For Your Shelf Only continues! Spy Vibe recently talked with Jon Gilbert, rare book dealer and author of Ian Fleming: The Bibliography. Our chat began a new series on Spy Vibe, offering fellow collectors and fans of spy novels a chance to share their experiences and some of their prized books.
Our next guest is Craig Arthur. Craig has been working on his first spy novel for several years. He studied English at the University of Otago. His articles researching and analyzing James Bond-related topics have appeared on commanderbond.net and mi6-hq.com. He has also written for spywise.net.
How did you first get exposed to the world of James Bond?
I was already aware of Ian Fleming via Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – a favourite story of mine from as far back as I could remember, although I didn’t actually own a copy and I never saw the 1968 movie because I was too young. For a while, Chitty remained my only link to Fleming.
Then I saw [the movie] The Spy Who Loved Me at age 9 in 1977. The only way to see Bond movies in those days was in the cinema. I was lucky I became a Bond fan when I did, because it meant I saw all of the Bond movies on the big-screen while they were still in circulation. At the time, however, I did not know when, if ever, I would get to see the earlier films, and it was a long two-year wait between the new movies. There were no VCRs. Nor were Bond movies shown on New Zealand television the way they were in the UK and America. I would see copies of Christopher Wood’s James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me whenever I was in a bookshop but I did not have the means to buy it. The Fleming Bond novels, like the early Connery Bond films, were something beyond my reach.
When did you start to read Ian Fleming?
I was highly aware of my geographic isolation. London was the centre of the Bondian universe and, as Wikipedia points out, my hometown of Dunedin, New Zealand, is the most distant city on Earth from London. Even when a new movie was released, I would have to wait an extra six months for it to reach our shores. Then, after its initial release, there was no telling when I might get to see it again. So, I would latch onto whatever talismans of Bond-related material I could. Bond books, the original Fleming novels or anything else related to Bond or spies, provided the most accessible, concrete touchstones. Assuming I could obtain them.
In 1978, when I was staying with my grandparents, my grandmother was reading a Jonathan Cape Fleming omnibus on loan from the St Kilda Public Library, containing Dr No, Live and Let Die, and Diamonds Are Forever. I read the opening chapter of Dr No, somewhat perturbed by the detailed descriptions of zinging and tinkling crickets and frogs, ex-patriot English cocktail hour rituals in Jamaica, and night-scented jasmine. For a 10 year old, there seemed a lot of detail to wade through before we meet the ‘three blind men’ and an even longer wait before anything actually ‘happens’. But it did not dampen my curiosity and I was able to memorise the titles of all the Fleming novels from the list inside the book.
In 1979, I saw both Thunderball and Goldfinger on the big screen and was counting down the months to the December release of Moonraker. That same year one or two of the new 1978 Grafton paperback editions of the Fleming novels appeared in local bookshops. I saved up my pocket money and purchased On Her Majesty’s Secret Service while on holiday in Wanaka. It proved a difficult read for me as an 11 year old. I enjoyed the opening sequence but got bogged down in Fleming’s lengthy digressions on the subject heraldry. I did not read any further until I began intermediate school in 1980 where I found the Patrick Nobes abridged version in the school library. I then read Patrick Nobes’s abridged Bull’s-Eye editions of Goldfinger and Live and Let Die. I also discovered The Adventures of James Bond Junior 003 ½ by R.D. Mascott. After moving onto high school, I lost all access to a copy this book, and then spent the next 25 years looking for one.
When did you begin to collect books?
It was while I was still at intermediate school I began collecting Fleming more seriously. Having exhausted the Bull’s-Eye young readers’ editions available in the school library, I began buying second-hand Pan paperbacks of the unabridged Fleming novels from cheap second hand shops. That same year Licence Renewed was published. I remember staring at the Chopping-style dust-jacket in awe but to purchase a new hardback book was financially impossible at age 12 or 13.
I continued to go to see the movies whenever they were shown, and I could convince my parents to take me, until video killed off demand and they were withdrawn from cinema circulation. For several years, my parents refused to buy a VCR and so once again, I only had the literary Bond and new release Bond movies once every two years to fall back upon.
But paradoxically, the reason I now have Ian Fleming first editions is because an annual 24 hour book sale was started up in 1980 to save an opulent 1920s 'super cinema' from demolition and keep it running as a venue for live performance as well as film. So indirectly, because people stopped going to see movies in the cinema in the same numbers I would not have been able to built up the book collection I have today.
Tell us about it.
The community raised funds for the theater through the annual 24-hour sale of donated books each May. Reputedly the largest such event in the Southern hemisphere. Fortuitously for me, the annual book sale began at the same time when I started collecting Bond books. I found my first Ian Fleming first edition at the Regent when I was 14- a 1964 Jonathan Cape first printing of You Only Live Twice complete with Richard Chopping dust-jacket – still a cornerstone of my collection today. It cost me 50 cents (the equivalent of 25 cents US at the time). Between 1982 and 1991 at the Regent, I found For Your Eyes Only (sans dust-jacket), Thunderball, OHMSS, You Only Live Twice, The Man With the Golden Gun, a reprint of The Spy Who Loved Me, along with Kingsley Amis’s The James Bond Dossier and Colonel Sun. They each cost me 50 cents. I remember being marked-down on the bibliography for my 1991 post-graduate English Literature dissertation on the suspense thriller because I claimed to have consulted a first edition copy of Thunderball (the examiner refused to accept my copy was a first edition!)
You found some great treasures. Did it require a lot of patience and hunting?
Often it was not as simple as finding one perfect copy. I found a copy of OHMSS, sans dust-jacket one year, for instance, and then a couple of years later an ex-library copy from which I culled the dust-jacket. I would also find numerous Book Club editions (far more ubiquitous in these parts than the Jonathan Cape originals). For a while, they filled the gaps in my collection of Fleming hardbacks until I could find Cape editions.
In 1992, I moved to Wellington and missed the book sale for the next four years. I only found three Fleming first editions the entire time I was in Wellington – Octopussy, The Living Daylights, and Thrilling Cities. They each cost me $35. Then in December 1995, I travelled up to Auckland for the New Zealand premiere of GoldenEye. While I was there, I went around various second hand bookshops asking if they had any Ian Fleming. For the sum total of $200 NZD, I managed to buy mint condition 1960s Jonathan Cape reprint editions of Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, Dr No and Goldfinger. It meant I now had a near complete set of Jonathan Cape hardbacks – everything apart from From Russia With Love.
At the end of 1996, I returned to Dunedin and resumed going to the Regent book sale every May. I didn’t see Ian Fleming books with the same incidence as I did during the 1980s. But I did eventually find a mint-condition 1965 edition of From Russia With Love in 1998, completing my set at long last, shortly before my 30th birthday. In general, I try to limit my Fleming collection to one set of Jonathan Cape hardbacks and one set of 1960s Pan paperbacks with the Raymond Hawkey cover designs. (I’m a big fan of Hawkey’s cover designs for Len Deighton’s books as well).
Do you collect other authors?
Another important aspect of the Regent book sale for me is that it gave me access to vintage thriller-writers. Because I liked Fleming’s novels and indeed the John Gardner Bond continuation novels, I would seek out the authors who influenced them. Gardner would often reference older thriller-writers such as Dornford Yates and Ambler in his books and so I would keep a lookout for authors he alluded to. Also, I had read O.F. Snelling’s James Bond: A Report, in which Snelling discusses the influence of what Richard Usborne termed ‘Clubland Heroes’ on Fleming. So, I read Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, Dornford Yates, and John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, and I would keep an eye out for anything by these authors. I looked for Geoffrey Household, Leslie Charteris’s Saint books (I bought my first Saint book when I was 10 or 11 years old.), and Somerset Maugham (I found a nice 1928 second impression of Ashenden, sans dust-jacket, one year).
More recently, I found a 1916 fifth impression of Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I would similarly pounce on any authors who came immediately in the wake of Fleming as part of the 1960s’ spy craze. I gave all the authors a try: Adam Hall, Peter O’Donnell, James Mayo, James Leasor, amongst others. I still collect Adam Hall’s Quiller novels and Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise.
Something that hunting through the mass of books at the Regent taught me – you see how Fleming was head and shoulders above all the dross that was around at the time. As with musical eras, we tend to look back and see the past as golden. John le Carre, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming and Eric Ambler create a sense of how fantastic the Cold War era was for the thriller genre. But the dominant popular fiction at the time was not wonderful. The Regent Theatre book sale was a graveyard for unwanted fiction. A time capsule of what the majority of people were reading in the mid-years of the twentieth century. In the blurb for the 1956 Reprint Society edition of Live And Let Die, Fleming complained, “the craft of writing sophisticated thrillers is almost dead.” Again, in 1961, in the blurb of the original Jonathan Cape edition of Thunderball, he complains, “In fiction, people used to have blood in their veins. Nowadays they have pond water. My books are just out of step. But so are all the people who read them.”
When you’re wading through all the rubbish at the Regent, the endless volumes of Reader’s Digest condensed books, the forgotten titles by forgotten authors and Alastair Maclean thrillers, you realise how out of step Fleming was. Even when Raymond Benson was writing the Bond continuation novels, he coped with a lot of unfair flack that his books were ‘pornographic’ and I can remember complaints about the violence in John Gardner’s Bond novels in the 1980s. But great authors like Fleming, le Carre and Deighton, have proved the test of time.
Can you still find rare spy thrillers at the Regent?
A big problem with all the dross at the Regent sale is that, understandably, nobody wants to buy it. And because so much mid-twentieth century popular fiction has gone unsold over the years, the organisers of the Regent book sale seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that ‘old’ books do not sell. As a result, all the hardback fiction prior to circa 1980 is mysteriously absent from the sale tables. As a friend of mine says, if books don’t have shiny 1980s’ covers, then they don’t bother putting it on sale, fearing nobody will buy it. It is not simply a matter of people no longer donating older books. A friend of mine has found early Fleming editions at smaller book fairs in the region.
What are you looking for now?
Charles Cumming and Olen Steinhauer both write spy thrillers that are equal to anything by their predecessors. I try to obtain their books in hardback first edition (I’m slowly building up a complete set of signed US first editions of all Charles Cumming’s books; I was a consultant on The Trinity Six and Charlie paid me in signed first editions.) I would still like to find a Jonathan Cape hardback copy of Christopher Wood’s James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me, with its incredible Bill Botten artwork.
I have continued to collect the James Bond continuation novels, though I much prefer John Gardner and Raymond Benson to Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver. It was not so easy to collect all the Gardner and Benson Bond novels when they were published. They became increasingly harder to obtain in this part of the world. Raymond and I have become good friends, however, and over the years he has sent me signed copies of The Union Trilogy, A Hard Day’s Death and a pre-publication copy of The Black Stiletto. I also bought Charlie Higson’s Young Bond adventures as they came out. I finally managed to get hold of a nice first edition of The Adventures of James Bond Junior 003 ½ by R.D. Mascott after a 25-year search. And I was pleased to get hold of the Puffin facsimile edition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when it was published for the Fleming centenary in 2008.
Is there a book in your collection that you prize the most?
There's no one book in my collection I prize above the others. I'm very grateful for all the books I have found over the years. Charles Cumming's The Trinity Six has perhaps the most personal significance because of the influence I had on some of the material. For instance, I chose the New Zealand setting of Drybread as an homage to my friend and mentor Owen Marshall – New Zealand's greatest living writer, whose work is largely unknown beyond these shores.
What do you love about reading Ian Fleming?
Ian Fleming’s work continues to be important to me. Reading him as an adult, I see him very differently now compared to the way I saw him as a teenager. In my teens, I was caught up in the fantasy Fleming created. Bond, the character, was what interested me – the situations he found himself in. I was disappointed if the stories did not involve Bond sufficiently, in the same way that I was disappointed when Sherlock Holmes disappeared from the action in A Study in Scarlet. The Spy Who Loved Me or short stories such as ‘Quantum of Solace’ or ‘Octopussy’ disappointed me as a teenager for this reason. In my twenties, my enjoyment of Ian Fleming became more holistic. I enjoyed his detailed digressions and Fleming became as interesting as Bond himself. There is a sense in reading Fleming that one is dining with a great chef. I marveled at his ability to ‘domestic the marvellous’ (as Kingsley Amis praised him for), and simultaneously his ability to make mundane everyday consumer goods or arcane research on heraldry astonishing. If he had written non-Bond novels, I would have found them equally absorbing. ‘Quantum of Solace’ and ‘Octopussy’ became as gripping as Live and Let Die; the bridge game in Moonraker as exciting as underwater action or car chases.
Fleming is a fabulist, often reveling in the grotesque for the simple reason that it produces what he refers to in From Russia With Love as ‘les sensations forte’. Strong sensations. He is not asking us to identify with an apparently sympathetic character like Kerim Bey, who chains one of his mistresses to a table, holding her captive until she became submissive. Rather, Fleming is manipulating the reader’s sense of what creates a disturbingly powerful character in the same way Marquez does in ‘Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother’. To quote Borges, “we do not feel horror because we are threatened by a sphinx; we dream of a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel.” Fleming dreamt up many sphinxes, not only his villains, but characters such Kerim... even Bond himself. To achieve the same impact his descriptions might have had back in the 1950s nowadays, writers have to work harder to create a more direct prose. Fleming’s work casts a long shadow over the genre. However, he was writing in an era when people were more accustomed to florid, baroque grandeur; they even went to the cinema in picture palaces that resembled the Palais Garnier, as opposed to the era of the shoebox designs of modern multiplex cinemas. We live in a very different world today.
Thank you to Craig Arthur for joining us and sharing his experiences hunting for Ian Fleming's books and other spy thrillers. Like many of us who collect, the thrill of the hunt is, and remains by evidence of his stories, the exciting part of bulding up a collection. Scroll down for past editions of our series, For Your Shelf Only, where guests share stories about collecting and show us some of their treasures. Series links: Jon Gilbert, Raymond Benson, Jeremy Duns, Peter Lorenz, David Foster, Rob Mallows, Roger Langley, Craig Arthur, Fleming Short, Matt Sherman. You can find James Bond books and other spy treasures in Spy Vibe's secure Amazon Store.