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Bondage

There are a few other lapses which it would be tedious to list, including a tennis match that is not only implausible in itself but whose scoring goes awry. We all make mistakes, including the originator. After Fleming published On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that worldly sophisticate was mortified to receive a magisterial rebuke from his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor: Ian surely knew that Pol Roger is the only champagne never sold in half bottles.

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When Philip Larkin grumbled once about the “spy rubbish” he resented having to read (along with “science-fiction rubbish, Negro-homosexual rubbish, or dope-taking nervous-breakdown rubbish”),* Fleming must have been what he had in mind, but there is more than one type of espionage novel. The Bond books can be called many things, but not grown-up, whereas a long and distinguished line of adult spy fiction runs from Conrad’s The Secret Agent (published the year before Fleming was born) by way of Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden books to Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Nigel Dennis, John Le Carré, and Robert Harris, with the Americans Alan Furst and Joseph Kanon latterly carrying on the tradition.

For one thing, real-life espionage is a far grimmer business than 007’s make-believe kissing and banging. W.C. Heinz, who died recently, was one of the great American sportswriters of his age, but he first made his name as a war correspondent, and in particular with one piece from the Battle of the Bulge. Written with a harsh realism that would be unlikely today, “The Morning They Shot the Spies” describes three German soldiers who had been ordered to dress in American uniform and drive a jeep behind Allied lines, where they were soon apprehended and faced the same fate, tethered and blindfolded, as many such. (A sombre footnote in our story belongs to Erskine Childers, author of that still-readable spy yarn The Riddle of the Sands; during the savage Irish Civil War in 1922, years after his book was published, he became, as far as I know, the only thriller-writer to be himself shot by firing squad.)

From 1940, numerous often hopelessly inept agents were parachuted into England where they were caught, and usually executed, although they had a choice. They could accept a patriotic death or, as Tony Soprano would say, they could be flipped. Not a few chose discretion over valor and became double agents, radioing back carefully controlled disinformation (making sure to sound like themselves: Faulks mentions the “fist” or personal quirks by which a particular radio operator’s transmissions could be recognized). By any such standards, the story of one double agent was astounding, not to say utterly improbable, as it is told in Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag and Nicholas Booth’s ZigZag. Both books are well researched and well written; Macintyre’s is masterly.

Born in a Durham mining village in 1914, Eddie Chapman enlisted in the Coldstream Guards, but he soon discovered Soho, girls, and gambling, was discharged for going AWOL, and turned to petty crime, less petty when he graduated to gelignite and safecracking. He also entered the pre-war London equivalent of Damon Runyon’s Broadway, a demimonde of gangsters, journalists, and showbiz: stranger-than-fiction begins when he really did rub shoulders with Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and, in a still more preposterous coincidence, a young man in the film business called Terence Young. Many years later, Young would direct the first Bond movie.

On the lam from a bank robbery in 1939, Chapman took a girl to Jersey, where he was caught and imprisoned, with dramatic consequences when France fell in June 1940, and the Channel Islands were occupied by the Wehrmacht. Highly intelligent, a natural linguist, and thoroughly amoral, Chapman now offered his services to the Germans as a spy. “The life of a secret agent is dangerous enough, but the life of a double agent is infinitely more precarious,” said Sir John Cecil Masterman, Oxford don and intelligence officer; “a single slip can send him crashing to destruction.” Chapman’s iron nerve never slipped. He was inducted into the Abwehr, the intelligence service of the German high command, and in December 1942 (when both books begin with a prologue), carrying a radio, a Colt revolver, and a cyanide pill, he was dropped into a field in Cambridgeshire.

He had long been awaited. The greatest single British contribution to the defeat of the Third Reich, and possibly the greatest British achievement of the past century, is known to us as Bletchley, the unprepossessing country house halfway between Oxford and Cambridge, where an eccentric team of mathematicians, musicians, and classicists broke what the Germans had with good reason believed to be the unbreakable codes of their Enigma machines, and in the process pretty well invented modern computing: the huge creaking and whirring “bombes” of Bletchley, running over endless patterns and permutations, were the forebears of your laptop. Fleming was peripherally concerned with this operation, which is the setting for one of the best recent thrillers, Robert Harris’s Enigma. In its film version a very attentive viewer can catch a fleeting cameo performance as an RAF officer by one of the movie’s backers, Sir Mick Jagger—and we did get some satisfaction from what was done at Bletchley, enjoying the incalculable advantage of reading German radio traffic.

One intercepted Abwehr message said, “Your friend Bobby the Pig grows fatter every day. He is gorging now like a king, roars like a lion and shits like an elephant. Fritz.” The lady cipher clerks were shocked by this vulgarity, but those to whom it was funneled upward added it to their file about the latest agent who would be arriving soon, although this time the information was unneeded. Chapman immediately gave himself up and volunteered to serve his own country, as he had—perhaps and maybe—always intended to do. He was code-named “Agent Zigzag” by one of his handlers (who must have had an unconscious instinct for book titles), and was debriefed at length by such unconventional officers as Tommy “Tar” Robertson, Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, and the scientist and intrepid dismantler of unexploded bombs, Victor, Lord Rothschild: that scion of the most famous of banking dynasties now listened while Zigzag cheerfully taught him how to rob a bank.

His handlers took to this “most absorbing person,” as one of them called Chapman: “Reckless and impetuous, moody and sentimental, he becomes on acquaintance an extraordinarily likeable character,” and his work of deception soon began. One of his tasks for the Abwehr had been to sabotage an aircraft factory near London, and an explosion was duly faked, with a story planted in the Daily Express for added realism. Still more astonishingly, Zigzag then returned to occupied Europe, where he rejoined the Abwehr in Norway, and became the only British citizen ever awarded the Iron Cross. Eddie’s subsequent reward from his own country after the war was more practical, a character reference describing him as “one of the bravest men who served in the last war,” which regularly kept him out of prison.

What distinguishes the Bond books, apart from the floggings and the Floris, is the simple moral world they inhabit. James, “M,” and Felix Leiter, 007’s likeable Texan buddy, are Good; Drax, Goldfinger, and Rosa Klebb are Bad, with no shades between. When a double agent does appear, she soon gets her comeuppance. By contrast, the adult spy books from Conrad on are set in a misty marshland of compromised loyalty, personal ambiguity, betrayal, and failure. A decade after the arrival of Bond, virile and uncomplicated, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold marked a drastic change of mood with the gray, mousy cuckold George Smiley; if Le Carré had written the Bond books, Leiter would be working for the KGB as well as the CIA.

Which is why, as Tod Hoffman says in The Spy Within, his book about a CIA employee who spied for the Chinese, the spy-hunter does not assume that everyone is a spy, only that anyone might be. People spy from a variety of motives—greed, ideological commitment, or atavistic ties—which raises delicate problems in a country like the United States, with so many hyphenated citizens harboring potential mixed loyalties. Humphrey Bogart’s one truly nasty film is Across the Pacific, made in a hurry just after Pearl Harbor. The villain is a Japanese-American, the “all-American boy,” as he calls himself, who turns out to be spying for the land of his forefathers; the movie could be seen as a justification for the shameful internment of the Nisei by the Roosevelt administration. More recently, Mossad raised more awkward questions when they suborned the American intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard by appealing to his Jewish loyalty.

When the CIA realized in 1982 that there was a foreign agent working inside American intelligence, they didn’t at first guess that he was one of their own. Larry Wu-Tai Chin had originally been recruited by the US Army during the Korean War as a translator, but then moved to the Foreign Broadcast Information Service run by the CIA. He stayed with the agency for more than thirty years, all the time passing documents to the Chinese. His inducement wasn’t just ties of blood: Chin was paid handsomely enough to spend as he pleased not only on women (he was a “lecherous old scumbag” according to one colleague) and gambling but on real estate in the slums of Baltimore. Not for the first time, the fine minds of an intelligence service quite failed to notice how an employee was living way beyond his salary, and the mystery about the Chin case is not how he was finally rumbled, leading to prison, where he committed suicide in 1986, but how he went undetected for so long.

How much damage he did is hard to assess, but then so is whether most spying does any good. Sir Henry Tizard was president of Magdalen College, Oxford, a scientist as well as a public servant, and a true patriot, who may be said without exaggeration to have helped save his country and civilization: without his work in ensuring that radar was installed around the coastline by 1940, the Battle of Britain might have been lost. Ten years later, at the height of the panic over “atomic spies,” Tizard used to tell colleagues that there were no nuclear secrets. He meant that there was little the Soviets had learned through espionage that could not have been gleaned by less melodramatic means, with competent Russian physicists studying the published American scientific journals.

There might have been an element of donnish exaggeration in that, and obviously signal intelligence of the Bletchley kind is of the highest value in wartime. But a great deal of espionage is solipsistic or circular, shadows chasing shadows, spies spying on spies spying on other spies like the endlessly receding image in facing mirrors. That is something the better spy writers convey, and so intermittently does Fleming. His books also have a political and social content of sorts. While Bond likes to complain about “the cheap self-assertiveness of young labor since the war” and the “buyer’s market of the welfare state,” he is conscious as well of declining British power and prestige, and resents the way that he and his country are patronized by the Americans.

In Devil May Care, Faulks’s Bond voices one or two of his traditional views—the French intelligence services are riddled with Communists—but he also encounters a new complication in the Anglo-American relationship. Gorner is trying to precipitate a nuclear war that will destroy London, and gloats to Bond that “the Americans saved your bacon twice, but your failure to support their crazed adventure in Vietnam has made them angry with you. They will not be so generous on this occasion.”

In the original books Bond recognizes national weakness, or is made to by such foreigners as Tiger Tanaka, head of Japanese intelligence. Bond replies a little morosely that even if the country had been “bled pretty thin by a couple of world wars” and further demoralized by welfare, “we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at sports.” Everest had been climbed the day before the Coronation, in the year Bond first appeared, with Sir Winston Churchill back at Downing Street to greet the young queen and inaugurate “a new Elizabethan age.” And yet only three years later, as Tanaka sarcastically observes, the attempt to arrest decline had led to Suez, and “one of the most pitiful bungles in the history of the world.” A bungle and a folly, it would become moreover a byword for late-imperial arrogance, although it might be remembered that Nasser’s initial action had been condemned not only by Sir Anthony Eden’s Tory government but by the Labour opposition and its new leader, Hugh Gaitskell (who was also Ann Fleming’s lover; England can sometimes seem a small country). And most painful of all was the way that Washington pulled the rug from under their supposed British friends.

After the debacle, a chastened and ailing Eden flew to recuperate at Goldeneye, Fleming’s house in Jamaica where the books were written each winter. He soon resigned the premiership, ostensibly because of ill health, although he lived until his eightieth year—a contrast to his Jamaican host. Skeptics have sometimes wondered how Bond managed to shoot straight, play cards and golf so well, or fornicate at all, in view of the superhuman quantities of alcohol he consumed. Fleming indeed drank a bottle of gin a day and smoked several packs, which helped explain why he died at only fifty-six; and the story grew still more melancholy.

Although Ann survived him until her death from cancer in 1981, her heart had already been broken by something worse than Ian’s death, giving the story a bitter conclusion. Their son Caspar was attractive and amusing, as I still remember, but despairing and doomed. He was sacked from Eton (like Bond, although in Caspar’s case because he had a pistol in his room), dropped out of Oxford, and took to drugs (never a good idea for an acute manic-depressive). In 1975, at the age of twenty-three, Ian Fleming’s only child, heir to the Bond millions, ended his life with a deliberate overdose.

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    Larkin’s words may sound more than characteristically dyspeptic, but they were written in a generous and altruistic letter to Charles Monteith of Faber, trying to persuade him, though without success, to take on Barbara Pym and her “ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things” (August 15, 1965).

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