Bondage, James Bondage - Ian Fleming

There is a Ronald Searle drawing of Ian Fleming as a great ape, smoking a cigarette in an elegant holder while carrying off a hapless woman slung over his shoulder. Searle’s sense of Fleming is largely confirmed in this remarkable memoir by the late Robert Harling, a friend for twenty-five years and something of a confidant – at least in a joshing manner – with whom Fleming could share his opinions about women and relationships.

Harling was a designer and influential typographer (with a namecheck in The Spy Who Loved Me as compositor for the Chelsea Clarion) who later became editor of House and Garden, lording it around Condé Nast in a trademark fedora. He was a keen yachtsman who took part in the Dunkirk evacuation before joining the Royal Navy, and Fleming – whom he already knew from a mutual interest in bibliography – recruited him for 30AU, a specialist assault unit charged with capturing maps, ciphers and other intelligence documents from the enemy before they could be destroyed. Harling saw active service with 30AU, while Fleming ran it from a distance in London.

Friendship grew over lunches at L’Etoile and Scott’s, and Harling catches the atmosphere of their war – the deaths, the promiscuity, the plans for peacetime – in appropriately period language (or “lingo”): to buy someone lunch is to “sock” them lunch, medals are “gongs”, money is “lolly”, and women are “popsies”.

Popsies loom large in their conversation. When there is a jokey suggestion that Harling should write a sex manual, Fleming adds “Plus a few chapters on sadism, bondage, flagellation, infantilism, sado-masochism and so forth”, to which Harling replies “I’ll leave those chapters to you”. Harling’s account builds up a contrast between himself, as a man who actually likes women, and Fleming, whose tastes are more impersonal and perverse. Harling’s account of a girl who picked him up in a wartime taxi and wanted to be beaten with a belt (he refused), then further confided that she liked foursomes with all “apertures” filled, had Fleming asking “Got her address?” His ears also seem to have pricked up at the tale of a masochistic colonel’s wife who carried a folding telescopic whip in her handbag, for what she called “occasions that just crop up”.

Fleming told Harling he firmly believed (“Unlike you”) that women need “masterful types”, and in Fleming’s case this seems to have been part of a broader pathology. Fleming refused to believe women could be intelligent and amusing as friends, seems to have steered clear of intimacy, and preferred to keep a woman’s “ideal” qualities on the flippant level of paying for her own clothes, knowing how to make Béarnaise sauce, and being double-jointed. After sex he liked to leap up and get home for his favourite meal (breakfast). When Harling suggested that the three main women in Fleming’s life had had to live without affection, and that Fleming himself would rather have lived without them but for having “your wilful way with their limbs”, Fleming grinned and said there was “probably the odd touch of truth” in this.

Fleming met his not entirely happy match in the formidable Ann Charteris, who had formerly been married to Lord O’Neill (killed in the war) and Lord Rothermere (divorced); Fleming said that if he was ennobled he would be Lord SW1 (from his postcode: he and Ann lived in a Regency stucco house in Victoria Square, a small and atmospheric close hidden away just to the north of Victoria station). Ann was a woman of robust attitudes who liked to shock, and once informed a dinner party that the answer to industrial strikes was “machine guns”. She also liked to say there was no point in having a son unless you groomed him to become Prime Minister (the son she had with Fleming, Caspar, instead killed himself at the age of twenty-three) and she was later able to gratify her PM fetish by becoming the mistress of Hugh Gaitskell.

Fleming’s finer feelings seem to have been reserved for books. Almost endearingly, he confessed to Harling that his own “dreams of glory” were not about battlefields, but about having his own private press, and in later life – inasmuch as he had any, dying in his mid-fifties – he bankrolled the journal the Book Collector. Fleming had an underlying melancholy, and he had conflicted feelings about the success of Bond and the pressures of fame (“You must be mad!” he said, when Harling compared his sudden celebrity to Byron’s: “That semi-cripple, semi-poofter!”). Satisfaction remained elusive: hydrofoils came up in conversation when he was talking with Harling and Ann, and it became embarrassingly obvious they didn’t know there was one in the latest Bond book, despite having been given signed copies. “Clearly neither of you has taken time off to read the damn thing!” said Fleming, and they made their way “gloomily” to dinner, Fleming moving “hesitantly” with heart trouble.

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