Monday 29 August 2016

Searching for James Bond in New Zealand bookshops

There are some wonderful second-hand bookshops in New Zealand, and I was determined to visit a few during my recent holiday in the country. Naturally, I was looking for James Bond or Ian Fleming-related material, and while I didn't come out with the hoard I was hoping for, I did find one or two unexpected treats.

My first stop was in Whangarei about 160km north of Auckland. I was en route to Bay of Islands, and decided to stop in the town for a break. Lucky I did, because I spotted an impressive-looking bookshop called The Piggery. I quickly parked up and went in. As is often the case with second-hand bookshops, it took a short while to get my bearings, but I eventually found a stack of Fleming paperbacks. Alas, there was nothing there – interesting or unusual editions, say – to tempt me, although I was momentarily excited by what looked like a first edition of Thrilling Cities, locked away in a cabinet. I already own a copy, but this one appeared to be in better condition than mine. In the end, I decided against investigating further.

Some days later, I was back in Auckland. I've been to New Zealand several times, and I knew there was a great bookshop, called Evergreen Books, in Devonport. Last time I was there, I picked up a couple of first edition John Gardners, and just last year, it had a mouth-watering display of Bond-related material in its shop window. I was understandably very disappointed to discover that Evergreen Books no longer exists. Another bookshop has taken its place, but it's smaller and didn't have any of the treasures I was hoping for.

Last year's window display at the now defunct Evergreen Books
No matter; there were other bookshops to visit. In Rotorua, some 230km south of Auckland, I stumbled on Atlantis Books. There I bought an omnibus edition of James Bond comic strips, and talked to the shop owner about any other material he might have. He told me that he has a collector that bags a lot of Bondiana before it goes on the shelf, so that was the end of that.

A couple of days later, after returning to Auckland, I flew down to Wellington. I was in luck. My hotel, on Manners Street in the city centre, was almost next door to Arty Bees Books, a cavernous bookshop that boasted, I discovered as I began to explore the store, a James Bond section. While the section didn't have a lot in stock at that moment, I did find a curious James Bond parody – Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy, by Mabel Maney (more about this in a later post, possibly) – that I'd never heard of. I quickly snapped the book up.

I thought that was it for Wellington bookshops, but walking down Cuba Street, I came across another shop that looked very promising. Pegasus Books was crammed with books, which overflowed on to the street and, inside, were stacked so high, one needed a ladder to browse the upper shelves. Once again, there were a few old Bond paperbacks, but I was more excited about a small pile of Peter Cheyney novels. Peter Cheyney was a British writer of fast-moving American-style thrillers featuring the FBI agent Lemmy Caution. Ian Fleming mentioned the author in his letters; he first aspired to the Cheyney class of thriller, but later was rather more dismissive of it. I bought one of the books on display, eager to find out whether Cheyney had any influence on Fleming's writing. More about this soon.

So no bounty of Bond books, but l enjoyed the prospect of discovery. It's true I could find almost any book I want online, but where's the fun in that?

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Hong Kong: Visiting one of Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities

A trip to New Zealand gave me the opportunity to visit one of Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities en route. Hong Kong was the first city Fleming visited on his Sunday Times-sponsored tour of the world in 1959. Time didn't permit me to follow in Fleming's footsteps exactly, but I could match him in two aspects at least.

My flight to Hong Kong was rather more straight-forward than Fleming's. Today, one takes a direct flight to Hong Kong from Heathrow. In 1959, Fleming's flight took him to Beirut, Bahrain, Delhi, and Bangkok before landing in Hong Kong. Without in-flight entertainment, Fleming needed a good book. He took a proof copy of Eric Ambler's 1959 novel, Passage of Arms. I took Fleming's lead and read the book on my flight too.

Passage of Arms, set in Malaya, Hong Kong and Singapore, follows the movement of a cache of arms, hidden by Communist insurgents, discovered by a clerk of a rubber plantation estate, and sold on to Indonesian revolutionaries through two Chinese merchants, brothers Tan Siow Mong and Tan Yam Heng, by a naive American tourist looking for adventure.

The novel is a thrilling tale of tension, excitement, comedy, well-drawn characters, vivid descriptions, torture, and a hint of lesbianism, and it's no surprise that Fleming thought the book wonderful. In the descriptions of the Tans, I was reminded of the Foo brothers with whom Major Smythe trades his stolen gold in Fleming's short story, 'Octopussy', written in 1962, and wondered whether Fleming was inspired by Ambler in this aspect.

Once in Hong Kong, Fleming's guide, journalist Richard Hughes (immortalised in You Only Live Twice as Dikko Henderson), insisted that Fleming experience an authentic Chinese meal. They visited the Peking Restaurant, where Fleming had shark's fin soup with crab, shrimp balls in oil, bamboo shoots with seaweed, chicken and walnuts, and roast Peking duckling.

I couldn't find the Peking Restaurant (does it still exist?), but did go to the Peking Garden, a cavernous and smart-looking restaurant on the third floor of an office block. It had everything that Fleming ate on the menu, including shark's fin soup with crab, but looking at the prices, I quickly realised I wasn't going to be able to replicate Fleming's meal entirely. I did, however, order the Peking duck. As with much of the food in the Bond books, Peking duck is no longer as exotic as it was in Fleming's day, but to me the dish remains special, and was delicious.

I just had time before making my way to the airport for my onward flight to visit the Peninsula Hotel, which briefly appears in the film of The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Alas, I didn't see any of its famous green Rolls Royces. Still, I'll have another chance on the return journey. Watch this space! 

Thursday 4 August 2016

What Bond villains are reading

I'm reading – or rather re-reading – PG Wodehouse's 1913 novel, The Little Nugget, at the moment. If the title is familiar to you, it may because it's mentioned in the novel of From Russia, with Love. The book is in a pile of other 'membership badges of the rich man's club' next to SMERSH killer Donovan 'Red' Grant, who's lying prone in the garden of a Crimean villa, waiting for his regular masseuse.

Wodehouse's comic tale set within a private school, featuring romance, detectives, gangsters, and plots to kidnap a repulsive schoolboy, might seem an odd choice for a psychopath (although the kidnapping element might be of professional interest to Grant). But then again, the book is the sort of volume that SMERSH would make Grant read as part of his training to develop the persona of a wealthy, sophisticated man, allowing him to enter English society and intelligence circles. (Such methods were standard for Soviet spy agencies. The Penkovsky Papers, for example, include a manual that instructs Soviet agents operating in the USA how to behave without raising suspicion – see The Cold War Spy Pocket Manual, by Philip Barker.)

Moving inside the villa, we get a glimpse of Grant's preferred reading: stacks of 'garish paperbacks and hardcover thrillers'. A selection of pulp fiction about seductive heroines, sultry femme fatales, and hard-boiled detectives, I shouldn't wonder.

There is a similar whiff of pretence in Goldfinger's reading. In the hall of the Grange, Goldfinger's pile in Kent, James Bond peruses a copy of The Field, a magazine for country squires and the hunting, fishing and shooting set. The magazine, placed where it can be seen, displays Goldfinger's credentials as a respectable member of the community. 

Photo: New Yorker Books
We get a different picture of Goldfinger in his bedroom, as Bond discovers in the drawer of Goldfinger's bedside table a copy of The Hidden Sight of Love, a salacious novel that is Goldfinger's 'solitary indiscretion'. (I imagine Bond uttering 'dirty bugger' to himself at this point.) The book does indeed exist, and if you're interested, a New York bookseller currently has a copy listed on eBay. According to the description, the book is a piece of classic Victorian erotic fiction reprinted by Palladium Publications in January 1958, which means that it was hot off the press when Ian Fleming sat down to write Goldfinger that month in Jamaica (the novel was published in 1959). Well, Fleming did have an interest in promoting 'lost books', as we see from his championing of Hugh Edward's All Night at Mr Stanyhurst's.

We know the sort of books James Bond reads – manuals, golf books, thrillers, inspiring books about politics and the intelligence community – but in two of the Bond novels, we also get a sense of the books that the villains read. In contrast to Bond's library, there's something not quite honest about the villains' choice. Just what we'd expect, of course, but I also wonder whether it reflects Fleming's own tastes, just as Bond's library does.