Friday, 24 March 2017

The Book Collector - the Ian Fleming special

Ian Fleming was something of a polymath. He is of course most famous for the creation of James Bond, but he had other passions. One of these was books. Apart from being a voracious reader, Fleming expressed his bibliophilia by taking ownership of, and relaunching, the journal The Book Collector in 1952, and in 1935 instructing his friend Percy Muir to build a collection of volumes 'that had started something' in science, philosophy, medicine, technology, sport and so on. Appropriately, this lesser known aspect of Ian Fleming's life is celebrated in the latest number of The Book Collector.
 
The Book Collector, Spring 2017
This special edition is a treasure trove of Fleming facts, many of which will be unknown or only vaguely appreciated by even the keenest of Fleming or Bond fans. Readers are, for example, treated to a comprehensive account by Fergus Fleming of Ian Fleming's involvement in The Book Collector. The author reveals that Ian Fleming was more than a silent partner, taking an active interest in commissioning material for the journal and drumming up sales, and having an occasional hand in editing too.

In an article by Joel Silver, we learn how Fleming's collection of books 'that had started something' was assembled. Fleming's somewhat mercenary attitude to the collection (buy low with a view to selling high sometime in the future) may have disappointed Percy Muir, but Fleming knew his stuff. The collection, now residing in the Lilly Library of Indiana University, has become one of the most celebrated and valuable collections in the world.

Several aspects within the volume particularly caught my eye. One is a letter, described in Joel Silver's article, written by Ian Fleming to David Randall, librarian of the Lilly Library, in 1956. In response to Randall's invitation to Fleming to visit him in America, Fleming wrote that there was no hope of a visit, and besides which, there was nothing left to eat in New York except oyster stew at Grand Central station. Fleming's view of the culinary attractions of New York was evidently unswerving. He repeated it in his book Thrilling Cities (1963, written in 1959), and had Bond express the same view in the short story, '007 in New York'.

Something else that intrigued me concerned Fleming's manuscripts of the Bond novels. Today, there's no question of their enormous value, both financially and culturally, but back in 1956, this wasn't so obvious. In his correspondence with Percy Muir about the Lilly Library acquiring Fleming's book collection, also described in Silver's article, David Randall admitted that he was 'infinitely more interested in Fleming's library' than he was in Fleming's manuscripts. In a subsequent letter, he suggested that the manuscripts were a gamble: James Bond is 'no Sherlock Holmes', he suggested, though, he conceded, Bond 'may outlive his era'.

John Cork's article about how the James Bond books became best-sellers in the United States is no less fascinating. What surprised me was that, contrary to popular opinion, John F Kennedy's list of his favourite books, published in Life magazine in 1961 and including From Russia, with Love, didn't massively increase sales of the Bond books. Sales in fact remained sluggish, but only rocketed some months later with the combination, Cork suggests, of three factors, among them an interview on CBS with Ian Fleming on the U2 pilot Gary Powers.

There are excellent articles on the Queen Anne Press, the novels of Robert Harling, and the 'Printing and the Mind of Men' exhibition in 1963. In addition, an article by Jon Gilbert offers an insight into the history of the collectability of the James Bond books, while Mirjam M Foot's analysis of the cover artwork for You Only Live Twice reminds us of the important contribution Richard Chopping made to the success of the Bond books. (Am I alone in thinking it very curious that two of Richard Chopping's novels, The Fly (1965) and The Ring (1967), mentioned in passing in the article, share their titles with famous genre-spawning horror films?)

In short, this special edition of The Book Collector is essential reading for aficionados of Ian Fleming and James Bond. If there are any copies left (the print-run was limited), go to The Book Collector website and order one now!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Ian Fleming named in Royal Society of Literature survey


It's official: Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are literature.

In an Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the Royal Society of Literature of almost 2000 members of the UK public, Ian Fleming was among 400 authors named by respondents when asked if they could name a writer, living or from the past, whose work they would describe as literature. One respondent named Fleming.

I should add that the long list of authors mentioned once is a highly respectable one, and Fleming is certainly in illustrious company. Other authors include John Buchan, Thucydides, Charles Darwin, Mary Shelley, Robert Harris, Iris Murdoch, and Jeremy Clarkson.

It has to be admitted, though, that authors who might be regarded as Fleming's 'rivals' – that is, writers of spy fiction – appear to have a higher profile. Len Deighton was named by two respondents, Anthony Horowitz was named by three people (presumably in respect of his Alex Rider novels, rather than his single Bond book), Graham Greene named by four people, and John le Carré mentioned by five people.

To be honest, I'm not sure I would have gone for Ian Fleming if asked to name an author of literature, and it's understandable why Fleming's 'rivals' are ranked higher. John le Carré, Graham Greene and Len Deighton are generally considered to sit at the more highbrow end of the spy fiction genre, and Anthony Horowitz may have benefited from the young person's vote, the survey being open to members of the public aged 15+.

Nevertheless, it is somewhat disappointing that Ian Fleming, for all the impact his novels have had on spy literature specifically and thrillers in general, doesn't have a higher profile among the public. The survey does, however, present some findings that suggest some reasons why this may be the case.

When asked what might encourage people to read more literature, the top answers among respondents included more local libraries and more local bookshops. The responses allude to the fact that, in the UK at least, towns and cities have seen the closure of libraries and the move of bookshops away from the high street and to online retailers. On the positive side, the responses show that people still value libraries and bookshops. I certainly did when I was discovering Ian Fleming (admittedly a long time ago now). Some of the Bond books, when I read them for the first time, were shop-bought, but others I borrowed (and re-borrowed) from the library.

It's occurred to me, though, that the public may now struggle to find Ian Fleming in the library or on the shelves of anything other than the largest bookshops. Whenever I've popped into the library in recent years, I've seen at best one or two books, but certainly nothing approaching a full set. It's telling that, in the British Library's list of most borrowed authors between July 2015 and June 2016, Ian Fleming isn't in the top 500, or even in the list of top 20 classic authors, which includes Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Graham Greene. So, libraries and bookshops need to be encouraged to stock more Bond novels and increase the visibility of Fleming's work.

Another top response to the question of what would encourage people to read was 'programmes on TV or radio'. We've of course had several adaptations of the Bond novels on Radio 4, but no doubt television would have a much greater impact on book sales. Frequent appearances of their work on television have presumably done wonders for Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John le Carré, and now Len Deighton.

I do wonder whether it's time we had a James Bond television series. This needn't conflict with the film series – the television series could present straight, period-set, adaptations distinct in tone and style from the films – and Eon could still have a hand in it. While the Bond films are extraordinarily successful (and long may they continue), their connection to Ian Fleming is probably not that obvious to the more casual cinema-goer, even with tie-ins with the novels, most recently Spectre (2015).

Given that some of the Bond stories began as treatments for a television series, Bond might find a natural home on the small screen. A television series might also allow some of Ian Fleming's unused treatments to be realised on the screen, just as they're now coming to life on the page in Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis and forthcoming follow-up.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Building a James Bond stamp collection

Earlier this month, Swiss Post issued a set of stamps marking the 50th anniversary of the Schilthorn/Piz Gloria restaurant. Though not strictly speaking a Bond-related event, the stamps are nevertheless of interest to James Bond fans, depicting as they do the cable car and building that featured prominently in the film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), and which Eon helped to complete. The restaurant retained the name used in the film – Piz Gloria (Ian Fleming's invention) – which also appears on the stamps.
 
50 years of Schilthorn-Piz Gloria (Swiss Post, 2017)
For any philatelically-minded Bond fan, there is now an impressive array of stamps with which to build a Bond-themed stamp collection. In addition to the Swiss stamps, there are the two sets of stamps issued by the Royal Mail in 2008 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming's birth. One set features various book covers and is available in a bewildering range of presentation packs. Another set depicts the Union Flag and White Ensign in a presentation pack that focuses on the novel of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

 
100th anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming (Royal Mail, 2008)
And if that isn't enough, there is also a stamp, again issued in 2008, that shows Ian Fleming's golden typewriter.

 
Ian Fleming's James Bond (Royal Mail, 2008)
As far as I'm aware, no stamps were issued in the UK to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bond films in 2012, but the event wasn't totally ignored by national postal services. The West African republic of Guinea-Bissau issued a set depicting five of the six James Bond actors (sadly, George Lazenby didn't make the cut).

 
Four of the five Bonds depicted on stamps of Guinea-Bissau (2012)
That wasn't, however, the first time that Sean Connery had appeared on a stamp. In 1999, the Commonwealth of Dominica issued a set of stamps celebrating 'legendary sleuths of the silver screen'. James Bond is depicted in the form of Sean Connery alongside Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Clouseau and others.

 
Legendary sleuths of the silver screen (Dominica, 1999)
But the Bond-themed stamp collection needn't stop there. After acquiring the stamps that reference Bond explicitly, the collector could turn his or her attention to stamps that depict places or things mentioned in Fleming's novels or which appear in the films.

For instance, after picking up the Piz Gloria stamps, the collector could continue with a stamp issued in Italy in 1981 that depicts the Palio di Siena, the famous horse race that features in Quantum of Solace. Then there's a stamp issued in Jamaica in 1956 that depicts the doctor bird, which is described in the short story, 'For Your Eyes Only'. Or how about a stamp that shows Istanbul's Hagia Sophia? This was issued in Turkey in 1963, the same year that Bond was taking a tour of the mosque in From Russia With Love.



The possibilities are almost endless!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Did E Phillips Oppenheim invent James Bond?

Who do the following two literary characters remind you of? The first is a resourceful, tough, sardonic man of action. He's attractive to women. He travels the world, he's handy with a gun, and uses gadgets in his pursuit of the villain. He's a bit of a daredevil, too. At one point, he jumps off a bridge on to a moving train.

The second is a former military officer and a spy. He's attractive to women. He's not afraid of danger, and is also handy with a gun. He travels widely, and knows his way around the Alps and the casino. He enjoys a cocktail or two and a game of golf, and he drives a high-powered sports car.

Sound familiar? No, neither is James Bond, but they could be. The first is American detective, Sanford Quest, the hero of the novel, The Black Box (1915). The second is another American, Major Martin Fawley, a freelance spy in the novel The Spy Paramount (1934). Both books are by the English thriller writer, E Philips Oppenheim, who was also one of Ian Fleming's favourite authors.



I'm not actually going to argue that Oppenheim invented James Bond, but reading The Black Box, The Spy Paramount, and others, Bond appears to be cut from the same cloth as Oppenheim's heroes, and we could make just as good a case as Simon Winder and Nigel West did when they argued that a contemporary author, Phyllis Bottome invented a prototype James Bond in her novel, The Lifeline (1946). Indeed, Oppenheim has the advantage, because Fleming identifies him as an influence. He told Jack Fishman that 'I was considerably influenced by those masters of the modern thriller, Hammett and Chandler, and, to some extent, in my childhood, by E Phillips Oppenheim, and Sax Rohmer.'

And perhaps not just in Fleming's childhood. The Spy Paramount is packed with Bondian moments. Having ostensibly offered his services to Italy, Fawley drives in his powerful Lancia into the Alps on the French/Italian border in search of a secret mountain base that houses a superweapon. He succeeds, but not without being discovered and shooting his way out. He returns to his hotel and nonchalantly orders café complet. Later, he plays golf with a scheming German politician in a chapter that gives Fleming's account of Bond's game of golf with Goldfinger a run for its money.



The book contains descriptions of food and drink that wouldn't be out of place in a Bond novel: 'The cocktails tasted good, as indeed they were, for granted the right material, the American touch on the shaker is after all the most subtle in the world.' Or, as Fawley's brother says: 'French champagne tastes all wrong in Italy, and though food is good enough for a time, it's monotonous.' At one point, Fawley consumes rounds of caviar sandwiches, just as Bond does in Goldfinger.

We also have a physical description of Fawley: visionary eyes, an air of immense self-control, a firm mouth, and a little wave in his hair brushed back by the ears. Not so different from Bond's calm grey-blue eyes with a hint of ironical inquiry, thick comma of hair above his right eyebrow, and cruel mouth.

Much of the story is set in the luxury hotels, clubs and casinos of Monte Carlo (as are a number of Oppenheim's spy novels), and though Fawley doesn't visit the gaming tables himself during his mission, the scene is familiar to readers of the Bond novels.

In another of Oppenheim's spy novels, The Spymaster (1938), it's the hero's attitude towards female agents that's familiar to Bond's readers. Admiral Guy Cheshire, head of British naval intelligence, responds to the opinion of his counterpart in the army, General Mallinson, that in espionage work, 'women... are the biggest nuisance,' with the view that 'they are in the way, of course.' He and James Bond would get on well: Bond also thinks that 'on a job, [women] got in the way.' 



At another point of the novel, Cheshire plays bridge in his club and demonstrates his skill with the cards, both impressing and irritating his fellow players with his winning form and ability to shuffle the pack to his advantage; Cheshire performs these tricks for amusement, so he avoids the accusation of cheating. Bond's abilities with the cards, as demonstrated during a game of bridge at Blades, is no less impressive, but even so, Bond might find Cheshire a tricky opponent at the card table.

Actually, given Guy Cheshire's position as head of naval intelligence, membership of a London club, and, as we learn in the novel, access to the highest political level (he has the ear, for instance, of the Prime Minister), he is more M than Bond. If M were to feature in his own novel – and it's about time – the book might look something like The Spymaster.

Fleming's Bond novels and Oppenheim's thrillers have much in common. It is going too far to claim that Fleming based Bond on any aspects of Oppenheim's work specifically, but the influence is clear, and it is fair to say that Bond emerged out of the literary tradition represented by the novels of Oppenheim, Phyllis Bottome and others. Indeed, Bond could not have existed without them. But while it's easy enough to spot the similarities, there are lots of differences too. The Spy Paramount, The Spymaster and others could not be mistaken for Bond books. After all, the Bond books reflect other influences, such as American detective fiction, the Second World War, the Cold War, and Fleming's own experiences.

The result is that while the Bond books express some of the traits and memes of the earlier literary tradition, they have diverged from it too - and are different enough, as we know, to have created their own tradition and become influential in turn.

Returning to E Phillips Oppenheim, his novels are fast-paced, exciting thrillers, and it's no surprise Ian Fleming enjoyed them. Oppenheim's detective story, The Black Box (coincidentally (almost) the title of the latest James Bond comic book), is somewhat corny, with a story involving mad professors, ape-men, and stupid policemen, but his spy novels are superb, being full of intrigue, action, and, unsurprising given the context in which they were written, growing foreboding of war.