Everyone knows that Ian Fleming got the name of his hero from a book he had on the shelves of his home in Jamaica: Birds of the West Indies by James Bond.
Or did he?
In this month’s Standpoint, an old family friend of Fleming’s brother Peter comes up with an alternative theory, involving a hair-raising escape from the Nazis across the Mediterranean in the early years of World War II.
The story is so charmingly told by Clarissa Pryce Jones, whose uncle was killed during the escape and who was a child at the time, it deserves repeating in full:
I have just come back from a glorious three-week working trip to Australia. I have always liked to acknowledge how much I owe to that happy land, in particular to one man.
In April 1941, my brother David and I were living in Athens with our parents, Harold and Nancy Caccia. Stay, be cool, calm and collected, show a stiff upper lip, was the attitude of the Foreign Office of those days. The German army stormed into Athens. Just ahead of the Germans, as we were leaving our flat, an old friend, Peter Fleming, my mother’s brother Oliver Barstow and 15 other members of the Yak Mission arrived. Their task had been to slow the German advance.
We and they with their Lewis guns made a hasty getaway to Piraeus to board a small ship in the hope of sailing to Crete, where we might be able to join the Fleet and make our way with them to Alexandria. We could only sail by night as the Luftwaffe already controlled Greek air space. At dawn we were just off Poliaegos, a small, uninhabited island east of the Peloponnese and south of Milos. We anchored in a cove. A few remained on board to man the ship in case it was spotted by German planes. We children spent a carefree day on shore.
At dusk as we were getting ready to reboard, German planes flew over our boat and sank it. Alas, my Uncle Oliver was on board and killed.
Fishermen from Milos came to see what was afoot and ferried us back with them. They fed and sheltered us in their school for several days while the grown-ups cabled Crete to see if anyone was prepared to come back into enemy-occupied territory and give us a second chance before the Germans caught up with us.
An Australian acquaintance of my father’s who had been attached to the Foreign Office and had also been living in Athens had got as far as Santorini when he picked up our Morse message. He risked his own safety to come back to Milos in a small caique to help us. Badly-wounded Yak Mission men, children and others crowded on board with him at the helm. We all slept on deck under the sky. Our Australian, Rodney Bond, only had the stars and a child’s atlas of the Mediterranean to navigate with, but the next day, as the sun rose, Santorini appeared on the skyline.
After the war, Peter Fleming was having breakfast at his family home in Oxfordshire while reading the newspapers when his brother Ian came in and said: “Peter, I’ve written a bloody good thriller, but I can’t get a name for my hero.” Without lowering his newspaper, Peter replied: “Try Bond.”
For my Australian hero, I am a very grateful Bond girl.