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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

In this extract from “The Birds They Sang”, Stanisław Łubieński explores the origins of James ...
2020-06-19 09:00:00

The Real James Bond

"Landscape with Birds" by Roelant Savery, 1628
The Real James Bond
The Real James Bond

Ian Fleming, former British intelligence agent, was vacationing at his villa in Jamaica. He’d long been intending to write a series of spy novels. As an avid birdwatcher he owned a copy of Birds of the West Indies. The moment his glance fell on the spine of the book and saw the name ‘Bond’, specifically ‘James Bond,’ Fleming knew what his hero would be called. The first instalment of the adventures of Her Majesty’s secret agent with a licence to kill, became a bestseller. For several years the ornithologist was unaware of the worldwide splash made by agent 007, who bore his name.

Read in 5 minutes

The REAL James Bond was born in Philadelphia in 1900, and throughout his life there was something of the nineteenth century about him. He was interested in nature from childhood. The prize butterfly specimens in his cabinets were probably brought back by his father, who led a scientific expedition to the Orinoco delta. His mother died the year the Great War broke out. The orphaned father and son moved to England, where the boy attended Harrow School and then Cambridge University. After his studies he returned to the United States and took a position in banking in his hometown. Yet he gave up his job a few years later in order to take part in an expedition to the lower Amazon. He served as a kind of secretary, writing descriptions of the species acquired. After returning home he grew interested in the avifauna of the Caribbean – the birds that lived on hundreds of tiny islands scattered across the ocean. In 1963 he published his most important work, Birds of the West Indies, which is also known by the somewhat longer title of Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies: A Guide to All the Species of Birds Known from the Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles and Bahama Islands. He published widely in professional journals. He proved among other things that Caribbean birds descended from North American species. In recognition of his contributions he was awarded the Brewster Medal, the highest honour of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

A few years after the novel Casino Royale came out, Mr Bond’s wife wrote Fleming an indignant letter. How could he have used someone else’s identity without permission? Especially that of a respected academic! Fleming must have felt sheepish, but he explained himself, if rather clumsily: ‘It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born.’ He offered compensation: ‘In return I can … offer you or James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purposes you may think fit. Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.’

Fleming’s relationship with birds extends beyond the use of the borrowed ‘Bond’. Die Another Day was one of those low-grade, indistinguishable Bond films with Pierce Brosnan in the title role. It’s not the Irish actor’s fault – in my view he was a pretty good 007, a little after the style of Roger Moore. Suave, but with a sense of humour. The point is that in the early 2000s Bond films became cheap thrillers that were made as if cinema had remained where it was twenty years before. The improbable exploits of the hero were part of the series’ conventions, but now the screenwriters overreached themselves. Even the title songs were worse and worse. Nor did the stories have much in common with Fleming’s novels.

Die Another Day was released forty years after the first Bond film, and for that reason it turned out to contain countless references to its predecessors. I’d have no reason for mentioning the movie were it not for one thread. In chasing the North Korean agent Zao, Bond finds himself in Havana. In the office of Raoul, a sleeper agent and manager of a cigar factory, he looks over the books on a shelf. He picks out one and glances at the cover. We see that it is Birds of the West Indies. The author’s name isn’t shown. Bond borrows the book and a pair of binoculars from Raoul.

In the next scene he’s scanning a rocky island on which the Korean is hiding. He wouldn’t be himself, though, if he didn’t also check out a beautiful woman emerging from the water (Halle Berry). It’s a nod to the famous scene in the first Bond film, Dr. No, in which statuesque Ursula Andress rises from the waves like Botticelli’s Venus. The girl, whom Bond subsequently meets, is called Jinx. She was born, appropriately enough, on Friday 13th. With a flirtatious wink, Bond explains that he’s come to Cuba for a spot of birdwatching. Jinx, meanwhile, is a bird herself, though she may not know it. She bears the name of a nymph who cast a spell on Zeus and was turned into a bird by Hera in revenge. Jynx torquilla is the Latin name of the wryneck – the only woodpecker that doesn’t peck wood. When alarmed, it hisses furiously and turns its head like a snake.

To return to the original Bond, he did eventually receive a missive from Fleming himself. A somewhat belated request to make use of his name met with a brief, Bondlike response from the ornithologist: ‘Very well.’ The apology was accepted. Bond and his wife later visited the writer in his Jamaican house. In 1964 Fleming sent the ornithologist his latest 007 book – You Only Live Twice – with a dedication: ‘To the real James Bond from the thief of his identity.’ But the real James Bond may have had the last laugh, as a few years later, the copy was sold at auction for over $80,000.

 Ornithologist James Bond taken at the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia in 1974. Photo by Jerry Freilich (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ornithologist James Bond taken at the Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia in 1974. Photo by Jerry Freilich (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This is an excerpt from the book “The Birds They Sang: Birds and People in Life and Art” (2020) by Stanisław Łubieński, published in English by The Westbourne Press, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston.

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