March 5, 2013


Spy Vibe pays tribute to a number of espionage writers this week with a set of obituaries and memorials. Yesterday we celebrated Ted Gottfried, famed author of the Man From O.R.G.Y. series. Today I want to post part I of the memorial address and comments for my favorite author of all time, Ian Fleming. Part II here. Some Spy Vibers may have come across this material before on the excellent Commander Bond Network. Images from Spy Vibe's Ian Fleming Pinterst board.

Address given at the memorial service for Ian Fleming by William Plomer on September 15th, 1964. [Plomer, also a writer, was a literary advisor for Jonathan Cape and he edited a number of Fleming 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.

I have a spy novella coming out. Stay tuned and follow Spy Vibe by clicking the Follow link at top right of this page. 

Check Spy Vibe for recent posts about our discovery of a rare Ian Fleming serialization, my review of SKYFALL, 007 at the Intnl Spy Museum, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, tributes to Donald Richie and Tony Sheridan, the Les Vampires serial on Blu-ray, Lucy Fleming, The Beatles first record session, Ian Fleming's desert island interview, new Ian Fleming book designs, FantomasSpy SmasherBarbarella tv show, British spy comics, Piper Gates retro designs, Cinema Retro, and more. 

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