Thursday, 13 August 2015

In the footsteps of Octopussy's Major Dexter Smythe

Following a recent cycle ride in the Tyrolean mountains, guest writer Radley Biddulph revisits Ian Fleming's 'Octopussy', and considers why the short story remains a fascinating and exciting read.

I recently participated in a cycle race in the Alps. The seven-stage 880-kilometre bike race started in the Bavarian town of Sonthofen, near Munich, and climbed into the mountains via Austria and Switzerland, and finally into Italy with a finish in Arco, near Lake Garda. The route went through Tyrol, and covered 21 mountain passes of seemingly ever-increasing height, and each with an impressive name, such as Hahntennjoch, Flüelapass and Berninapass. The region is simply stunning, with dramatic landscapes, alpine lakes, green pastures, and snow-covered peaks. It was also baking hot. 
A view of the Tyrolean landscape
No surprises then that my thoughts turned to Ian Fleming’s own account of the Tyrolean mountains – and probably my favourite of Ian Fleming’s short stories – 'Octopussy'.

The story tells of Major Dexter Smythe, a member of the Secret Service during the war - now retired to Jamaica – and assigned to a unit called the Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau (MOB), who is tasked with searching in Tyrol for anything of interest – documents, lists of names – in Gestapo and military locations after the collapse of Germany. He discovers papers indicating gold buried in the Kaiser mountains, near Kulfstein, and he engages a local guide, Hannes Oberhauser, to help him show him the route up the slopes. Once the gold is located, Oberhauser is killed. It is the ill-gotten gold that enables Smythe to retire to Jamaica, where soon bored, and with his wife having overdosed on sleeping pills, he is slowly drinking himself to death. 

It is a brilliant read. You get a real sense of Fleming’s intimate knowledge of life in Jamaica. Fleming’s description of life in the small ex-pat British community is vivid, and, like Fleming, Smythe lives on the North Shore of Jamaica, and spends much of his time snorkelling, drinking and smoking excessively. 

The story is also engrained with Fleming’s own experiences of the Second World War with 30 Assault Unit (30AU). Smythe is a former Royal Marine Commando, seconded to Combined Operations and MOB, and Fleming’s own involvement with 30AU, which was tasked with undertaking operations in enemy territory to capture intelligence, meant that he would have had first-hand source material for the story. The story is also reminiscent of other military units at the end of the war, such as T-Force, a unit jointly raised by US and British forces to secure information, documents and equipment, and the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, which was established to safeguard cultural assets and works of art during and after the war, recently depicted in the George Clooney film, The Monuments Men (2014).

But for me, the story comes alive with the description of the climb up the Kaiser mountain. It is arduous, both Smythe and Oberhauser are sweating with their exertions, and their climbing is sending boulders and rubble crashing down the slope. You can really feel the enormous effort needed to reach the summit, or the Peak of Gold, as Smythe refers to it. And for Smythe, this is only the half of it. The more difficult part is to get the gold back down the slope. The box is heavy and he is dragging it clumsily behind him, the sun beating down and his shoulders burning. Finally he succeeds, and with some planning, having found a conduit to exchange the gold, he is able to resign his commission and retire to the West Indies.
The challenging slopes of the Tyrolean mountains
The story is also interesting because, like The Spy Who Loved Me, it is not seen from the viewpoint of James Bond but of another character, in this case, Smythe. In fact, Bond is merely a device; arriving at Smythe’s house to question the former security officer about his wartime record, and in particular his activities in Tyrol, and it is because of Bond’s visit, Smythe looks back on the incident in the mountains and his life with MOB.
Tryol's rocky slopes
As for Bond, he chooses to take on the case because Oberhauser taught Bond to ski before the war and was like a father to him when he needed one. Intriguingly, the forthcoming Bond film, Spectre (2015) stars Christoph Waltz as Franz Oberhauser, a figure in SPECTRE who claims a personal connection with Bond. Whether this personal connection will refer to Bond’s friendship with Hannes Oberhauser remains to be seen but it would be nice to think there is a reference to 'Octopussy', a story very closely linked to Fleming’s own experiences.

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