Seven years after he passed away at the age of 98, the book Robert Harling began here in Majorca some ten years earlier has finally been published to coincide with the release of the new James Bond film Spectre on Monday. The book, which his son Nicholas says his sister Amanda finally completed, was launched in London a few weeks ago and has already earned some encouraging reviews, especially in The Guardian, which also comes to the conclusion that Fleming way well have based the James Bond character on his close friend Robert.
The book is Robert’s account of his close and enduring friendship with one of the twentieth century’s most iconic writers, a relationship forged in the Second World War that helped define the lives of both men. Their paths met in the early 1940s upon the creation of 30 Assault Unit, a British Commando unit Fleming founded and ran. ‘Fleming’s Secret Navy’, as it was known, was formed to work on the front line to capture enemy equipment, intelligence and codebooks before these could be destroyed. While Fleming was based in London, Robert, his second-in-command, operated on the front line.
The war made the men fast friends, and Fleming would later write Robert into his Bond novels Thunderball and The Spy Who Loved Me, as well as leaving him money in his will.
"They were extremely close, right up until the very end. Fleming died very young, he was only 56 when he passed away in 1964 and my father had been with him just a few days before, he was extremely upset," Nicholas told the Bulletin, which he says he always reads when in Majorca.
By profession, Robert was a journalist, writer and something of a Fleet Street legend as a typographer and designer. In between convoy duty and the ISTD, Robert had redesigned the ailing Daily Sketch for Lord Kemsley, who liked Robert’s work but thought it too advanced. He then invited Robert to become typographical adviser to The Sunday Times, where his friend Fleming had become Foreign News Manager. With his old friend James Shand, printer and sponsor of Typography, he launched a new journal, Alphabet and Image (1946–48), which later became Image (1949–52). He was also given a larger room in the Delamere advertising agency, and was a consultant to the Financial Times and in 1947 redesigned Time and Tide for Lady Rhondda. He was also an inspirational editor of House & Garden and remained involved with the magazine well in to his 80s.
But, apart from his passion for journalism, there was also one for and writing thrillers: "his thrillers were always set in the world of journalism and more sophisticated than Fleming’s. In fact, I don’t think my father ever read any of Fleming’s spy thrillers, it wasn’t his kind of thing. Although, I think under duress, he may have watched the odd Bond film on the TV after much arm twisting from his wife Phoebe," Nicholas said.
The other two loves of his life were Phoebe and Majorca. "Robert and my mother always felt that they ‘discovered’ Majorca in the 1950s when, on their first visit, they stayed at Cala Fornells, a hotel that seemed to grow with every passing year. When it became too large for them - and indeed by then us three kids - my Dad decided to build a house which he did in Porto Petro, leaving it to my sister Amanda. Robert was also a huge friend of Robert Graves, and I remember one trip to Deya when we were children. I also remember Fleming vaguely, but I was only seven or eight at the time and I think he did come out to stay with us in Majorca on one occasion, but that was so long ago."
Nicholas, who has read most of the Bond books and watched nearly all of the films, does admit that the Bond character does have a few traits of his father.
"I’m not talking about fights on moving trains and all that action kind of stuff, but the overall feel of the espionage running through the stories and all the mischievousness he gets up to does remind me of my father. Sometimes, when I’m watching the films, I do get a strange kind of feeling that it could have been my father, especially if it is starring Sean Connery. He was by far the best Bond, no one ever came close to him, I think he pulled off the character perfectly. And people do quite often ask me if Fleming based Bond on my father. It is kind of odd, but fun I guess. They both got up to all sorts of things in London and would meet for lunch at one of London’s best restaurants every week without fail."
Robert was also seriously secretive. He would apparently not even divulge his birth date. Neither of his homes showed their faces in House & Garden - neither the Gothic one in Surrey nor the seaside home in Porto Petro. He refused all invitations, preferring to spend time at home with his wife Phoebe. But the Harling family’s love affair with Majorca lives on, just as Bond does.
"Real Mallorca is my second football team after Crystal Palace. When Palace are not playing at home, I fly out to Majorca to watch Real Mallorca play and make a week’s holiday of it. I’ve even travelled to the mainland to watch them play on many occasions. I just wish they were going a bit better on the pitch..."
"Majorca is home from home for us, and I love the areas of Cala Mondrago and Soller and I can't wait to come out soon."
Ian Fleming: a Personal Memoir is published by the Robson Press and available from Amazon.