The name’s Fleming, Ian Fleming

2008-05-28 00:00

Today is the centenary of the birth of Ian Fleming, creator of the world’s most famous secret agent, James Bond. To mark the occasion a special edition of all the books has been issued and today also sees the launching of a new Bond novel Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray.

In Britain, the birthday celebrations began earlier this year with the British Royal Mail issuing a series of stamps, add to that an exhibition of artwork from the books and films, while London’s Imperial War Museum is hosting For Your Eyes Only, a major exhibition devoted to the life and work of Fleming.

Among the items on display is a selection of annotated Bond manuscripts, as well as material from the films including the prototypes of Rosa Klebb’s flick-knife shoes in From Russia With Love and Halle Berry’s bikini from Die Another Day. Meanwhile, the release of the new Bond film, Quantum of Solace, looms on the horizon.

According to the museum’s website the exhibition — and Ben Macintyre’s book written to accompany it — examines the extent to which the books and the films “reflect the reality of the Cold War and how much they were a product of Fleming’s prodigious imagination”.

That Fleming’s imagination gave birth to Bond in the first place is partly thanks to a South African-born writer. His name? Alert readers of the Fleming canon will recall the dedication in Goldfinger: “To my gentle reader, William Plomer.”

Plomer was Fleming’s editor and in later life recalled how, after Fleming’s secretary, “I happened to be the person who always had the privilege of being the first to read them.”

Plomer was born in South Africa in 1903 and went school at Rugby in England. On his return to South Africa, he worked in his father’s trading store at Entumeni near Eshowe. There he wrote his hard-hitting satire on the colonial society of Natal, Turbott Wolfe, published in 1925, when he was 22.

Plomer then joined the equally youthful Roy Campbell and Laurens van der Post to produce the controversial literary magazine Voorslag (Whiplash). Despite a short run, the magazine made an indelible mark on English South African writing.

Plomer and Van der Post headed for Japan where Plomer spent a couple of years as a teacher before settling in England in 1929. Peter Alexander, Plomer’s biographer, notes that “for years he moved at the centre of English writing and publishing, counting among his close friends Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, E. M. Forster, Stephen Spender and Christopher Ishwerwood”.

Plomer wrote five novels, 10 volumes of verse, an autobiography and the librettos for several of Benjamin Britten’s operas, including Gloriana and Curlew River. He also “discovered and brought to the world one of the greatest of English diarists, the Victorian clergyman Francis Kilvert”.

Plomer became principal reader for publisher Jonathan Cape and although Cape ignored Plomer’s advice to publish John Betjeman and Vladimir Nabokov, among those accepted for publication at Plomer’s recommendation were Derek Walcott, Ted Hughes, Arthur Koestler, Alan Paton, John Fowles, Stevie Smith and Ian Fleming. Plomer died in 1973.

Plomer and Fleming met in 1929 and subsequently became good friends, but their first contact had been back in 1926 when the teenage Fleming, a schoolboy at Eton, wrote Plomer a fan letter saying how much he admired Turbott Wolfe.

Following Eton, and after unsuccessful forays first in the army, then the Foreign Office, Fleming worked for Reuters and then did a stint as a stockbroker. Fleming found his feet when he joined Naval Intelligence during World War 2 where he gained the rank of commander and where, among other things, he recruited his friend Plomer.

Writing after Fleming’s death in 1964, Plomer recalled how the idea of James Bond was first planted: “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, [Fleming] 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.”

Thought turned to action and in 1951 Fleming retired to his Jamaican home, Goldeneye, and wrote the first Bond novel, Casino Royale. On May 12, 1952, Fleming and Plomer were to be found “feeding alone together” in a London restaurant when Fleming asked Plomer “how you got cigarette smoke out of a woman once you’ve got it in”. Fleming said a word like “exhales” or phrase such as “puffs it out”, sounded silly. At which point the penny dropped and Plomer, looking at him sharply, said: “You’ve written a book.”

Fleming confessed he had and gave it to Plomer to read. “He felt that I would ‘tell the horrible truth about the book without condemning me or being scornful’. I read, I applauded, he conquered.”

Plomer immediately saw Casino Royale’s bestselling potential. Not so publisher Jonathan Cape, who disliked thrillers, but as Alexander comments, “Plomer’s view prevailed and although Cape never read another of Fleming’s books, he published them all and their unparalleled success made a great deal of money for both Cape and Fleming.”

Not for Plomer “although he continued to read each of Fleming’s books as it was written and to suggest detailed improvements and changes. His only financial reward was the sum of £500 which Fleming left him when he died in 1964, stipulating that Plomer was ‘to commit some extravagance’ with it.”

In an address given at Fleming’s memorial service, Plomer reflected on his friend’s fictional creation: “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 recreated, in a new idiom, a myth of such universal appeal.”

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