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
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