LONDON -- The title of the next James Bond movie might lead you to think otherwise, but 007 didn't just fall out of the sky. Ian Fleming's iconic espionage character -- and the entire genre of British espionage fiction Bond influenced -- grew out of a world populated by very real spies on the very real streets of London's spy trails.
As the Bond film series celebrates its 50th anniversary and his fans eagerly await the arrival of "Skyfall" (the 23rd 007 film), I found my boots on the ground in London exploring the haunts of the U.K. spy world as they hide in plain sight.
I found there are two ways to explore the real-world venues of Brit spies -- the in-depth Intelligence Trail tour, and what I like to call the Fleming Trail. I combined the two.
The former is a tour through the very real HQs of the Secret Intelligence Service, fueled by stories of their various denizens. Stretching from Trafalgar Square and Pall Mall through St. James's Park toward Whitehall, the clandestine hike is led by espionage historian Brian Gray (or Mr. X, when he's on duty walking history-happy tourists through back alleys).
Gray doesn't spend too much time on umbrellas with venomous tips, books with hidden tape recorders, or ejector seats. He stresses that the bulk of Cold War spy work was done by quiet men in gray suits playing a game of elaborate chess with their opposite and equal numbers in Moscow and East Berlin.
Rather than concern himself with the likes of 007, George Smiley, or John Drake, Gray unveils the world of Cold War surveillance and double agents. While leading visitors past the various stately buildings studding the tour, Gray shines a light on the ugly escapades of traitors like Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross (together known as the Cambridge Spy Ring or Cambridge Five).
As Gray points out the various gentlemen's clubs abutting White Hall -- these are London's classic leather- and mahogany-appointed centers of cigars and brandy, not the sleazy hustle pits of Las Vegas -- he especially laments the dark deeds of George Blake, easily MI6's deadliest traitor.
A devout Communist and double agent for the KGB, Blake single-handedly betrayed more than 400 British agents during the Cold War. After being ratted out by a Polish defector, Blake was convicted of treason -- only to escape prison and flee to Moscow. Once back in the USSR, he divorced his wife and abandoned his children in the U.K. to start a new life. He lives there comfortably under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin to this very day.
A highlight of the Intelligence Trail is a visit to St. Ermin's Hotel, located across the street from New Scotland Yard and a short walk from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. While it's now a bright, welcoming, and recently remodeled home away from home for savvy tourists, the hotel's location smack in the middle of the neighborhood featuring St. James's Park, Whitehall, and Parliament Square made it a popular meeting point and drop spot for London spies.
But its role in World War II is the hotel's most stunning claim to fame. From 1938 and well into the war, the SIS Department D (for destruction) occupied the top floors of the hotel. While guests came and went below, British demolition agents would slink up to the penthouse levels to plan their next bash against the Bosh.
Unbeknownst to the guests below, Department D kept the tools of its trade in the same building -- meaning a goodly amount of explosives slept just a few floors above weary visitors every night.
As Gray winds down his tour, he manages to tip a black hat to Ian Fleming, pointing out the former offices of Naval Intelligence where 007's creator learned the finer points of the spy game.
It's Fleming who offers another way into the tactile realms of British spying. An easy stroll through nearby Mayfair allows Bond fans a chance to walk in Fleming's footsteps, exploring how the man lived as he worked for British Intelligence and while he created the most iconic spy in fiction.
The son of a parliamentary minister and the grandson of a Scottish financier, Fleming grew up in a wealthy London family. Educated in prestigious military schools and at Eton College, Fleming worked as a journalist and junior editor for Reuters, stationed in Moscow.
Prior to World War II, Fleming returned to London to work as a stockbroker. But, with the global conflict looming, Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, recruited Fleming to serve as his personal assistant. During his intelligence career, Fleming would rise to the rank of commander (a rank he'd share with Bond), planning operations for an elite team of British commandos, the 30th Assault Unit.
Gray explained that Fleming longed to be a field agent. Unfortunately, he never had the opportunity because his organization skills were too good, making him invaluable back in London. And his imagination was too farfetched for real-world implementation. Fleming became famous under the Admiralty Arch for his intricate, gimmicky plans.
Eau de Ian Fleming
While there's no proof Fleming pitched shoes with poison blades or wristwatch dart guns, he did devise Operation Ruthless. Fleming volunteered to lead a mission that would disguise British soldiers as Nazis aboard a captured German bomber. Fleming would've crashed the bomber into the English Channel and called for a German rescue boat -- before capturing that rescue boat in the hope of snatching a much-coveted Enigma Nazi code machine. His superiors, however, never put the plan into operation, and Fleming remained at his desk.
Though his desk-bound duties laid the foundation for his espionage fiction, they kept Fleming out of the field. When he turned to writing after the war, he poured that frustration into his fictional alter ego, making sure Bond was always in on the action. Since Bond was essentially Fleming, 007's tastes in clothes, alcohol, and other accouterments are rooted in very real establishments still in business today.
Fleming fans can hunt down the 007 lifestyle first by visiting Floris at 89 Jermyn Street in Mayfair. "Purveyors of The Finest Perfumes and Toiletries to the Court of St James' Since the Year 1730," Floris holds a Royal Warrant and provides exclusive scents to Queen Elizabeth II, including special concoctions for last summer's Jubilee.
Fleming was a frequent customer who enjoyed Floris' No. 89, a mix of orange, bergamot blended, lavender, neroli, nutmeg, sandalwood, cedarwood, and vetiver. You can smell like Fleming (and Bond) for a mere 50 pounds (about $80) for 50 milliliters.
Less than a block's walk from Floris, the tailors at Turnbull & Asser kept Fleming well-dressed and have made suits and tuxedos for every actor who's portrayed Bond, from Sir Sean Connery to Daniel Craig. The tailoring process takes several weeks as measurements and hand sewing take all garments from mockups, through alterations, to final personalized (and very expensive) products.
Finally, a few minutes down St. James's Street, in a quiet courtyard set away from the pedestrian fuss, stands the Dukes Hotel. It was in this hotel bar where Fleming would relax and pen the first James Bond novel, "Casino Royale."
Fleming's favorite adult concoction to fuel his literary efforts at the Dukes was a special blend of bitters, red vermouth, gin, vodka, and lemon peel. Fleming would write the unusual martini into the novel, as Bond christened it the Vesper after that story's tragic leading lady.
These days, spy fans can take in that Fleming ambiance as bar manager Alessandro Palazzi forges the modern Vesper. The passing years made it necessary to change the brands of gin and vodka used at the Dukes -- and Palazzi prefers a touch of orange peel over lemon as a garnish -- but the care the barman pours into making the Vesper transforms the simple mixing of a drink into an art form.
After enjoying a Vesper, I can report that there's good reason customers are allowed to order only two per visit (at 17 pounds, or about $27, each). The Vesper goes down very cold and surprisingly smooth -- with enough high-quality booze in its golden depths to knock even 007 back on his heels.
The best part of all this real-world spy traipsing is that Bond's ongoing anniversary year promises to keep tours rolling and doors open to well-informed London tourists indefinitely. There really is nowhere else in the world where you can live like Bond while learning about the historic men who inspired his creation.