Friday, March 25, 2011

007 In Depth: Enemy Action

It’s generally accepted today that writers of popular fiction can be worthy of serious analysis, and Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, Patricia Highsmith and many others have received it in scores of essays, dissertations and books.

For a brief moment in 1953, Ian Fleming seemed poised to enter the ranks of such writers when his debut novel, Casino Royale, received a string of highly favourable reviews in Britain’s broadsheets and literary magazines, as I discussed in A Carton Of Old Hatstand Crackers. But a backlash began to take shape the following year with the publication of his second novel, Live and Let Die, and the critical verdict on Fleming soon swung violently the other way, with his work being not just criticized but attacked, sometimes in the same publications in which he had earlier been praised. Fleming’s literary standing has been in decline ever since, and despite some stirrings over the decades, remains at a lower point today than it did on the publication of his first novel. 

In the same period, his books and the films adapted from them have become increasingly popular with the public, leading to the curious situation whereby one of the most successful novelists Britain has ever produced, and the creator of a globally popular and enduring fictional icon, is largely looked down on in Britain today. Fleming is now rarely discussed in literary publications, and although the Bond novels are sometimes written about in respected newspapers and magazines, it is usually in terms that describe Fleming as a fantasist, a sadist and a purveyor of cheap pulp fiction. 

For some publications over the years, bashing Fleming’s work has been a way to try to establish their literary credentials, because most of the coverage of James Bond has been related to the films. The phenomenal success of the Bond series has also made Fleming an attractive target for some. William Cook, writing in the New Statesman in 2004, summed up the situation very well:
‘Without the movies, [Fleming would] have sold fewer books, but he’d be taken far more seriously by the cognoscenti. Class-bound Britain rarely holds bestsellers in high regard, bestselling thrillers least of all. Raymond Chandler called Fleming the most forceful thriller writer in England. It’s high time he shared some of Chandler’s highbrow acclaim.’ 1
This has yet to happen. Chandler, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, John Betjeman, Christopher Isherwood and several others have praised Fleming, but there has been remarkably little serious criticism of his work since the Sixties. It may be, of course, that the reason for this is simply that his work is not worth taking seriously. But I think William Cook hit the nail on the head. Most criticism of Fleming today simply recycles attacks on his work from the Fifties and Sixties that are now outdated in terms of their moral objections, and were mostly written by critics with very scant knowledge of the thriller genre. 

It is also clear that some of those who have criticized Fleming over the years had very little knowledge of Fleming’s work. Inconveniently for those with short deadlines and flexible principles, the Bond novels are often very different from the films, and surprisingly varied. If you only read, say, The Spy Who Loved Me, you would come away with a very different view of Fleming’s work than if you only read Casino Royale, or From Russia, With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But if you express an opinion on a book, it only holds any weight if you’ve read it. And if you express an opinion on the entirety of an author’s work, that opinion is likewise only worth considering by others if you have in fact read the entirety of their work. 

This may seem obvious, but when it comes to criticism of Fleming’s work, which tends to be sweeping, the basic tenets of literary criticism have often been abandoned. Having watched a couple of Bond films and read a few chapters of Goldfinger a few years ago doesn’t give someone a good overview of Ian Fleming’s work, however prestigious the publication they write for or strongly they express themselves.

On top of all of these problems, I think some of the most influential articles about Fleming’s work have been highly unprofessional personal attacks disguised as literary criticism, and I feel they should be discounted by anyone seriously wanting to assess Fleming’s significance. 

The first sign that Fleming’s pending membership of the literary club was in danger of being blackballed was a review of Live and Let Die by Hilary Corke in Encounter in August 1954. Corke was then a poet and lecturer in Medieval English Studies at Edinburgh University, and it is clear from his article, titled The Banyan Tree as it was paired with a review of Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, that not only did he know very little about thrillers, but that he intensely disliked them:
‘And whose little banyan is the detective story? If it is Poe’s, if we can lay this at his door as well as all the sadder excesses of French 19th century poetry, he has certainly as much to answer for as his two illustrious compatriots, Henry James and Mr. Eliot, put together.’ 2
This is part of a review of an Ian Fleming novel, but it reads more like a condemnation of an entire genre, and is written in a tone so pious that it wouldn’t have been out of place in the Victorian era.

Corke loved Tutuola’s novel, but loathed Fleming’s. Bizarrely, he objected to the fact that Bond’s accomplice on his mission, American agent Felix Leiter, is not killed when attacked by a shark, but survives to play a role in the remainder of the book:
‘We do not want ex-faithful assistants about the place on crutches. The thriller deals in cruelty, not pity.’ 3
Corke had two chief objections to Fleming’s work: firstly, that it was morally dubious, appealing ‘to a baser human instinct than the smudgy postcards hawked at the more central London tube-stations’, and secondly, that it was being acclaimed in quarters that should know better:
‘It is with a rather wry amusement therefore that I note what my contemporaries apparently have to say of Mr. Fleming’s previous essay in this vein: “Both exciting and extremely civilised” (The T…s L……y S……..t); “Thriller for an intelligent audience” (The N.w S…….n). Intelligence? Civilisation? Mr. Tutuola, have you a vacancy for me in that Bush of Ghosts?’ 4
Hilary Corke’s complaint that Fleming’s work was immoral and that the literary establishment had lowered itself by praising it would become the rallying cry of others who wanted to keep Fleming out of the literary club. These cries became increasingly shrill in the next few years, as Fleming’s books became increasingly popular. 


IN March 1958, the critic and poet Bernard Bergonzi wrote a long essay about Fleming’s work in the prestigious journal The Twentieth Century. In that essay, The Case of Mr Fleming, Bergonzi both quoted and agreed with Hilary Corke’s 1954 review of Live And Let Die in Encounter, from which he also seems to have taken many of his cues; like Corke, the thrust of his argument was that Fleming’s work was unwholesome, with Bergonzi stating that ‘the erotic fantasies in which Bond is continually involved are decidedly sinister’, that the character was a ‘hardened amorist’ and that critics who took Fleming’s work seriously were making a grave error:
‘It is interesting to recall that the New Statesman described this book as a ‘thriller for an intelligent audience’ and that a reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement found it ‘both exciting and extremely civilized’ (my italics: one would like to know what this gentleman considers even moderately barbarous).’ 5
It is also interesting to recall that Bergonzi has quoted the precise same phrases from the same two reviews of Casino Royale as Hilary Corke. 

As examples of the ‘sado-masochistic note’ in Fleming’s work, Bergonzi also referred to the fate of Felix Leiter, as Corke had done:
‘An American Secret Service colleague of Bond’s gets thrown into a tank containing a man-eating shark (he reappears two books later with two artificial limbs and a lot of plastic surgery on his face), and Bond evens the score subsequently by kicking the man responsible into the same tank…’ 6
Corke had objected to Leiter being seriously injured in Live and Let Die and then reappearing in the novel on the grounds that the thriller ‘deals in cruelty, not pity.’ But Bergonzi cited Leiter’s injuries and subsequent reappearances as evidence of sado-masochistic tendencies and barbarity in Fleming’s work. This is self-serving logic, and can be twisted whichever way one wants in order to make Fleming come off poorly. If Leiter had died of his injuries instead, both critics could have pointed to it as evidence of sadism in the novels. If he had died peacefully in his sleep, Corke could have claimed that the thriller deals in cruelty, not mundanity. 

Bergonzi went on to claim that there was a ‘total lack of any ethical frame of reference’ in Fleming’s novels. To illustrate this, he quoted a passage from Casino Royale in which Bond longs for Vesper physically. Bergonzi didn’t mention that Bond is changed by the events of the book, having fallen in love with Vesper and considered proposing to her, nor that Bond and Mathis argue about ethics at great length in the novel before Bond finally realizes his friend is right:
‘He ground his teeth. Suddenly Mathis’s words came back to him: ‘There are plenty of really black targets around,’ and, earlier, ‘What about SMERSH? I don’t like the idea of these chaps running around France killing anyone they feel has been a traitor to their precious political system.’
How soon Mathis had been proved right and how soon his own little sophistries had been exploded in his face!
While he, Bond, had been playing Red Indians through the years (yes, Le Chiffre’s description was perfectly accurate), the real enemy had been working quietly, coldly, without heroics, right there at his elbow.
He suddenly had a vision of Vesper walking down a corridor with documents in her hand. On a tray. They just got it on a tray while the cool secret agent with a Double O number was gallivanting round the world — playing Red Indians.
His fingernails dug into the palms of his hands and his body sweated with shame.
Well, it was not too late. Here was a target for him, right to hand. He would take on SMERSH and hunt it down. Without SMERSH, without this cold weapon of death and revenge, the MWD would be just another bunch of civil servant spies, no better and no worse than any of the western services.
SMERSH was the spur. Be faithful, spy well, or you die. Inevitably and without any question, you will be hunted down and killed.
It was the same with the whole Russian machine. Fear was the impulse. For them it was always safer to advance than to retreat. Advance against the enemy and the bullet might miss you. Retreat, evade, betray, and the bullet would never miss.
But now he would attack the arm that held the whip and the gun. The business of espionage could be left to the white collar boys. They could spy, and catch the spies. He would go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy.’ 7
This passage provides a very clear ethical framework for the novel. 

Bergonzi didn’t mention any of these points because they were inconvenient for his purposes. Instead, he made much the same objections as Hilary Corke had done, in similar terms:
‘Mr Fleming, I imagine, knows just what he is doing: but the fact that his books are published by a very reputable firm, and are regularly reviewed – and highly praised – in our self-respecting intellectual weeklies, surely says more about the present state of our culture than a whole volume of abstract denunciations.’ 8
Or perhaps it just said something about Mr Bergonzi and a few other critics, whose analysis of Fleming’s work was not as reputable as they seemed to believe. 

But Bergonzi’s essay was well-written and elegantly scornful, and everyone likes a good dust-up. ‘Reputable’ and ‘self-respecting’ intellectuals who didn’t much like the fact that Fleming’s novels were selling well and being praised by some of their colleagues had something to crow about: finally Fleming had been cut down to size, and his work had received a public kicking. Others soon joined in, but in doing so they overstepped the bounds of legitimate literary criticism and veered into personal abuse.

On March 31 1958, The Manchester Guardian, as it then was, ran an unsigned article on Bergonzi’s article:
‘Ever since George Orwell analysed the social significance of Greyfriars School, increasing attention has been paid to popular literature by those eager to spot trends in contemporary British life. The latest patient on the operating table is Mr Ian Flemings secret service hero, James Bond (or 007). In a recent article in the Twentieth Century Mr Fleming, whose book “Dr No” is published to-day (by Jonathan Cape at 13s 6d), is taken severely to task. His books are said to contain a cunning mixture of sex, sadism, and money snobbery, and their popularity to be a bad symptom of the present state of civilisation in this country…’ 9
The article went on to defend Fleming from the charges, but claimed that what was more ‘sinister’ in his work was ‘the cult of luxury for its own sake’, taking him to task for presenting an ‘advertising agency world’ to his readers.

Fleming’s responded to this charge in a letter to the newspaper, which was published on April 5:
‘I am most grateful for the scholarly examination of my James Bond stories in your leader columns on Monday but, since this follows close upon a nine-page inquest in “The Twentieth Century,” I hope you will forgive a squeak from the butterfly before any more big wheels roll down upon it.

It is true that sex plays an important part in James Bond’s life and that his profession requires him to be more or less constantly involved in violent action. It is also true that, as in real spy-life, when the villain gets hold of Bond, Bond is made to suffer painfully. What other punishment for failure would be appropriate that Bond should receive an extra heavy demand note from the Inland Revenue, or that he should be reduced in his Civil Service rank from principal officer to assistant principal? But, as you, sir, put it “What is more sinister is the cult of luxury for its own sake and the kind of luxury held up for the reader’s emulation. The idea that anyone should smoke a brand of cigarettes not because they enjoy them, but because they are ‘exclusive’ (that is, because they cost more) is pernicious and it is implicit in all Mr Fleming’s glib descriptions of food, drink, and clothes.”

I accept the rebuke, but more on the score of vulgarity, than on the counts you recite. I have this to say in extenuation:  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. 

But to create an illusion of depth I had to fit Bond out with some theatrical props and, while I kept his wardrobe as discreet as his personality, I did equip him with a distinctive gun and, though they are a security hazard, with distinctive cigarettes. This latter touch of display unfortunately went to my head. I proceeded to invent a cocktail for Bond (which I sampled several months later and found unpalatable), and a rather precious though basically simple meal ordered by Bond proved so popular with my readers, still suffering from war-time restrictions, that expensive, though I think not ostentatious, meals have been eaten in subsequent books. 

The gimmickry grew like bindweed and now, while it still amuses me, it has become an unfortunate trade-mark. I myself abhor Wine-and-Foodmanship. My own favourite food is scrambled eggs, (in “Live And Let Die” a proof-reader pointed out that Bond’s addiction to scrambled eggs was becoming a security risk and I had to go through the book changing menus) and I smoke your own, Mancunian, brand of Virginia tobacco. However, now that Bond is irretrievably saddled with these vulgar foibles, I can only plead that his Morland cigarettes are less expensive than the Balkan Sobranie of countless other heroes, that he eats far less and far less well than Nero Wolfe, and that his battered Bentley is no Hirondelle.
Perhaps these are superficial excuses. Perhaps Bond’s blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest against the current fashion for sexual confusion. Perhaps the violence springs from a psychosomatic rejection of Welfare wigs, teeth, and spectacles and Bond’s luxury meals are simply saying “no” to toad-in-the-hole and tele-bickies.

Who can say? Who can say whether or not Dr Fu Manchu was a traumatic image of Sax Rohmer’s father? Who, for the matter of that, cares?—Yours &c.,
Ian Fleming’ 10
This letter is vintage Fleming. Its length suggests he felt it was necessary, but he was doubtless also aware that to complain about criticisms of one’s work, even if they are ludicrous and unwarranted, is frowned on in Britain, and so the tone of the letter is studiedly self-deprecating and airy.

It was a well-executed reply, but Fleming’s suspicion that there might be more big wheels rolling down on his work was to prove correct. By the time The Manchester Guardian had published his letter, a new attack was already hitting the newsstands. Paul Johnson’s review of Dr No in the New Statesman upped the ante Bergonzi had already upped from Corke. As Fleming would write in Goldfinger: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.”

Johnson’s article was memorably titled Sex, snobbery and sadism, a phrase that looks to have been adapted from The Guardian’s article on Bergonzi of March 31. The title alone has served as a handy three-pronged weapon for over half a century for journalists and critics to brandish as ‘evidence’ against Fleming. But Johnson’s article should never have been published, let alone taken seriously as a piece of literary criticism: it ranks as one of the most vitriolic and unprofessional literary pieces published in Britain in the 20th century.


JOHNSON classified the three elements of the title as Dr No’s basic ingredients, and said they were ‘all unhealthy, all thoroughly English’:
‘the sadism of a school boy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult.’ 11
Johnson showed here that he knew very little about thrillers. Let’s take the sadism first. One wonders what Johnson would have written if he had reviewed, say, Sax Rohmer’s novel The Devil Doctor, in which Dr Fu-Manchu has one the protagonists placed in a wire cage:
‘The dacoit, in obedience to a guttural order from Dr. Fu-Manchu, placed the cage upon the carpet, completely covering Smith’s body, but leaving his neck and head exposed. The seared and pock-marked face set in a sort of placid leer, the dacoit adjusted the sliding partitions to Smith’s recumbent form, and I saw the purpose of the graduated arches. They were intended to divide a human body in just such fashion, and, as I realized, were most cunningly shaped to that end. The whole of Smith’s body lay now in the wire cage, each of the five compartments whereof was shut off from its neighbour.
The Burman stepped back and stood waiting in the doorway. Dr. Fu-Manchu, removing his gaze from the face of my friend, directed it now upon me.
“Mr. Commissioner Nayland Smith shall have the honor of acting as hierophant, admitting himself to the Mysteries,” said Fu-Manchu softly, “and you, Dr. Petrie, shall be the Friend.”’ 12
This was published in 1916. And as in Fleming’s novels, it is not the protagonists who are sadists, but the villains. A fight between good and evil is, after all, more effective if the evil is vividly and demonstrably so. The sadism and unambiguous evil of Fleming’s villains help provide precisely the ethical framework Bergonzi claimed was missing in his work, but which is in fact central to it.

And it is not as if scenes such as Rohmer’s quoted above had fallen from favour by 1958 and Fleming was reviving them: these had been hallmarks of the thriller for over half a century, and were common currency throughout that time. In Dennis Wheatley’s best-selling thriller Come Into My Parlour, published in Britain in 1946, ie 12 years before Dr No, the heroine is captured by Gestapo chief Grauber and forced to watch the torture of another woman strapped to a chair with electrodes:
Instantly the woman was galvanized. Her mouth opened and let out a piercing scream. Her eyes started from her head.... Erika closed her eyes to shut out the awful sight and put her hands over her ears, but she could not shut out the screams that echoed round the sombre chamber... 
As they undid the straps she fell forward, a flabby mass of writhing pink flesh, on to the floor. Unceremoniously they picked her up, flung her on to a stretcher, and carted her away.
At the slam of the door Erika took her fingers from her ears and opened her eyes. She found Grauber looking at her.
“Well,” he said, how would you like to try a taste of our new toy? 13
Johnson’s second putative ingredient was sex. It is true that Dr No contained more sex than most literary novels published in Britain in the 1950s, but it was commonplace in thrillers. It is partly because of the influence of Johnson’s review that it sounds odd to say that there wasn’t all that much sex in Fleming’s work for the time, but the Bond novels are mild in comparison with the works of Dennis Wheatley or Peter Cheyney. They’re very mild in comparison to some passages in the work of Paul Johnson. Here’s an excerpt from his 1959 novel Left of Centre:
‘Henry found his gaze straying to her round and rosy bottom, which rose and fell gently to the rhythm of her breathing. What to do? Henry pondered in the doorway... “There’s nothing more calculated, old man, to excite a woman than a good hard slap on her behind. None of your playful taps, mind. A real stinger. They come up foaming at the mouth.”

Dora’s bottom invited him. Here was his chance, at one blow, to reassume his masculine, paramount role in their relationship. Draining his glass and setting it down decisively on the dressing table, he advanced purposefully over Dora’s sleeping form and brought his hand down with tremendous force.’ 14
The final ‘ingredient’ is also very telling: in accusing Fleming of snobbery Johnson sneered that the snobbery wasn’t quite sophisticated or metropolitan enough: ‘the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult’. This is snobbery in itself, as was the article as a whole, because it was not so much an objection to Fleming’s work none of the elements Johnson excoriated were in the least remarkable in a thriller at the time as an objection that the work was being taken seriously by the literary establishment and high society.

This is clear from the next part of the essay, in which Johnson abandoned any remaining pretence that he was writing a serious piece of literary criticism by attacking Ian Fleming himself:
‘…This novel is badly written to the point of incoherence and none of the 500,000 people who, I am told, are expected to buy it, could conceivably be giving Cape 13s. 6d. to savour its literary merits. Moreover, both its hero and its author are unquestionably members of the Establishment. Bond is an ex-Royal Navy Commander and belongs to Blades, a sort-of super-White’s. Mr Fleming was educated at Eton and Sandhurst, and is married to a prominent society hostess, the ex-wife of Lord Rothermere. He is the foreign manager of that austere and respectable newspaper, the Sunday Times, owned by an elderly fuddy-duddy called Lord Kemsley, who once tried to sell a popular tabloid with the slogan (or rather his wife’s slogan) of ‘clean and clever’. Fleming belongs to the Turf and Boodle’s and lists among his hobbies the collection of first editions. He is also the owner of Goldeneye, a house made famous by Sir Anthony Eden’s Retreat from Suez. Eden’s uneasy slumbers, it will be remembered, were disturbed by (characteristically) giant rats which, after they had been disposed of by his detectives, turned out to be specially tamed ones kept by Mr. Fleming.’ 15
Everything following the word ‘moreover’ – itself telling of Johnson’s real motives – has no place in a book review. Johnson ended with the same melodramatic and unfounded complaint made by both Corke and Bergonzi, that the literary establishment was shockingly at fault for praising work that was symptomatic of the decline of society as a whole. Johnson went even further than Corke and Bergonzi, in fact, suggesting that Fleming’s works might even somehow have contributed to such a decline:
‘Bond’s warmest admirers are among the Top People. Of his last adventure, From Russia, With Love, his publishers claim, with reason, that it ‘won approval from the sternest critics in the world of letters.’ The Times Literary Supplement found it ‘most brilliant’, the Sunday Times ‘highly polished’, the Observer ‘stupendous’, the Spectator ‘rather pleasant’. And this journal, most susceptible of all, described it as ‘irresistible’. It has become easier than it was in Orwell’s day to make cruelty attractive. We have gone just that much farther down the slope. 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.’ 16
The implication that the success of Fleming’s thrillers had any bearing on torture taking place in Algiers and Cyprus is absurd – and highly irresponsible. It’s not borne out by any sensible reading of Fleming’s novels as a whole, let alone just Dr No.

But Johnson’s article did the trick: it was so vicious that it became news elsewhere. On May 11 1958, V.S. Pritchett reported on it in his column in The New York Times:
‘There has been some violent criticism in the serious press of a very different kind of writer, Ian Fleming… Paul Johnson, writing in the New Statesman, and with the Algerian atrocities in mind, thinks the taste for sadistic thrillers has a political side to it…’ 17

THE attacks on Fleming intensified after his death, when he could no longer respond to them. There’s a revealing entry in Malcolm Muggeridge’s diaries from 1961. On June 7 of that year, the British writer and broadcaster flew to Hamburg for a meeting with editors at Stern, after which he sampled the city’s nightlife, which he found ‘singularly joyless’:
‘Germans with stony faces wandering up and down, uniformed touts offering total nakedness, three Negresses and other attractions, including female wrestlers. Not many takers, it seemed, on a warm Tuesday evening. Had the feeling that all this had been set up in place of the rubble out of habit. It was there before, so put it back.
Dropped into a teenage rock-and-roll joint. Ageless children, sexes indistinguishable, tight-trousered, stamping about, only the smell of sweat intimating animality. The band were English, from Liverpool, and recognized me. Long-haired; weird feminine faces: bashing their instruments, and emitting nerveless sounds into microphones. In conversation rather touching in a way, their faces like Renaissance carvings of saints or Blessed Virgins. One of them asked me: ‘Is it true that you’re a Communist?’ No, I said; just in opposition. He nodded understandingly; in opposition himself in a way. ‘You make money out of it?’ he went on. I admitted that this was so. He, too, made money. He hoped to take £200 back to Liverpool.’ 18
It is characteristic of Muggeridge that he should happen to step into a nightclub in which The Beatles were starting their career – his diaries are filled with such encounters, with figures such as A.A. Milne, Graham Greene, Kim Philby, George Orwell, Enoch Powell, Somerset Maugham and many others. It’s also unsurprising that The Beatles recognized him, as he was a well-known figure in Britain at the time. As he acknowledged to one of the band (Lennon?), he was ‘in opposition’. When television and radio programmes discuss burning topical issues, the producers usually try to make sure that they have a cross-section of views. If everyone agrees on an issue, discussion of it is dull, and can also be seen as unfair. However, it’s sometimes hard to find someone who is prepared to express a more unpopular view, or even holds it. Luckily, there is a pool of professional disagree-ers, or people who are ‘in opposition’. Such people can usually be relied upon to take a contrary view to the popular one, be available to turn up at the studio on time, be articulate and provide compelling programming. They often drive their fellow guests into apoplexy, and large sections of the audience as well. 

Muggeridge was a genius at this: he often took the opposite view from everyone else, and presented it articulately, caustically and memorably. Muggeridge was one of the best known journalists and critics of his time, and a powerful voice in British cultural life: he was the host of several BBC programmes, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, and the editor of Punch. A few weeks before bumping into The Beatles in Hamburg he had interviewed Oswald Mosley, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists, for Granada Television, and talked to the sculptor Henry Moore at a meeting of the Tate Gallery Brains Trust. 

In 1932, Muggeridge travelled to Moscow. He went there a Communist, but his experiences in the Soviet Union changed his mind. To his credit, he was one of the first Western journalists to report on the famine in the Ukraine, and he continued to do so even when it was politically inexpedient for him. He left the Soviet Union shortly after several British engineers were arrested on charges of espionage by the Soviet government and The Manchester Guardian downplayed his reports about the subject. He left before their trial began, and so did not meet Ian Fleming, who had been sent out by Reuters to cover it. But the two men met 20 years later. In late 1952, Muggeridge was offered the job as editor of Punch, which he accepted. Shortly afterwards, he had lunch with his wife Kitty and an old acquaintance, Lady Rothermere, who had recently divorced her husband to marry Fleming. Muggeridge noted in his diary:
‘Ian gave me a slight pang by saying there had been talk of making me Editor of the Sunday Times. Ian definitely a slob, and difficult to see why Ann fell for him.’ 19
I think there may be a link between these two sentences. Ian Fleming worked for The Sunday Times, and had just told Muggeridge that he may have had the opportunity of editing it. This was a much more prestigious job than the editorship of Punch, but it was too late for Muggeridge to do anything about it. But, thanks to Fleming, he would always know he had missed out. Muggeridge may have held the bearer of the news responsible, especially if Fleming had told him it maliciously, or if Muggeridge felt he had. Despite claiming to have had just a ‘slight pang’ at hearing this, Muggeridge was not always entirely forthright in his diaries, and it may be that this perceived slight festered over the years. Muggeridge met Fleming on many subsequent occasions, but perhaps this first unfavourable impression of him hardened. It may not have been improved by Fleming’s increasing success. 

There’s no harm in disliking or envying Ian Fleming, of course: plenty of people did. But I think it’s clear that on account of his personal animosity towards Fleming Malcolm Muggeridge repeatedly attacked his work in public, using his considerable reputation as a critic to make it all the more damaging. 

While at The Sunday Times, Fleming had suggested in an editorial meeting that the paper commission a series of essays on the seven deadly sins, with well-known authors each tackling a different sin. In 1962, this idea was used, and Fleming arranged for the essays to be published in book form in the United States. He also wrote a foreword for it, in which he explained the genesis of the book:
‘The project was outside my own sphere of action on the paper and I heard nothing more of it until I had left the Sunday Times to concentrate on writing thrillers centred round a member of the British Secret Service called James Bond. So I cannot describe what troubles the Literary Editor ran into in his endeavours to marry the Seven Deadly Sins to seven appropriate authors. So far as I can recall, the marriages I myself had suggested were closely followed, except that I had suggested Mr Malcolm Muggeridge to write on the theme of Anger on the grounds that he is such an extremely angry man.’ 20
W.H. Auden wrote on anger instead, but it’s not clear whether Muggeridge was asked or not. Muggeridge viewed himself as a noble iconoclast and famously had a thin sense of humour, so he may have viewed the request to write an essay on anger as a sleight. Had Fleming proposed this as a genuine brainwave, the famously caustic Muggeridge let loose on the topic of anger, or had this it been a dig? We don’t know, but while Fleming’s post-mortem of the idea in the foreword to the book is amusing, it might not have seemed so to Muggeridge. As we’ll see, he was indeed an extremely angry man. And before long, Ian Fleming would be a target for his anger.

Two years later, Ian Fleming died. Four months after his death, in December 1964, the American men’s magazine Esquire published an article by Muggeridge in the regular book column he wrote for it:
‘By curious coincidence, I decided to read my first James Bond book (You Only Live Twice, New American Library, $4.50) with a view to writing about it in this column, just about a week before Fleming died. Indeed, I was actually mulling the piece over in my mind when I heard on the radio that he was dead. Though we were never exactly friends, I used to see quite a bit of him at one time.’ 21
Despite admitting to having read just one of Fleming’s 12 Bond novels, in the long article that follows Muggeridge attacked Fleming’s work as a whole, as well as the man himself:
‘He knew the requisite ingredients for a dish to set before (his readers) – money, sex and snobbishness, beaten into a fine rich batter, with plenty of violence to make it rise in the pan; then served hot and flambé with Sade flavoring, and washed down by a blood-red wine. A true chef, he dished up himself, flushed with bending over the oven. That flush which so often comes to the rich and the avid! I suppose in poor Fleming’s case it was due to the heart condition of which he died, but somehow I always saw it as the pigment with which he colored in Bond.’ 22
The first part of this passage is a dramatic rephrasing of the charges made against Fleming in 1958 by Johnson and Bergonzi, and as it can only be based on the one Bond novel Muggeridge had read, has to be discounted. The latter part of the passage is personal, and rather unpleasant considering Fleming had only died in August. With the lead-in times required by magazines like Esquire, Muggeridge had probably written this several weeks or perhaps even months before December. 

This passage also comes after six long paragraphs in which Muggeridge was at pains to show that, while he was ‘never exactly friends’ with Fleming, they were well acquainted. He explained how he had known Ann, who been married to Lord Rothermere ‘before going off with Fleming, or Bond as he already was in embryo’:
‘Bond had a sort of private apartment at the top of the house where he kept his golf clubs, pipes and other masculine bric-a-brac. We would sit up there together sipping a highball; like climbers taking a breather above a mountain torrent whose roar could still faintly be heard in the ravine below.

This was before the Bond series began, but I well remember his telling me about his plans for writing the first one (Casino Royale), which he deliberately intended to be exciting, successful, lucrative and, as he scornfully remarked, not in the least “literary”. Well, as it turned out, he achieved his purpose to a fabulous degree. The Bond books have so far provided excitement for some eighteen million readers and heaven knows how many film-goers; they have certainly proved successful, and lucrative, and no one (except, perhaps, Kingsley Amis) could possibly contend that they were “literary”.’ 23
Muggeridge was, of course, in no position to judge whether Fleming’s novels were literary or not, as by his own admission he had only read one. Fleming was sometimes self-deprecating about his literary worth, but it’s clear from his conversation with Raymond Chandler on the BBC and elsewhere that he had a firm understanding of how thrillers could aim higher, and wished to do so himself. In his 1962 article How To Write A Thriller, for example, he wrote:
‘I also feel that, while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as “thrillers designed to be read as literature”, whose practitioners have included such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these writers.’ 24
Next, Muggeridge attacked the consumer ethic in the Bond novels:
‘Partly, too, though, Fleming really was Bond, who truly represented all his hopes and desires. He wanted Bond to be this rusé chap who knew what was what, where to go for what. Bond in Bond Street. (Was that, by the way, the derivation of the name? I never asked Fleming, but it might well be so, Bond Street being the repository of the very expensive, very English haberdashery, etc., nowadays sold almost exclusively to Americans.)’ 25
Having admitted he had read only one Bond novel and that he was an acquaintance of Fleming, Muggeridge felt qualified to state that Bond ‘truly represented’ all Fleming’s hopes and desires. He also had the cheek to criticize Fleming for creating a character with good taste who knew where to find the best things in life in an article in Esquire, a magazine largely dedicated to such pursuits. Note the way he switched between scorning Fleming for wanting Bond to know ‘where to go for what’ and then does the very same thing himself, informing his American readers that Bond Street is the place to go if you want expensive English haberdashery. He then condescended to the same readers by suggesting the street wasn’t quite what it used to be because it had taken to selling ‘almost exclusively to Americans’. This is snobbery.

Muggeridge was also writing in a magazine that had been massively influenced by James Bond. His essay is surrounded by advertisements for Dobbs’ ‘special flecked’ Rough Oak felt hats, Jim Beam bourbon, and the tailors Hart Schaffner and Marx: ‘Let her wear mink – you wear a Gold Trumpeter suit’. The cover of the issue opens out to an advertisement for Ronson, including its lighters, favoured by Bond in Fleming’s novels, while a fashion spread features cruelly handsome male models lighting cigarettes in smoking jackets made of ‘one-hundred-percent Italian Dupioni silk’, the sleeves of which ‘have narrow turnback cuffs bordered in black jacquarded silk coordinated with the black-satin-covered buttons’. The very next article after Muggeridge’s is decorated by an advertisement for MG sports cars, which has a Cyrillic title we are told means ‘From MG with love’. The irony of all this seems to have been lost on both Muggeridge and Esquire’s editors. 

Muggeridge seems to have been pleased with himself for spotting a possible connection between Bond and Bond Street, wondering whether that might have been the derivation of the character’s name. It wasn’t – Fleming took the name from the author of Birds of the West Indies – but if Muggeridge had read On Her Majesty’s Secret Service he might have found an intriguing discussion of the topic there. It’s in the chapter titled ‘Bond of Bond Street?’. 

After boasting that he once attended an MI6 meeting at the Garrick Club at which Fleming had been present, Muggeridge went on to claim that Fleming may have been ‘the last true fan’ of the British Secret Service and a ‘valiant chronicler’ of its activities. And yet when he finally gets round to ‘reviewing’ You Only Live Twice in the piece, Muggeridge is disappointed that the portrait of MI6 is not valiant, with Bond’s mission to get a look in at Japanese cipher traffic that the Americans already have access to, ‘or something like that’:
‘It’s all rather a muddle, and scarcely in the highest tradition of Secret Service fiction.’ 26
After mentioning that he has ‘no intention’ of reading any further Bond novels, although he did ‘turn over the pages of Thrilling Cities’ (which he didn’t find thrilling), Muggeridge ended his article with a final attack on the man himself:
‘Like so many of his class he never grew up; a Peter Pan of the bordellos; a gentleman junkie and Savile Row beat; a Blade of Blades.’ 27
Five months later, on May 30 1965, The Observer in Britain published another article on Bond by Muggeridge. Nominally a review of Kingsley Amis’s book The James Bond Dossier, it recycled and reworked much of the Esquire article. Muggeridge had delivered on his promise in Esquire not to read any further Bond novels, which he now boasted about:
‘With his accustomed Eng. Lit. expertise, Mr Kingsley Amis has produced, in his The James Bond Dossier, a primer which will enable anyone of average intelligence to reach O-level standard without having to open a single Fleming book – a dispensation for which I am profoundly grateful.’ 28
It is a fundamental tenet of literary criticism that it is unacceptable to review work you haven’t read. Muggeridge joked about it, and encouraged other ‘students’ of Bond to use Amis’ book as a shorthand ‘cheat sheet’ to mug up on Fleming’s novels instead of reading them. 

Worse, Muggeridge hadn’t even read Amis’ book. Although he was supposed to be reviewing it, he didn’t mention a single specific thing about its contents. The James Bond Dossier was an extended argument for Fleming’s gifts as a writer and his right to a place in the canon, and Amis explicitly took on the absurdly misplaced moralizing of earlier attacks, which Muggeridge now echoed without even realizing Amis had already countered them. 

Muggeridge also mentioned Mickey Spillane, on the grounds that he was also a very successful writer who ‘may be said to work in the same genre’ as Fleming. After noting a few superficial similarities between the jacket designs of Fleming and Spillane’s novels – very superficial, as they were both thriller-writers – Muggeridge sarcastically asked whether readers might expect ‘a detailed comparison between their two oeuvres one day from Mr Amis’. But Amis directly compared Fleming to Spillane in the second chapter of his book, and made it clear he didn’t feel Spillane was worth much further consideration. Muggeridge might have taken his own advice, and used Amis’ book as a cheat-sheet – but even that seems to have been too much effort.

Instead, he chose once again to make several blanket statements condemning the novels:
‘In so far as one can focus on so shadowy and unreal a character, [Bond] is utterly despicable: obsequious to his superiors, pretentious in his tastes, callous and brutal in his ways, with strong undertones of sadism, and an unspeakable cad in his relations with women, toward whom sexual appetite represents the only approach…’ 29
In fact, James Bond is frequently resentful of authority in Fleming’s work, for example drafting a resignation letter in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and countermanding a direct order in The Living Daylights. In the latter story, Bond is told to assassinate a Soviet sniper, who turns out to be a woman. Even though she is a stranger to him, an enemy agent, and one of his colleagues is dependent on her being put out of action, Bond doesn’t feel he can kill her in cold blood. This is the opposite of callous and brutal. The story ends with Bond saying that if M were to sack him he would thank him for it. No doubt some women Bond comes into contact with in the novels would regard him as a cad, but he doesn’t simply have sex on his mind: he falls in love with at least two women, and marries one of them. Bond is not a sadist in any way: his enemies are. His tastes are arguably pretentious, but that hardly makes a character despicable.

After recycling his misleading synopsis of You Only Live Twice, Muggeridge ended the article – in for a penny – with yet another personal attack on Fleming the man, saying that he felt a ‘pang’ on hearing of his death, not, like Amis, because it meant that there would be no new Bond adventures, but because ‘it seemed a pity that Fleming’s life should have been expended on peddling dreams so unillumined’:
‘I thought of his Thunderbird car and other props, of the exaggerated impression of shirt-cuff he always created, of the indifferent drinks he so elaborately mixed and the inaccurate travelling lore (set forth so unthrillingly in “Thrilling Cities”) he so eagerly purveyed; of his woebegone left eye, and of Mr Connery and the monstrous regiment of girls. Alas! Yet (as Dr Johnson justly observes) why alas, since life is such?’ 30
This article prompted an extremely stern letter to the editor of The Observer from the usually even-tempered Peter Fleming, who was Ian’s elder brother, ward of his literary estate and a best-selling writer himself:
‘Sir – The curiously unpleasant article about my brother to which you gave such prominence last week was a rewrite of a similar piece which Mr Muggeridge contributed to the American magazine Esquire several months ago. I assume you did not see the original version. If you had, there are various grounds on which you might have thought twice about publishing the stuff.’ 31
He went on to detail several problems with the article. He pointed out that The Observer had stated that they had invited Muggeridge, who ‘had strong views on the subject’ to comment on ‘the whole Bond cult’. But in the Esquire version of the article, Muggeridge had stated that he had only read one Bond novel and had no intention of reading any more. Peter also pointed out that Muggeridge had laden his article with personal abuse, crediting his brother with ‘squalid aspirations’ in The Observer piece and calling him a ‘Peter Pan of the bordellos’ in Esquire. And, he noted, Muggeridge had been remarkably sly in his attack:
‘There is one significant aspect in which the two versions of the diatribe differed, and which might have jeopardized Mr Muggeridge’s chances of promotion from the back pages of Esquire to the front page of The Observer Weekend Review. To an American public Mr Muggeridge was prepared, and indeed appeared anxious, to reveal that he knew my brother well, was a great friend of his wife’s and had frequently enjoyed their hospitality; from British readers, who sometimes have finicky views about what is decent and what is not, he shrewdly concealed these facts.

To vilify publicly, within a few months of his death, a friend from whom he had received nothing but kindness is not the sort of thing that it would occur to many of us to do; nor would a reputable literary critic pontificate at length about a writer with whose work he was almost totally unacquainted. But Mr Muggeridge’s standards of conduct have always been idiosyncratic, and for him, I imagine, the only abnormal feature of this shoddy transaction is that it has – thanks to The Observer – brought him two handsome fees instead of one.’ 33
Muggeridge’s response in the newspaper was shameless, claiming that Peter Fleming had only pointed out ‘minor discrepancies’, painting himself as a victim and completely misrepresenting the two pieces he had written. He concluded:
‘I shall not take up the various abusive references to myself except to say that my purpose was to separate Ian Fleming who I liked from Bond whom I abominate. Clearly Colonel Fleming did not appreciate the endeavour.’ 33
This sounds reasonable if you haven’t read Muggeridges articles: it suggests that Peter Fleming was simply over-reacting and sticking up for his brother. But far from trying to separate Ian Fleming from Bond, Muggeridge had gone out of his way to claim in Esquire that they were one and the same: ‘Partly, too, though, Fleming really was Bond, who truly represented all his hopes and desires.’ He even referred to Fleming as Bond in the piece. And it’s hard to see why he would abominate a fictional character that appeared in just one novel he had read. As a result of Muggeridge’s article and reply, Peter Fleming never contributed to The Observer for the rest of his life.

Despite this public rebuke, Muggeridge, rather astonishingly, went on to publish further versions of this article. Around a month later, on July 11, The Los Angeles Times published another review of The James Bond Dossier by Muggeridge. Titled ‘New Dossier Tells All On James Bond’ it was billed as an exclusive, but in fact repeated many of the same paragraphs as the earlier two articles. And Muggeridge published yet another version of the same article in the August-September 1965 issue of The Critic. This time it was titled ‘The Late Mr Fleming’, and under his byline read:
‘British author, critic, former member of the British Secret Service and friend of the late Mr. Ian Fleming.’ 34
Muggeridge may have provided this biographical snapshot himself. If so, I think the message in mentioning he was formerly in intelligence is clear: ‘I used to be a spy, so I know how things really are, not like they are in these silly books.’ And the purpose in saying he was a friend of Fleming would be to add: ‘But I knew Ian rather well, so I have a right to say I disliked him and his work intensely.’

A version of the article was also contained in a 1966 American anthology of his work, The Most of Malcolm Muggeridge, under the title The Century of the Common Bond.


MUGGERIDGE’S article, in all its forms, was a baseless attack on Fleming’s work. If it had been a review of You Only Live Twice, it would have been a shoddy one: from his description of it I doubt he even read that novel all the way through. But he attacked the entirety of Fleming’s work, and in doing so rekindled and inflated all the old Corke/Bergonzi/Johnson nonsense, spreading it to millions more readers and entrenching it even further. Muggeridge set out to give the literary establishment more ammunition to damn Ian Fleming – for good measure, he added in as many personal insults he could think up.

Last year, newspapers and websites around the world reported on an interview Muggeridge conducted with John le Carré on the BBC in 1966, which had been dug up from the archives and put online. In that interview, le Carré made some disparaging comments about Ian Fleming’s work – as did Muggeridge. If you watch the interview, you can see that Muggeridge in fact goads le Carré into insulting Fleming. Le Carré has admitted that he felt ashamed of his behavior in the interview: ‘I was putting on a performance and so was the Mugg. We were two fakes performing, that was the long and short of it.’ He also called Muggeridge ‘the last of TV’s upper-class, bogus, intellectual pontificators, exuding piety and superior knowledge, and adoring his canonisation.’ 35

Muggeridge had a talent for making memorably scathing remarks, and his supercilious outrage sold newspapers and made for good television. He is still regarded in some circles as one of the pre-eminent critics of the 20th century (especially if you happen to be writing an article in which you agree with one of his conclusions), but I think John le Carré was right about him. He was a fake, and he doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously as a critic. It is not acceptable that Muggeridge behaved this way because his target was a popular novelist, or because it was ‘only Ian Fleming’, who wasn’t much good anyway – that view is partly a result of attacks such as this. Muggeridge’s admission in print that he had only read one Bond novel discredits his literary criticism as a whole, just as a student’s body of work is discredited if it is found they have not read a work they have written about.

Under the guise of friendship and knowledge, and using his considerable reputation and reach, Malcolm Muggeridge repeatedly published and broadcast his views on his distaste for Fleming’s work. He was a prolific writer and tackled a huge number of subjects, but this was a ruthlessly pursued vendetta, a campaign to damage Fleming’s literary standing and ensure that others looked down at it as much as he must have done Fleming the man. He loaded into his articles every variation of the attacks that had previously been made on Fleming’s work and personality, amplifying them by using even more vicious phrasing for maximum impact.

And his campaign worked. Hilary Corke’s review has been forgotten, while Bernard Bergonzi’s essay is often footnoted but the contents rarely discussed. Paul Johnson’s review is still frequently cited in articles about Ian Fleming, mainly because of the title and because it was so extreme as to be noteworthy. But Muggeridge’s views were more extreme still, and have been cited over the years in Time, The Washington Post, Life, The Baltimore Sun, The Times, The Sun, The Chicago Tribune and many other publications: he and Johnsons’s view of Fleming’s work has become the dominant view of it. You still hear people proclaiming loudly at parties that James Bond is a sadistic misogynistic snob in the books. In my experience, people who say or write this usually haven’t read much or any of Fleming’s work. Instead, they’ve read a few chapters of Diamonds Are Forever years ago – or have read the views of others. It’s much easier to read a couple of articles and make your mind up that way than to bother to read Fleming’s novels. But it’s not an opinion that means much. 

On seeing The Beatles in Hamburg in June 1961, Muggeridge felt they were ‘bashing their instruments, and emitting nerveless sounds into microphones’. Today, we recognize that sentiment for what it was: a man then in his late fifties not equipped to understand an emerging form of popular culture, let alone recognize that it might contain the seeds of great art. Muggeridge’s views of Ian Fleming are as archaic as his view of The Beatles, and should be taken even less seriously, as it seems his opinion of The Beatles had no personal agenda but was simply based on listening to them perform.

I think Ian Fleming was a great thriller-writer, and one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century. I also think his work has plenty of weaknesses, and won’t shy away from discussing them. My views aren’t based on any hidden agenda, but simply on my reading widely in the genre. And, unlike Malcolm Muggeridge, I’ve read all of Fleming’s published fiction, as well as a lot of other material by and about him. My opinions are only my opinions, but I think they at least have a solid basis.

In 1965, Kingsley Amis laid down a challenge in The James Bond Dossier for Fleming to be seen in a similar light to other great practitioners of popular fiction. It has now been over half a century since the attacks on Fleming’s work began, and yet some still give weight, consciously or not, to the sanctimonious moralizing of critics who were both ignorant of the thriller genre, and in at least one case of Fleming’s own work.

I think it’s time to consign the essays by Corke, Bergonzi, Johnson and Muggeridge to the dustbin, and reassess Ian Fleming’s standing as a writer of popular fiction – by giving his work the professional critical analysis it deserves.


Novel Man by William Cook, in New Statesman, 28 June 2004. Available at:
The Banyan Tree by Hilary Corke, in Encounter, August 1954, pp. 76-77.
3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.
5. The Case of Mr Fleming by Bernard Bergonzi, in The Twentieth Century, p220-228, March 1958.
6. Ibid.
7. pp212-212, Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, Penguin, 2002 edition.
8. p228, The Case of Mr Fleming.
The Exclusive Bond, p6 The Manchester Guardian, March 31 1958.
10. Letter from Ian Fleming, p4 The Manchester Guardian, April 5 1958.

11. Sex, snobbery and sadism by Paul Johnson, in New Statesman, 5 April 1958. Available at:
12. p217, The Devil Doctor by Sax Rohmer, BiblioBazaar, 2007.
13. pp116-117, Come Into My Parlour by Dennis Wheatley, Hutchinson, 1973 edition.
14. Cited in The Rise and Fall of Paul Spanker Johnson by Christopher Hitchens, Salon, May 28 1998. Available from:
15. Ibid. 11.
16. Ibid.
17. London Literary Letter: A Report on Writers and Writing by V.S. Pritchett, The New York Times, May 11 1958.
18. pp524-525, Like It Was: A Selection from the Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge, selected and edited by John Bright-Holmes, Collins, 1981.
19. Ibid., p451.
20. pviii, Foreword by Ian Fleming, The Seven Deadly Sins by Various, William Morrow, 1962.
21. Books by Malcolm Muggeridge, pp36, 38, Esquire, December 1964.
22. Ibid., pp36 and 38.
23. Ibid., p36.
24. How to Write a Thriller by Ian Fleming, p59, Show, August 1962.
25. Ibid. 21, p38.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Review of The James Bond Dossier by Malcolm Muggeridge, in The Observer, May 30 1965. 
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. Letter from Peter Fleming, The Observer, 6 June 1965.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. ‘The Late Mr Fleming’ by Malcolm Muggeridge in The Critic, August-September 1965.
35. I dislike Bond... Hes a gangsterby Vincent Graff, p25 Radio Times, August 21-27 2010.

This is part of 007 In Depth, a series of articles on Ian Fleming and James Bond.