A Letter From '008'
James Bond has been with us since the publication of Casino Royale in 1953. Since then, there has been a vast amount of literature about the character — so much that one would be forgiven for thinking that every stone had been turned. It's a surprise to find in 2015 that this isn't so, as several new books are showing.
Some Kind of Hero (The History Press) by Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury (disclosure: a friend, and I helped out with the book in a miniscule way) tells the story of the Bond films in loving detail over 700 pages, which are packed with nuggets of juicy new information. It's a real labour of love by the authors, drawing on a passion for the films stretching back decades: as well as filtering information from a vast range of sources, they have carried out over 100 new interviews, with actors, directors, producers, cameramen and others involved, to present what I am sure is the most comprehensive examination of the Bond films yet published. Some of the highlights include a long interview with George Lazenby in which he recounts how he was cast as Bond, one of the most extraordinary stories in showbiz history; interviews with people who have written Bond scripts, including Purvis & Wade and Len Deighton; and the new light shed on Johanna Harwood's contributions to the genesis of film Bond, finally putting her voice centre-stage. With around 20 in-depth pages devoted to each film, I reckon even the most hardcore Bond fanatic will find their fill of new dope.
Also just published is The Man With The Golden Typewriter (Bloomsbury), a collection of letters to but mostly from Ian Fleming edited by his nephew Fergus. Many of these have been published in full or part elsewhere, but lots haven't been, and offer all sorts of insights into how Fleming wrote and edited his books, his relationships with other writers, and more besides. It's essential reading if you're interested in Fleming and Bond.
In February, John Blake will publish James Bond: The Secret History by Sean Egan, for which I've written a brief foreword. This very entertaining book looks at all aspects of the Bond phenomenon — books, films, comics, video games — and includes some of the more obscure detours the character has taken over the decades. Egan has interviewed several key people, but for me it was not so much the information as the opinions that made the book so rewarding, as they forced me to re-think some of my own hardened views.
There's a rash of books published with the advent of every new Bond film, but the last decade or so feels different. I suspect a book of Fleming's letters wouldn't have been thought commercially viable last century, when Bond's — and Fleming's — critical stock was lower. Now Oscar-winners direct the Bond films and acclaimed novelists write the books, and Bond seems to be rightfully seen as the great fictional icon he is. This renewed interest and advances in technology means that a lot of fresh information is being revealed, which in itself feeds others' curiosity, provides new avenues of inquiry and leads to further discoveries.
In that spirit, I am now throwing a little something into the pot. I think I have just stumbled across something unknown about Ian Fleming. It's this letter to The Spectator in June 1956, purporting to be from '008'. The OCR has slightly mangled some of the text, but you can see a scan of how it originally appeared over on the right of that page. I don't believe this has been spotted before — and I think it's a hitherto unknown letter by Ian Fleming.
The letter is in response to an article by Anthony Hartley published in the previous issue that praised John Buchan's heroes in comparison to 'Mr. Ian Fleming's appalling James Bond'. Hartley's chief complaints were that Bond was a sadist, a snob about food and clothes, and vulgarly sexual. Intriguingly, these were the three key charges that would be made against Fleming two years later, by Bernard Bergonzi in The Twentieth Century, an editorial in The Guardian and, most famously, Paul Johnson in The New Statesman.
The author of this letter defending Fleming has taken on the amusing device of pretending to be a colleague of Fleming's, '008' of Regent's Park, London:
'SIR,—The Secret Service has had to suffer some hard knocks recently, but none unkinder than Mr. Anthony Hartley's disparagement of the head of their 00 section, James Bond. I share an office with Bond and, since I know even more about him than does his biographer, Mr. Ian Fleming, I have exceptionally obtained the permission of M. to break the rules of silence of our Service and come to his defence.'
He goes on to wryly point out why Bond is not the clubland hero Hartley presumed him to be — indeed, that he is if anything 'sub-consciously in revolt' against the Buchan-style Establishment — that his tastes are much simpler than described, and that sex and violence were elements of the modern world.
There are a few people who could conceivably have written this, but I think '008' was most likely Ian Fleming himself. Firstly, the letter doesn't simply demonstrate a lot of knowledge about James Bond, but is very presumptuous with it. It would take some bravado to claim more knowledge of another man's characters than he himself did, and to then co-opt his characters into the bargain: 'I have exceptionally obtained the permission of M.' If someone else had written this, I think it would have to have been someone Fleming would have been happy to have done so. His editor William Plomer, say.
But I think all signs point to this being by Ian Fleming himself. He sometimes wrote for The Spectator, and knew the magazine well: he later became its motoring correspondent. At the time of this letter, his brother Peter had written a column in the magazine under the pseudonym 'Strix' for a decade (the style and content was similar in many ways to 'Atticus' at the Sunday Times, which Ian had taken over in 1953). Peter knew his brother's books well and would have been in a position to have written such a letter, but it seems highly unlikely he would have intruded in such a way and in doing so claimed to know more about Bond than Ian, who was quite capable of defending his own work.
But the 'smoking gun', I think, comes courtesy of The Man With The Golden Typewriter. On May 31 1956 — just a week earlier, and the same day as Anthony Hartley's article attacking Bond for his amorality was published in The Spectator — Fleming wrote to Geoffrey Boothroyd, a reader who had written him a long letter about Bond's guns. Fleming was delighted by Boothroyd's evident expertise, and wanted more:
'At the present moment Bond is particularly anxious for expertise on the weapons likely to be carried by Russian agents and I wonder if you have any information on this.
As Bond's biographer I am most anxious to see that he lives as long as possible and I shall be most grateful for any further technical advices you might like me to pass on to him...'
The chances of someone else calling Fleming Bond's biographer just a week later seem slim. Neither was this the only time Fleming used the device of pretending Bond was a real person in this way. At the end of From Russia, With Love, published in April 1957, Fleming left a cliffhanger that suggested Bond had been killed by Rosa Klebb. When The New Statesman published an article bemoaning Bond's apparent end, Fleming sent them a letter about it and, according to Fergus Fleming, it became his standard reply to fans who wrote to him regretting Bond's demise. In that letter, he described himself as 'Commander Bond's official biographer'.
The Spectator letter is signed by '008', rather than Fleming, but it casts Fleming and Bond in the same roles and makes several points Fleming made elsewhere. In a letter to what was then The Manchester Guardian in April 1958, Fleming argued that in the real espionage world a spy would likely face more violence than in older thrillers, that Bond's tastes were perhaps not as outlandish or high-flown as they initially appeared, and mentioned the security risk of the character's absurdly conspicuous consumption of scrambled eggs. The Man With The Golden Typewriter also reveals that in June 1959, Fleming wrote to a reader who had sent him a card for the Aston Martin Owners Club:
'Thank you very much for your splendid letter of June 17th and for your kind invitation for James Bond to join the A.M.O.C.
Since neither Bond nor his biographer are owners of an Aston Martin, I can do no no more than pass your invitation on to the head of Admin. at the Secret Service from whose transport pool the DB III was drawn.'
As in the 1956 letter from '008', Fleming pretended Bond was real, that he was his biographer, and similarly added some business suggesting that he had to navigate the Secret Service bureaucracy of Bond's world.
In October 1962, The Spectator published a letter from Fleming under his own name. As with the 1956 letter he was defending his books from criticism, this time responding to three separate comments about his work in a previous issue of the magazine. Once again, he adopted the pretext of his character being a real person, starting the letter by saying that
'since Bond is at present away in Magnetogorsk, I hope you will allow me to comment on his behalf.'
Later in the letter he referred to his novels as 'my serial biography of James Bond', and defended the character from a charge of fascism by stating that Bond's politics 'are, in fact, slightly left of centre' — this echoes 008's point in 1956 that Bond is not quite the Establishment character he has been mistaken for.
Fleming took the conceit to its furthest point in You Only Live Twice, in which M. writes an obituary for a presumed-dead Bond and expands on the idea of Bond being a real figure and Fleming being merely a reporter of his adventures:
'The inevitable publicity, particularly in the foreign press, accorded some of these adventures, made him, much against his will, something of a public figure, with the inevitable result that a series of popular books came to be written around him by a personal friend and former colleague of James Bond. If the quality of these books, or their degree of veracity, had been any higher, the author would certainly have been prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.'
So, presuming the letter was written by Ian Fleming, what does it tell us? Perhaps not a huge amount, but I think it adds something to the picture of how Fleming defended his work. He would later use his own name, but adopt the same amused tone and claim to be Bond's biographer, and it is a disarming tactic: had he written these responses 'straight', it might seem that he was genuinely offended and kicking up a fuss. The technique of pretending Bond was real allowed him to make all his arguments but to do so in a dry, airy way that made him seem unconcerned. In several of these responses, Fleming was defending spurious claims based on misreadings of his own work and the genre as a whole: a secret agent with a knowledge of good food, drink and tailoring had been a staple of the British thriller since at least the first decade of the 20th century, something Fleming knew very well because he had drawn on some of those thrillers for inspiration. Fleming knew the genre better than his critics, but was in the curious position of seeing, in his own lifetime, his creation become synonymous with an entire genre.
It might be that Fleming's letters along these lines acted as an unconscious trial run for the passage in You Only Live Twice, as over time he became attached to the idea. Fleming's letters, journalism and novels are littered with passing ideas that he subsequently picked up in later stories. For instance, in April 1956 he reviewed Scarne on Cards in the Sunday Times: the book, and its topic of cheating at cards, had featured prominently in Moonraker. Fleming ended the review by saying that, because of the criminal uses the book's contents could be put to, libraries and clubs should issue it to readers 'with the proviso "For Your Eyes Only"'. That expression would, of course, be used by Fleming for the title of his collection of short stories published in 1960.
The date of the 008 letter is also interesting, in that 1956 is two years before the main attacks on Fleming's books, and those attacks were on very similar grounds. We also tend to presume that Bond had little cultural impact before the films, but here we see that just three years after the publication of the first novel, Casino Royale, James Bond was a significant enough force that he was being discussed at some length in a British magazine, to the degree that a letter from its author making an in-joke about a character who didn't even exist in his books, ie 008, would presumably have been understood by most of the publication's readers.
Finally, I think this letter shows how the trickle of fresh information about Fleming and his work is gathering pace. This letter hasn't been picked up before, I suspect, in part because it was not signed by Ian Fleming. But it is also thanks to scanning technology that it's appeared on The Spectator's website, where it came up in a Google search I ran for something else. Armed with new information from The Man With The Golden Typewriter and elsewhere, I was also able to put it into more context than I would have been able to a few years ago. So while it's a very minor discovery in terms of Ian Fleming's work, I think it's part of a pattern that suggests there is more out there than previously thought — for example, the latest Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, written by Anthony Horowitz, includes snippets of original material by Ian Fleming that I don't think were previously on record as having even survived.
What else might be out there?
With many thanks to Ihsan Amanatullah and Tom Cull for additional information and insights.