A special treat for our readers this week, as we welcome renowned historian and documentary producer Henry Chancellor in from the cold. In the canon of James Bond reference books, Henry’s book in collaboration with Ian Fleming Publications, stands as one of the best. We asked him how this book came to be.
1. Why did you decide to write this book?
The honest answer is I was asked to. I’d written a book about Colditz and had made a few tv series on wartime derring-do, which is why Roland Philips at John Murray thought of me. He said the Fleming estate were thinking of opening up the archive and wondering whether there might be a book in it about the origins of Bond…would I like to have look? So of course I did…
And what I found was fascinating. At that time all Ian Flemings’ stuff was housed in some heavy black steel trunks in the basement of Flemings’ bank. They turned out to be a treasure trove, as Fleming never seemed to throw anything away. I found fragments of conversations scribbled on the back of menus, pages of hotel stationery with names of villains, feeding habits of fish, makes of engine…it was a really amazing collection of all that ‘Fleming effect’, as Kingsley Amis called it- the real stuff that Fleming peppered the Bond novels with to ground his ‘fairy tales for grown-ups’ in reality.
I realised that you could use all of this ephemera to write something like a literary biography of Bond, and that’s what appealed to me initially…and then once I got going I realised that writing anything about Bond you are essentially writing about his creator, as 007 and Fleming are so intertwined. Which made it even more fascinating.
I spent a long time in the basement of that bank. I wandered around London and went to a few of Fleming’s old haunts, chatted to a few people who still remembered him, and I read quite a lot of relatively obscure 1950s books: crime novels, spy thrillers, pulp fiction, political tracts, recipe books, basically all the stuff Fleming himself read during those long months of planning before he took himself off to Jamaica to write the next Bond novel. Unfortunately I could never think of any excuse to go to take myself off to Goldeneye as well…
3. What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Ian?
Ian Fleming was a strange bird, no question. He was a mass of contradictions, which is why he’s so interesting, and its what makes Bond so interesting, too. I always liked Flemings’ affectation of having a specially made solid gold top for his bic biro, and that he always wore short sleeve shirts, even with suits.
These are interesting, but perhaps not that surprising. I think his lifelong promiscuity was quite surprising. I think his tobacco intake was positively heroic, by any standards. But if I’m honest I think the most surprising thing about Ian Fleming was that he ever got round to writing the James Bond books at all.
4. How did you realize the wonderful design concept of the book?
All the visual material is from the archive, and it was my idea to write it thematically rather than chronologically. It was also my idea to include the double page spreads describing each of the novels, their inspirations and reception. This came out of my own research, I made them for myself because I couldn’t remember exactly what material was in which novel, and I managed to persuade Gordon Wise my editor that readers might find that useful also. I think they are.
Now I think its From Russia with Love. Fleming always did sex, sadism and snobbery very well, but more important than any of these is a good villain. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rosa Klebb and the poison-tipped steel knife she keeps concealed in her shiny buttoned boot.
6. Do you think that literary Bond will still be a relevant in 50 years time?
Relevant? Good question. In a historical sense yes, in a creative sense, no. Bond was massive in his day, he sold in millions, his exploits were lapped up by everyone from JFK downwards, and some of his fictional adventures actually influenced Cold War skulduggery. James Bond was a colossus of 20th century spy fiction, and for that reason alone he will not be forgotten in 50 years’ time…even if its just by a few literary historians.
But will he still be relevant creatively? Is he still relevant creatively even now?
You have to ask the question, if the films had not been so successful and become such an integral part of cinematic history, would writers still be writing Bond books? I doubt it. James Bond, the Cold War special agent, has been given an extraordinary lifeline by the continuing franchise of the films. The filmmakers have had to reinvent him over and over to give him a relevance, but its much harder to do that with books, because the medium is different. Novels (even spy thrillers) are too personal. Its not just a matter of changing the suit and the car and the gun, its about thought processes and words and descriptions, and James Bond is not a generic character. When you read a Bond novel, you are with 007. You experience things through and with him, and that all comes from Ian Fleming- one voice, not a whole army of writers, designers, cinematographers, actors…you’re inside Fleming’s head.
So if you read a follow-on Bond novel, what are you going to get? At best it’s a brilliant piece of ventriloquism. Worthy of the original, maybe even better. There have been a couple of those. Anything else, (actually everything else) is just lame pastiche. But to my mind, it’s all pastiche, really, because in some deep sense Ian Fleming was James Bond. It wasn’t just the suits and the cigarettes, the martinis and the scrambled eggs, the girls, the villains, the cars…it was something else. The literary Bond is a strange man. Only Fleming could have created him, just as only Conan Doyle could have created Sherlock Holmes, only Jane Austen could have created Elizabeth Bennett…perhaps all the most memorable literary characters carry something of their creator, which is what makes them great in the first place.
So yes, in fifty years time someone else may still be driving the Aston Martin…but they’ll never own it.
Henry Chancellor was born in London in 1968. He grew up in East Anglia and was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is the highly acclaimed chronicle of Colditz (which was twelve years in the making) and his remarkable TV series Escape from Colditz won sweeping critical praise. His other documentaries for television include Giovanni Belzoni: The Last Tombraider, Pirates and Millennium.
Henry published the first in a series of new childrens’ books, The Museum’s Secret: The Remarkable Adventures of Tom Scatterhorn, in 2008.
He lives in Suffolk, England.