Saturday 28 January 2012

Atticus: Ian Fleming's nursery of ideas

Sometimes an idea takes a while to develop before finding expression in a book. Ian Fleming's regular Sunday Times column is a case in point. Under the pseudonym Atticus, Fleming wrote the 'People and things' column for the London paper between November 1953 and August 1955. Reading his articles now, one is struck by the number of stories and ideas that would later be adapted for use in his James Bond novels.

For instance, Fleming's interest in squids and octopuses, as shown by Bond's battle with a squid in Dr No (1957) and the short story 'Octopussy' (1966), was piqued earlier. Atticus of 4th April 1954 included a piece about octopuses and squids, noting among other facts the squid's use of jet-propulsion and the largeness of some octopuses' eyes.

Then, on 18th April, Atticus wrote a piece on Japanese cormorant fishing. Atticus explained to readers how the little port of Gifu, 120 miles south of Tokyo, was the centre of this type of fishing, which was carried out at night using a lantern attached to a pole on the boat to attract the fish, and several cormorants tied snugly by rings at their necks to lines to plunge into the water and collect the fish. The idea of cormorant fishing would resurface ten years later in You Only Live Twice (1964), when Bond accompanies Kissy Suzuki on a fishing expedition.

As John Griswold suggested in his Annotations and Chronologies for Ian Fleming's Bond stories, Magic 44, the code-breaking/intelligence gathering system used by the Japanese Secret Service in You Only Live Twice, was named after 'Magic', the cover name given to the deciphering of Second World War Japanese diplomatic signals by the United States. Fleming had been interested in this before he wrote the novel; he referred to 'Magic' in his Atticus column of 20th June 1954.

The same article also included the first of two pieces on diamonds that Fleming wrote as Atticus two years before the publication of Diamonds Are Forever (1956), and three years before The Diamond Smugglers (1957). In the first, Fleming informed readers about the properties of a 'good blue-white', which, among other insights, has a mass of 426.5 carats. In the second piece, published on 26th September 1954, Fleming refers to the increased security required at the Diamond Corporation, off Hatton Garden in London.

Heraldry was another topic that featured in Atticus. Fleming wrote two pieces on it – the first, in Atticus of 25th May 1954, on the misuse of grants of arms, and the second, published on January 9th 1955, on the coat of arms of Horatio Nelson – eight years before he wrote the Bond novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963), in which heraldry was an integral part. The stories on diamonds and heraldry that Fleming reported are minor, but potentially important too, as they may have been responsible for drawing his interest in the subjects, which culminated in his writing the two Bond novels.

Ian Fleming was fascinated by facts. Some of the facts he learned while writing his Atticus column were too evidently good to waste in a disposable newspaper. Some of them he remembered and adapted for use in his Bond novels. Other facts may have led him down particular avenues of research, leading to entire novels in which the subject played a key role.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Ian Fleming's commandos and James Bond

The story of Ian Fleming's 30 Commando/Assault Unit has been a long time in the telling. There have been books from members of the elite force, such as From Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, by Patrick Dalzel-Job, and The Hazard Mesh, by J A C 'Tony' Hugill, but these have been personal narratives, rather than broader dispassionate histories. Recently, we have had Craig Cabell's History of the 30 Assault Unit, which, though a welcome attempt to tell the story of the unit, incorporating interviews with survivors and information from documents that had remained secret, lacked depth and was marred by excessive typographic errors. Then there was the film, Age of Heroes, starring Sean Bean. The film had its moments, but contained too many plot holes or rather great chunks of script torn from the pages of the screenplay to accommodate the shoestring budget.

So with the publication of Nicholas Rankin's, Ian Fleming's Commandos: the story of the 30 Assault Unit in WWII, the 30AU and Ian Fleming's role in it finally has a definitive account. What separates this book from those before it is the author's complete self-assurance at placing the inception and function of the unit in context. The book spends pages and pages away from the unit to explain the work of the Bletchley Park code-breakers, or German rocket technology or the events leading up and during the war in the Mediterranean and D-Day. Consequently, the importance and success of the work of 30AU – particularly with regard to Enigma and German naval intelligence – is made more significant.

The book also details aspects of the war that normally fall between the cracks of official histories. Rankin describes the petty jealousies among officers and leaders, devastating friendly-fire incidences caused by poor communication and human error, and the mental anguish and physical horrors suffered by soldiers in the face of the carnage of Dieppe and D-Day. But above all, there is the bravery, comradeship, humour and incredible heroism among the men who served in 30AU.

Ian Fleming's achievements were as an organiser, fixer, and administrator. Very early in the war, he recognised the valuable contribution that elite units could make to intelligence gathering. This was irregular warfare of which not everyone approved. But Fleming was adept at persuading people to his way of thinking, and before long his commandos were up and running. Then on, he made sure that his men had everything they needed to carry out their work, even if that meant ruffling the feathers of the top brass.

But although Fleming was respected by his men, but he was not universally liked. Tony Hugill thought him 'one of those superior professorial type RNVRs', although he modified his opinion after being name-checked in The Man With The Golden Gun.

The 30AU and the world of wartime intelligence had a lasting impact on Fleming, and their legacy is apparent in the James Bond books he wrote 10-20 years after the end of the Second World War. Of James Bond, Fleming said that he was a 'compound of secret agent and commando types'. Rankin highlights other connections. For example, M is popularly thought to have been based on Fleming's chief in the Naval Intelligence Division, Admiral John Godfrey, but he also writes in a green ink like Colonel Claude Dansey, a top SIS officer (a Major Dansey is also mentioned as Kerim Bey's predecessor in From Russia, with Love). Rankin wonders whether the name Dr No was influenced by a certain Dr Noton, who had complained about 30AU. And in Thunderball, Largo's men steal the two nuclear weapons from the RAF bomber using a two-man midget submarine employed in the war by the Italian navy (also a 30AU target) usually to plant limpet mines.

The stories that rely most heavily on the work and the targets of the 30AU are, of course, Moonraker and 'Octopussy'. The former is steeped in the events of the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War. For instance, and most obviously, it has as its backdrop Britain's attempt to develop an independent nuclear capability and keep up with the Americans and Soviets. Fleming refers to the race in the months before and after the war ended to capture German missile experts and technology. Drax's missile system is fuelled by hydrogen peroxide, a fuel developed by the Germans for submarines (and whose secrets were pinched by 30AU) but superseded soon after the war by nuclear power. Krebs, Drax's main henchman, served in the war as a 'Werewolf'', a member of a Nazi youth guerrilla organisation.

The short story 'Octopussy' concerns the actions of Major Dexter Smythe, an officer in the Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau, whose mission is to clear out German hide-outs. Clearly 30AU provides a model for the fictional MOB force. The gold that Smythe kills for (and the reason why Bond tracks him down) is taken from the massive hoards of gold stolen and melted down on an industrial scale by the Nazis throughout the war.

Nicholas Rankin's book contains many other links between Fleming's war and James Bond, and is an essential read for anyone interested in the origins of Bond and his adventures.

Saturday 14 January 2012

More on James Bond's Golden K

A day after posting my thoughts on the origins of James Bond's 'golden K', which he won as a teenager at the Hannes Schneider ski school (OHMSS, Chapter 12), I came across Arnold Lunn's book, The Story of Ski-ing (Eyre and Spottiswood, 1952). In it, I found this:

'Miss B E M Carroll was a consistently successful performer and, though she never won the A-K [Arlberg-Kandahar Challenge Cup], she is one of the three British racers who hold the Gold A-K badge, awarded to those who have won the silver A-K three times.' (p. 97)

So that confirms it. James Bond was a good enough skier to come second in the Arlberg-Kandahar Challenge Cup three times, and as a reward, gained his gold K badge, or rather his A-K badge.

Friday 13 January 2012

How to ski like James Bond

In an earlier post, I speculated on the link between Ian Fleming (and in particularly From Russia, With Love) and Peter Lunn, the late Old Etonian, war-hero and cold-war spy chief. We can connect Fleming, Bond and Lunn in another way – through their shared interest in skiing.

Snowy settings have become an essential Bondian landscape (a Bondscape, if you like), thanks to Fleming's Swiss-set On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963) and its film adaptation (1969). The book sees Bond put on a pair of skis for the first time since the war as he escapes Blofeld's henchmen in pursuit. Fleming's descriptions of Bond's skiing accord well with the techniques being taught in the 1930s when Bond learned to ski, as a read-through of Peter Lunn's skiing manual, A Ski-ing Primer (published by Methuen in 1948), reveals.

In Chapter 12 of OHMSS, we find out that Bond learnt to ski before the war as a teenager at the Hannes Schneider School at St Anton in the Arlberg, Austria. There Bond used steel-edged hickory skis, which by the time of his mission in the Swiss alps, were out of date, having been replaced by metal skis. Interestingly, Peter Lunn states that there had been earlier experiments with metal skis, but none had been successful, and when his book was published there was still no substitute for hickory, ash or birch.

Seeing the skiers on the Gloria run, Bond admires the art of Wedeln, with its use of the hips to effect turns. In his youth, there was much more shoulder work. Bond is referring to the style of turn called the downhill Christiana, which allows the skier to turn while keeping the skis parallel. Lunn explains exactly how to do it. As you face downslope in the travserse position, straighten up and start to rotate your intended inside shoulder. At the moment you feel like you are about to topple over, rotate both shoulders forcibly into the slope, while at the same time bending the knees. Bring your outside hand round with the knees and bring the inside ski forwards slightly. Press your knees into the slope, and resume the traverse position as you come out of the turn.

In terms of equipment, Lunn recommends the skis with the Marius Ericksen steel edges. In Blofeld's ski room, Bond chooses Master's with the Attenhofer Flex forward release. But then again, skis had moved on since 1948.

If you want to ski like James Bond, then, Peter Lunn's primer is an excellent place to start. And if you ever wondered what Bond's mysterious 'golden K' refers to (Bond won it while at the Schneider school), the primer may have the answer.

Arnold Lunn, Peter's father, founded the Kandahar Ski Club in 1924. In 1928, Arnold Lunn visited Hannes Schneider and the two of them set up the Arlberg-Kandahar Challenge Cup, which was awarded to the best skier in a combined slalom and downhill contest. The cup was held alternately at St Anton and Mürren (where the Kandahar club was based). Did Bond win the cup one year during the 1930s? And was he admitted to the Kandahar Ski Club? After all, the club's badge is a simple golden K.

Click here for more on Bond's golden K.

Saturday 7 January 2012

How to write a James Bond film

If you're lucky enough to be asked to write a James Bond film, where would you start? Typically the scripting process is collaborative, with ideas emerging through discussions between the writers, producers and the director. Even so, the writers to a large extent are still able to stamp their own personality and style onto the script. But what inspires them?

In an interview with Movieline, John Logan, screenwriter for Skyfall, admitted being a big fan of the film series in general, but thought Goldfinger (1964) the best and From Russia With Love (1963) 'top-notch espionage'. This suggests that Logan has drawn his inspiration from the earlier films, and this seems to have been confirmed by producer Michael G Wilson, who told People magazine that the film will have a '60s, 'magical Goldfinger feel'.

This sounds all very promising, but it's not the first time that writers have sought inspiration from Connery-era films. Jeffrey Caine, who co-scripted GoldenEye (1995), said that the aim of that film 'was to bring back the...essence of the Bond movies that many people regard as the best – Goldfinger and From Russia With Love'. As much as I like GoldenEye, it is arguable whether this was achieved, but in any case, it is clear that Goldfinger and From Russia With Love have become well-established as the prototype Bond films.

There is a third inspirational film. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, when considering ideas for The World is not Enough (1999), the first of their five Bond screenplays, looked to another well-regarded film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Purvis said, 'it's a very faithful adaptation and a very good film'. Purvis was also quoted as saying that he wanted to 'Flemingise' the film, and both writers returned to Ian Fleming's novels to draw inspiration and mine them of unused episodes.

Writers usually express a desire to go back to the books and bring the essence of writing to the screen when the film series is in a period of renewal, as was the case with For Your Eyes Only (1981) following the excesses of Moonraker (1979), and of course Casino Royale (2006). There was also a 'back to basics' approach for Timothy Dalton's second Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989). Dalton had studied Fleming's writing for his portrayal of Bond, but was also impressed with Sean Connery's portrayal in (yes, you've guessed it) From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. Veteran Bond writer Richard Maibaum rewarded Dalton with a script that, as Cubby Broccoli intended, captured the spirit of those early films.

Another way of preparing a Bond script is to largely ignore Fleming and focus on the spectacular, so that the film is a succession of set-pieces, thrills and spills, connected by the thread of a plot. This was Roald Dahl's approach when he wrote You Only Live Twice (1967). The book was regarded as unfilmable (a very poor decision in my view and a waste of a great novel), and Dahl's script reflected the huge budget and Broccoli's aim to make the film big, especially in the face of fierce cinematic competition.

Fleming was also (largely) ignored for Octopussy (1983). (I have a soft spot for the film, but I can't help wishing that more of the original story had made it to the screen.) Co-scriptwriter George MacDonald Fraser introduced ideas, notably taking Bond to India and swashbuckling action, that reflected his interests; Fraser had soldiered in India during the Second World War, and his Flashman series of novels were crammed with exciting, exotic, action.

For a successful film, then, the screenwriter must read Fleming, take the spirit of the films From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, and include lots of action and spectacle. From the little that we know of the film, Skyfall appears to have these essential ingredients. The film could be the best Bond film yet.


Fraser, G M, 2002 The light's on at Signpost, Harper Collins
Hibben, S, 1989 The making of Licence to Kill, Hamlyn
Owen, A (ed.), 2004 Story and character: interviews with British screenwriters, Bloomsbury
The official GoldenEye movie souvenir magazine, 1995, Titan
Treglown, J, 1994 Roald Dahl, a biography, Faber and Faber