/ 11 August 2004

James Bond legacy thrives

Suave, English and debonair: a spy with a dated attitude to women and often in trouble with his superiors.

No, the name’s not Bond, James Bond, but Ian Fleming, the creator of the Cold War’s archetypal secret agent.

Fleming died 40 years ago on Thursday at the age of 56 after penning 14 Bond novels, which have sold more than 65-million copies worldwide and have been translated into at least 36 languages.

They have spawned 20 hugely successful movies, with a 21st Bond film scheduled for release in November 2005, drawn from Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale, written in 1953.

”The books seem to sell regardless of the films,” said Fleur Gooch, a spokesperson from the Ian Fleming Foundation, which manages the estate of the late author.

While filmmakers have shamelessly moulded the Bond persona over the years to suit the audience of the day, the books have also required touching up from time to time.

”Fleming created the most recognisable thing in Britain ever apart from Princess Diana,” said Simon Winder, marketing director of publisher Penguin in London.

Winder would not give sales figures, but said the books, regarded very much as ”period pieces”, do not sell now in the numbers that they did in Fleming’s heyday.

”They are a great picture of what Britain was like in the 1950s,” he said this week.

In 2002 as sales slid, new editions were published in Britain and the United States, and Penguin intends to relaunch the Bond books as part of its classics collection.

”Sales have leapt up hugely,” said Gooch, ”Now people are beginning to enjoy him more, in that he is very un-politically correct.”

Some Bond fans have criticised film-makers for adapting agent 007 into a state-of-the-art superspy to compete at the box-office with other Hollywood action heroes.

For most people, though, this necessary evil will keep Fleming’s creation alive for future generations.

”All the basic ingredients of Fleming’s Bond are still very much there, but the character’s changed, evolved, and perhaps grown a little bit more comical and whackier,” said Gareth Owen, personal assistant to British actor Roger Moore, who played Bond seven times from 1973 to 1985.

”It’s still based very much on Fleming’s Bond,” he said.

Three other writers wrote Bond books after Fleming’s death, none of whom achieved the same popularity as the original author.

”They’ve very much exhausted all of Fleming’s stories, but I know in the new film they are thinking of basing some of the story on Casino Royale, so they are going back to the very beginning,” said Owen.

Historians and fans have suggested several real-life Cold War spies as the men who inspired Bond, but Owen argues one has to look no further than the life of the author himself for inspiration.

”Really, he was James Bond, he lived the life, he drank to excess, he smoked to excess, many a beautiful lady found their way into his bed.”

It is true that Fleming, following his exit from the elite Eton College — apparently after an affair involving a young girl — soon acquired exotic tastes.

Known for his wit and panache in the presence of women, Fleming got over the failure of a foreign service exam by following his brother into journalism and working for the Reuters news agency.

After that, he flirted with a career in banking until 1939 when he, curiously, took on an assignment for the Times newspaper to report from the then-Soviet Union on a trade mission.

It appears that Fleming, in fact, was a spy for the Foreign Office.

During World War II, Fleming came into his own, taking charge of a specially trained group of commandos who he sent on specific intelligence missions.

During the last year of the war, Fleming travelled briefly to Jamaica, where he was eventually to settle down and write after a married women, Lady Anne Rothermere, unexpectedly became pregnant with his child.

Fleming’s far-flung romances thus abruptly came to an end, and at almost 44 years of age, the nervousness of waiting to tie the knot drove him to write his first novel, reputedly in less than seven weeks.

Over the next 12 years, a further 13 Bond novels followed, as well as the story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which became one of the most popular children’s films of all time.

He died in the early hours of August 12, 1964, after several months trying to recover from a debilitating chest cold combined with pleurisy. – Sapa-AFP