Ian Fleming throws a machete on the beach near his Jamaican home

Spilling the beans on the great spymasters

Fantasy is an essential part of what we are pleased to call reality


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Stood side by side, these two books look like a comedy double act. At 820-plus pages long, Nicholas Shakespeare’s Ian Fleming is an Oliver Hardy-sized volume. Adam Sisman’s The Secret Life of John le Carré, on the other hand, is thinner than Stan Laurel’s little finger. No surprises there: whereas Shakespeare offers us what his subtitle calls “The Complete Man”, Sisman has already given us the full SP on his man in 2015’s John le Carré: The Biography.

Alas, far from being the biography, that all but authorised book turned out to be only half a life. Even as Sisman was correcting his proofs, le Carré was putting the finishing touches to his own memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. Neither book, though, got down and dirty. Sisman stopped being prim only in order to be exculpatory. Le Carré’s book was at once disarming and defensive — a smokescreen masquerading as a mirror.

A few years on, both le Carré and his wife are dead. Sisman is free to spill the beans — and he has a whole cannery of them to spill. It turns out that le Carré was a lothario. Paperbacks of Fleming’s novels used to say that James Bond was “the man every woman wants between her sheets”. The same went double for le Carré. Pretty much every time he published a book, a new lover arrived on the scene. Nice work if you can get it, especially if your wife suggests, as le Carré’s did, that we might as well let the new girl have the run of the basement flat beneath our home in Islington.

The Secret Life of John le Carré, Adam Sisman (Profile, £16.99)

Except that le Carré didn’t enjoy it when things ran smoothly. Though he always needed at least one lover on the go, and though he told each of them that he’d at last found what he was looking for because she was the one, etc., it was never too long before he was saying that whatever happened between them he could never leave his wife even assuming she would let him walk, etc. Needless to say, all this guff was the opposite of the truth — which was that le Carré needed his wife to keep tabs on him, just as he needed his lovers to facilitate his daydream about slipping the marital leash.

Sisman doesn’t press the issue, but he’s convinced that le Carré’s “pursuit of women [is] a key to unlock his fiction”. Just as George Smiley’s ability to disinter the truth grows out of his capacity for grasping his wife’s need for infidelity, so le Carré’s labyrinthine tales of intrigue (can anyone really explain who did what to whom and why in, say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?) are metaphoric expressions of his tortuous bedroom assignations.

No such beguilements for Ian Fleming. He and his various women were never less than upfront about the games they played. Those games won’t surprise James Bond’s critics, who have for years called out the superspy as a serial sadist. The 007 of Fleming’s novels is always threatening to beat his newest conquest, and in the course of one adventure he even threatens the homely Moneypenny with “such a spanking you’ll have to do your typing off a block of Dunlopillo”.

Bond spake from his creator’s heart. Fleming, Shakespeare shows, loved thrashing his lovers. He once chased the daughter of a friend around the dining room table with a whip. “You and I,” he informed the young Antonia Fraser, “both know the love that hangs behind the bathroom door.” “I am,” he told his (delighted) wife Ann, “the chosen instrument of the Holy Man to whip some of the devil out of you.”

None of this is news. Fleming’s sexual antics have been common currency since not long after his early death at 56 in 1964. Shakespeare gussies things up some by wondering whether Fleming ever swung both ways, but the story he has to tell will be familiar to anyone who has read the earlier biographies by John Pearson and Andrew Lycett.

Still, Shakespeare does have some new gen. When his friend William Plomer was reported to the police for importuning a sailor at Paddington station, it was Fleming, then a big shot in Naval Intelligence, who got the charge dropped. This debt was repaid, Shakespeare believes, when Plomer, who worked as a reader for Jonathan Cape, recommended Casino Royale for publication.

Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, Nicholas Shakespeare (Harvill Secker, £30.00)

Talking of which, I was astonished to learn that Fleming’s early books were easily outsold by those of the young Alistair MacLean. His sales took off a little in 1961, after the newly inaugurated JFK pronounced From Russia with Love one of his favourite reads. It wasn’t until Sean Connery’s Bond hit the silver screen that he first made “a serious income from his writing”, though. As for Shakespeare’s news that in America Fleming’s Casino Royale was retitled You Asked For It and Moonraker as Too Hot to Handle, all I can say is I want to hear the Shirley Bassey theme songs.

Le Carré famously dismissed Fleming as a fantasist. “Bond on his magic carpet,” he argued, “takes us away from moral doubt, banishes perplexity with action, morality with duty.” Who could demur? Except, of course, that fantasy is an essential part of what we are pleased to call reality.

One of the ways we know the real world for what it is is by knowing what fantasy is. Anyway, what’s so bad about fantasy? One of the young Ian Fleming’s fantasies was Operation Mincemeat, which no less an authority than Michael Howard once called “the most successful single deception operation of the entire war”.

To be sure, le Carré was a far wiser and altogether subtler writer than Fleming. Fleming would have run a mile from Le Carré’s essential — and essentially Freudian — insight that “People are very secretive creatures — secret even from themselves”. Still, there is no gainsaying the fact that even as he brings you up to speed on matters of international security and the best place to conceal a passport in a hotel room, le Carré also lets you grasp something of the workings of the human heart.

Then again, how many times have you re-read The Little Drummer Girl, let alone The Honourable Schoolboy? And how many times have you reread Dr No? Goldfinger? On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? As Kingsley Amis put it in his marvellous James Bond Dossier, “I like reading about you and me as much as the next man does, but not all the time.” The heroes of both these books are far from being you and me, but I have a suspicion that the fantasist will outlive the factualist. For all his dreaming, Ian Fleming kept fewer secrets from himself than John le Carré did.

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