It’s dark and raining outside, but I’m sunk into a comfortable sofa in William Boyd’s Chelsea living room, where a fire burns briskly in the grate. He couldn’t be warmer so I’m surprised when he bristles at the mention of the new James Bond film, Skyfall.
“I deliberately haven’t seen it,” he says firmly. That’s because the Booker prizewinning novelist and screenwriter is putting the finishing touches to his own 007 novel, commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate.
Spies have been a big feature of William Boyd’s work in recent years. There’s a scene in his bestselling novel, Any Human Heart, in which the fictional hero, Logan Mountstuart, is recruited to naval intelligence during the Second World War by a certain Ian Fleming.
That real-life wartime experience would prove pivotal in Fleming’s later career as an author. Writing that particular chapter would also prove pivotal for William Boyd. He became fascinated by espionage and decided that one day he would write a spy novel. The result was Restless, which, like Any Human Heart, he has now adapted as a television drama.
“I got interested in the psychology of spying. Kim Philby, who was a Soviet double agent for more than 20 years, intrigued me: the duplicity, betrayal and lying.
“With Restless I wanted to explore how someone goes on living a double life for so long. What does it do to them? What would have happened to Philby if he hadn’t defected to the Soviet Union and had remained undetected within the British establishment?”
It was while Boyd was researching a film drama about the famously frosty wartime relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt (which never got made) that he came across a corner of history that no one had really investigated.
A reference to Churchill’s dirty tricks led the novelist to a covert operation mounted by the British Secret Service in 1940–41 to manipulate and penetrate the news media in the United States to influence American public opinion in favour of joining the war. At the time, eight out of ten Americans were against intervening in the fighting in Europe. Churchill believed they had to be persuaded otherwise.
“Churchill was adamant when he came to be prime minister in May 1940 that if we didn’t get the Americans involved, we wouldn’t win the war. He ordered this operation to be set up and provided the funds and they were very successful. But then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and their job was done.
“That’s why it became an embarrassing secret after the war because they were our allies and we didn’t want them to know that as many as 3,000 agents were working in the US on behalf of the British Secret Service.”
The central character in Restless, which will be broadcast in two parts on BBC1, is a female spy, Sally (Charlotte Rampling), who has led a double life for three decades. The drama begins with her daughter (Michelle Dockery – Lady Mary in Downton Abbey) learning that her mother is not the boring, respectable British housewife she thought she was.
In fact, Sally is a former spy called Eva Delectorskaya who was recruited by the British Secret Service when a beautiful young Russian émigrée at the start of the Second World War. Eva assumed the identity of Sally Gilmartin in 1942 but has been in hiding ever since. Why?
The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks with the young Eva played by Hayley Atwell, who previously starred in the Channel 4 adaptation of Boyd’s Any Human Heart. Eva is sent to America where she successfully plants false stories in American newspapers and radio stations claiming that Hitler has designs on Mexico and the war is coming to America’s back yard.
She also acts as a honey trap, having an affair with one of President Roosevelt’s key advisers. According to William Boyd, everything Eva does in America, both in the book and the television drama, is based on real events.
“It’s all documented in this extraordinary manuscript that I found about the British Security Coordination operation in the US, written by four or five of its former members. They only published 12 copies and one of them was for Churchill.
“It was an unofficial memoir of what they got up to. One of the authors was Roald Dahl, who spent part of the war working at their headquarters at the Rockefeller Center in New York. It was quite astonishing what they got up to, mounting smear campaigns about key members of the American isolationist movement.
“No wonder they had to brush it under the carpet. The Washington Post later described it as possibly one of the most successful covert operations in the history of espionage.”
A boyish enthusiasm envelops William Boyd when he talks about this spying operation. He leans forward on the sofa, his face animated as he tells the story. I wonder if he had been born three decades earlier whether he might have signed up for such a mission.
Born and brought up in West Africa in the 1950s and early 60s, the son of a doctor and a teacher, William Boyd has always felt like an outsider. Sent to boarding school in Scotland, he would spend his holidays in the African sun devouring thrillers and detective novels. It was then that he first read the Bond books.
“If you have a colonial childhood, you are never really at home in your own country and maybe that’s the reason why the spy novel is so intriguing to me. Who are we really? Do we change identities as we get older? And if you put that in the context of espionage, it’s amplified.”
When Boyd was asked to write a Bond novel, he jumped at it. He’s the third novelist in recent years, after Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver, to accept the challenge. He is just putting the finishing touches to the manuscript, which has to be delivered before Christmas. Publication is autumn 2013. There’s no title as yet and Boyd is tight-lipped about plot details.
“All I will say is it’s set in 1969. Fleming died in 1964. He was in his mid-50s, so conceivably if he’d looked after himself a bit better, hadn’t smoked and drunk so much, he might have written a James Bond novel in that year.”
Bond films are always contemporary, explains Boyd, but we forget that Fleming’s novels were largely published in the 1950s and 60s.
“In the films Bond is a cartoon character, but in the novels he is far more troubled, nuanced and interesting.” I point out that Sam Mendes, the director of Skyfall, has attempted to show a little more of the inner Bond and that the film takes us back to 007’s childhood home in Scotland. Boyd corrects me:
“Bond was brought up by an aunt in somewhere like Wiltshire. He was sent to boarding school in Edinburgh, Fettes – which is Tony Blair’s old public school – but only after he was thrown out of Eton for a dalliance with a maid.”
For a moment I forget we’re talking about an imaginary person, so real has James Bond become in William Boyd’s eyes. To prepare for writing his Bond, the author re-read all the Fleming books in chronological order so he could glean as much biographical detail as possible.
“Bond’s father was Scottish and his mother was Swiss so he didn’t have a drop of English blood in him. He’s not the suave Roger Moore-type English toff at all,” says Boyd, who has been so scrupulous in his research he even notes every time 007 downs an alcoholic drink.
“He’s a massive boozer. There is one night in Dr No where he consumes two bottles of bourbon, a bottle of champagne, a Calvados and four dry martinis.”
As for Fleming’s own prodigious drink habit, Boyd believes he deliberately drank himself to an early grave.
“He’s an interesting type of English writer, full of self-loathing. I think he was only really happy in the war when he worked in naval intelligence. When the war ended, the misery kicked in and although the Bond books became successful, he had to write one a year and that became a monkey on his back.”
I sense no such monkey on William Boyd’s back. He seems remarkably content with his life. He lives in a beautiful terraced house off the King’s Road in Chelsea, which he tells me is only five minutes’ walk away from James Bond’s London residence. It’s packed with books and modern art.
I spend nearly ten minutes in the hallway on my way out, admiring his large collection of David Hockney prints. The artist painted them on his iPad and emails them to a small collection of close friends. As I step out once again into the dark, damp winter night, I can’t help but feel a pang of envy.
Restless is on BBC1 at 9:00pm on Thursday 27 December