Tuesday, August 24, 2010

007 In Depth: William Plomer interviews Ian Fleming, 1962

On 5 October 1962, the first James Bond film, Dr No, had its world premiere in London. Since then, the Bond films have become the most successful cinema series of all time, and they were directly responsible for the ‘spy-mania’ of the Sixties. But James Bond was a household name long before Dr No was made into a film. Fleming’s novels had already sold millions of copies internationally, were reviewed and debated in the world’s leading newspapers, and were imitated, parodied and had even been turned into a successful comic strip. Fleming was a major force in spy fiction, and an enormous influence on several other thriller-writers, prior to October 1962.

But from the beginning, his novels had divided opinion – even before publication, in fact. Michael S. Howard, who was one of the founders and later became the managing director of Fleming’s publisher, Jonathan Cape, was initially against publishing the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale:
‘(Fleming) went busily to work, devising headlines for the chapters and ideas for the jacket. To discuss these we met, towards the end of that October (1952), for the first time since the Popski dinner, and I enjoyed his enthusiastic interest in the technicalities of production. I did not tell him that the book itself had repelled me, and caused me sleepless nights. It had troubled me to be associated with its publication, for I thought its cynical brutality, unrelieved by humour, revealed a sadistic fantasy which was deeply shocking; and that the book would do discredit to the list. But in this I was alone; and although my conscience was uneasy I had accepted the majority opinion, especially William’s judgement, and withdrawn my protests.’1
Howard’s reaction may seem quaint, but Casino Royale was a very dark novel for 1952. James Bond considers Vesper Lynd in the following terms, for example:
‘He found her companionship easy and unexacting. There was something enigmatic about her which was a constant stimulus. She gave little of her real personality away and he felt that however long they were together there would always be a private room inside her which he could never invade. She was thoughtful and full of consideration without being slavish and without compromising her arrogant spirit. And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape. Loving her physically would each time be a thrilling voyage without the anticlimax of arrival. She would surrender herself avidly, he thought, and greedily enjoy all the intimacies of the bed without ever allowing herself to be possessed.’2
This passage makes difficult reading even in 2010. The novel also features a long scene in which Bond has his genitals whipped with a carpet-beater. Fleming’s brother-in-law, Hugo Charteris, felt that the concluding chapters of the book contained ‘the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in print – torture such as Japs and Huns eschewed as not cricket’.3

Michael Howard wrote that, despite his concerns over Casino Royale, he accepted the majority opinion in Jonathan Cape, ‘especially William’s judgement’. William was William Plomer (right), one of Ian Fleming’s closest friends, and perhaps the man who affected his career more than anyone else. Plomer was born to English parents in South Africa, where he started his career as a writer. His first novel, Turbott Wolfe, caused a sensation on its publication in 1925, as it dealt with inter-racial marriage, making him famous in South Africa. It was published in Britain by Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, and gained him a fan in Ian Fleming, who wrote to Plomer directly to say how much he had enjoyed the novel. Plomer replied from Japan, and when he moved to London in 1929 looked up Fleming. It was the start of a friendship that would last until Fleming’s death over three decades later.

Plomer wrote librettos, including that of Benjamin Britten’s The Prodigal Son, as well as poetry, biography, memoir, stories for children, essays and reviews. In 1933, he submitted a volume of short stories to Jonathan Cape. The firm’s resident reader and adviser, Edward Garnett, advised publishing it but warned that it would probably not make much money:
‘Plomer is certainly about the most original and keenest mind of the younger generation… He is emphatically in the minority, i.e. of the section of writers, the real intelligentsia, the unconventional critical-minded literary artist whom the British Public in general don’t like, and therefore only buy in restricted quantities. He is a Left-winger in popularity, i.e. what D.H. Lawrence was to Hugh Walpole, and Cape mustn’t expect more than a quiet rise in sales, even after Plomer’s The Case is Altered was “Chosen by The Book Society”. Of course he ought to have gained “The Book of the Month” years ago – as far as original literary excellence goes. But he is too unconventional and keen.’4
Cape published Plomer’s book, and following Garnett’s death in 1937, he took over his job at the firm. The war interrupted this, and Plomer worked alongside Fleming in Naval Intelligence for the duration of it, before returning to his job at Cape.

On the face of it, this ‘critical-minded literary artist’ seems an unlikely champion for James Bond. His friendship with Fleming was clearly a factor in it, but perhaps his unconventionality also allowed him to see something in Casino Royale that Michael Howard had not. Plomer felt that many of the submissions Cape was receiving were ‘safe, genteel, and a bit dull’5, so it is perhaps not surprising that when, during lunch at the Ivy on May 12 1952, Ian Fleming revealed to him that he had written a book, he was intrigued.

Plomer liked Casino Royale and recommended it be published, but he met with resistance from his colleagues: not just from Michael Howard, but from Jonathan Cape himself. Cape didn’t like thrillers, and rarely published them. He also didn’t think Casino Royale was very good, but Ian Fleming had another ‘in’ as well as Plomer: his elder brother Peter (above) was one of the country’s best-known travel writers, and was published by Jonathan Cape. He had also been one of the company’s editorial aides since 1946. With entreaties from both Plomer and Peter Fleming, Cape reluctantly agreed to publish Casino Royale, but he was far from happy about it, telling another author, Frank Pakenham, that ‘Peter’s little brother’ had written a book that was ‘not up to scratch’ but that he would publish it ‘because he’s Peter’s brother’.6 According to Michael Howard, Jonathan Cape never read another James Bond novel after Casino Royale.7

Fleming’s first novel sold moderately well and, due to his position at The Sunday Times, was reviewed in all the right places. In fact, that was one of the oddities about Fleming’s novels. Just as Jonathan Cape didn’t like thrillers, neither did many of those in Britain’s literary establishment. But Ian Fleming had loved thrillers since his days at Eton, devouring books by Sapper and E Phillips Oppenheim. He had continued to read thrillers into adulthood, and although he had dabbled in poetry it was a thriller he ended up writing. His influences were his boyhood reading, American writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and the new generation of thriller-writers such as Peter Cheyney and Dennis Wheatley, the latter of whom he knew. Wheatley was one of Britain’s best-selling writers, but while his novels were advertized and serialized in newspapers, they were rarely reviewed. By virtue of being published by Jonathan Cape, and through his considerable network of friends, family and acquaintances in literary circles and high society, Fleming was taken a great deal more seriously. The Times Literary Supplement called Casino Royale ‘both exciting and extremely civilized’, while The Sunday Times, Fleming’s own paper, said he was ‘the best new English thriller-writer since Ambler’.

The subsequent Bond novels sold better than Casino Royale, and in 1958 The Daily Express started adapting them into comic strips. The same year, Fleming became a talking point in the literary world when he was attacked as vulgar by the critic Bernard Bergonzi, and accused of being a purveyor of ‘sex, snobbery and sadism’ by Paul Johnson in The New Statesman 8. This was part of a backlash against Fleming, perhaps partly as a result of his having been launched in establishment circles: other thrillers may have had a lot more of all three of those elements in them, but they didn’t make any claims to being literature. Some people didn’t want Fleming seated at the high table – one could argue that they were the snobs, not he, but that their snobbery concerned the world of books, rather than clothes or food.

Despite these brickbats, or perhaps partly because of them, the Bond novels became more successful, and when it came to review Goldfinger, the seventh book in the series, in March 1959, The Times noted that:
‘A new novel by Mr. Ian Fleming is becoming something of an event, since James Bond has now established himself at the head of his profession, a secret service agent who indeed plays for England but who has much in common with the highly sexed “private eye” on the other side of the Atlantic.’9
James Bond was on a roll, and nothing could stop him. Fleming settled into his routine of writing his books in Goldeneye, his holiday home in Jamaica, and receiving editorial encouragement and criticisms from ‘my gentle Reader William Plomer’ (as he wrote in the dedication of Goldfinger). Plomer had always been Fleming’s champion and supporter behind the scenes, but in 1962 he briefly stepped into the limelight, when he interviewed Fleming for a radio programme. I’m currently trying to locate a recording of this but I have been provided with a copy of the complete transcript, which is held with Plomer’s papers at Durham University, and which makes for fascinating reading.

The interview was part of a series of programmes titled ‘The Writer Speaks’, which had been produced by The New American Library – Fleming’s paperback publisher in the United States. Other writers interviewed for the series included Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Irving Stone, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones, CP Snow, Theodore Jones and Gore Vidal. The intention seems to have been for these interviews to have been offered free of charge to any radio station that wanted them, but it’s not clear if any took up the offer in this case: it may never have been broadcast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a rather cosy chat, and it covers a lot of familiar ground. Fleming tells the story of his visit to Estoril during the war that inspired the plot of Casino Royale, mentions the influence of Chandler and Hammett on his writing and says he started writing novels ‘to take his mind off the prospect of getting married’10. But some of his remarks are more revealing, and often amusing. When asked by Plomer where the best place in the United States would be for a rendezvous with a spy, he offers either the traditional park or a crowded public swimming pool, or this unusual solution:
‘I once had this discussion with Raymond Chandler and he said that, supposing it were a beautiful spy as opposed to a rather dull spy, the place to take her would be to the Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller Center because he said that was a very attractive place to meet anyway, and also almost entirely used by out-of-town Americans and tourists, so that one would be unlikely to run into a friend or an acquaintance.’11
Plomer also raises the question of Paul Johnson's damning review of Dr No in The New Statesman four years earlier:
‘William Plomer: Do you think your books are studies in sex, snobbery and sadism?

Ian Fleming: Well, I don’t think they are studies in any of those quite proper ingredients of a thriller. Sex, of course, comes into all interesting books and into interesting lives. As to snobbery. I think that’s pretty good nonsense, really. In fact, we’d all of us like to eat better, stay in better hotels, wear better clothes, drive faster motor-cars, and so on, and it amuses me that my hero does most of these things. As for sadism, well, I think the old-fashioned way of beating up a spy with a baseball bat has gone out with the last war, and I think it’s permissible to give him a rather tougher time than we used to in the old-fashioned days before the war.’12
Plomer also asks Fleming if he has any idea of how many books he has sold to date, to which Fleming replies:
‘Well, that’s a very difficult thing to discover because they’ve been published in about thirty foreign languages. But I should say that my sales in England over my last ten or eleven books would be around two or three million, and in America I think they’re certainly that and possibly more. I think they may well be up to four million because they’ve gone into the New American Library paperback edition and been very smartly dressed up and seem to be selling like hot cakes in the States.’13
This seems to be a rather obvious puff, so it may be that if the programme was not broadcast it was because it was felt to be a little too clearly promotional material. But it’s revealing nevertheless, because this interview was conducted before the first Bond film had been released, and the numbers are huge. The sales figures in the States were probably partly the result of an article about John F Kennedy’s reading habits that had appeared in Life in March, 1961, in which the president had listed From Russia, With Love as one of his 10 favourite books.14 Plomer asks Fleming how he had met the Kennedies:
‘Well, it was rather interesting. About a year before Mr Kennedy became President, I was staying in Washington with a friend of mine and she was driving me through, it was a Sunday morning, and she was driving me through Washington down to Georgetown and there were two people walking along the street and she said, “Oh, there are my friends Jack and Jackie,” and they were indeed very close friends of hers, and she stopped and they talked. And she said, “Do you know Ian Fleming?” And Jack Kennedy said, “Not the Ian Fleming?” Of course that was a very exciting thing for him to say and it turned out that they were both great fans of my books, as indeed is Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and they invited me to dinner that night with my friend, and we had great fun discussing the books and from then on I’ve always sent copies of them direct and personally to him before they’re published over here.’15
‘I think that was an historic encounter,’ Plomer replies. Fleming told his tale masterfully, but he did not mention the name of his friend. This wasn’t simply tact: to do so would have ruined the story, as the friend was Marion ‘Oatsie’ Leiter, whose surname Fleming had given James Bond’s friend in the CIA, Felix Leiter. Leiter had introduced Kennedy to the Bond novels, and had just stopped off at the Kennedies’ house to ask if she could bring Fleming to dinner that evening. They weren’t in, but on the drive away she and Fleming happened to see them walking on the street.16 But that wouldn’t have made as good an anecdote as JFK saying ‘Not the Ian Fleming?’

And it is perhaps the keen publicist that lurked beneath the drawling upper-class English veneer that helped catapult Ian Fleming’s thrillers to global success. In an interview in 1964, John le Carré said that for his first two novels he had ‘remained an anonymous and contented civil servant who reckoned on producing a book a year for a fairly small readership, and going on doing an honest and unspectacular job’17. Fleming was much more ambitious. He had realized very early on in his writing career that selling subsidiary rights, and particularly television and film rights, would be the key to financial security, and he had pursued them relentlessly. At the time of his interview with William Plomer for ‘The Writer Speaks’, those ambitions were finally coming to fruition, as the following exchange shows:
‘William Plomer: You know people often think your books ought to be films. Am I not right in thinking that the first film based on one of your books has just been made?

Ian Fleming: Yes, it has. It was filmed mostly in Jamaica this last winter. And it’s been done by United Artists through a subsidiary of theirs over here called EON Productions, and it’s been produced by the producer of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which was a very great success both here and in America.

Plomer: Have you seen a preview of your film?

Fleming: Yes, I have. I’ve seen the rough cut and I must say I think they’ve certainly managed to hit it off very well. They’ve got a very good star as James Bond, a man called Sean Connery, a Scotsman, who weight-lifts in Scotland and boxed for the navy and a very good Shakespearean actor and so on, and they’ve got plenty of excitement and gunplay and what-all in the film and I think it’ll probably be a very great success.

Plomer: Well, let’s hope it will be the first of a succession of films.’18
And the rest, as they say, is history.

With many thanks to Caroline Craggs, Mike Harkness and Denise Condron of the Archives and Special Collections, Durham University Library.

1, 4, 5, 7. All quotes are from Jonathan Cape, Publisher by Michael Spencer Howard, Penguin, 1971
2. From Chapter 23, Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, Jonathan Cape, 1953.
3, 6, 16. All quotes and information from Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, Phoenix, 1996.
8. The Case of Mr Fleming by Bernard Bergonzi, in The Twentieth Century, March 1958; and Sex, snobbery and sadism by Paul Johnson, in The New Statesman, 5 April 1958.
9. From The Times, March 26, 1959.
10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18. All quotes from ‘The Writer Speaks’, Ian Fleming and William Plomer, 1962, courtesy the Archives and Special Collections, Durham University Library.
14. The President’s Voracious Reading Habits, by Hugh Sidey, in Life, March 17, 1961.
17. John le Carré Brings Realism To Spy Fiction, Matinee Highlights, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, broadcast May 30, 1964.


  1. Fascinating series Jeremy. I am enjoying it immensely. Much food for thought.

    The other influence, that you may touch upon in later posts, is that of Mrs. Fleming, Anne Charteris – who, if we are to believe the stories, especially in the Bondmaker docu-drama (in which the Fleming character uses Fleming’s words to narrate the story of his life), was quite a snob and had a vicious circle of friends who would tease Fleming about Bond and being a ‘thriller writer’.

    The point being that the below paragraph...

    John le Carré said that for his first two novels he had ‘remained an anonymous and contented civil servant who reckoned on producing a book a year for a fairly small readership, and going on doing an honest and unspectacular job’. Fleming was much more ambitious. He had realized very early on in his writing career that selling subsidiary rights, and particularly television and film rights, would be the key to financial security, and he had pursued them relentlessly.

    ...may just have missed one little motivational difference between Fleming’s approach and LeCarré’s; that being ‘peer pressure’ and a ‘desire to prove oneself worthy’. And while it could be argued that those elements may fall under the banner of being ‘ambitious’ - it may not be solely for financial security.

    All this seems at odds with accusations of snobbery aimed at Fleming. I don’t consider ‘wanting the best from life’ (as portrayed by Bond enjoying the best food, wine etc.) as snobbery. I see ‘looking down your nose at someone’ as snobbery.

    Then again, the snobbery may not be 'Bond' himself, but could be considered Fleming’s portrayal of the villains in his novels – but then how do you define a villain in a story, without imbuing him with negative traits. Which I guess leads to accusations of racism - but as Fleming's stories are globetrotting adventures, it makes sense that Bond encounters and battles other races. Admittedly though, Fleming is racist - I am surprised that some chapter headings in Live and Let Die haven't had their titles changed.

  2. Thanks very much for the comments, David, and I'm glad you're enjoying it so far. There's a fair bit more to come. :)

    I think your point about Ann Fleming is a very good one. I've tried to indicate in this post some of the animosity against Fleming in literary circles, and some reasons why it might have existed for reasons other than the qualities of his writing, but I've now added a little to that - and included a quote from Fleming in his interview with Plomer in which he addresses the charges of 'sex, snobbery and sadism'. I've also added a few links (to that infamous article, for instance, and to the one in Life about JFK's reading habits), and made my sources clearer.

    I think Fleming did seek approval in literary circles, and it was no doubt a motivation. But he chose to wrote thrillers, and he would have known that that was an uphill struggle. I think above everything Fleming wanted to enjoy life, and he saw writing as something that would be fun, but which might make his life that much more relaxed. In his job at The Sunday Times he had secured a four-day working week and ample time to spend at his home in Jamaica. I think his desire for the good life, and an easy life, was a major motivation. He also, of course, loved thrillers, and had done since his boyhood.

  3. Polmer seems to have been one of the most excited and encoraging of Flemings writing, wonder if we would have got the same Bond books if he hadnt been?. What a find this interview is. Fingers crossed you get the Audio. Thanks for sharing it with us I look forward to more Fleming and Polmer.

  4. Thanks for the link to the ‘Sex, Sadism and Snobbery’ article. I had never read it before – but obviously have heard it mentioned in nearly every book about Bond and Fleming.

    It is fascinating to read Fleming’s response about sadism in the Plomer interview juxtaposed against Johnson’s final tag:

    ... Recently I read Henri Alleg's horrifying account of his tortures in an Algiers prison; and I have on my desk a documented study of how we treat our prisoners in Cyprus. I am no longer astonished that these things can happen. Indeed, after reflecting on the Fleming phenomenon, they seem to me almost inevitable.’

    It’s almost if Johnson is blaming Fleming for the increase in violence (and sadism) in the world. I wonder what he would make (would have made) of films like Rendition and Body of Lies?

  5. Yes. I think it's a spectacularly unfair review for that and several other points. It also backfired, of course, as it made Fleming even more of a talking point. And despite Johnson riding his high horse for all he was worth, I suspect his description of the plot of Dr No made quite a few of his readers rush out and get it at once - he makes it sound like the most fantastic thriller ever written!