Sunday, 27 March 2016

Ian Fleming and The Traveller's Tree

One of the most thrilling – and chilling – aspects of Live and Let Die, when I read it for the first time aged 11 or 12, was the description of a voodoo ceremony took from Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1950 book, The Traveller's Tree. At the time, I had never heard of the book, and thought nothing of the extended excerpt. To me, the passage was an essential part of Fleming's novel, adding veracity to the tale and putting me into Bond's shoes; I was learning about voodoo with Bond.

Thinking about it now, it does seem a little odd that Fleming lifted almost verbatim several pages of a celebrated book (in fact, passages from two chapters) that had not long been out before Live and Let Die was published in 1954. Fleming's novel does not suffer unduly for it, but it does leave Fleming open to an accusation of lazy writing.

One can't imagine today's editors being so indulgent towards their authors, but the use of the extract does reflect Fleming's love of books and admiration for, and almost a deference to, experts and writers. Fleming may also have been motivated by a desire to thank Patrick Leigh Fermor, known as Paddy, for the mention Paddy gave him in The Traveller's Tree. (Incidentally, Fleming's footnote in Live and Let Die that gives the publisher and price of the volume is absent from current editions.)

As source material and part of Bond's library, The Traveller's Tree is firmly part of Bond lore. I was therefore keen to read Artemis Cooper's superb biography of Paddy to learn more about the origins of the book.

The idea for the book emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, in which Paddy, serving with the Intelligence Corps and then the Special Operations Executive, fought alongside the resistance in Crete (one of his spectacular achievements was the kidnapping of General Kriepe, the commander of German forces on the island). Among Paddy's comrades-in-arms was Costa Achillopoulos. In 1947, Costa was commissioned to produce a book of photographs of the Caribbean, and he asked Paddy to accompany him and write the text for the book and as many spin-off magazine articles as possible.

Once in the Caribbean, Paddy was soon to encounter its diversity and exoticism, and the deprivation among many of its inhabitants (he discovered that slavery continued to cast a long shadow). While in Jamaica, he also paid a visit to Ian Fleming's home, Goldeneye, being a close friend of Ann Fleming. Paddy witnessed the voodoo ceremony which appalled Bond so much in Haiti. Paddy was fascinated by voodoo's admixture of African and Catholic religion and rituals, and saw in its origin, at a time of slavery, a sort of freedom from the harsh reality of the adherents' lives, and a link with their ancestral past.

Paddy travelled to Normandy in 1948 and began to write The Traveller's Tree (the title was Costa's). In the weeks that followed, Paddy moved around France and Italy, usually staying in monasteries where he was able to write without the distraction of convivial company, parties and bright lights, to which he was susceptible. The writing didn't come easily at first – he was overwhelmed by the amount of material he had collected – and at the monastery of Saint-Jean-de-Solesmes resorted to taking benzedrine. But later, in the monastery of San Antonio, near Tivoli, Paddy was particularly productive.

The Traveller's Tree was published in 1950 by John Murray to enthusiastic reviews, and it was awarded the Heinemann Foundation Prize. Artemis Cooper's biography of Paddy is also well worth reading, and gives not just a fascinating account of Paddy's life and the background to The Traveller's Tree, but also an insight into the literary and social scene in which Ian Fleming also moved, if somewhat on the periphery.

References:

Cooper, A, 2012 Patrick Leigh Fermor: An adventure, John Murray
Fermor, P M L, 1950 The Traveller's Tree: A journey through the Caribbean islands, John Murray

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