Thursday, 4 September 2014

A pilgrimage to Ian Fleming's grave

The monument marking Ian Fleming's grave
Returning from a holiday on the south coast of Devon (unfortunately I missed the chance to visit the beach at Salcombe; Ian Fleming spent his childhood holidays there and recalled them in the opening chapter of On Her Majesty's Secret Service), I decided to take a detour to the village of Sevenhampton, near Swindon in Wiltshire. It is in this village, in the church of St James (appropriately), that Fleming is buried.

Getting to the church wasn't straightforward. Sevenhampton is hidden away, and a crucial road sign at a crossroads had been knocked down. Eerily, an oncoming car that looked suspiciously like a Bentley 4½ litre fitted with an Amhurst Villiers supercharger - the type of car that both Fleming and Bond drove - passed me. A good sign that I was on the right track, I thought! Eventually entering the village, I had to park the car in a lane, and walk back to the main road before turning down a private driveway, then going through a gate and along a footpath to the entrance into the churchyard. Even before one reaches the church, the tall, pyramidal, monument marking Fleming's grave is clearly seen and dominates the churchyard.

The grave is in fact a family tomb. Plaques on the monument additionally identify the graves of Ann Fleming, Ian's wife, and Caspar, their son. The plaque dedicated to Ann, who died in 1981, offers the inscription, “There is none like her, none,” a line taken from Maud (Part XVIII), a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The epitaph to Caspar, who died tragically young in 1975, reads, “To cease upon the midnight with no pain,” which is a quotation from Keats' Ode to a Nightingale.
 

The plaque dedicated to Ian Fleming is different in a few ways. It doesn't give Ian's full name (the other two provide middle names), it gives the dates of his birth and death (the other plaques record only the years of birth and death), and in addition to the epitaph, includes the words, “In Memoriam”, which the others lack. I'm not sure how significant these differences are, but they are interesting nonetheless.
The plaque dedicated to Ian Fleming
Ian Fleming's epitaph has a classical source. It reads, “Omnia perfunctus vitae praemia, marces,” and is taken from On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), a six-book didactic poem written in honour of the Greek philosopher Epicurus by the Roman writer Lucretius, who lived during the first half of the 1st century BC. The line comes from book three (DRN 3.955-62), which in part explores the fear of death, and can be translated as, “Having enjoyed all life's prizes, you now decay.” On their own, the words allude to the inevitability of death and the impermanence of life and material things, but also allude to Fleming's intense, somewhat hedonistic, take on life. The phrase also seems echoes James Bond's philosophy, as revealed in You Only Live Twice: “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my days.”

Within its original passage, however, the line has a rather more negative connotation. 


“Take your tears away from here, wretch, and quell your complaints. Having enjoyed all life's prizes, you now decay. But because what you want is always at a distance, you shun what is at hand, your life has slipped away incomplete and unenjoyed, and death stands by your head unexpected, before you can leave things satisfied and full.” (Translation by James Warren.)
The passage clearly concerns premature death (Fleming was just 56 when he died of a heart attack), but from its Epicurean viewpoint ridicules the notion that the pursuit of pleasure leads to fulfilment. While happiness, according to Epicurus, derives from the absence of suffering, overindulgence can be a cause of pain, and ultimately unhappiness and death.

I don't know who chose the words – it's possible that Ian Fleming had discovered the phrase and requested that it be inscribed on his gravestone, though it seems more likely that the words were chosen by others (perhaps Ann's literary friends) – but the censorious tone of the rest of the passage makes the wording an odd, and not entirely flattering, selection.

I wonder whether a more sympathetic epitaph might have been provided. The tribute offered by William Plomer at Fleming's memorial service (“Don't let us indulge in vain regrets that he didn't live longer, but let us be glad that he lived so intensely”) is a touching alternative. But in a way Fleming had already provided his own epitaph. In chapter 15 of From Russia, with Love, Kerim Bey talks to Bond about the threat of dying from the 'Iron Crab' (that is, a heart attack). “Perhaps," Kerim says, "they will put on my tombstone 'This Man Died from Living Too Much.'” The words could equally apply to Ian Fleming himself.

References:

Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: The man behind James Bond, Turner
Warren, J, 2006 Facing death: Epicurus and his critics, Oxford University Press

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant post, just finished Lycett's bio, I think you are bang on...Hope, if I ever do find myself in this neighborhood I can find it, sounds deliberately secluded.

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