By Oliver Buckton
Let me begin by saying I never actually met John Pearson in person. The closest I came to a “live” meeting was a phone conversation, somewhere back in 2019, when I called him from my office at Florida Atlantic University. The phone, reaching across the Atlantic to the UK, seemed to ring for an eternity before it was finally picked up and I heard a soft yet clear voice:
“May I speak to John Pearson?”
My reason for calling John—though I feel I should respectfully refer to him as “Mr. Pearson”—was to ask permission to quote some extracts from his extraordinary collection of papers on Ian Fleming, housed at the Lily Library. At the time, I was immersed in researching and writing my biography of Ian Fleming, The World is Not Enough, and had enjoyed the superb opportunity of a Visiting Fellowship at the Lily Library to study the Fleming manuscripts. Of course, like others before me, I was awed by the experience of studying the original typescripts of the Bond novels. One of the greatest treasures I discovered at the Lily, however, was the Pearson Papers. This is a collection—boxes and boxes—of material that John Pearson had amassed while researching his pioneering biography of Ian Fleming, first published in 1966. The collection consists mainly of numerous interviews with people who knew Ian Fleming, loved him, worked alongside him—before, during, and after World War II.
These voluminous interview notes include records of conversations with everyone from Ann, his wife; Peter, his brother; Admiral John Godfrey, his wartime boss in Naval Intelligence; to his fellow-stockbrokers during Ian’s ill-starred venture into the City and stint as “the world’s worst stockbroker.” Having already read Pearson’s biography twice, I had a high opinion of its intimate tone, sense of familiarity with its subject, and swift narrative pace. The author’s familiarity with his subject was hardly surprising, given that Pearson had been Fleming’s junior colleague at The Sunday Times. When I read these notes at the Lilly in 2019, many—in fact, most—of the people that Pearson had interviewed were dead. I realised it would never again be possible to write a biography of Ian with such an immediate sense of the era in which he lived and the people he knew.
Yet, despite my great respect for his work, I felt that occasionally Pearson’s judgment erred in his assessment of Ian and his writing. He represented Ian as rather a cold philanderer, incapable of lasting friendships with women: one quote, in particular, stands out, about Ian’s attitudes to women: “It was this attitude that helped to prevent his affairs from turning into any deeper relationship. Real friendship could exist only among men—women were there to be slept with and then forgotten”(106). My own investigations into Ian’s relationships with women—for example, his close friendship with Maud Russell, owner of Mottisfont—had already led me to question this verdict. Russell would later gift Ian the money to purchase the land in Jamaica and build Goldeneye after the war, helping Ian realize his dream: to “live in Jamaica and write books.”
The support was far from being one-way, however: Ian was an important confidant during Maud’s troubles over her son Raymond, who attempted to sign up as a Conscientious Objector in World War II. Maud writes in her wartime diary, “Poor I[an] had a very troubled youth himself, and understands this dreadful tangle better than anyone I know… His heart is so good”(Russell, Constant Heart, 153). Pearson did not, I felt, give Ian credit for the respect he felt (and showed) for women, including Maud, his literary mentor Phyllis Bottome, and of course Ann, his wife. I also doubted whether Pearson always took Fleming seriously enough as a writer, perhaps deceived by Ian’s own self-deprecating remarks about his craft. On the one hand, Pearson gives Ian credit for the long gestation and revision of Casino Royale, which “involved several months of serious revision before he considered it fit for publication” (Ian Fleming, “Introduction”).
On the other hand, Pearson does not delve deeply into the themes and psychological dimensions of Fleming’s fiction. Fleming’s late narrative tour de force, The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) is dismissed by Pearson in the following terms: “he already sensed that his experiment of telling the story in the first person through his heroine and of leaving Bond offstage until well over halfway through was not what his public wanted”(Pearson, Ian Fleming, Ch 25). Yet, as I argue in The World is Not Enough, Fleming’s triumph success with Tracy de Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would not have been possible without the “experiment” of Viv Michel.
I remain convinced that Pearson’s narrative is an essential account of Ian Fleming from the perspective of one who knew him well, if not intimately. Pearson’s research for the biography was immense. I also believe that the Pearson Papers contain a wealth of insight into Ian’s character and writing, much of which did not find its way into the final biography.
Back to 2019, when slightly awed by the moment of speaking on the phone with Pearson, I asked him tactfully if he would grant me permission to quote from some of his papers in my biography. He very politely replied that he was currently working on a published version of the Papers, with Fergus Fleming—Ian’s nephew—and therefore wasn’t in a position to grant me permission to quote from the Lilly collection. My first reaction was, of course, great disappointment. I wanted my biography to reflect some of the multi-faceted views of Ian contained in the Pearson papers, and without this source, I felt my book would be less complete. On the other hand, the prospect of a published edition of these papers was more than tantalizing. I immediately contacted Fergus Fleming to find out more information and learned that the Papers would be published by Queen Anne Press—the imprint that Ian Fleming took over as Managing Director in 1952. Undeterred, I continued to work on my biography, which included further research at the Jonathan Cape Archive at the University of Reading and Churchill Archive Center in Cambridge. Meanwhile, I could only hope that the Pearson Papers would be published in time for me to read them before completing my book.
My patience was rewarded when Ian Fleming: The Notes was published by Queen Anne Press in 2020. I ordered my copy as soon as I could and, when it arrived in Florida, I was immersed, indeed captivated, for days on end. This was indeed, I felt, John Pearson’s magnum opus. Pearson had, as ALR readers know, followed up the biography of Ian with James Bond: the Authorised Biography—a fictionalised biography and compelling read—in 1974. He had also published acclaimed biographies of the Kray Twins and the Sitwells. But nothing could compare to—or prepare for — this magnificent collection of insights from, and about, the people who knew Ian most intimately. The book, as a physical object, also lived up to the high aesthetic standards of Queen Anne Press. My experience of delving through the Pearson Papers at the Lily had been inspiring and illuminating, fulfilling part of the great satisfaction of archival research—that of piecing together a puzzle.
But reading The Notes in published form was like experiencing the puzzle fully assembled, meticulously organised and beautifully presented. The interviews with each subject are gathered together in a series of sections, each bristling with wit, insight, and surprising revelations. For example, having come to view Ian’s older brother, Peter, as Ian’s gegenspieler (to use Alfred Adler’s term for a sibling rival), I expected The Notes to confirm Peter’s sense of superiority. It was quite refreshing, therefore, to read that Peter felt a sense of inferiority to his younger brother at school: “For me a great source of angst was that I was smaller than Ian and at Eton, you wore Eton jackets up to 5ft 4 inches and tails afterward. Ian wore tails from the start” (187). Pearson also offers a fascinating insight into the Fleming brothers’ literary rivalry: “He [Peter] spoke rather oddly about the Bond success. Seemed to treat the success quite separately from the books. ‘Which, frankly, I don’t all that much care for.’ But the success he was clearly in awe of. ‘You see, Ian simply imposed his will on the whole world’”(188-9).
I feel fortunate that Ian Fleming: The Notes was published in time for me to benefit from the volume, for my biography was enhanced by the insights and psychological grasp of Pearson’s observations and thoroughness of his note-taking. I am grateful to both John Pearson and Fergus Fleming for producing this magnificent capstone of Pearson’s impressive career. For me, Ian Fleming: The Notes supersedes the biography and makes up for some of its shortcomings.
And so, even though the answer to my initial request—when I called John Pearson across the Atlantic—was a polite but firm “no,” I have no regrets. Rather, I am grateful that I had the chance to speak with the man who first told the story of Ian Fleming’s remarkable, gifted, unique, yet troubled life.
Pearson, John. Ian Fleming: The Notes. Queen Anne Press, 2020.
—. The Life of Ian Fleming. 1966. Bloomsbury (e-book edition), 2011.
Russell, Emily, ed. A Constant Heart: The War Diaries of Maud Russell 1938-1945. Dovecote Press, 2017.
Oliver is the author of The World is Not Enough: A Biography of Ian Fleming (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Oliver Buckton provides the first in-depth exploration of the entire process of Ian Fleming’s writing-from initial conception, through composition, to his involvement in the innovative publication methods of his books.
Offering a radically new view of Fleming’s relationships with women, Buckton traces the role of strong, independent, and intelligent women such as Maud Russell, Phyllis Bottome, and his wife, Ann, on Fleming’s portrayal of female characters.