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Address given at the memorial service for Ian Fleming by William Plomer on September 15th, 1964. [Spy Vibe note: Plomer, also a writer, was a literary advisor for Jonathan Cape and he edited a number of Fleming's books. Ian Fleming dedicated Goldfinger to him].
We have come together today to commemorate a man whose absence we can`t yet begin to get used to. Ian Fleming was decidedly a man of our time, but in any age such an uncommon personality, such varied gifts and high spirits, would make a strong impression. He made one feel one had to try and live up to his standard of alertness, to keep tuned up, and to move at his own quick tempo. He seemed always to take the shortest distance between two points in the shortest possible time, and although he didn`t suffer bores gladly, his appetite for life, his curiosity and quick understanding, and his admiration of what was well done used generally to bring out the best in other people. We miss him, and we shall go on missing him.
Because he was most widely known as a writer, let us think of that aspect of him first. Although his books made him world-famous, he was modest about them to the end. He took a proper pride in his inventiveness and skill, yet never pretended that his books were more than popular entertainments. After his faithful secretary, I happened to be the person who always had the privilege of being the first to read them. He was pleased when one praised him and always good-humoured when one proposed corrections or teased him: he had a way of thanking one, even for small services, which added to the pleasure of being able to help him.
His head was never turned by his enormous popular success. But popular success often rankles with the unsuccessful, and in the natural course of things he was exposed to envy: this was sometimes to be seen in print, but I never heard him take any notice of it. Of course not everybody could be expected to like his books. "They`re not my cup of tea," one has heard people say, to which the obvious answer is that they are not cups of tea at all - they are something much more stimulating. It was a little distasteful when some persons who had read Ian`s books with enjoyment proceeded to speak too patronizingly of them or to run them down. Perhaps it is a residual puritanism that makes some people feel guilty when they have enjoyed anything: then, instead of blaming themselves for ingratitude, they find fault with the source of their pleasures. Let those who take too high a moral tone about the dream world of James Bond take note of the cheerful reactions of film audiences to his adventures, and I think they will find the atmosphere anything but corrupt.
Isn`t it possible that Bond and his adventures became world-famous, not only because of their excitingly realistic detail, but because they constitute a thoroughly romantic myth, a series of vivid fairy-tales, which seems to fulfil a persistent need? Isn`t it perhaps the simple, age-old need to escape from dullness by identifying oneself with a dragon-slaying and maiden-rescuing hero, who wins battle after battle against devilish forces of destruction, and yet continues indestructible himself?
What a feat to have re-created, in a new idiom, a myth of such universal appeal! And unprecedented in its way. Something near 20 million copies of Ian`s books have up to now been sold, and they have been translated so far into 18 languages, including Catalan and Turkish. They are read in Iceland and Thailand, in Japan and Brazil, and widely in America and Western Europe. They were appreciated by the late President Kennedy; they don`t go quite unnoticed in the curtained-off countries; in some places admirers have formed James Bond clubs; and vast new publics respond to James Bond films.
Although Ian`s health had been troubling him, he managed to complete an exciting new book that shows no least sign of a falling off. And we shan`t have to wait long for the publication of an entertaining and sympathetic appreciation of his work by a famous younger writer, Kingsley Amis. Also, Ian had completed three engaging books for the young. These show a happy, playful side of his character quite unfamiliar to the public. In the public eye, he was quite simply a pre-eminent writer of thrillers, Bond-like, with a supposedly sensational naval background; but the public eye is myopic, and can only take in one thing at a time. I have heard it said that there were several different Ians, and that he kept different parts of his life quite separate. If this is true, it is one more proof that the popular image of him is far too crude and flat.
Only since his death has it begun to be more generally understood that he had done well in several different careers, and that he was a character of some complexity. But those who were at school with him, or who used to work with him in the City, or in Reuters, or in the Admiralty, or in the newspaper world, or who had watched him creating his original and important library, or who saw him enjoying life in Jamaica, or who at any time travelled or played cards or golf with him, can confirm that he was a man who touched life at many points. And of how many men can one say, as one can of him, not only that he had much to give but gave all he had got? One is reminded of James Bond`s saying: "I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
Ian`s energy must have been already apparent at Eton. I think it is not generally known what an athlete he was as a boy. At Eton he was twice Victor Ludorum, but even before he was sixteen he had won, I believe, every single athletic event except the high jump, and this caused him to be featured in the newsreels of those distant days. His bodily feats didn`t prevent him using his head. For instance, he pounced appreciatively at that time upon the first book of a then unknown writer - a book which in its season was probably an outstanding worst-seller, but which has turned out to have a lasting influence. This was nothing like a half-baked schoolboy of the flannelled-fool variety but already a young man with a mind searching for facts, pressing forward to discover what the world was like, and already using his valuable gift, so evident in his later career, of recognizing, and therefore encouraging, other men`s abilities.
His later education and experience were pretty varied - Sandhurst, Munich, Moscow, the City - and then, from 1939, seven years of his life were absorbed by his work in the Naval Intelligence Division. Just before the War, Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, who had long shown a more elastic understanding of the world and of his own profession than was likely to be discernible in more conventional sailors, recruited Ian from the City. This was on the recommendation of no lesser persons than Sir Edward Peacock and Sir Montague Norman, the Governor of the Bank of England.
It wasn`t only his quick and resourceful brain that Ian brought to the service of his country, but administrative ability. He was an unfailing source of brilliant and constructive ideas, and he had the faculty of knowing how to apply them in a practical way. Also, in a service traditionally silent, and sometimes tongue-tied, he was notably articulate both in conversation and on paper; and, like most capable officers, he felt that there were times when the risk of giving offence was nothing compared with the importance of being, if necessary, blunt. He was never ready to defer to pomposity, incompetence and red tape. As right-hand man to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Ian was inevitably tied down to the Admiralty, but he did make a number of necessary sorties, with or without his chief. No doubt it was his anxiety to take his own share in active service (though his own kind of service could hardly be called inactive) that caused Admiral Godfrey to send him to sea as an observer during the assault on Dieppe, with strict instructions to take care that he didn`t get lost in France.
I wish to emphasize, because it may not be fully understood even among many who knew him, or thought they knew him, that long before he began to write his first book, Ian was one of those whose services to his country, during those menacing years, made it possible for us to survive and to be here together indulging in reminiscence today. That may seem to you too obvious a remark, a kind of memorial cliche, but it isn`t. When I was lately talking over with Admiral Godfrey the nature of Ian`s wartime services, he summed it all up in a most memorable phrase, better I think than any laurel wreath or shining medal. "Ian", he said, "was a war-winner."
It was Admiral Godfrey who introduced him to the delights of under-water swimming, when it was much less familiar than it is now. It seemed an activity exactly made for him. It was athletic, it was not without its hazards, and it offered the discovery of a hidden world of fascinating mysteries. Discovery, I think, is a key-word: Ian was a great finder-out. And this predominant trait in his character helped to fit him for his valued association, after the War, with the Sunday Times, as its foreign manager. His ability and enterprise as a journalist can be seen in what may almost be called his instant travel-book, Thrilling Cities. That inquiring mind of his and that retentive memory would often surprise one. He was just as liable to reveal a knowledge of tropical birds or rare seashells, as of first editions or motor engines or the night life of Hamburg. What never surprised one, because one knew them to be constant, were his truthfulness and directness, his loyalties, and that restless, high-spirited independence which must sometimes have made him feel like a surf-rider alone with the speed of a tremendous wave.
Don`t let us indulge in vain regrets that he didn`t live longer, but let us be glad that he lived so intensely. Even that strong constitution began to feel the strain, and the last months of his life were anything but easy for him, as the prospect of a return to his usual courses, and then even the prospect of recovery, dwindled away. He was obviously quite unused and unadaptable to physical handicaps and restrictions, and he seemed quite incapable of learning to slow down or of giving in: he fought for life like a wounded tiger. In that fight the odds against him were too great, but he was sustained by his wife`s devotion and by her patience with his perfectly understandable impatience about his condition. In health and in sickness she gave his life a special significance, and nothing in it was more important than his feelings for her and for his son Caspar, to whose future we hopefully look forward.
I can`t step down from this place, and you wouldn`t wish me to, without reminding his widow and their son, and his other near and dear relations and friends, not all of whom are able to be here today, that our sympathy with them is unanimous. Remembering Ian, we share their bereavement; and when we think of him, with what his wartime associate Robert Harling has well described as his "sad, bony, fateful face", let us remember him as he was on top of the world, with his foot on the accelerator, laughing at absurdities, enjoying discoveries, absorbed in his many interests and plans, fascinated and amused by places and people and facts and fantasies, an entertainer of millions, and for us a friend never to be forgotten.
Ian Fleming made my acquaintance before I made his. It happened nearly forty years ago, when he was a boy at school. "I have a natural love of action," he wrote many years later, and at Eton this was already plain: he as an athlete of exceptional power, and was twice Victor Ludorum. In fact before he was sixteen he had won every single athletic event except the high jump. This made news of more than Etonian interest and caused him to be featured in the newsreels of those pre-television days. But he was no small-brained muscle-boy; all through his life his physical energy ran, or jumped, neck and neck with intellectual curiosity. He evidently wanted to know all about life and a good deal about literature, and especially about its impact on life. It so happened that while Fleming was still at school my first novel made its appearance; he got hold of it, read it, and was excited by it. He had almost certainly never heard of me before, and I can`t remember what put him on to the book. He might have been guided by his sharp flair, like that of a mine-detector, for a new threat to dullness and complacency. Or possibly the use by reviewers of words like "volcanic" had aroused his interest. (There is evidence that the tremors set up by this book have continued in Africa until now, and it is at present being reprinted.) The thought occurs to me for the first time that Fleming may just conceivably have been a little influenced by Turbott Wolfe. It cannot be called a thriller, but many people found it disturbing. They were meant to. It recognised and asserted that life includes the head-on collision and struggle of violent forces.
I first met Fleming some years later, when I had returned to live in London. He asked me to a party in Chelsea given by his handsome mother. He was youthfully handsome himself, wearing a well-cut dark blue suit and with very good manners, easy, cheerful and welcoming. After Eton he had been at Sandhurst and in Munich, and was now in Reuters, which sent him at various times to Berlin and Moscow. He seemed to me to have good luck on his side - youth, health, strength, money, general eligibility, a social status taken for granted, work that interested him, and a consciousness of his powers. At that first encounter he struck me as no mere conventional young English man-of-the-world of his generation; he showed more character, a much quicker brain, and a promise of something dashing or daring. Like a mettlesome young horse, he seemed to show the whites of his eyes and to smell some battle from afar.
If I had been anything like an ambitious young man-of-the-world myself, or if I had been enjoying life less, I can imagine that I might have thought how pleasant it would be to be him. In fact such a thought could hardly have occurred to me, because our ways of life were quite different. Some of his keen interests - fast cars, golf, gambling - were as immeasurably far from mine as some of mine from his. But his liveliness and curiosity were congenial to me, and we were responsive to each other`s jokes, anecdotes, and opinions.
During the Second World War our paths began to converge. We were in the same service and for some of the time under the same roof. Myself embattled as that marginal anomaly, a civilian officer on the Naval Staff, I was an inconspicuous but diligent auxiliary to the Naval Intelligence Division, in which Fleming`s role was important. His responsibilities at the Admiralty gave him scope for some of his best abilities and he enjoyed exercising them. They were most efficiently applied to defeating the enemy; and Admiral Godfrey, at that time Director of Naval Intelligence, looks back upon him as a "war winner."
Fleming`s private self - or selves, because he was not a man of a single interest or a single aspect - seemed to some to be hidden, or withdrawn. There were persons near him during the War who felt that they never really knew him except as an active functionary, polite and often cheerful with those who seemed to him properly tuned up, and capable of being abrupt with others. I suppose his inmost self to have been strongly fortified, and I should guess that some who were much attracted by him, and believe themselves attractive to him, may have found to their disappointment or even sorrow that any right of way through the fortifications, or tenancy within, was denied to them. He was perhaps too self-possessed a man to tolerate possessiveness aimed at him by others. In those strenuous wartime days he did not give, or give so clearly, the sense he occasionally conveyed of being alone when not alone. His wartime associate Robert Harling has written of Fleming`s "sad, bony, fateful face." There were moments, as he grew older, when with its heavy eyelids and mixed look of determination and abstraction, it looked like a sculptured mask of melancholy.
I have heard it said of him that he kept his life in separate compartments. So he did, but surely that is quite usual for persons with many different activities and interests, who touch life at various levels that do not overlap and may have nothing in common with one another.
Once during the War, when some of its worst phases were past, we were feeding alone together and found time to speak of what we intended to do when it was over. With a diffidence that came surprisingly from so buoyant a man, he said he had a wish to write a thriller. He may not have used exactly that word, but made it quite plain that he had in mind some exciting story of espionage and sudden death. I at once made it equally plain how strongly I believed in his ability to write such a book, and in its probable originality. "But," I said, "it`s no good writing just one. With that sort of book, you must become regular in your habits. You must hit the nail again and again with the same hammer until it`s driven into the thick head of your potential public." He gave me a long and thoughtful look.
It as not until he was at his Jamaican house at the beginning of 1951 that he sat down to write Casino Royale. I knew nothing about it.
"When I got back to London," he wrote some years later, "I did nothing with the manuscript. I was too ashamed of it. No publisher would want it, and, if one did, I would not have the face to see it in print." He went on to explain how one day he had been lunching with me, and had asked me "how you got cigarette smoke out of a woman once you`ve got it in."
Always, I hope, alert to the caprices of the human race, and generally expectant that they are likely to be grotesque, I must have speculated rapidly about this intimate-sounding injection. He went on to explain that one couldn`t use a world like "exhales," and "puffs it out," he thought, sounded silly. And then - "William looked at me sharply: "You`ve written a book.""
Of course I asked to see it. He felt that I would "tell the horrible truth about the book without condemning me or being scornful."
I read, I applauded, he conquered.
The best and most entertaining analysis of his thrillers ever likely to be written is to be found in Kingsley Amis` forthcoming book. My own summary view of them is that they are brilliant, romantic fairy-tales in which a dragon-slaying maiden-rescuing hero wins battle after battle against devilish forces of destruction, and yet is indestructible himself: an ancient kind of myth skilfully re-created in a modern idiom. They are, like life, sexy and violent, but I have never thought them corrupting. Compared with some of the nasty stuff that gets into print, they have a sort of boyish innocence.
In the popular imagination Fleming is confused with or thought to have been identical with James Bond. There may be something Flemingish about Bond, but I didn`t see much of Bond in Fleming, who was more perturbable. Let us admit, as Fleming himself did, that Bond and his adventures are something of an adolescent fantasy. Is there anything wrong in that? Not at the box office. At the time of his death some 20 millions copies of his books had been sold and they had been translated by then into eighteen languages. The films have already captured vast audiences.
Fleming`s attitude to his own books was perfectly straightforward. He was pleased that they did so well (who, in his place, wouldn`t have been?), took a proper pride in his skill in composing them, and was delighted that they pleased readers worth pleasing - President Kennedy, for instance. But there was never any sign that he pretended to himself or to anybody else that the literary value of what he wrote was underestimated. It did please him to pretend that I was a sort of only begetter of his books, which was nonsense. Or was it just an indication of his characteristic capacity for gratitude? As somebody who knew him well reminded me lately, "Ian always said thank you." Some of the inscriptions in the copies of his books he gave me repeated the unearned but recurrent compliment - for example, in my copy of Goldfinger, "To William, who started these balls rolling."
In fact I used to be the first person to whom his books were shown, partly for professional reasons. When I found things to praise, he seemed pleased; when I suggested emendations, he was attentive - sometimes too attentive. I once said to him, just after reading a new James Bond typescript, that although the persons in it often made exclamatory remarks, these were never followed by a point of exclamation. I said this half-teasingly, but he took it so seriously that when the book came out, the New York Times took him to task for peppering his pages, like a schoolgirl, with exclamation marks.
I thought it admirable and dignified in him that he appeared to take no notice whatever of the envy he naturally provoked. This envy showed itself sometimes in spiteful or patronising reviews or gossip. Ungenerous natures, without a tenth of his vitality, brains, or experience, would sometimes try and mask their envy by disapproval or by affecting a high moral tone about his books, calling them sadistic (understandably) or "snobbish" - by which I suppose they meant status-conscious or something. To some people, naturally, the books could not and cannot appeal. "Not my cup of tea," I have heard some say: the answer to that is that the Bond book are not cups of tea at all, but something more stimulating. In any case, what on earth would be the character of a book that was everybody`s cup of anything? Though to some the books are distasteful, I have never heard them called boring.
One could hardly call Fleming a bookish man, which suggests somehow an untidy, bespectacled, bible-backed, pedantic half-recluse. But he had an active interest in book-collecting and had built up a remarkable library, concerned with the impact of literature, of new ideas in literature upon life. An assiduous reader of The Times Literary Supplement, he had a sharp eye and good memory for critical or bibliographical details.
If a biography of him is ever written, competently written, he will be seen as a man who was successful in several different spheres of action, and who made full use of his lease of life. When his health was no longer good, it was impossible to imagine him settling down to the existence of a prudent invalid obsessed with trying to make it last as long as possible. I think he knew he had, as they say, "had it."
In his will he generously left me and two or three other friends some money to be spent within a year on some "extravagance." I would rather he had survived me. No extravagance by us can disguise though it may commemorate his absence. Whatever the money is spent on I shall think of him looking over my shoulder, curious to see how it is being used, a little ironic and (I hope) pleased. -William Plomer, January, 1965 Encounter
Ian Fleming on Spy Vibe: some recent posts include our Ian Fleming Music Series links: Noel Coward, Whispering Jack Smith, Hawaiian Guitar, Joe Fingers Carr, new Ian Fleming Catalog, Jon Gilbert interview, Double 007 Designs, Bond audio book reissues, discovery of one of Ian Fleming's WWII Commandos, James Bond book covers, Ian Fleming's Playboy interview for Kindle, Spy Vibe's discovery of a rare Ian Fleming serialization, rare View to a Kill, Fleming's Royal gold typewriter, Ian Fleming's memorial address, and our Ian Fleming image archive on Pinterst here.