Andrew Lycett needs little introduction. He is the fearless biographer who has tackled such great lives as Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dylan Thomas. To date, his 1995 biography of Ian Fleming is every Bondophile’s go-to reference on Ian Fleming.
We welcome Andrew in from the cold.
Why did you decide to write a biography about Ian Fleming?
It came at a particular period of my life when I was working as a journalist, mainly in the Middle East. I had written, with a colleague, a book about Colonel Gaddafi and Libya, a country I used to visit a lot. But I wasn’t a traditional Arabist, with an immaculate command of the Arab tongue, and I didn’t see myself specializing in this particular area of the world for the whole of my life. However I was interested in what might broadly be described as intelligence matters.
So my agent at the time had the inspired idea of suggesting I write about Ian Fleming, someone who I’d always found fascinating, without knowing a great deal about him. This coincided with a strange dip in interest in things related to James Bond. This was largely because there was a gap in the production of the films as a result of a legal dispute. This coincided with a moment a biographer recognises in the cycle of a celebrated dead person’s after-life – there has been the instant biography, various close relations have died, and there has been enough passage of time to allow his friends to step back and talk freely about him. So there was an opportunity for someone to look at Ian Fleming anew.
What did the research process entail and how long did it take?
Any decent biography requires about three years’ worth of concerted work. I wrote this in the days before the Internet. Now you can make contact with people and with librarians by email and you can search collections online and have material sent to you electronically. I had to do this all by letter.
I think this was an advantage, because Fleming had such a wide and interesting range of friends, and I basically had to go and visit them – everyone from Oatsie Leiter in Washington, to Sir Peter Smithers in Switzerland, and many, many more in-between. And then of course there was the Ian Fleming archive at what was then called Glidrose, as well as official repositories of his papers, such as those kept at the Lilly Library at Indiana University at Bloomington.
What were some of the most difficult challenges in writing the book?
Well, getting words on paper is always a challenge. However I don’t recall my Fleming book being particularly difficult. The whole Fleming community – from his family, through his friends, to the great world of 007 enthusiasts – could not have been more supportive.
Did your opinion of Ian evolve throughout the writing of the book?
I had a pretty good idea of what he was like from the start. People sometimes say to me that he was a bastard and they don’t see how I could have spent time in his company (as it were). However, in many ways, I found that the more I got to know him the more I liked him. He was a credible human being, with foibles and weaknesses. I think that’s where my book scores; it doesn’t provide a over-glossy picture of Fleming, trying to compare him to Bond, but it paints him as an extraordinary character, while giving due acknowledgement to his many achievements.
You’ve taken on some other major literary figures in history including Kipling, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins. What drives you to take on the challenge, how do they differ and is there another literary giant you would like to tackle?
It is curious that I have got into literary lives. I was trained as a historian and worked as a journalist. So by rights I should be writing a history of the Middle East or something similar. As I’ve mentioned, wearing my journalistic hat, I had written, and enjoyed writing, a life of Gaddafi. So it seemed worth carrying on down that biographical path. It was a time when literary biography was very popular, following the success of such writers as Michael Holroyd. It’s always a challenge, I must admit, but it’s always a great pleasure, so there’s not much driving involved.
Biographers are often loath to reveal their future projects. I’m no different, but I can mention that one figure I’ve always wanted to write about is Ernest Hemingway. My family used to live close to his son Patrick in East Africa when I was a child. It was only later that I came to understand why one of the first ‘adult’ books I was given (aged five or six) was The Old Man and the Sea.
What advice can you give to fledgling biographers?
The business of biography is changing. There is always scope for the big original biography. But the market for middle of the road characters is difficult – partly, I think, because of competition from the Internet. So biographers have had to lift their game and find new ways of telling stories. Being passionately interested in a subject and wanting to find out more about him or her is not a bad place to start.
Since the book was published, has any new information surfaced that you would have liked to have included? Would the book be noticeably different if you wrote it today?
There are one or two areas I would improve. But generally speaking the book holds up remarkably well. So it really wouldn’t be much different now.
Are there any unpublished works by Fleming that merit public access?
One I’ve long been interested in is ‘State of Excitement’, Fleming’s book about his time in Kuwait in late 1960. However he didn’t hide his lack of enthusiasm for the Gulf emirate, and the Kuwait Oil Company which commissioned the book did not allow it to be published – a ban which has endured to this day.
What do you regard as Fleming’s best work, the core of his achievement?
Casino Royale is often regarded as his most sophisticated novel – taut and clever. And it was the first off the production block. But I prefer From Russia With Love, for its excitement and its demonstration of the broad ‘Fleming sweep’ style of writing. It was the first Bond novel I read in about 1960. So I guess that’s got something to do with it.
Obviously not the core of his achievement, but Fleming was a great journalist, who wrote a number of excellent newspaper and magazine articles which are still worth reading.
I sometimes wish he’d written one more substantial book – perhaps a memoir – away from the Bond oeuvre.
Your biography is the most comprehensive we have of Fleming to date. Many others have offered additional angles. We’ve also recently had Robert Harling and Fergus Fleming’s insightful works, but are there any areas that you would like to see explored more or would go back to himself if he could?
I more or less covered that in my answer to your question above about new information. One area I’d like to know more about is Fleming’s activities in Germany and Austria during the 1930s, particularly in the period leading up to the Second World War. I’d also like to have a bit more of insight into exactly the qualities and/or achievements which resulted in his being selected to become assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence.
Are you tempted to return to the Fleming orbit and work up a study on Ann or perhaps even Peter?
I can’t see myself writing about his wife Ann, but his brother Peter is a fascinating character who becomes more attractive the more I learn about him.
Andrew Lycett is the author of Ian Fleming, published by Phoenix in paperback.
Andrew Lycett was educated at Charterhouse and went on to read modern history at Christ Church, Oxford. As a former foreign correspondent, he has travelled widely, specialising in Africa and the Middle East. A full-time author since the early 1990s, his books include highly regarded lives of Ian Fleming, Dylan Thomas, Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as well as of the Royal Geographical Society. He lives in North London.
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