Sunday, 18 August 2013

Plomer on Fleming: the view from Fleming's editor

Almost 50 years since his death, the extraordinary achievements of Ian Fleming continue to have huge cultural and historical impact. Some of those achievements were recognised in the many obituaries written about Fleming, but a more personal and generous tribute was paid by Fleming's editor, William Plomer, in an address given at a memorial service on 15th September 1964. Plomer's address offers a fascinating view of Fleming's legacy and the Bond phenomenon at a time when books sales were rocketing and 'Bondomania' was about to strike with the release of Goldfinger. Plomer also alludes to factors that shaped Fleming's writing and world-view. Let's take a look at some of them.

A theme that runs throughout the address is that of Fleming's pursuit of knowledge and well-disposed view towards experts in their fields. Plomer describes, for example, Fleming's “admiration of what was well done”, and mentions later that Fleming was “a great finder-out”. This much is clear to any reader of Fleming's books. Not only did Fleming pack his writing with facts and accurate detail, but he was more than happy to acknowledge the experts who furnished him with the information, among them Geoffrey Boothroyd, who persuaded Fleming to change Bond's handgun, and Robin de la Lanne-Mirrlees, whom Fleming consulted on heraldry matters while preparing On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Of Fleming's wartime experiences, Plomer says little – presumably there was still much that was officially secret – but he reveals more than is mentioned in the obituaries. The obituary in The Times, for example, almost passes over Fleming's war years entirely, pausing to mention only that Fleming found his experiences “'intensely exciting'”. Plomer's address leaves out some of Fleming's key achievements (such as his setting up of the 30 Assault Unit), but nevertheless alludes to Fleming's ability to cut through the red tape and military hierarchy to get things done. He also hints at Fleming's very significant contribution to the war effort, quoting Admiral Godfrey, who told Plomer that Fleming “'was a war-winner'”.

Intriguingly, Plomer reveals that it was Godfrey who introduced Fleming to underwater swimming, an interest that would be critical to the plots of Live and Let Die, Thunderball and other Bond stories. I had assumed that the interest developed during Fleming's visits to Jamaica and his experiences diving with Jacques-Yves Cousteau off Marseilles in 1953, but in reality Fleming caught the bug closer to home.

More intriguing is Plomer's reference to a book by “a then unknown writer” which Fleming read during his later youth and “turned out to have a lasting influence”. The author is not named, but a possible candidate is Phyllis Bottome, under whom Fleming studied while in Austria in 1927. Fleming credited Bottome for inspiring him to become a writer, and he would certainly have read her novels. Phyllis Bottome's first novel, The Dark Tower, was, however, published in 1916, and it seems unlikely that she would have been unknown even by the time Fleming arrived at Eton in 1921. If we allow some movement in the chronology, another candidate is Geoffrey Household, whose first adult novel, The Third Hour, was published in 1937. Fleming admired the book so much that he sent copies to friends. There may be other candidates, but in any case the book deserves to be required reading for students of Fleming and James Bond.

Much of Plomer's address is taken up by the success of the Bond books and also the nascent success of film series. There is, for example, a reference to fans forming James Bond clubs, a phenomenon, incidentally, verified by a story published in the Daily Express on 1st February 1963, which describes how Joanna Hare, the daughter of Labour minister John Hare and an undergraduate at Oxford University, had been identified by Oxford University's James Bond Club as the university's answer to the “perfect Bond girl”. Plomer also talked of the “cheerful reactions of film audiences”, and the “vast new publics [sic]” that respond to the films. The address alluded, too, to the criticisms that Fleming evidently continued to face concerning the moral tone of his work. In answer, Plomer merely said that readers and audiences found “the atmosphere anything but corrupt”. 

William Plomer's memorial address was subsequently privately printed as a slim volume by the Westerham Press, and copies are available through specialist book dealers. As a window into the world of Fleming at the time of his death, it is essential reading.

Chancellor, H, 2005, James Bond: The Man and His World, John Murray
Gilbert, J, 2012, Ian Fleming: The Bibliography, Queen Anne Press
Plomer, W, 1964, Address Given at the Memorial Service for Ian Fleming, Westerham Press

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