Five Favourites: Books on Bond

The author of Goldeneye looks at five of his favourite books on James Bond and Ian Fleming.
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Books on Bond

5 – Ian Fleming, by Andrew Lycett, 1995.

Lycett is an accomplished and celebrated literary biographer; his books on Kipling, Dylan Thomas and Wilkie Collins are close to definitive. He brings the same levels of research and insight to his book on Fleming, with no stone unturned. If sometimes the detail is overwhelming, this remains the most complete biography by some distance. For Lycett, Fleming is essentially a tragic figure, undone by his complicated personality, his inability at intimacy and his chronic alcoholism.

4 – The Letters of Ann Fleming, ed. Mark Amory, 1985.

Ann Fleming, Ian’s wife from 1952 to the end of his life, is as fascinating a character as Ian himself. Fiercely intelligent, a crashing intellectual snob, and connected to pretty much everyone in the British political and artistic establishment, she was also a brilliant and witty letter writer. Her correspondents included Patrick Leigh Fermor, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Cyril Connolly, and of course Ian himself. She was the master of the sneery put-down (she complained about their Jamaica neighbour Noël Coward that “the deserts of pomposity between the oases of wit are too vast”), but the letters also vividly trace the story of her arguably disastrous and mutually-destructive relationship with Ian, from passion to terrible anguish. The letters are introduced, selected and, where necessary, explained by a superb editor, Mark Amory.

3 – The Politics of James Bond, by James Black, 2000.

Black provides a meticulous reading of the novels and the films in the context of the national, and global, political situation. He is particularly good on Fleming’s relationship with the United States, as it comes across in the novels. Fleming—and Bond—loved the speed, efficiency and energy of America, but distrusted the modernity as well, and deeply resented the new US global hegemony, writing to Ann in 1947 about, “their total unpreparedness to rule the world that is now theirs.” And for Fleming, the betrayal at Suez was unforgivable.

2 – In Churchill’s Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain, by David Cannadine, 2002.

Professor Sir David Cannadine is one of Britain’s foremost public intellectuals and writers on modern history, particularly empire. This collection of essays includes a brilliant analysis of Fleming’s awkward personality, the result of an upbringing “by turns upstart and establishment, puritan and unrespectable, privileged and deprived.” These contradictions carry over to the portrayal of Britain in the Bond novels, whose decline Fleming – in the person of imperial hero James Bond – treats with a fascinating mixture of regret and denial. There is also a superb essay on Fleming’s fellow arch-imperialist and Jamaican neighbour Noël Coward.

1 – The Man Who Saved Britain, by Simon Winder, 2006.

The Man Who Saved Britain is the wittiest book written about Bond—at times laugh-out-loud funny—and Winder is one of the only authors to appreciate how fun and silly a lot of the Bond canon really is. (To the annoyance of fans, he declared the film of Live and Let Die a “mean-spirited and offensive shambles, too stupid really even to be racist, too chaotic to be camp.”) While mixing in a memoir of growing up in the grey and tawdry Britain of the 1970s, Winder takes up the themes of Cannadine’s Fleming essay to explore how the invention of Bond and his popularity grew out of the bewildering decline of Britain and the collapse of the empire in the decades after the Second World War. Bond was a fantasy of continuing imperial power, bestriding the world and saving the Americans from their enemies. That this became very quickly ever more fantastical and even knowingly ironic did not diminish the appeal. He also noted the perfect irony of Prime Minister Eden staying at Fleming’s Goldeneye Jamaica house when his health broke down during the shambolic Suez Crisis of 1956, now seen as the final death spasm of the British Empire: “At the zenith of national incompetence, the architect of that incompetence stays at the very house in which the greatest reassurance and palliative, the Robin Hood of British imperialists’ darkest hour, was created.”


Matthew Parker is the author of Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born – Ian Fleming’s Jamaica.