Sunday, 21 June 2015

Wot I'm reading: Sex, snobbery and sadism

'Sex, snobbery and sadism' were the key ingredients in a James Bond novel, according to a review of Dr. No in the New Statesman in 1958. Yes, he was probably right, but the reviewer seems to have missed out the outlandish thrills that Ian Fleming always delivered (well, almost always: The Spy Who Loved Me was unforgivably awful, as perhaps was the mercifully short story Quantum of Solace, which is more like something Fleming's friend and neighbour Noel Coward might have written). Plus, he gave us some of the most colourful villains in the history of pulp fiction: Mr Big, Rosa Klebb, Dr. No, Goldfinger and, that toothsome twosome, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt!

Matthew Parker's lively new contribution to the 007 'canon' is a history of Fleming's long love-affair with pre- and post-Independence Jamaica, where he spent two months of every year from 1946 until his death in 1964 and where he wrote all the Bond books. Before Barbara Broccoli recycled it as a movie title, Goldeneye was the name of the boxy little bungalow Fleming built overlooking a beautiful and almost private lagoon on the north coast of the Caribbean island. Here he entertained the great and the good (including Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Eden and - of course - Sean Connery) together with a far from modest selection of married ladyfriends, one of whom, Viscount Rothermere's wife Ann, divorced her husband to marry Fleming. Ann had to put up with a "three-people marriage" when Fleming took another Jamaican expat as his long-term mistress. Tit for tat, Ann Fleming became Hugh Gaitskell's lover for the last years of his life.

Goldeneye today, available for you to rent!
Fascinating as this book is, it's filled with dislikeable characters. Fleming himself is a curmudgeon, sometimes genial, more often sulky. Ann is a snobbish pill-popping neurotic who dismisses her husband's novels (largely without reading them) as 'pornography'. Even Noel Coward comes across as little more than another of the old colonial bores. Fleming largely detested the idle rich and retired who made up most of his wife's social circle both on the island and in London, and yet, as the New Statesman observed, James Bond was very much a product of the supercilious 'imperialist' mindset.

Parker confirms what we have heard before, that there was a lot of Fleming in 007: the naval background, a love of fishing and snorkelling as well as lethal levels of smoking and drinking. Fleming hated Germans (Hugo Drax and Goldfinger were both Germans), despised Americans (Felix Leiter was practically the only American friend Bond had and his relationship with Tiffany Case - erroneously called Chase in Parker's book - was one of his least passionate) and had a patronizing attitude towards blacks (think of Quarrel in Live and Let Die and Dr No).

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress, filming Dr No in Jamaica, 1961
From this account Fleming does not seem to have been a very happy man, but his books, however sniffy some of the critics, have brought pleasure to millions. I've read all of them (some several times) - and most of the 'sequels' in the hands of a very mixed bunch of copycat authors. From Russia With Love and Dr No are clearly the greatest of the 'founder's' output; of his heirs I would rate the first one, Kingsley Amis (Colonel Sun, 1968), the closest to the calibre of the originals.

Fleming was toying with killing off 007 at the end of From Russia With Love when (unlike in the movie) Rosa Klebb strikes home with the poisoned blade in her toecap. Luckily for us, this was Fleming's break-through book and he contrived a way to 'resurrect' Bond at the beginning of Dr No. Today, in real time, Bond would either be long since despatched to the rest home for old spies or, more likely given his alcohol and tobacco intake, would have made the trip to the crematorium which he narrowly escaped in the movie of Diamonds Are Forever. Despite the up-and-down quality of both the book and the movie franchise, long may he go on living!

Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and those shoes in From Russia With Love