The Centenary of Ian Fleming’s birth has produced a range of 007 books, films and exhibitions offering the best opportunity yet to look at the factual background of the extravagant fiction.

ian_fleming_grave100x2471Ian Fleming’s birth 100 years ago is being commemorated by new editions of the James Bond novels and films (on DVD), biographies, exhibitions, and even a set of postage stamps featuring the covers of six 007 novels. As summer reading, The Times gave away copies of 6 of the 14 novels. There is also a new “authorised” James Bond novel, Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks, which has became the fastest selling hardcover fiction title in Penguin’s history. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the first 007 novel to be filmed – Dr. No. As part of a series of centenary programmes, BBC also did the first-ever radio dramatization of it this year, starring Toby Stephens (Die Another Day’s villain) and David Suchet (ITV’s Poirot) as Dr No.

Just out is the 22nd 007 film in the ‘official’ series made by Eon Productions. Quantum Of Solace is a direct sequel to Casino Royale, the film which two years ago this month “rebooted” the film franchise, by going back to the very first 007 novel (from 1953) and taking a more realistic approach. The QoS premiere is being accompanied by widespread media coverage, including a BBC biographical documentary, Where Bond Began, presented by former “Bond girl” Joanna Lumley. Also co-presented by Lumley, with Stephen Fry, was a tribute show at the London Palladium organised by Fleming’s niece, The Story Of James Bond – A Tribute To Ian Fleming, to mark the end of official Centenary events.

As well as various documentaries, there have already been several TV films dramatizing the life of 007 creator Ian Fleming. These include ITV’s Goldeneye: The Secret Life Of Ian Fleming (1989) starring Charles Dance, Spymaker: The Secret Life Of Ian Fleming starring Sean Connery’s son Jason (1990), and the BBC’s more realistic 2005 docudrama Ian Fleming: Bondmaker, starring Ben Daniels. Now Leonardo DiCaprio has announced plans to produce and star in a bigscreen Hollywood biopic. (Scriptwriter Damian Stevenson: “It’s the real James Bond … In England, Ian Fleming’s exploits are much better well known. Talking to people out here, no one had any idea that M was based on a real person, Miss Moneypenny was based on a real person.“) These biopics (especially Spymaker) tend to recast Fleming’s own life as a foreshadowing of Bond’s. Fleming’s own life and world was nevertheless the inspiration for his famous creation, and pales onlycover - 'Ian Fleming and James Bond' by Ben MacIntyre in comparison with it.

Ian Fleming (1908-1964) was never a spy or agent, but he was a world traveller and an Intelligence official during WW2. Before WW2 he, like his fictional alter ago, had been dismissed by his school over a brief liaison with a nightclub hostess (he got VD). Like Bond, he spent time in Austria mountain climbing and skiing (also inspiration for scenes in OHMSS. Later as a journalist in Russia reporting on a political “show trial” of some British engineers accused of spying provided him with a pre-Cold War taste of Soviet ruthlessness. When war began, family contacts and his own personal abilities landed him the job as personal assistant to the Director Of Naval Intelligence. There, he wrote up various action-plan scenarios which were mostly not adopted, but which he later worked into the plots of Bond novels when he fell victim to postwar boredom. (His wife Anne has said his life and work were part of a quest to avoid the boredom of ordinary life.)

He would reuse the name of one planned operation (to maintain an intelligence presence in Spain in the event of a German takeover), which became the name of his postwar home in the Bahamas and later the title of a Bond film: Goldeneye. His job involved liaison with other intelligence services, including the foundling American service, the CIA’s wartime forerunner OSS, working in Washington with Colonel Donovan, FDR’s intelligence liaison representative before Pearl Harbor. (The Bond novels would often feature a friendly CIA liaison man, Felix Leiter, and became fashionable after a real-life acquaintance surnamed Leiter recommended the books to JFK, and he in turn publicly described them as bedside reading.) Fleming was one of the few officers with access to Britain’s greatest wartime secret, the Ultra decrypts obtained by replicating the output of the Germans’ typewriter-like Enigma coder/decoder – the acquisition of such a device becoming the plot hinge in From Russia With Love.

Becoming manager postwar of the Sunday Times’s foreign-correspondents network, he would be well aware of the political situation around the world. The standard story is that he wrote his first Bond novel when he was facing the prospect of marriage as the end of his hedonistic youth when his longtime married mistress became pregnant in 1951. Fleming had already lost his favourite female companion in the Blitz, the pain of personal loss to sudden death being something that had would find its way into novels like Casino Royale and OHMSS, giving them an emotional depth (which until recently the films would generally avoid to promote 007’s playboy image). His future wife Anne had also lost her partner in the war, her titled first husband having been killed in action, and she had remarried, this time to a press baron. Now her divorce was quickly arranged so she could be remarried before the birth of her and Fleming’s 2nd son Caspar (their first illegitimate son had been stillborn). Ian’s old brother Peter, an intelligence agent and travel writer, had already become a successful author. Some accounts suggest Fleming had long planned to write “the spy story to end all spy stories.” Criticisms tend to focus on the “sex, snobbery and sadism” aspects of the novels, which undoubtedly exist, but these criticisms tend to obscure the authenticity which grounds the fantasy aspects. (It is ignoring this that has tripped up would-be imitators.)

Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly in the ITV drama serial. Fleming said Bond was partly based on Reilly - the 'Ace of Spies'

Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly in the ITV drama serial. Fleming said Bond was partly based on Reilly.

Fleming’s journalistic experience and personal crusade against boredom created a seamless blend of factual background and fantasy. As Fleming later put it, ‘I extracted the Bond plots from my wartime memories, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain, and a heroine, and there was the book.” The first novel, Casino Royale, was inspired by a wartime plan meant to bankrupt an Axis agent payment system in Spain by beating the enemy agent handler at the gaming table – though in fact Fleming didn’t have the skills of his fantasy hero. The Allied wartime agent ‘Dusko’ Popov (codenamed Tricycle as he could keep 3 women going at once) had however managed such a coup at the gambling tables in 1942 Portugal, and had brought off other intelligence operations using his cover as an international playboy businessman. From Russia With Love has scenes reminiscent of the 1952 film Five Fingers, starring James Mason as a spy in Turkey, which is itself based on a true wartime episode, that of the double-crossing of the agent codenamed “Cicero”.

In Thunderball, the underwater action with battles between frogmen was inspired by battles with Italian frogmen who used a ship with an underwater hatch (the Olterra) to mount “human torpedo” accounts in Gibraltar Harbour. Similarly, the search for the bomber downed in the sea was inspired also inspired by the mysterious crash that killed Polish General Sikorski. Both the underwater hand-to-hand battles between frogmen and the attempt to salvage secrets from a bomber sunk in shallow water are depicted in the 1958 film The Silent Enemy (starring Laurence Harvey), dramatizing the wartime work at Gibraltar opposing the Italian frogmen by RN Cdr Lionel Crabb (whose own death during an underwater Cold War spying mission examining the hull of a visiting Soviet warship would be an ongoing mystery). Fleming did act as RN liaison for a commando unit he called his Red Indians. A “license to kill” is of course more of a wartime special-ops prerogative – you kill anyone who jeopardises your mission, from sentries to local informers. Over the past year, the press has come up with nomination after nomination for the real-life model for 007, M, Moneypenny etc., based on characters Fleming met in the war. The name James Bond, from the name of a neighbour who was the author of A Field Guide To Birds Of The West Indies, was supposedly chosen as a plain rather name for a character who was meant to be a “blunt instrument”. (Though I’ve suggested elsewhere there might have been more to it than that, with a link going back to his boyhood – So, Mister Bond, We Meet Your Family At Last…) Bond’s derring-do nature was similar to prewar Clubland heroes like Bulldog Drummond, and there was a real-life precedent in legendary MI6 agent Sidney Reilly, who disappeared in 1920s Russia. But mainly Bond was based on various wartime acquaintances (“He was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war.”)

This grounding was the key to the success of the early novels. Starting from Fleming’s own experience and knowledge (plus some journalistic research), they took matters farther into a wish-fulfilling fantasy of operational success. But this would have been meaningless without the factual background which readers also found convincing and thrilling. Even the prop gadgets that became the series’ trademark (widely copied) were convincing because Fleming used authentic makes. Whereas the brand names evoking 007’s glamorous lifestyle had a snob appeal (wholewheat toast with Jersey butter and Norwegian honey from Fortnum’s for breakfast before he dons his Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch etc), professional kit like guns were real makes and models chosen for authenticity. Famously, he even changed 007’s gun between novels from a Beretta [sic] to a Walther PPK 7.65 calibre automatic after an ex-officer reader who knew and wrote about handguns pointed out the Biretta was a “ladies’ gun.” Fleming put a scene in his next book where 007 gets his Beretta replaced by a Walther, using the reader’s surname, Boothroyd, for the name of the MI6 Armourer in the scene, though in the later films “Major Boothroyd” became just “Q”. Q’s gadgets, like the film plots, did become more fantastic, and this eventually led to the entire series becoming something of a self-parody and undergoing a restart, modelled on the more realistic Bourne Identity and sequels, where the gadgets, fighting techniques etc. are all grounded in reality.


Quantum Of Solace

Daniel Craig and colleague in Quantum Of Solace

Daniel Craig and colleague in Quantum Of Solace

The latest 007 film, a tale of relentless pursuit not based on any Fleming work, is ironically from a short story in the style of Somerset Maugham recounting a post-dinner-party anecdote. There, a bored Bond hears of the domestic-drama back-story lurking behind the polite social façade of a colonial enclave, a tale of emotional survival. Afterwards he no longer feels excited at the impending prospect of one his secret-agent intrigues. It’s as close as Fleming got to ordinary realism.


Further Reading

There is now no shortage of books about Fleming’s life and his real-life sources of inspiration. This was not always the case, despite the flood of “Bondmania” press coverage from 1963 on. The first biography (1966), by Fleming’s former press assistant John Pearson, ran into legal difficulty simply because it said Fleming wrote Thunderball. It turned out Fleming did not write the story by himself as a novel, it being rather a novelisation of a 1959 film story by Fleming and several others. (It was because Fleming lost this case just before his death that a rival 007 Bond film was made using the same story elements Thunderball was taken from – Never Say Never Again.) The aftermath of this long-running legal wrangle is still with us, as the Fleming estate forced the pulping last year of a book about the 1963 legal case (The Battle For Bond, by Robert Sellers, Tomahawk Press), on grounds they owned the copyright to court documents reproduced in the book. (A revised edition was issued this year.) Details of the parallels between Fleming’s life and the 007 novels can be found in Donald McCormick’s 1993 The Life of Ian Fleming and Andrew Lycett’s Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, published in 1995 and still available.

To commemorate the Fleming Centenary, we have Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into The Disturbing World Of James Bond (Picador), which looks at how the books mirrored the 40s and 50s. (“Fleming invented Bond as solace for a war-battered, exhausted, economically imploding imperial state.”) There is also The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen (University of Nebraska Press 2005) by Jeremy Black, professor of history at the University of Exeter, The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader by Christoph Lindner, and Ben Macintyre’s For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming And James Bond (Bloomsbury). The latter is a tie-in book for an exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum, running till 1st March 2009, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming And James Bond, on the historical background to the 007 novels. (Says its curator, “Fleming’s wartime career informs so much of the Bond novels,” he says. “He takes a wartime chassis and grafts Cold War body parts on to it.”)

For an example of one of the many press stories on 007’s wartime inspiration, see the BBC’s “The Real World Behind James Bond”, based on MI5 documents declassified in 2005.

Fleming’s wartime connections with the commando unit he called his Red Indians, #30 Assault Unit, are detailed here.

For more information on Fleming centenary events, see http://www.ianflemingcentenary.com/

Silhouette image of 007 firing

007 was always meant to be something of a cipher

A new clutch of novels and film-TV dramas about the Templars is unlikely to overshadow the ongoing nonfiction explorations of the subject.

Raymond Khoury's The Last Templar cover

Raymond Khoury's The Last Templar cover

The Templars seem to have finally made it to prime-time television. The NBC network TV miniseries The Last Templar, starring Mira Sorvino, is an adaptation of a 2005 novel by Spooks screenwriter Raymond Khoury’ “about a New York archaeologist researching the lost secrets of the medieval Knights Templar” (I’m going to quote official synopses throughout this lest anyone thinks I’m caricaturing these unlikely-sounding storylines.) There is also Paul Sampson’s upcoming horror-thriller (which sounds made for TV) Night Of The Templar, in which “a Medieval Knight resurrects to fulfil his vow and bestow a blood-thirst vengeance upon the kindred spirits of those who betrayed him long ago”. Last week, here in Britain, the BBC’s new big-budget archaeological-adventure-drama series, sassily titled Bonekickers, kicked off with a plot about the finding of a relic related to the Templars stirring up contemporary religious hatreds. As a newspaper reviewer put it, “On the screen there’s a couple of thugs, wearing T-shirts with an ancient Knights Templar emblem, using medieval swords to attack Muslims.”
Scandinavia, which has a speculated Templar connection in the Baltic Isle of Bornholm, with its round churches, promoted by Henry Lincoln of Holy Blood, Holy Grail fame as “The Templars’ Secret Island” , is ahead of the US, having made several TV-financed film productions now out on DVD here. The trilogy Tempelriddernes Skat (I,II,III) aka The Lost Treasure Of The Knights Templar, partly filmed on Bornholm, is described as a family-oriented adventure version of The Da Vinci Code, with a trio of kids helping the Templars recover artefacts. The more adult Arn – Tempelriddaren (2007) aka Arn – The Knight Templar, “Scandinavia’s most expensive film production ever,” is a mediaeval-era novel-adaptation financed by Sweden’s 2 main TV channels, intended as a TV series pilot. And I suspect Indiana Jones would have encountered the Templars in his latest adventure [see my previous S-T-F blog item], out last month, if he hadn’t already encountered the very last Knight Templar in his previous adventure (the centuries-old Grail Knight in the cave).
In The Da Vinci Code and subsequent works, the Templars are no longer the villains they usually are on screen. This seems to have begun with the trio of dastardly Norman KTs who kidnap Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and continued with the bone-headed fundamentalist troublemakers of Ridley Scott’s Crusades drama Kingdom Of Heaven. Their most positive screen appearance seems to have been an anonymous walk-on part – or rather, ride-up part, as Crusaders wearing red crosses of St George on their white surplices (sleeveless vests worn over armour). This was when a phalanx of them would sweep in on horseback, lances and pennants aloft, riding behind King Richard just back from Crusade – arriving in the nick of time to save Ivanhoe, or Robin Hood and Maid Marian from injustice at the hands of cruel King John. The reality differs from the Hollywood image of course, and even in the original Scott novel Ivanhoe, it ends with Richard banishing all Templars from England and seizing their estates over their abuses of power and treachery. (In reality, Richard spent only a few months of his reign in England, dying abroad much as depicted in the 1975 Richard Lester film Robin And Marian. The banning of the English Templars was done much later, by Edward II, at the behest of the Pope.) In 2010, we will have Russian producer-director Timur Bekmambetov’s project for Universal Studios, The Knights Templar, which according to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘revolves around the Knights Templar, who fresh from the Crusades fend off an invading vampire army seeking to destroy the Holy Grail.’ Of course, ‘fresh from the Crusades’ may suggest a certain lack of historical sense here, since the Crusades destroyed the health of so many who went, but a KT-the-vampire-slayer role is typical of how the Templars are becoming an all-purpose device to plug gaps in historical knowledge and a deus ex machina force to tackle evil. As a producer I met would put it, “Well, in 1199, who else you gonna call?”

Novels
Templar novels are also appearing, either set during the Crusades, or contemporary-set, but with narrated flashbacks to key moments in the heyday of the Templars, illustrating the ‘back story’ in the manner of The Da Vinci Code. An example of the former is Paul Doherty’s The Templar, a 384-page historical novel of crusading (set in 1095, which is technically pre-KT). Just out from Headline (April 2008), this is parenthetically listed on Amazon as “Templars 1”, indicating this is the first instalment of a series. Some of this seems to be an extension of the historical-murder-mystery genre which takes the “cloak-and-dagger” mystery back to its metaphoric roots. This is where mediaeval monks or Roman tribunes solve a murder-coverup amidst a welter of no-doubt well-researched period details. For example, Maureen Ash’s “Templar Knight Mysteries” series is already at volume #2 with Death Of A Squire, with #3 announced (the upcoming A Plague Of Poison). The synopsis for #1, The Alehouse Murders, indicates the framework:

‘A knight from the Templar Order, back in England after eight years of captivity in the Holy Land. Weary in both body and soul, Bascot de Marins injuries have affected his body quite badly but not his fertile mind and as he seeks to regain his strength and well-being while on a stay at the castle in Lincoln, he is on the look-out for something to exercise a mind that has lain fallow, during his long years of captivity. Soon, while Bascot de Marins is trying to renew his faith in God, there is an event that will do just that. Man’s inhumanity to man is never very far away in medieval England and what at first seems nothing more than a brutal end to a drunken row soon turns out to be something far more baffling. Just the thing for a convalescing Templar Knight to get his teeth into….’

The longest-running series carrying the Templar label must be Michael Jecks’s “Knights Templar Mystery” series. This series of around 24 novels, which began over ten years ago, is not primarily about the Templar order, being set post-1307 (=post-KT downfall). The hero is an ex-Templar based in the West Country who is appointed a “Keeper of the King’s Peace” and so gets involved in the political intrigues of the era (synopses here). The novels seem to feature the same pair of regular characters: The Last Templar (1995), The Leper’s Return (1989), Squire Throwleigh’s Heir (1999), The Tournament Of Blood (2001), The Devil’s Acolyte (2002), The Templar’s Penance (2003), The Mad Monk Of Gidleigh (2003), The Abbot’s Gibbet (2006), The Death Ship Of Dartmouth (2006), The Malice Of Unnatural Death (2007), Dispensation Of Death (2008), and the upcoming The Templar, The Queen And Her Lover (Sep 2008), The Prophecy Of Death (Oct 2008), and King Of Thieves [no pubn date].

An example of the second approach to the genre, contemporary-set with key back-story flashback sequence, is The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry:

‘Cotton Malone is enjoying his quiet new life as an antiquarian book dealer in Copenhagen, when he is unexpectedly plunged back into the cloak-and-dagger world he thought he’d left behind at the U.S. Justice Department. Cotton’s former supervisor, Stephanie Nelle, is in Europe on a personal mission: armed with vital clues to a series of centuries-old puzzles, she means to crack a mystery that has tantalized scholars and fortune-hunters through the ages – by finding the legendary cache of wealth and forbidden knowledge thought to be lost forever when the order of the Knights Templar was exterminated in the 14th Century. But she’s not alone. Someone else is competing for the historic prize – and they are prepared to kill to win. Cotton is soon involved in the perilous race. But the more he learns about the ancient conspiracy surrounding the Templars, the more he realizes that not only lives are at stake. At the end of a lethal game rife with intrigue, treachery and lust for power, lies a shattering discovery that could rock the civilized world – and, in the wrong hands, bring it to its knees.’

Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar now being filmed in Canada by NBC-TV seems to combine the two settings, with a scene reminiscent of Time Bandits, where the past literally breaks through into the present: 4 mounted “Templars” storm into a NY museum gala event and make off with a mediaeval decoding device, sending “an FBI agent and a female archaeologist half way round the world in an attempt to solve a centuries old mystery, while at the same time trying to stay alive.”

Events
Outside film-TV drama and the popular novel, there are various real-world events commemorating the Templar Order in 2008. Last October was the 700th anniversary of the Knights Templar Order’s downfall at the hands of the French king, on Friday the 13th, 1307 – a fateful day in history many people seem to have found out about from reading or seeing The Da Vinci Code. This anniversary led not only to international press coverage regarding the Order’s possible continuation and resurfacing in dozens of rival guises, as neo-Templar organisations campaigning online for members. There was even a claimed “underground” branch based just outside London which demanded an apology from the Pope for the events of 700 years ago. This seems to have prompted the Vatican to release the original Papal investigation document, which had concluded the allegations against the Templars were without substance. Another self-proclaimed London-based Order [website here] announced the Knights Templar would petition the Pope to “restore the Order with the duties, rights and privileges appropriate to the 21st century and beyond” and called on all Templar “brothers in arms” to make contact. The Guardian did an investigation, but could trace the backers only as far as their accountants’ offices. I myself did a blog item last October for the “KT 700” anniversary, on this apparent attempt to gain recognition as a possible precursor to a Templar “comeback” – Knights Templar Redux?
Katherine Kurtz, author of a number of pre-Dan Brown Templar novels, said in a 2003 interview she had been a member of a Templar group in Edinburgh, in the late 1980s. She says she withdrew ‘when the wrangling among various Templar groups began to get too acrimonious and, frankly, too silly,’ referring to the ‘factional machinations that seems to occupy many of those claiming to be Templars today’ over ‘whose order is more ‘real’ than the next, and who has the most gongs, and who has jurisdiction and who does not’. (A rundown of the main rival claimant groups is included in the BBC News Magazine online article “What Are The Knights Templar Up To now?”)

London's Temple Church, with statue of mounted Templars

London's Temple Church, with statue of mounted Templars

More established institutions have also been taking advantage of the build-up of public interest. The first to do this was probably the Templar Order’s former English HQ, Temple Church in London, between Fleet Street and the Thames Embankment, built by the Order in 1185, and now an official Church Of England establishment. Its appearance in The Da Vinci Code led to queues of visitors asking “Is this where it happened in the book?” This sudden interest initially confused the church’s vicar, the Rev Robin Griffith-Jones, known as the Master Of The Temple, but prompted him to organize an official programme of Friday talks. (I attended one of these in early 2006, which is where the photos used here of the Church’s Templar effigies come from.)

This year, Temple Church is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the granting of its Royal Charter with a year-long festival programme of music, drama, lectures, debates, and mock trials. For after the Templar Order was suppressed, the Church estate was taken over by the Knights Hospitaller alias the Knights of St John, who themselves were dispossessed by Henry VIII for being too pro-Rome. Finally, in 1608, the new Stuart king, James I, granted a Royal Charter for the site to be used as the Inns of Court now famous as the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple, inner sanctum of London’s top lawyers (Chaucer, Sir Thomas More, Thackeray, Dickens and Bram Stoker all had offices here). That entire neighbourhood of London is now known simply as Temple.

Templar effigies in Temple Church

Templar effigies in Temple Church

And for anyone visiting London, the Knights Hospitaller alias the Order Of St John of Jerusalem are also opening up their mediaeval London HQ. The Hospitaller Knights of St John founded 1113 are sometimes confused with the KTs as they wore similar outfits to Templar serjeants-at-arms (who wore black rather than white), though the cross emblazoned on their tunics was different – an 8-pointed design. (Jeremy Irons in Ridley Scott’s The Crusades was a Hospitaller.) The original KH order split into several ‘Order of

Knights Hospitaller, sometimes mistaken for Templars

Knights Hospitaller, sometimes mistaken for Templars

Saint John’ modern chivalric orders (named after their patron saint St John The Baptist). After the loss of Jerusalem, one branch fought on against Saracens, Turks, Barbary pirates etc from its island bases as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order Of St John Of Jerusalem Of Rhodes And Malta. ( I believe this is the order that features in the back-story of an early prototype of the priceless-artefact-to-die-for genre, The Maltese Falcon.) The Knights of Malta are now a Rome-based Catholic organisation with over 90,000 volunteers, run by a council of 60 “professed knights” and a Grand Master of proven “noble lineage”, who is elected for life.

They seem to be having their own PR image issues. Their official librarian in London told The Times [25Mr08] “They were not the Templars .. and there is no connection whatever with the Freemasons; the Hospitallers were wholly devoted to healing and care.” They are seeking to combat its secretive image – due to the fact ‘Its membership was drawn exclusively from Europe’s aristocracy, which led conspiracy theorists to accuse it of being part of the “Illuminati”, a cabal of nobles bent on controlling the world.’ (No kidding.)

Following Napoleon’s dismantling of the Knights of Malta (Napoleon saw such organizations, whether Catholic or Protestant-breakaway ones, as potentially subsersive), some overseas French Knights founded The Venerable Order of Saint John, who organized the St. John Ambulance volunteer first-aid corps. The English Hospitallers are now raising their historical profile. Like the Temple Church, the English Hospitallers’ head church, part of the Priory Of St John Of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, east London, was a replica of the round Church Of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – in fact larger than the Templar replica. After losing it in 1541, the Hospitallers got the site back in 1874, “and from here in 1877 they began the modern St John’s Ambulance Service.” However it was so damaged by WWII bombing only remnants remain, but after restoration parts of it, including the crypt, are being opened to the public, as part of their museum refurbishment for the 2012 London Olympics [no website yet]. One religion-historian told The Guardian if a powerful cabal was to surface claiming to represent the original Order gone underground in 1312, and gained Papal recognition, they might sue the Church for the return of their “lost” property, such as these London sites, now worth billions.

Also on the anniversary front, it was exactly a century ago, in 1908, that a tomb was found which may have been that of England’s last known Templar. This is a less well-known episode in Templar history, which I researched myself as a mystery local to where I live, putting my findings online – ‘On The Trail Of England’s Last Templar’ [read feature]

Nonfiction Books & DVDs
There have of course been many nonfiction as well as fiction books about the Templars [Amazon-UK link to current books listing]. Templar “secrets” are currently of the genre classed as alternative or secret history, specifically matters covered up by the Church (as alleged in The Da Vinci Code). With all this being marketed as “true” or nonfiction (or at least was not overtly fiction), i.e. with the extra appeal of factuality (which The Da Vinci Code tried with mixed success to capture with its “Fact” prologue and historical lectures built into the dialogue between chases and murders). Sensational claims regarding history are quickly adopted by mainstream fiction and drama, where they have more license.

However, the nonfiction conspiracy-theory books have been giving thriller writers a run for their money, for they often have much of the same appeal as a thriller novel, with a grand narrative of secret history being uncovered, which includes behind-the-scenes narrative of how the authors stumble over various clues as they work to penetrate the veil of secrecy thrown up by sinister forces. In the case of the Templar-conspiracy genre, the speculative thesis is that the Templar Order was destroyed because in Jerusalem it had found secret documents and relics (such as the Shroud) which would rewrite church history if they became public; but that after 1307 it continued its secret traditions underground, with some becoming the first Freemasons. Nonfiction explorations have now branched out to include DVDs, often interviewing the authors of speculative-alternative or academic nonfiction books in support of their thesis [Amazon-UK link to current DVDs listing].

To feed this ongoing grand narrative of great secrets and wide-ranging conspiracy, these books are building up a mythos based on earlier such speculative claims – just as Dan Brown admitted in court. In the 2006 copyright infringement action brought against him by two Holy Blood, Holy Grail co-authors, his defense was in part he got his similar material from half a dozen other nonfiction works, which he listed – all of which in fact were follow-ons to 1982’s HBHG. HBHG was the first work to really popularise the idea the Grail secret, kept by the Templars, was a sacred bloodline. Of course film and literary narrative techniques have been converging since at least the 1970s. (For details, see my 2005 essay on the development of the ‘film friendly’ novel – “The Da Vinci Formula: The Da Vinci Code’s Formula For Success

Any of the nonfiction books I’ve seen are better researched than The Da Vinci Code, which at least prompted many people to start reading nonfiction. And I don’t mean to damn the entire genre of speculative nonfiction works as a house of cards – for a list I put together in 2006 of 50 nonfiction books and 50 documentaries of interest, on the Templars, ‘holy-blood’ claims, Da Vinci Code debunkings, Grail research etc, see here .
This one is definitely set to run and run.

A closeup of 2 Templar effigies

A closeup of 2 Templar effigies

This version of the film poster shows the \'alien\' crystal skullWith the release of the long-awaited fourth, and presumably final, Indiana Jones film May 22, the mainstream press have been running regular tie-in stories dealing with subjects they rarely cover. This includes the notion that there was indeed a “real” Indiana Jones, with various candidates nominated. There are also stories about the aspect which give this 4th film its title: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. And from researching the latter aspect, the press have been led to a candidate for the former. In other words, there was a real-life adventurer connected with a crystal skull. This was F. A. ‘Mike’ Mitchell-Hedges (1882-1959), who went into the jungles of Central America to look for relics of ancient civilisations, where he said he found the crystal “Skull Of Doom,” as he called it. (Sceptics say he bought it in a museum, though his expeditions were real enough.)
There are other crystal skulls of uncertain provenance (one being in London’s Museum of Mankind) with arguments ongoing over who made them, when, and how. But M-H’s seems the most impressive, life-size, anatomically correct, with a hinged jaw, as if it could be made to speak. Leaked plot details and the film’s poster suggest the skull there is an alien artefact (from Area 51 and the legendary Roswell saucer crash). M-H said his skull, found in what is now Belize, was Mayan – but made in Atlantis 3,600 years ago, using technology now lost to modern science. (Apparently it has had people scratching their heads over how it was made, and where it came from, there being no rock crystal in the region, and the skull lacking machine-made scratches.) He claimed the lost jungle city whose ruins he found, and which he named Lubaantum [sic] or City Of Fallen Stones, was merely one of a series of “outposts of Atlantis.” As you can imagine, this makes him a target for sceptics, and during his own lifetime experienced controversy over various claims, at one point abandoning England for America after losing a libel lawsuit.
M-H was a tough character in various ways, what Americans call a high-roller, a businessman who hobnobbed with generals and heads of state, from Pancho Villa to Churchill. On expedition, he was certainly not above a spot of what today might be considered Indy-style archaeological looting. He did donate thousands of finds to British and American museums, but like Indy seems to have been unimpressed by the way they simply hoarded or buried finds that didn’t fit orthodox categories. He didn’t carry a whip or pistol, but his adopted daughter Anna – nicknamed “Sammy” – did, when she accompanied him on expeditions, and says she shot several men. It was Anna who supposedly found the skull in a jungle pit in 1924, and following M-H’s death became its lifelong custodian, insisting it had healing powers. She died last April, age 100.
“M-H” wrote 6 books based on his many adventures on several continents, his last being his 1954 memoir Danger My Ally. This was, curiously (sceptics always point out) the first time he mentioned the crystal skull he supposedly found back in 1924, and he says little enough about it even there. In fact, other sources say that when the 2nd (or US) edition of the book came out, any reference to it had been removed. Between 1930s-40s expeditions, M-H and Anna had two English homes not far from where I now live in south-central England, and ten years ago, when I first discovered this, I began to research his life, and managed to buy a copy of the now-rare first edition of his memoir Danger My Ally. This has a couple of references to the skull, towards the end of the narrative, when M-H and Anna emigrate, post-WWII:

We took with us the sinister Skull of Doom of which much as been written. How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.
The Skull of Doom is made of pure rock crystal and according to scientists it must have taken over 150 years, generation after generation working all the days of their lives, patiently rubbing down with sand an immense block of pure rock crystal until finally the perfect Skull emerged.
It is at least 3,600 years old and according to legend was used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites. It is said that when he willed death with the help of the skull, death invariably followed. It has been described as the embodiment of all evil; I do not wish to try to explain this phenomena.

There is also a photo of the Skull, captioned:

“The Skull of Doom dating back at least 3600 years, and taking about 150 years to rub down with sand from a block of pure rock crystal, nearly as hard as diamond. It is stated in legend that it was used by a high priest of the Maya to concentrate on and will death. It is said to be the embodiment of all evil; several people who have cynically laughed it have died, others have been stricken and become seriously ill.”

The Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull

“Could truth be stranger than fiction?” asks one of the many press accounts currently online. Well, it can be, and in this case, most probably is. Though with the film’s plot being kept hush-hush at present, and rumours of a film of M-H’s early life based on a script by Anna, we’ll have to wait to follow up with more in-depth coverage.

Book cover of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, showing a crystal skull beneath Stonehenge

The Skull of Doom is supposedly pictured on the cover of the book and recently-issued, long-awaited, DVD-set of the 13-part 1980 British TV series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. But I have a hardback copy of the original 1980 book, pictured above. The sleeve credits say this one (which has a hole in the chin) is actually another skull, the one in London’s Museum Of Mankind, which is officially labelled Aztec rather than Mayan. Of course, sceptics say they are all modern, made in Europe by jewellers …

It was 70 years ago this year that Britain’s war-winning fighter the Spitfire first went into production and (by August 1938) front-line service, just in time for trained front-line squadrons to be operational for the Battle Of Britain. I thought it would be worthwhile taking another look at the story in the context of the difference between fact and fiction. The fiction in this case is Leslie Howard’s 1943 film The First Of The Few (shown only in a cut-down version titled Spitfire in the US). This is not to denigrate a fine film, part of a series of war-effort films made by Leslie Howard for which he may have paid with his life. (The controversy over the shooting down of Howard’s plane in 1943 is also covered in the feature linked below.)
The film’s story structure is encapsulated in the timelessly popular “Spitfire Prelude & Fugue” concert suite composer Sir William Walton adapted from his score. After the dignified, patriotic main theme as a scene-setting prelude, we get music representing the plane’s designer RJ Mitchell in a race against time. He is dying of cancer, portrayed by a mournful strings section which interrupts a frenzied version of the prelude for the plane-building montages. This ends as the first Spit is completed, wheeled out of the hangar, and ‘spits fire’ as its guns are test-fired – all just in time to meet the coming aerial onslaught.
This is not a Hollywood film, and none of the above storyline is inaccurate per se. It also served as memorial to a man described in the press as “the forgotten hero of the Battle of Britain.” Yet, as always, the real story is stranger than the fiction. And there is always the lurking danger Hollywood will produce a Top Gun version of the story. For several years, Tom Cruise has been developing The Few with director Michael Mann, telling how an American pilot called William Meade Lindsley Fiske III and a few other US pilots saved Britain in 1940. The synopsis has Churchill secretly asking a “ragtag bunch” of American pilots to “risk prison” to come over illicitly and fly Spitfires, since the RAF pilots were no match for Luftwaffe aces and were getting shot down, so that there was nobody left in Britain to fly all these new planes.
Nothing like that happened of course, nor was there any need. Britain had already had pilots training all over the Commonwealth as well as at home, and the handful of US volunteers weren’t risking prison. Their squadron, No. 601, was nicknamed the Millionaire’s Squadron. Fiske himself had a glamorous pre-war lifestyle as a playboy and athlete, which proved useful for wartime propaganda coverage, in which Churchill took part. But he never shot down an enemy plane and didn’t even fly Spitfires (he died of burns after his Hurricane caught fire).
Lack of factuality has of course never stopped Hollywood, which likes to hang heroic self-dramatising scenarios on a few facts and then claim in publicity and pre-credits sequences what you are seeing is a true story. Over the years, it has shown a particular penchant for having Americans win WW2 campaigns they had little or nothing to do with. With recent press reports that 1 in 4 people surveyed think Winston Churchill was a fictional character while Sherlock Holmes and Biggles were real, because they appear more in popular books and films, I think this is worth covering.

I first wrote the feature page linked below for a local-media website I maintain as it was partly filmed at a now-disused airfield near where I live in south-central England. But the story remains one of international significance. As various people have said, without the Spitfire, Britain would have lost the War, and the world today would be unimaginably different.

[read feature]

A flight of Spitfires

The author George MacDonald Fraser OBE, who died January 2nd, has received the full round of newspaper obits. Most people will have encountered his work through his screenplays like Octopussy and the Michael York-Oliver Reed Three-Musketeers films trilogy. However the obits and news headlines are nearly all “Flashman Author Dies” variants, all focusing on Fraser’s 12 ‘Flashman’ novels (1969-2005), which are examples of what is known as the False Document. This is a literary device where a work of fiction purports to be a real document such as a memoir or official report …[read feature].


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This webspace (WordPress blog plus linked website as an archive of the main features) explores the underlying factual stories in subject areas familiar from mass-media fiction of one sort or another – thrillers, TV dramas, films etc. My premise is that the former are usually more interesting and meaningful than the often ad hoc contrivances of the latter. As the phrase ‘stranger than fiction’ is a commonplace one, and not very useful as a searchable key-phrase to find any of our pages, I’ve added a hyphenated sub-head preceded by a pen-name (Sireadair)  as an ad hoc blog-post tag here, and as a subhead on the main archive page.
For those curious about this pen name, Sireadair is the old spelling of a Gaelic word occasionally seen in Old Irish tales. It means someone who travels freely – something you need to do in this type of research. (The initial Si- is pronounced as in the names Sian and Sean, and the stress lies on the penultimate syllable, which is pronounced ay – with a long “a”, and the final syllable as a short unstressed “-er.”) In its original context, it also carried the connotation of someone who may appear to strangers to be just a wanderer, but whose travel has a purpose – often making an excursus into unknown or frontier territory for intelligence gathering purposes, as we must do here.
The usual saying is “Truth is stranger than fiction”. This quote has been attributed to writers as diverse as Byron, Mark Twain, and GK Chesterton. Byron’s version (in his 1823 poem Don Juan) is “Truth is always strange, Stranger than Fiction.” Twain’s version is a humourous take on an existing phrase he thought a cliché: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” GK Chesterton’s version (in a 1905 novel) is “Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction…For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it.” To this list we could also add the dramatist Pirandello in his Six Characters In Search Of An Author, and I’m sure readers could suggest others.
Truth however is a broader and more ambiguous term than “Fact”. The authors above no doubt meant truth in the everyday sense of fact. Truth also has a more abstract meaning of personal conviction which is incapable of (perhaps resistant to) proof. So here, I’ve used “fact” as a more tangible term, implying something observable by others. Of course it carries its own inherent imprecision. For what is a fact when it comes to history? And if something isn’t provable as fact, is it then fiction, or (a favourite get-out term) all a “myth”? These features won’t be the usual nit-picking “myth debunking” of easy targets. Often here we’re exploring real, versus fictional, mysteries. Sometimes the “factual” story itself starts to look more like ad hoc fiction – perhaps propaganda of some sort. I’ve been studying this theme most of my life, and sometimes there are just no ready answers. (Some of the first features I’m putting up here have appeared earlier elsewhere online, in slightly different form.)
The standard disclaimer is that readers must make up their own mind in each individual case, but I think it might be more appropriate to say we should always be prepared to review our formative conclusions as we go along. Each answer leads to a new question which in turn leads to a new … well, you get the idea. §
- Sireadair

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