Ian Fleming: "efficient, sophisticated, energetic, dutiful, unable to suffer fools even ungladly"

  • January 15, 2020 15:26
  • Robert Harling

As we publish Robert Harling's book, Ian Fleming: A Personal Memoir, why not take a look through the pages and see just how this remarkable man inspired the stories of the most famous spy of all: James Bond?


I was doubly fortunate in my two bosses: one official, the other somewhat less so throughout these tasks.

The first, my official boss, was the ‘mysterious Colonel Bassett’, as he has been termed. Although a strict disciplinarian in the tough tradition of the Royal Marines, he was an unusually understanding chief for someone occasionally needing to act outside formal regulations. Above all, he was far from mysterious.

Secondly, as I was frequently moving between Oxford, the admiralty and distant places, I was continuously in contact with Fleming, and gradually came to know him from our somewhat casual official exchanges conducted in seemingly mutually agreeable fashion. He began to use my foreign trips for the occasional unofficial letter or message to deliver to Naval Intelligence Division (NID) officers abroad or requesting odd enquiries to be made. Above all, he was invariably keen to have first-hand reports concerning NID officers in distant outposts. As I had, he contended, ‘an unholy and inquisitive interest in the background and behaviour of mankind and, of course, womankind, and no axe to grind’, I was invariably thoroughly quizzed on my return from distant travels, usually at Scott’s or the Etoile – my most favoured pre-war restaurant – to which I introduced Fleming as an alternative to Scott’s or Kettner’s.

A tentative friendship was casually established in these meetings, quizzes and exchanges. I was intrigued and occasionally amused by his adherence to establishment values, probably inevitable in one who had lived and worked within a series of immutably conventional institutions: Eton, Sandhurst, the City and now the admiralty. He was a made-to-measure personal assistant to the tough and ruthless DNI, for he was efficient, sophisticated, energetic, dutiful, unable to suffer fools even ungladly, even for a split second, and clearly ambitious to make his mark in the service. His elder brother, Peter, had established himself pre-war in the army. Their mother, I gathered, was not averse to pointing out this disparity in the respective pre-war achievements of her two elder sons. Having missed out on these clamping maternal experiences, I was deeply curious concerning their effects on character and conduct in others.

An instance of these contrasts cropped up after my return from an early trip to the Middle East. A typical Fleming quiz at Scott’s would be fired off at an odd and unexpected moment during the meal.

‘I gather you enjoyed this so-called Turkish stint, including Istanbul. Why and how?’

‘I was parked in the Pera Palace. Very agreeably, thanks to the consideration and advice of Commander Vladimir Wolfson.’

‘What d’you think of him?’

Vladimir Wolfson, a White Russian, had escaped from Moscow to Britain while in his early teens. After Cambridge and the City, he had been recruited to naval intelligence and stationed in wartime Istanbul. He was well suited and well placed there, as linguist and questor. Above all, as one who was more English than any Englishman he was clearly determined to do everything possible for his adopted homeland. He had proved a notable help to me.

Fleming grinned as I gave full value to the commander’s identity, tenacity and worldly wisdom.

‘Made for the job, you think?’


‘Roughly my own view. I gather you brought back the required charts and maps. I gather you also enjoyed Istanbul. Why?’

‘Basically because, as a born perambulator, there was so much to see between naval researches. Wolfson took care of that. I saw a good deal of the Bosphorus. I also met a far-from-home Parisienne. Very relaxing and attentive, and also trying her best to enjoy Istanbul during her enforced stay.’

‘How did she get from France to Turkey? Probably a spy.’

‘Possibly, but she said she was one of several Parisiennes who had found Istanbul a profitable pre-war parking lot, and that she was now the mistress of a Turkish bigwig who was busy making his ambitious way up the diplomatic ladder and not an unduly over-frequent visitor to her flat, despite the fact that he handsomely underpinned her monthly money-bag.’

‘I take it you kept your lips fully sealed.’

‘My lips were fully engaged elsewhere. We didn’t discuss typography, topography or even oceanography even once.’

‘Trust Harling!’ Fleming said, grinning.

‘Duty first! Isn’t that the great naval tradition?’ I claimed. ‘Here I am, awaiting my next task. Yearning for it.’

He grinned. ‘Then what? How d’you get back from Istanbul after you left Wolfson?’

‘Asked him to OK my due leave. He gave me a week’s freedom to make my own way back to Alex. Not even leave. Naval duties.’

‘How was your return achieved?’

‘Train from Istanbul to Ankara. Having seen those lunar landscapes from the plane, I wanted to see them more closely. I also wanted to look around Ankara, ancient and modern. Spent a couple of days there. Even bought a Kelim prayer rug from a dealer with no English, and myself no Turkish. A bargain in pigeon French.’

‘And then?’

‘I’ve always wanted to see Aleppo, so I dropped in.’

‘Still not in uniform?’

‘I was by then. After Aleppo, I spent a couple of days in Beirut. I know an army medico base there. Very entertaining. Paris on the Med.’

‘And then?’

‘Cadged a lift from a French courier going down to Haifa. From there an Israeli courier down to Gaza. Finally, a lift in a British Army truck back to Alex. You should try it sometime. Wartime hitch-hiking. The art of movement-without-effort. But, then, your travels are sponsored from on high with the ambassadorial limo awaiting your whims outside the hotel.’

‘Very funny!’ he said, but, then, to my surprise, added that he doubted he would prove to be any good at the practices I’d outlined.

‘No need to be a shrink to see that,’ I said. ‘You’re far too busy giving orders than proffering requests. Anyway, dropping in on an army staging post with the certainty of a lift scarcely comes under the heading of hitch-hiking. All laid on.’

‘How d’you set about your requests?’

‘The usual drill for all and sundry. Just turn up and say where you need to get to. That’s all – and always enough. Come back in an hour’s time or six, tomorrow morning’s the usual drill.’

He nodded, as if in understanding, which I doubted. ‘I’m either not that arrogant or not that suppliant,’ he mused.

‘As an amateur shrink I’d say this snippet of self-analysis concerning arrogance is 100 per cent correct. Any hint of suppliance in your make-up is sheer blarney.’

He hooted with laughter, his usual dismissal of any subject taking too personal or untoward a turn. But this was not to be his last word on my Middle Eastern travels.

Somewhat over-casually, he queried: ‘You mentioned this French tart. How d’you meet her?’

‘You’re talking about my friend, Andrée, in Istanbul, I gather. We met via the ancient device of eye contact in a local café.’

‘What followed the eye contact?’

‘Queries concerning her arrival in that remote area. Hints concerning her lifestyle. A few further drinks – mine non-alcoholic, of course. Responsibility for both bills, of course. Invited back. Age-old stuff.’

‘What about her abode?’

‘Quite pleasant. Couple of rooms quite near the Pera. She’d gone out there pre-war, tempted by tales of Turkish millionaires. Didn’t find any, but soon found the war’s well-heeled executives in the Pera. Quite profitable. Why not? Frogs, Krauts, Brits, the lot. Then met her local bigwig and opted for comfort – apart from the odd encounter. She’s one of the fortunates of her trade. As I was too, I daresay, in meeting her.’

He laughed. Heartily. ‘I’ll take your word and memory for your belief. Describe your Andrée in thirty words.’

‘Is this an official request or an addendum to my official notes on my journey of enquiry?’

‘As it comes. It won’t appear in the WIR, that’s for sure.’

I laughed. ‘As it comes then. Late thirties or early forties. Well dressed. Slim. Dark. Beautiful legs. Good features. Halting English. Sense of humour. Merry acceptance of her set-up so far from home. Alas, I’ve no snapshot. “Well geared for her lifestyle” is probably the simple caption I’m hunting for.’

‘Probably,’ he agreed, laughing. ‘“A well-matched randy pair far from home” is the caption I wouldn’t have to hunt for. I take it that apart from your silence on nautical matters she provided a lively latenight entertainment.’

‘To the matter born and burnished,’ I said, grinning.

‘Did you see her again?’

‘The following evening.’

‘Same routine?’ ‘Shorter supper session. Longer domestic session.’

More laughter from Fleming. ‘And no spilled secrets with any spilled sperm?’

‘Not a chance!’

‘So be it,’ he said with a grin. ‘Let’s get moving.’

We moved.

Years later, well into the Bond years, Fleming also visited Istanbul, but, true to what had become the established routine in his rounds of  thrilling cities, he was invariably the guest of a local celeb with RollsRoyce … and so on and on thrown in. ‘Plus an ideal guide to all the local showplaces, no doubt,’ I suggested at that later date.

‘What a hope! No exiled Parisienne tart came my way, if that’s what you’re implying,’ he affirmed gloomily, acknowledging his remembrance of my erstwhile self-indulgence.



Ian Fleming: A Personal Memoir is out now. Why not take a better look at it here?


Biteback 2020: what’s coming up in January

  • January 07, 2020 16:25
  • Vicky Jessop

Tis the New Year, and with it comes a whole new roster of books! We’re incredibly excited to be sharing some of this year’s upcoming releases with you: whether you like Bond, big animals or bellicose politicians, you’ll be sure to find something you like.

When you've finished taking a look at our excellent sale, let’s take a look at what’s coming down the track.

Trump and the Puritans

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is currently the President of the United States. But how did he get there?

That’s where authors Martyn Whittock and James Roberts come in. Together, they dissect America’s evangelical legacy, from the descendants of the Mayflower all the way to the super churches endorsing Trump for 2020. A fascinating- and relevant- read, it’s definitely a book that will make the commute fly by!

Out 14th January 2020.




Ian Fleming: A Memoir

If you are one of the aforementioned Bond enthusiasts, then start your year off with a bang as we look at the man behind the golden gun: Ian Fleming himself. Written by his longtime friend and wartime colleague Robert Harling, the book dives into Fleming’s past and discusses his charm, creativity and charisma- but also his dark side. It’s an extraordinary memoir by one of the people who knew him best, and it’s out now!

Out 30th January 2020.




The Frog with Self-Cleaning Feet and The Shark that Walks on Land

For everybody who has ever loved watching David Attenborough’s documentaries (which, to be honest, is all of us), this is the next best thing. Seasoned nature writer and veteran of the BBC’s Natural History Unit Michael Bright brings us two books about the wonders of the natural world. These books discuss the weird and wonderful things that animals do both above and below the shoreline: find out how animals tell the time, and discover the truth behind the mysterious kraken…

Out 16th January 2020. And do take a look at Michael Bright's festive Q&A with us below!


The New Year Sale

  • December 26, 2019 12:07
  • Vicky Jessop

There’s no better way to start the new year than with a new sale! We’ve had a very exciting year at Biteback: we’ve seen two Prime Ministers, one General Election, and 51 books published, so we’ve decided to celebrate the new decade with a sale of some of 2019’s best books.

Until the 19th January, hardbacks and eBooks will be 60% off, and paperbacks will be half-price.

Take a look below and find something that will brighten up that post-Christmas feeling!



May at 10, by Anthony Seldon

Romanifesto, by Asa Bennett

The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics, by Patrick Kidd

The Big Book of Boris, by Iain Dale and Jakub Szweda

Critical Times, by Peter Brookes



Home Truths, by Liam Halligan   

F**k Business, by Iain Anderson

Sex, Lies and Politics, by Philip Cowley and Rob Ford

Cleaning up the Mess, by Ian Kennedy

Little Platoons, by David Skelton

The English Job, by Jack Straw

Punch and Judy Politics, by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

The Secret Art of Lobbying, by Darcy Nicolle

I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics, by Jeanne Safer

How To Survive A Select Committee, by Scott Colvin



Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry, by Owen Bennett

A British Subject, by Dolar Popat

Rather His Own Man, by Geoffrey Robertson



Ciao, Stirling, by Val Pirie

Running for My Life, by Jordan Wylie

The Boxer’s Story, by Nathan Shapow


The Royals

And What Do You Do?, by Norman Baker


Russian politics

An Impossible Dream, by Guillaume Serina

Putin’s Killers, by Amy Knight



Shackleton’s Heroes, by Wilson McOrist

Who Owns History, by Geoffrey Robertson

The Slow Downfall of Margaret Thatcher, by Bernard Ingham


Not found the right book for you? Then why not check out our New Releases for more inspiration?



Pup of the month

  • December 22, 2019 07:00

To celebrate the festive season, here's a very special blog post from the office dog Pip...

Pets by Royal Appointment is my new favourite book and the perfect Christmas present for all animal parents out there. I have become really jealous learning about the animal-sized palaces where royal pets live – though I’m glad I don’t have to share a home with any crocodiles, hippos or elephants, like some royal pooches of back in the day.

Ever since Henry VIII, the Kings and Queens of England have kept pets, from a whole dynasty of corgis to stables full of horses. Find out which royal made a family Christmas card featuring their dog front and centre – I think I might suggest my owner does the same this year. In fact, he might be extra interested to know that the Queen gives each of her corgis their own individual stockings for Christmas EVERY YEAR, and that’s not even to mention the extravagant presents Queen Victoria bought for her spaniel Dash. This book has something for every owner and I’ll be making sure there’s a copy under my tree, right next to that suspicious biscuit-shaped package.


A Christmas Q&A with Michael Bright

  • December 19, 2019 14:00
  • Michael Bright

Nature is a weird and wonderful place, and nobody knows that better than Michael Bright. As the author of more than 130 books- two of which are being reissued by us at Biteback this January- he sat down with us to chat about his inspirations, his love of nature and the fact that his grandmother had one of the first television sets in all of Plymouth...


What kick-started your love of the natural world?

I was fortunate enough to have lived for most of my early life in Plymouth, on the border between two of the UK's most beautiful counties – Devon and Cornwall. My playgrounds were the moors, beaches, and sea cliffs, so you could not help be excited by all that was around you. Plymouth is also home to the Marine Biological Association and, before the National Aquarium was built, it had a public aquarium. I pressed my nose to the glass almost every week, and one fish always attracted my attention. It was a huge wreckfish, so imagine my surprise when, many years later, I visited the new National Aquarium, and there was my wreckfish, alive and well!

    My mother used to take me down to the harbour to meet the aquarium's fishing boat. You always knew when it was coming home because it gave a loud honk to let their van driver know they were coming into port. It was different from the fish market further along the quay, in that all the fish and shellfish were kept alive; and what amazing things they brought back – huge lobsters, octopuses, John Dory, dogfish, smooth hounds, electric rays, and skates (when they were more common).

    Then, there was television. My grandmother had one of the first televisions in Plymouth, and, of all the programmes we watched together, it was the wildlife documentaries that caught my imagination. From that moment on, all I wanted to do was work in wildlife programme making. The writing came later.


What inspired you to write these books?

I thought it would be fun to gather together fascinating information about animals and present them in such a way that you can dip in and out of the book, and then impress your family and friends with fascinating facts – unless, of course, they've read the books too!


How did you do the research for the books?

Research initially came from what was in my head. When you work in radio and television, you pick up a lot of facts and figures along the way. It was just a matter of ordering them, so the books are not too rambling.


Most interesting animal fact you found out when writing them?

Oh gosh, that's a difficult one. I find them all interesting, but one thing that sticks in my mind is the bit of detective work I did on Steller's sea cow. It's an animal thought to have been hunted to extinction by 1768, but in 1937, the skeleton of a strange creature was found in the stomach of a harpooned sperm whale. Nobody has been able to identify it, but when I saw the photographs, it jumped out at me – here was a Steller's sea cow. A bit more digging revealed that creatures resembling the sea cow have been seen alive off the Russian and North American coasts, including a sighting as recently as 2006 off Washington State. A fishing charter skipper spotted what he described as a 'manatee', and Steller's sea cow is a close relative of the manatee. Terrific stuff.


Do you have a role model?

My early role models were all wildlife television presenters. The Austrian underwater explorer Hans Hass was the first. In his television series Diving to Adventure, he and his glamorous wife Lotte sailed the seven seas in a beautiful white schooner called the Xarifa. The most exciting moments were when they dived with sharks, and to this day, I rate sharks among my favourite animals.

    My second hero was, of course, Sir David Attenborough. When I was young, he was making the Zoo Quest series, and the episodes that really caught my imagination were from Zoo Quest for a Dragon, when Sir David and his trusty cameraman Charles Lagus, encountered the Komodo dragon – shear magic!

    A third hero was naturalist and wildlife cameraman Tony Soper. Tony was one of the founders of the BBC's Natural History Unit, and he accompanied Sir Peter Scott and his wife in the two series Look and Faraway Look. Each week they transported this little boy from Plymouth to exotic locations, such as Galápagos Islands and New Guinea. Little did that youngster know that, one day, he'd be travelling like his heroes too.

    Interestingly, when I joined the BBC, I had the privilege to meet and even work with all of my heroes... now, not many people can claim that.


What’s your writing process like?

I don't really have one, even though I've just started on my 130th book, and I still have no fixed routines. I just sit down and write the first relevant thing that comes into my head. With modern word processing technology it's now very easy to go back and revise your text. Before that, I used a lot of cutting and pasting, not electronically, but literally, right across the floor. Also, when I was at the BBC, I had to write in my spare time, which meant at night and weekends, and even now, having retired from the BBC some years ago, I seem to write the best prose at night.


Thing you’re most looking forward to about having your books published in January?

I think some form of feedback is the most exciting thing. Do readers like it? Has it inspired them? Writing can be quite a lonely occupation, so contact with people is very welcome. And, let's face it... I do get a kick to see my book in the bestsellers list – fingers crossed!


What’s the best Christmas present you’d like to receive?

This has to be good health, not for me, but for my granddaughter, who, as I write, is about to have a third major operation, and she's not even a year old. A successful outcome is all I'd like for Christmas.

Michael's books, The Shark that Walks on Land, and The Frog with Self-Cleaning Feetare out in January. Pre-order them now!