nicholas shakespeare

Scepticism and superstition are a writer’s guiding stars. This is especially true when it comes to biography. Before you devote years of your life to plot- ting someone else’s, you can be spookily receptive to the tiniest twinkle.

Licence to Write

investors, many related to my father-in-law ’s patients, following the collapse of a company fabricating can openers. Further, he was not even called Stephenson, but Stanger, the son of an

When approached to write a new authorised biography of Ian Fleming, the first since 1966, my initial reaction was hesitation. Could I face spending so long in the company of a melancholic cad and creator of the cold killing machine James Bond? This incomplete image was my only image of Fleming.

Inclined to reject the proposal, I nonetheless did some background research and found to my surprise that Fleming, the sardonic bounder in charge of ‘in-trays, out-trays and ashtrays’, was kinder and a great deal more significant than his popular caricature. What clinched my decision was my stumbling on mysterious connections which suggested that Fleming might be a propitious subject after all.

Icelandic mother who had abandoned him to my wife’s relatives, the Stefánssons, whose anglicised surname he adopted.

Excited to discover these tenuous links, I said yes.

In Jaipur five years on to promote Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, I am introduced on stage by a nervous Matthew Parker, author of Goldeneye, one of the best books on Fleming, as ‘Nicholas Coleridge’, the next provost of Eton, a quick reminder of the inter- changeability of pale, male Nicholases. The novelist John Fowles told me he was once introduced on air in America by a radio host who had muddled his notes as ‘the singing nun of Milwaukee’.

By a strange set of coincidences, before he joined Fleming as his ‘ leg man’ on the Sunday Times Atticus column, John Pearson, Fleming’s first authorised biographer, had shared a desk at the Times Educational Supplement with my father, who himself went on to perform an identical role for Fleming’s successor as Sunday Times foreign manager, Frank Giles. After I brought the two former colleagues together for lunch sixty-six years later, Pearson gave me his blessing to enter his biographical domain and handed me a gift: his ‘Fleming file’.

There were more Shakespeare links. In 1915, my paternal grandfather and Fleming’s father, Val, had breathed in the same cloud of chlorine gas at Ypres, where Val helped Major W G Shakespeare carry 359 stretchers to a field. For the first months of the Second World War, my great-uncle Geoffrey Shakespeare worked directly above Fleming’s desk in Room 39 at the Admiralty, where Geoffrey was Churchill’s ‘indefatigable second in command’.

I found connections on my mother’s side too. Her father, the prolific author S P B Mais, who had taught Alec Waugh at Sherborne and got published his first novel, The Loom of Youth, had impressed on Waugh the inflexible rule for writing: two thousand words a day without fail, sticking to a routine ‘from which nothing must be allowed to deter you’. Waugh would pass on this vital advice to Fleming, along with Mais’s story about our Jamaican relatives that had inspired Alec’s 1955 bestseller Island in the Sun – the Hollywood film of which impressed a young music producer in Jamaica, Chris Blackwell, to name his company Island Records. Blackwell is now the owner of Goldeneye, where Fleming wrote all fourteen of his Bond books.

On my wife’s side, a coincidence spookier still. It was her Icelandic-Canadian father, Dr George Johnson, who is credited with revealing the true identity of William Stephenson, the ‘Quiet Canadian’ and the ‘Man Called Intrepid’, whom Fleming had once saluted as the chief model for Bond. In 1980, Johnson disclosed why Stephenson had not dared set foot in his birthplace of Winnipeg since 1922. In that year, the Quiet Canadian had fled Winnipeg as a bankrupt, having swindled ninety-five

After working for so long on your own, it ’s a joy to be out among fellow writers. Peter Frankopan gives a talk and is introduced as a ‘rock star academic’. Following Peter’s session, since it ’s raining, his wife, Jessica, and I continue sitting in a tent growing steadily more packed for the next speaker, a little old lady in an orange sari, who will attract the festival’s largest crowd by far, many yelling for her to stand up so they can glimpse her. Although Mrs Murthy is billed as the author of thirty-two books, neither Jessica nor I have a clue who she is. From an extract read on stage by her biographer, I assume she must be the owner of a popular Jaipur bookshop, but then Jessica, looking up from her iPhone, jabs me and whispers, ‘It ’s Rishi Sunak’s mother-in-law!’ Her £4-billion fortune most assuredly doesn’t come from writing or selling books. Not once in forty-five minutes of grandmotherly wisdom (‘Life is not a smartphone. You press a button and sometimes wait for months for something to happen’) does Mrs Murthy mention that her daughter is married to Britain’s prime minister.

I’m preparing to fly back to Tasmania when an email arrives from none other than Sir Nicholas Coleridge. ‘Just to say I’m glued to your Fleming biog. I’m reading it poolside at Goldeneye too.’

I could have told him that Fleming’s retreat (now available to rent for $8,000-plus a night) is not a patch on my Tasmanian beach shack. I’ve had this for twenty-five years and have written parts of nine books here, including Ian Fleming: The Complete Man. Facing Antarctica, and as far from England as you can travel, it ’s a place where the world shrinks into formidable focus. Bushfires (three this summer already), rising oceans, the sudden absence of flathead in the bay – these are the things that matter, not the small change of an author’s insecurities. The first author I ever met was Borges, who told me, ‘Five minutes of anyone’s life is worth more than all of Shakespeare.’ Not that Shakespeare singes many Ta s m a n i a n s l e e v e s . I w a s fishing on the otherwise deserted beach when a white-bearded fellow started talking to me and, after a while, asked my name. I told him, and he was unable to rein in his excitement. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he said, coming a step closer and looking me in the eye, as if to reassure himself that what I’d said was true. ‘You can’t… you can’t possibly be related to the family who make fishing rods?’

march 2024 | Literary Review