all fictional heroes who find a tremendous popular acceptance, Bond must reflect his own time.  We live in a violent era, perhaps the most violent man has known.  In our last War, thirty million people were killed.  Of these, some six million were simply slaughtered, and most brutally.  I hear it said that I invent fiendish cruelties and tortures to which Bond is subjected.  But no one who knows, as I know, the things that were done to captured secret agents in the last War says this.  No one says it who knows what went on in Algeria…

“Yes, it does disturb Bond to kill people, but he continues to get away with it—just as he continues to get away with driving conspicuous motorcars. 

“…No technique, I should think, is more deadly and efficient than that employed by the gunmen of what its proprietors so amusingly call the Cosa Nostra in America, where a man may be sent all the way from Detroit to kill another man sitting at a bar in New York and walk away with no demonstrable connection with hin.  That is a near-perfect type of killing—the sort of killing that the secret services do, particularly the Russians, who’ve been pretty keen on it in West Germany.  Their latest gimmick, the cyanide gas pistol, which is more or less a water pistol filled with liquid cyanide, is a particularly good stunt, because a man can be killed while, say, climbing stairs, and when he’s found, the cyanide has dissipated and leaves no trace.  It’s natural to assume that he has had a heart failure climbing the stairs.  But you’ve got to have a lot of nerve for that sort of thing, and whatever it is that enables a good killer to function also seems to defeat him in the end.  The killer’s spirit begins to fail, he gets the seed of death within himself.  As I wrote in one of my books, From Russia with Love, the trouble with a lot of hired assassins such as the Russians use is that they feel rather badly when they’ve killed five or six people, and ultimately get soft or give themselves up, or they take to drugs or drink.  It would be interesting to conduct an inquiry to determine who was the greatest assassin in history—who was, or who is.  I have no particular candidate.  But they all do grow a sort of bug inside them after a bit.”


“Birds of the West Indies?”
© Getty Images

On President Kennedy as a Bond Fan

“…I don’t think Bond was President Kennedy’s favourite fictional character; I think he was his favourite adventure character.  But I think perhaps that Bond’s sort of patriotic derring-do was in keeping with the President’s own concept of endurance and courage and grace under pressure, and so on.  Strangely enough, many politicians seem to like my books.  I think perhaps because politicians like solutions, with everything properly tied up at the end.  Politicians always hope for neat solutions, you now, but so rarely can they find them.”

On the Russians, SMERSH and SPECTRE

“…I don’t believe Mr. Khruschev is one of my readers, and we haven’t met.  I do have among my memorabilia a short typewritten note from Joseph Stalin, signed in his hand and, I think, typed by him as well, saying that he is sorry, but he must decline to be interviewed.

“I closed down SMERSH, although I was devoted to the old apparat, because, first of all, Khruschev did in fact disband SMERSH himself, although its operations are still carried out by a subsection of the K.G.B., the Russian secret service.  But in that book—I think it was Thunderball that I was writing at the time of the proposed summit meeting—I thought well, it’s no good going on if we’re going to make friends with the Russians.  I know them, I like them personally, as anyone would like the Chinese if he knew them.  I thought, I don’t want to go on ragging them like this.  So I invented SPECTRE as an international crime organization which contained elements of SMERSH and the Gestapo and the Mafia—the cozy old Cosa Nostra—which, of course, is a much more elastic fictional device that SMERSH, which was no fictional device, but the real thing.  But that was really the reason I did it, so as not to rag the Russians too much.  But if they go on squeezing off cyanide pistols in people’s faces, I have have to make them cosa mia again.”

January, 1964
January, 1964
© Express/Hulton Archive – Getty Images

On the Double-0 Prefix

“Well, though this was purely a fictional device to make Bond’s particular job more interesting, the double-0 prefix is not so entirely invented as all that.  I pinched the idea from the fact that, in the Admiralty, at the beginning of the War, all top-secret signals had the double-0 prefix.  This was changed subsequently for the usual security reasons, but it stuck in my mind and I borrowed it for Bond and he got stuck with it.”

On Bond as Fleming’s ‘Alter-Ego’…and Brand Names

“…Bond is a highly romanticized version of anybody, but certainly not I, and I couldn’t keep up with him; I couldn’t have even at his age, which is, and always has been, in the middle thirties.  He’s a sort of amalgam of romantic tough guys, dressed up in 20th Century clothes, using 20th Century language.  I think he’s slightly more true to the type of modern hero, to the commandos of the last War, and so on, and to some of the secret-service men I’ve met, than to any of the rather card-boardy heroes of the ancient thrillers.

“…Seduction has, to a marked extent, replaced courtship.  The direct, flat approach is not the exception, it is the standard.  James Bond is a healthy, violent, noncerebral man in his middle thirties, and a creature of his era.  I wouldn’t say he’s particularly typical of our times, but he’s certainly of the times.  Bond’s detached; he’s disengaged.  But he’s a believable man—around whom I try to weave a great web of excitement and fantasy.  In that, at least, we have very little in common.  Of course, there are similarities, since one writes only of what one knows, and some of the quirks and characteristics that I give Bond are ones that I know about.  When I make him smoke certain cigarettes, for example, it’s because I do so myself, and I know what these things taste like, and I have no shame in giving them free advertising.

“No self respecting agent would use such things [the gold-ringed cigarettes of Balkan and Turkish tobacco mixed for Bond by Morland's of Grosvenor Street].  He’d smoke Players or Chesterfields.  But the readers enjoy such idiosyncrasies, and they accept them—because they don’t stop to think about it.   The secrecy of my secret agent is pretty transparent, if you think about it even briefly.  But the pace, the pace of the narrative gets one by these nasty little corners.  It’s a sleight-of-hand operation.  It’s overpowering the reader.  You take him along at such a rate, you interest him so deeply in the narrative that he isn’t jolted by these incongruities.  I suppose I do it to demonstrate that I can do it.”

On His Fondness for Minutiae

“The main reason is that these things excite and interest me.  I’m observant, I think, and when I walk down the street or when I go into a room, I observe things and remember them very accurately.  It amuses me to use my powers of observation in my books and at the same time to tell people what my favourite objects are, and my favourite foods and liquors and scents, and so on.  Exact details of individual private lives and private tastes are extremely interesting to me.  I think that even the way in which a man shaves in the morning is well worth recording.  The more we have of this kind of detailed stuff laid down around a character, the more interested we are in him.

“I make notes of such details constantly; I write down my thoughts and and comments and I note menus, and so forth.  I’ve just written down something I picked up in Istanbul the other day:  ‘Now there is no more shade.’  This is a Turkish expression, used when a great sultan, like Mustafa Kemal, dies.  The general cry of the people was ‘Now there is no more shade,’ which is rather an expressive way of saying now there is nothing to protect us, now that the great man has gone.  I write things like that down and often use them later on in my books.”

A man and his cigarette
A man and his cigarette
© Horste Tappe/Hulton Archive – Getty Images

On James Bond, the character

“…I wanted my hero to be entirely an anonymous instrument and to let the action of the book carry him along.  I didn’t believe in the heroic Bulldog Drummond types.  I mean, rather, I didn’t believe that they could any longer exist in literature.  I wanted this man more or less to follow the pattern of Raymond Chandler’s or Dashiell Hammett’s heroes—believable people, believable heroes.

“I don’t think that [James Bond] is necessarily a good guy or a bad guy.  Who is?  He’s got his vices and very few perceptible virtues except patriotism and courage, which are probably not virtues anyway.  He’s certainly got little in the way of politics, but I should think what politics he has are just a little bit left of centre.  And he’s got little culture.  He’s a man of action, and he reads books on golf, and so on—when he reads anything.  I quite agree that he’s not a person of much social attractiveness.  But then, I didn’t intend for him to be a particularly likable person.  He’s a cipher, a blunt instrument in the hands of government.

“…I’ve lived with him for about twelve years now, and we’ve been getting into deeper and deeper trouble together.  So I’ve come to have a certain sympathy with what is going to happen to him, whatever that may be.”

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