Sunday 29 May 2016

A birthday to remember

Ian Fleming's birthday was celebrated in fine style yesterday with a walk, organised by Maxus Movie Walks and, around Fleming's haunts in the City of London, culminating with drinks opposite the site of his writing office in Mitre Court.

The group of eager Fleming and Bond fans assembled in the heart of the City on the steps of the Royal Exchange. After directing our attention to the Bank of England, which Bond visits in the novel Goldfinger to be briefed about the gold business, Jon Pettigrew of Maxus Movie Walks took us to the Reuters statue, near the site of the Reuters building, where Fleming worked between 1931 and 1932 and developed his journalistic – and writing – skills. We then headed into the side streets of the City, stopping outside, appropriately enough, the Jamaica Wine House. We don't know whether Fleming visited the place, but it's likely that he frequented many of the bars and restaurants in the City.
The Reuters monument
Our next principal stop was 10 Throgmorton Avenue, the location of merchant bankers Cull & Co, for whom Fleming worked between 1933 and 1935, and we learnt more of the fascinating history of the bank and Fleming's role there from Thomas Cull of, the great grandson of the bank's founder.
Outside Cull & Co
Goldfinger cropped up again when we stopped outside Goldsmiths' Hall. It was here Fleming researched aspects of the novel. We then moved on to Printing House Square, the former home of the Sunday Times, where Fleming worked in various roles from 1957 until his death in 1964. After that, the group arrived at Fleet Street, stopping briefly at St Bride's Church ('the journalists' cathedral'), opposite which stood the former headquarters of the Express newspaper, which famously published comic-strip adaptations and serialisations of the Bond novels.
View towards Printing House Square
Finally, the group headed into Mitre Court, where Ian Fleming himself was waiting for us. Actually, it was the actor Michael Chance, who, fresh from his one-man show, The Man with the Golden Pen, gave us a brilliant performance as Ian Fleming. The effect was just as compelling and not a little uncanny.
Michael Chance as Ian Fleming
There were more treats in store – a glass of Prosecco at the Apex Hotel Bar and the chance to meet Sophie Harley, designer of the jewellery that featured in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Glass in hand, we sang happy birthday to Ian (badly, in my case) before getting down to the serious business of talking Bond and Fleming with fellow aficionados over a few more drinks. (Yes, I did have a couple of gin martinis, alas both stirred, not shaken). I was enjoying myself so much, that before I knew it, it had gone 10pm, and it was time to catch my train home.

This was a superb evening. and Maxus Movie Walks did a fantastic job organising the event. Not only did I learn more of Fleming-related locations (we visited more than I've mentioned here), but I also learnt much more about the history of the City of London, about which Jon Pettigrew's knowledge was encyclopedic. I was thrilled, too, to meet Trevor Scobie, cover artist of three of John Gardner's Bond novels, and several members of the 'Bond community', whose books, websites and social media feeds are my regular haunts. Same again next year?

Friday 20 May 2016

Some possible influences in Steve Cole's Heads You Die

(This post contains mild spoilers)

The latest Young Bond adventure, the second by Steve Cole, is now out. Heads You Die, set in 1934, takes the fourteen-year old James to Cuba, where his plans to relax after having a gruelling time of it in Hollywood are quickly scuppered.

After arriving in Havana with his school friend Hugo, James is met by Gerald Hardiman, a family friend. But things aren't quite what they seem, as James encounters pickpockets, a suspicious and tough girl called Jagua, and a man with a concrete fist, and learns that his friend is involved in a terrifying plot that threatens the world.

As usual when reading a Young Bond or continuation novel, there's fun to be had in spotting influences from Ian Fleming's novels and, indeed, the Bond films, or at least speculating on potential links. And Heads You Die appears to have its fair share.

Steve Cole has confirmed that he was inspired by the short story, 'The Hildebrand Rarity', whose influence is evident in the descriptions of James diving off the Cuban coast and character names of Valentine and Lana Barbey. More generally, diving and the sea feature often in the Bond books, and Steve Cole was keen to be the author to introduce James to it.

There are other nods to the Bond books. Take the villain's name. Scolopendra has a familiar ring to it, sounding rather like Scaramanga, Bond's adversary in The Man with the Golden Gun. It's also taken from the scientific name of the giant centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, a creature which shares Bond's bed in Dr No. In the film of Dr No, the centipede was replaced by a tarantula, presumably because the spider was thought more terrifying. In Heads You Die, James has another close encounter with a tarantula, which, as in the film, crawls up his arm.

At another point in the book, James thinks back to holidays at the seaside, recalling the feel of wet sand between the toes, collecting seashells, going rockpooling, and eating Cadbury's Flakes. The passage largely replicates the adult Bond's memories in the opening chapter of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Then there's a reference to A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies by the real James Bond. The young Bond comes across the book (or rather a typescript – the book wouldn't be published until 1936) in Jagua's room.

I thought a description of Scolopendra's lair, with its collection of exotic plants and wildlife not native to Cuba, somewhat reminiscent of Blofeld's 'Garden of Death' in You Only Live Twice, while Scolopendra's right-hand man, El Puño or the Fist, is a graduate of the Jaws' school of henchmen. 

We are introduced to some of James' essential character traits, with frequent reference to St George (it's an allusion that Fleming made, and the concept of Bond as a St George figure is a favourite point of discussion in academic or literary studies) and luck, about which Bond often muses in Fleming's novels. Steve Cole also gives James what may be his first taste of an avocado, although in a club sandwich, rather than served as a dessert (Bond's unusual means of eating the fruit in Casino Royale).

Heads You Die is an exciting read that is packed full of Bondian thrills. As usual, though, I do feel rather anxious for James. Given all he's been through over the years, it's a wonder he doesn't shut himself in his bedroom at his aunt's house at Pett Bottom and refuse ever to come out. Still, I'm looking forward to the next instalment - Strike Lightning, which is out in the autumn.

Heads You Die by Steve Cole is published by Penguin

Saturday 14 May 2016

Ian Fleming at the Whitstable Literary Festival

Ian Fleming's Kentish connections were celebrated yesterday evening at the Whitstable Literary Festival, which presented talks by Young Bond author Steve Cole, Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett, and historian Matthew Parker. The audience was also privileged to see Fleming's step-daughter, Fionn Morgan, in conversation with Andrew Lycett.

The festival coincided with the publication of the latest Young Bond adventure, Heads You Die, and so fittingly Steve Cole was on hand to discuss the book and the ideas behind it, and reveal some of the secrets of the next book. During a very entertaining hour, Steve Cole talked about the nature of spying and gadgets, and reminded the audience that the most useful gadget a spy could have today is the mobile phone. He also spoke about his research into diving, which in the 1930s was still an experimental and dangerous hobby, and naturally features prominently in the book.

Steve Cole revealed that his previous book, Shoot to Kill, was set in Hollywood because the book was the sixth Young Bond adventure, just as Dr No was the sixth (adult) Bond novel. And as Dr No was the first Bond film, Young Bond would go to Hollywood. So much for my theory that the story was inspired by the 1930s' California of Raymond Chandler, whose work Fleming admired enormously.

More excitingly, Steve Cole let the audience into a secret: the title of the next Young Bond novel, to be published in the autumn, will be Strike Lightning. A projected image of the temporary cover showed the use of a lightning flash symbol within the title. The symbol recalled Nazi imagery, giving us a hint that in the adventure, Bond will be encountering Nazis, as the Young Bond timeline draws ever closer to the start of the Second World War. Steve Cole also revealed that the Tatra – the ill-fated Czechoslovakian car of the 1930s and favourite of German officers – would feature in the book.

Later in the evening, Andrew Lycett spoke about Ian Fleming's life, his contradictory personality, his family background, his love affairs, his relationship with Ann O'Neill, whom Fleming was to marry, and of course his creation of, and feelings towards, James Bond. We also heard about Fleming's connections with Kent. Noël Coward had cottages on the coast at St Margaret's Bay near Dover, which Ian and Ann rented to escape attention and gossip. Locations here would feature in Moonraker, and Fleming's journeys between London and the coast would be followed by Bond in Moonraker and Goldfinger. Ian and Ann subsequently had a house at Bekesbourne near Canterbury (a city which featured in Ian Fleming's children's book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and Ian was a frequent visitor to the Royal St George's Golf Club, which was immortalised in Goldfinger as Royal St Mark's.

Matthew Parker, author of Goldeneye: Where Bond was Born, spoke about Jamaica of the post-war years, the everything-goes attitude of the ex-pat and jet-set community, the deep divisions between the ruling white elite and the black population, the shocking racism, and the impact of independence in 1962. Matthew Parker also spoke about Fleming's love of nature, particularly birds and fish, and Fleming's affair with Blanche Blackwell.

The final event was an absolute treat: Andrew Lycett in conversation with Fionn Morgan, Ian Fleming's step-daughter. In a series of touching and crystal-clear recollections, Fionn spoke about her fondness for her step-father, Ian's melancholia, and about some of the many enjoyable times they spent together (they would, for example, often eat kippers and buttered brown bread together at Victoria station). Fionn fiercely defended Ian against the view that he had been a bad father to her step-brother, Caspar, and revealed that she had never read a Bond book (although she did attend a private showing of the film, Moonraker). Fionn also announced that she's working on a book charting the relationship between Ian and her mother, Ann, based on their letters. That will certainly be essential reading, and I cannot wait to see it.

Overall, the Fleming evening at the Whitstable Literary Festival was huge success, and left me (dare I say it) shaken and stirred. Now, where's my copy of Moonraker?

Friday 6 May 2016

It belongs in a museum: James Bond's Walther PPK

Mention the words Walther PPK to anyone, and the chances are they'll identify it as James Bond's gun. There can't be many fictional characters whose handguns are so deeply embedded in popular culture. Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum is the only other example I can think of off-hand, but there may be others.

The Walther PPK is so closely associated with James Bond that any description or history of the weapon is likely to allude to its most famous user. This occurred to me when I visited the Royal Armouries in Leeds last week. The museum has been home to James Bond in the past – in 1997 it hosted the World of 007 exhibition – but it also contains a permanent display of guns that feature in the Bond novels.

The 007 display at the Royal Armouries, Leeds

Naturally there is a Walther PPK, but there is also a Beretta 1919/318, as well as a Luger Model 1908, Sauer Model 38-H, Colt Hammerless Pocket Model, Smith & Wesson Airweight Model 12, and others guns that are mentioned in the books.

It would have been reasonable to display the guns without reference to Bond – each no doubt has an interesting history in its own right – but Bond is useful and popular common factor that brings them together. It seems unlikely, however, that the display would have been considered had the Walther PPK not been so synonymous with Bond.
A Walther PP at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
James Bond is referenced in another display of handguns, this time in the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford. Information next to a Walther PP again mentions that the PPK model was Bond's weapon of choice.

It is interesting to note that in both museums the Bond references are literary, with reference to the books, although it should be said that the display at the Royal Armouries includes posters from the Bond films. Arguably, however, it is the films which have done most to introduce and perpetuate the Walther-PPK-is-James-Bond's-gun meme in people's minds.

Bond's reluctant acceptance of the Walther PPK, replacing his beloved Beretta, at an early point of the first Bond film, Dr No, is likely to have been a factor; the scene is imbued with significance, and it established a link that hasn't been rivalled. If the gun had been introduced several films later, then chances are the link would have been weaker, because there would have been other, well-established guns, particularly the Beretta, and the Walther PPK would have been required to compete for recognition. In addition, the link has been reinforced by occasional on-screen acknowledgements, for example in For Your Eyes Only ('A Walther PPK. Standard issue, British Secret Service') or GoldenEye ('Walther PPK. Only three men I know use such a gun').

Incidentally, in the gift shop at the Royal Armouries I saw further proof of the strength of the Walther PPK-Bond connection when I picked up Guns: A Visual History by Chris McNabb and published in 2009 by DK Publishing. The book is an illustrated guide to guns through the ages and the information presented is largely technical. Yet, flick through to the section on the Walther PPK and you will see a double-page spread on its role in the Bond films.

As with the vodka martini or the Aston Martin DB5, the Walther PPK is inextricably linked with Bond. The association is so close that no museum display or reference work that features the gun is complete without acknowledgement of it.