By the Book’s Editor
In recent weeks we have been surfeited with publicity for the new James Bond film, or rather movie, for it does not deserve the distinction of being called a film, which ought to be reserved for more artistic efforts, despite the fine technical work by the special effects people on Spectre.
As a result of the publicity campaigns surrounding the movies since 1962, when people talk about James Bond they mean the movies. The novels are little discussed, except by real fans, and by as often as not acerbic literary critics. Readers will be familiar with what critics have long said about the sadomasochism, the snobbery, the pseudo elitism, the dubious morality towards killing and so on.
Recently I have re-read the first of the novels, Casino Royale (1953), just to confirm that what is said about them is true. Fleming’s novels for all their popularity do not compare with Eric Ambler, Len Deighton or John Le Carré (David Cornwall), now the subject of a much admired biography by Adam Sisman (Bloomsbury, £25).
Indeed the echoes of his childhood reading Phillips Oppenheim, Fu Manchu, Dr Nicola, even Ossendowski’s mysterious King of the World are obvious enough. In this sense Ian Fleming is hardly a grown-up writer at all: sex scenes are not always a sign of maturity.
However, I have noted an odd thing about Casino Royale. It is not, in fact, the first Fleming spy novel, or rather, it is not the first spy novel by a member of the family.
Two years before Ian made his debut, his brother Peter Fleming, a best-selling travel writer of the interwar years, literary editor of The Spectator and Times Special Correspondent in China and the Central Asia, published The Sixth Column, a still entertaining satire on British intelligence. This was dedicated to his younger brother Ian.
Back in 1940, that grim year for Britain, Peter had published, with drawings by Low, a satire concerning Hitler landing accidentally in England much to the embarrassment of the government, who keep it secret and eventually send him back where he came from. Within a year Hess did actually fly into Great Britain and Fleming looked like some kind of prophet.
But the key to this squib is satire. And this was true too of The Sixth Column in which a country gentleman much like Peter Fleming himself writes under a pen name a series of spy thrillers which achieve great success.
Now when brother Ian began his series, he took the whole business of espionage very seriously indeed. He meant what he wrote. But brother Peter plays round with the MI5 tradition, the BBC and many other risible aspects of British life. The villain turns out to be a treacherous version of Godfrey Wynn (if anyone can remember that richly sentimental popular journalist today). But Peter Fleming’s real target is the idiot bureaucracy of the intelligence world.
The Sixth Column, though still amusing, and I think very relevant in its mild satire of intelligence, was not a success and sold badly. But having consulted the biographies of both Peter Fleming and Ian Fleming on my shelves I cannot find that their biographers cast much light on just how the two books were connected, or whether Peter’s satire was in fact the immediate spur for Ian to begin the James Bond series.
But, as it is, I prefer the old world values of Peter Fleming to the specious gilded nonsense of Ian. But this is an opportunity to suggest that those who relish travel books will find that Peter’s book Brazilian Adventure, about a disastrous but comic attempt to find the lost Col. Fawcett, and News from Tartary which recounts an epic trek though central Asia from China to India, still retain a classic status.
So in a lesser way does One’s Company, about China itself, which amazingly introduced to the world the fugitive Mao Tse Tung, still lurking in his mountain hideout a decade and more away from driving out the regime of Chang Kai-shek. Now there was a villain in a remote fortress who did want to conquer the world, like Blofeld, Dr No and all those other fictitious folk of Ian’s. Once again this chapter gave the work of Peter Fleming a prophetic note.