Bonded: ‘I shall never hurt her except with a slipper’
Ian Fleming did indeed have a golden typewriter. He bought it for $US174 (a small fortune in 1952) and — of course, being the creator of James Bond — had it smuggled into Britain by a former secret service chum. Immediately he wrote to his wife, the long-suffering Ann: “This is only a tiny letter to try out my new typewriter, and to see if it will write golden letters since it is made of gold.”
It certainly did write gold. Fleming had just finished drafting his first Bond book, Casino Royale, triumphantly topping off this lurid tale with its famously savage last line: “The bitch is dead now.”
In the next 12 years he would write 13 more, as well as the three-volume children’s yarn Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. Between them, these books would sell 100 million copies and generate film royalties running into nine figures. Not bad for a man who turned his hand to writing thrillers apparently only to distract himself from impending domestic horrors. “After being a bachelor for 44 years I was on the edge of marrying,” he recalled, “and the prospect was so horrifying that I was in urgent need of some activity to take my mind off it.”
You sense that behind the irony there lay a grain of truth. Either way, Fleming packed his life with pastimes. After a war spent planning covert operations for British intelligence, he already had three jobs: foreign manager for The Sunday Times, director of a small publishing house and manager of a bibliophile magazine.
Admittedly, those were more relaxed journalistic times. The Sunday Times gave him two months off each winter to spend at Goldeneye, the house he built in Jamaica, where he wrote the Bond books with characteristic discipline: 2000 words each morning, never revised until the whole tale was complete. Even so, one can easily see why he was just 56 when he died in 1964, on his son Caspar’s 12th birthday.
Fergus Fleming’s entertaining and revealing collection of his uncle’s letters, niftily published to coincide with the release of Spectre, the 24th Bond film, covers those miraculously productive 12 years. Many of the most waspish missives are financial haggles (at which Fleming was very good) directed at Jonathan Cape, the publisher who introduced Bond to the world — but only, it seems, with the greatest reluctance. Cape himself only read one Bond book, and his managing editor declared Casino Royale “a sadistic fantasy that was deeply shocking”, without realising that Fleming’s talent for sadistic fantasy would keep Cape solvent for decades.
In those early days libraries did indeed ban Bond as pornography and editorials thundered against what were seen as Fleming’s excesses. After The Guardian had castigated the Bond books for promoting “the cult of luxury for its own sake”, and of course for their “diet of sex and violence”, Fleming wrote a mischievously provocative reply.
Fleming angered individuals, too, none more so than the left-wing architect Erno Goldfinger, who threatened to sue because Fleming used “his” name for a particularly nasty villain.
Fleming was unrepentant. “Tell him that if there’s any more nonsense I’ll put in an erratum slip and change the name throughout to Gold-prick and give the reason why,” he fumed to his publisher.
What shines most through these letters, however, is Fleming’s total professionalism as a writer — though, in the best British tradition, he did his best to hide it behind a self-deprecating smokescreen of affected dilettantism. Without a whiff of vanity he subjected his manuscripts to the eagle eye of the South African author Wil--
liam Plomer, who returned them with pages of donnish comments. “I think you oughtn’t to use a word like ‘feral’ or an expression like ‘sensual mouth’ more than once in a book of this length,” Plomer would suggest, and Fleming would incorporate the changes without protest.
From his close friends, who included Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward, his neighbour in Jamaica, he also accepted affectionate mockery, often with a surprisingly camp edge, given that Fleming’s sexual predilections were very similar to Bond’s. Coward, for instance, pretended to be scandalised by Fleming’s description of the luscious heroine in Dr No: “I was slightly shocked by the lascivious announcement that Honeychile’s bottom was like a boy’s!” Coward wrote: “I know that we are all becoming progressively more broadminded nowadays but really old chap what could you have been thinking of?”
Discreetly but honestly, Fergus Fleming touches on the sadder aspects of his uncle’s life, though he is hampered by having no access to most of the correspondence between Fleming and his wife (apparently withheld by her daughter from an earlier marriage with a view to separate publication). Fleming and Ann had conducted an on-off affair for years before marrying, and you can’t help thinking that they were better off as occasional lovers. Perhaps even Fleming felt that. “China will fly and there will be rage and tears,” he predicted to Ann’s brother shortly before the wedding. “But I think we will survive as there is no bitterness in either of us and we are both optimists — and I shall never hurt her except with a slipper.”
They did survive, in the sense that they never divorced, but their son, Caspar, had a fractured childhood and died of a drug overdose at 23. Both his parents had extramarital relationships: she with British Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell; he primarily with Blanche Blackwell, a neighbour in Jamaica.
Still, something positive came of that. When Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman came to Jamaica to film Dr No, Fleming recommended that they use the sound studio run by Blanche’s son. That gave an enormous boost to the son’s nascent record company — and Chris Blackwell’s Island Records never looked back. Had Fleming lived to see it, this supremely ironic Englishman would surely have loved to have taken credit for giving the world Bob Marley as well as James Bond.