Bonded: ‘I shall never hurt her ex­cept with a slip­per’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.