‘One of the reasons why I chose the pseudonym of James Bond for my hero rather than, say, Peregrine Maltravers was that I wished him to be unobtrusive. Exotic things would happen to and around him but he would be a neutral figure – an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department.
The whole room smelt of the Mexican.
‘Take him away,’ said Bond, as he straightened his old Mauresque’s tie. ‘His igguda’s broken. It’s a trick I learned from the YMCA.’
The YMCA! Ensign Squarehead’s eyes narrowed at the mention of the Soviet Counter-counter-under-the-counter group.
‘Where’ll I put him, Boss?’
‘Down the lift-shaft,’ said Bond. The traffic would cover the scream.
As Squarehead made off with his twitching burden, Bond turned to the internal television apparatus.
‘Canteen,’ he said evenly, and one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen stood before him on the cazonated uviform frumpiglass screen.
‘Two double Martinis,’ said Bond, specifying the Old Fusty and a dash of Miss Dior.
As the woman bent over her blotter the sun sparked on her spectacles (‘f.9/34 Spitzer Weichmann lenses,’ Bond noted automatically). The wind from the open window stirred the blue ridge of her facial hair, there was pre-stressed concrete in the bridge of her nose, and her 1294 mm. bust lay like an unwrapped parcel on the top of her desk. She reminded him of something he’d once seen by Rembrandt, the artist.
One day he’d take her away from this filthy business. There’d be a seat for her on the racing tricycle that old W.O. Bentley had built for him with his own hands in the bad year before Munich. They’d pedal down N.63… And he’d see how she shaped.
‘Shaped?’ He was forgetting himself. ‘And get me something to eat.’
‘The usual, Commander?’ Her nostrils showed the admiration she felt, in spite of herself, for the trim, slim man with the pressurized waistcoat and the ankles of a gambler.
‘Hippo steaks,’ said Bond, ‘with a double portion of Mobiloil dressing. Those mussels you get for me from Danzig, with some chopped rhinestones. No béarnaise, of course, but some very fresh okapi trotters, boiled in Jordan water, and a carton of Old Hatstand crackers.’
The simple meal was nearly finished when the blood-red telephone went galloo-galloo.
‘B.,’ said the familiar voice; and Bond leant forward on his malleable inscuffated drabba-tested gros-point cuffs.
‘Would you know Blotkin-Plotkin if you saw him?’
‘The YMCA chief?’ said Bond. ‘The hunchbacked seven-foot negro with the long red beard and nine fingers to his right hand? I don’t think I’d mistake him.’Perhaps it’s unfair to give too much thought to an ephemeral piece of fun written over half a century ago, but it’s striking just how wrong this parody gets James Bond. There are some great touches, such as the spot-on first sentence, which could almost be out of a Fleming novel, as well as Bond’s prissiness and the authoritative use of precise terms about the tiniest of matters. But it doesn’t read as though it has been written by someone who knows Fleming’s novels, or has even read them. The main reason most of it isn’t very funny is because it doesn’t seem anything like a Bond novel. Despite a few modern and even futuristic ideas, as a whole it feels more like a parody of thrillers from the Twenties or even earlier, with telephones going ‘galloo-galloo’. The inclusion of an aide/batman for the hero is completely out of character for Fleming: they were a staple of earlier thrillers, but there is no such figure in the Bond novels.
‘He’s in Surrey again. I told the PM I could count on you.’
All tiredness forgotten, Bond called to his aide.
‘Leatherhead, Squarehead,’ he said evenly.
The fight was on.'5
But all this was still a few years away, when Fleming was on the verge of best-sellerdom. In April 1953, he was just embarking on the journey. The reviews for Casino Royale in the Times Literary Supplement and several other well-respected publications were coups for a debut thriller, but they had come about in large part because Fleming was exceptionally well connected: he was a journalist at the country’s most prestigious newspaper, his brother Peter was a famous writer, and his wife was a noted literary hostess who had been married to the press magnate Viscount Rothermere. Casino Royale was also positively reviewed in the Daily Telegraph by the poet John Betjeman, another friend, but the most favourable review appeared, unsurprisingly, in the paper Fleming wrote for, the Sunday Times. Written by Cyril Ray under the pseudonym Christopher Pym, it also sought to put the debut thriller into context:
'Here is a new writer who takes us back to the casinos of Le Queux and Oppenheim, the world of caviar and fat Macedonian cigarettes. But with how much more pace in the writing, how much less sentimentality in the tone of voice, how much more knowing a look!... From the first evocative words to the last savagely ironic sentence, this is a novel with its own flavour and its own startlingly vivid turn of phrase… If Mr Fleming’s next story has half the swiftness of this, as astringent an accent, and a shade more probability, we can be certain that here is the best new English thriller-writer since Ambler. One is pretty certain already.'6
Ian Fleming was a fan of both these schools of spy fiction. As a schoolboy, he had devoured the works of Sapper and Rohmer, but as an adult he was an admirer of Greene and Ambler. Fleming had set out to add some literary sophistication to the heroic spy thriller, adding a dose of grit to the glamour: Casino Royale plays out against a background of gambling for high stakes, exotic cocktails and beautiful clothes, but ends with the hero having his genitals tortured and being betrayed by the woman he wanted to wed. But it is a mistake to think that Fleming was the first to attempt this sort of thing. It is as though there is a gulf between the 1920s, when Sapper was at the peak of his success, and 1953. In fact, in those intervening years several writers tried to add a more sophisticated and convincing portrayal of espionage to thrillers in the heroic tradition, and a few succeeded in doing so.
Five months after Casino Royale was published, Richard Usborne’s Clubland Heroes appeared. This was a new type of literary criticism, a dry and witty look at three rather musty thriller-writers, all of them firmly in the heroic tradition. In time, these writers would come to be seen as pre-eminent influences on Fleming, and the phrase ‘clubland heroes’ would be linked to James Bond in dozens of articles and books:
'In 1953 two remarkable books were published. One was Casino Royale, a first novel by Ian Fleming – but more of that later. The other was a fascinating and extremely readable little volume entitled Clubland Heroes. Nothing quite like it had ever been done before. Its author, Richard Usborne, set out to examine certain of the writings and characters of three popular authors of his youth: John Buchan, Sapper and Dornford Yates.
It is significant that each of these best-sellers produced the bulk of his work in an era that was pre-1939, and it is no coincidence that they all dealt with characters who might collectively be termed Upper Class. In the 1960s – and, indeed, when Usborne wrote about them – they appeared more than a little archaic...
Ten main characters are placed under the microscope. With the exception of Carl Peterson, Sapper’s arch-criminal and one of the most infamous villains of sensational fiction, all are cast in the same mould. They are all West End clubmen, they all appear to be of independent means and they all conform to a rigid code of honour made up by equal parts of birth, public school, university and the army. They are all extremely masculine, virile and, paradoxically, utterly emasculated.
Of the ten characters examined, only three need concern us here. John Buchan will forever be associated with Richard Hannay; Sapper’s foremost hero is, of course, Bulldog Drummond, and Dornford Yates’ protagonist in this particular genre is undoubtedly Jonah Mansel: the Terrible Trio of popular fiction between the two wars. Millions of readers have thrilled to the exploits of these imaginary but none the less very real adventurers. But how do they stand up today beside Ian Fleming’s sophisticated and sardonic Secret Service agent, Commander James Bond?...
James Bond, like the Terrible Trio, is of the clubland stratum of society, if he is not exactly a hero. He is comfortably off, and always has been, even if he does a job of work too. He moves easily in places like the Ritz, the Hotel de Paris, and the sporting clubs and private rooms of continental casinos. He understands the code of people like Hannay, Drummond and Mansel, upheld to a large extent by M, his chief, who holds ‘a great deal of his affection and all his loyalty’, but he does not live by it…
It could be argued, of course, that I have snatched at the convenience of Usborne’s Clubland Heroes, and that they have little in common – even by comparison – with James Bond. I admit that he would probably be far more comfortable in the company of, say, Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar, the Saint, from the little I know of that character. I know little of him because he seems to me a mere ghost, or at the most a lay figure jouncing and swashbuckling through an interminable number of books and stories which are forgotten almost as soon as they are read. Sensational fiction is full of slightly caddish protagonists, non-heroes who appear to be – on the face of things – closer to Bond than the illustrious triumvirate. These range from the gentleman-cracksman type like the early Raffles and the later Blackshirt to the tough, cynical Private Eye like Philip Marlowe and the hooligans of Mickey Spillane. It could be argued that Bond has more in common with any of these than with Hannay, Drummond and Mansel.
Personally, I don’t think he has. The Terrible Trio were alive. We can believe in them as real people, despite the outrageous adventures they all got up to…'7
'In 1930, the major thriller publishing house of Hodder & Stoughton threw itself solidly behind the Saint. Launching him with the most lavish fanfare ever accorded a fictional hero, they claimed ‘the man who has never heard of the Saint is like the boy who has never heard of Robin Hood’'.9By the time Casino Royale was published in 1953, 29 Saint books had been published, and there had been eight very successful films featuring the character. Jonah Mansel had appeared in 15 books, but was often a peripheral character and rarely the outright protagonist.
In the 1950s, Kingsley Amis was a friend of Richard Usborne, who was a fellow member of the Garrick, and they were later neighbours in Hampstead.10 In his study of Ian Fleming’s work, The James Bond Dossier, published a few months after Snelling’s book, Amis also drew much of his tone from Usborne’s Clubland Heroes, which he called informative, entertaining and required reading for students of the genre.11 All of which is true – but it doesn’t replace reading the genre.
Amis and Snelling’s books were both very successful: Snelling’s sold over a million copies.12 Perhaps partly as a result, the connection between James Bond and the clubland heroes has been made repeatedly since, sometimes in the strangest of ways. Reviewing Andrew Lycett’s biography of Ian Fleming in 1995, Michael Davie wrote:
'But for his phenomenal success with Bond, Fleming’s life would be of scant interest. As it is, 007 is lodged somewhere inside all our heads, together with an uneasy feeling that the appeal of his crude clubland values and sado-masochism tells us something disreputable about ourselves.'13While reviewing Jeremy Black’s book The Politics of James Bond in 2002, Jeffrey Richards commented on Fleming’s novels:
'For those raised exclusively on the Bond films – with their unbeatable blend of conspicuous consumption, brand-name snobbery, technological gadgetry, colour-supplement chic, exotic locations and comic-strip sex and violence – it is instructive to return to the earlier novels, which, with their clubland ethos, casual racism, preoccupation with the Soviet threat and references back to the war, are closer in tone to Sapper and John Buchan than the ‘swinging Sixties’ era of the first films.'14But conspicuous consumption, brand-name snobbery, technological gadgetry, exotic locations and comic-strip sex and violence can also be found in all of Fleming’s novels – and, indeed, in dozens of other British thrillers, from about 1895 onwards. I think Ian Fleming would have been aware of many of them: perhaps something closer to a Terrible Thirty than Snelling’s Terrible Trio. Fleming was a thriller aficionado:
‘There aren’t enough good thrillers for me – I like reading them in aeroplanes and trains. I find they’re wonderful kind of books to pass the time with.’15
Fleming might have been tickled by the idea of reading thrillers with a character who shared his surname: Simon Harvester’s series featuring British spymaster Roger Fleming began with Let Them Prey in 1942, and the seventh novel was published in January 1951.
Others (a wider group), predisposed to finding flaws in Fleming’s work, have noted the racism and sexism in Buchan and Sapper and simply transposed it to the Bond novels. From this a strand of criticism has emerged that claims that Fleming’s novels glorify an imperialist crypto-fascist psychopathic murdering rapist – this is currently a mainstream view of the work of one of the 20th century’s finest popular writers. It was helped along significantly by Paul Johnson’s famous attack on Dr No in The New Statesman in 1958, the title of which – ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’ – has alone been used as shorthand by lazy critics to write off Fleming ever since. I’ll tackle Johnson’s critique in one of the next posts in this series, but first I’ll look at some writers whose influence on Ian Fleming has not been discussed because of the over-emphasis on John Buchan, Sapper and Dornford Yates.
1. Letter from Ian Fleming, Manchester Guardian, April 5 1958.
2. ‘Espionage in the Sapper manner’ by Alan Ross, Times Literary Supplement, April 17 1953.
3. In his introduction to the 1963 reissue of Hugh Edwards’ All Night at Mr. Stanyhurst’s, Fleming wrote that an essential item in his ‘Desert Island’ library would be the Times Literary Supplement, ‘dropped to me each Friday by a well-
4. p154, Blindfold Games by Alan Ross, Collins Harvill, 1986.
5. His Word, His Bond by ‘Ixn Flxmxng’, pp80-81 Spectrum: A Spectator Miscellany, 1956, Longmans, Green & Co.
6. ‘Cards on the table’ by Christopher Pym, Sunday Times, April 12 1953.
7. pp11-15 007, James Bond: A Report by O.F. Snelling, Panther, 1965.
8. p67, The Brother of Daphne by Dornford Yates, BiblioBazaar, 2008.
9. p18, The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television of Leslie Charteris’ Robin Hood of Modern Crime, Simon Templar 1928-1992 by Burl Barer, McFarland, 2003.
10. Personal communication with David Usborne (son of the author), November 22, 2007.
11. p66 The James Bond Dossier by Kingsley Amis, Signet, 1966.
12. Obituary of O. F. Snelling, The Independent, January 31 2002.
13. ‘Ian Fleming: gin, golf clubs, and men – A vulgarian in clubland’ by Michael Davie, Times Literary Supplement, December 1 1995.
14. ‘Britannia is forever in 007’s film world’ by Jeffrey Richards, Times Higher Education, January 18 2002.
15. Ian Fleming in conversation with Raymond Chandler, Third Programme, BBC Home Service, July 10 1958.
This is part of 007 In Depth, a series of articles on Ian Fleming and James Bond.