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.’
‘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.’
‘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.’
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?