It seems that the ‘real’ James Bond, an American ornithologist who wrote Birds of the West Indies, never really enjoyed having his name commandeered by Ian Fleming for his wildly popular spy novels. It’s easy to understand really. The jokes must have been relentless from friends and family as much as the wider media and even his wife seemed determined to capitalise with books of her own titled How 007 Got His Name and To James Bond With Love. For what amounts to a fairly tenuous connection it all seems like quite a lot of bother.
Wisely, given that, Jim Wright has kept his biography quite brief and as a result it makes for an entertaining read combining the story of the real life Bond and his notable career in that field with the crossover to Fleming’s fiction and the real secret services, which recruited surprisingly strongly from the ranks of ornithology. At times the author is a little too keen to pin a crime of theft to Fleming for appropriating a name he found on his bookshelf and adding it to his story that at that time he didn’t even know would be published, but once you look beyond that Bond’s work and that of his peers is an interesting insight into scientific discovery.
It is sad that so much of the progress of human knowledge appears to involve killing other creatures and cutting them open, but Bond himself, despite carrying a shotgun on his travels, happily preferred to analyse his subjects in situ. The skills of the bird collector, adaptable to circumstances, familiar with different languages, handy with a weapon and holding the perfect excuse for travelling with surveillance gear, led to many of his peers actually becoming spies, but disappointingly there is no evidence that Bond did the same.
That said, there are enough exotic adventures in Bond’s work, his meeting and interactions with Ian Fleming and the activities of his peers to sustain the book and it is an interesting insight into the development of the James Bond character and the field of ornithology at a time when the thirst for scientific knowledge was unquenchable.