Saturday, 5 September 2020

Ian Fleming's early literary appearances

Some of the works containing appearances by Ian Fleming

When he came to write the James Bond books, Ian Fleming frequently named his characters after his friends and acquaintances, and sometimes even gave the people he knew walk-on parts. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963), for example, Irma Bunt points out to Bond the presence, in Piz Gloria's restaurant, of Lady Daphne Straight, an old girlfriend of Fleming's, and her husband Whitney, as well as Ursula Andress, fresh from her appearance in the film of Dr No (1962). Ian Fleming was not alone in this habit, and, even before the birth of Bond, had had the same treatment, appearing as a character in fiction and other literary works.

Ian Fleming's first literary cameo was in Public Faces, a 1932 novel by Harold Nicholson. The story, set a few years in the future, follows the tribulations of government ministers and their staff as they deal with a developing crisis and the threat of world war. (The nature of the crisis is somewhat different from the circumstances of the Second World War, but, with the story taking place in 1939, the novel was in many ways prophetic.) Ian Fleming appears towards the end of the novel as himself - a journalist at Reuters ("What's his name? Hemming? Oh, yes, I know, young Fleming") - and has a small, if unseen, role in ensuring world peace.

Alaric Jacob, a colleague of Ian Fleming's at Reuters, gave Fleming his second walk-on part. Scenes from a Bourgeois Life, published in 1949, is Jacob's part-fictionalised autobiography and a polemic on post-war Britain (he bemoans the growth of the suburbs and the rise of the nouveau riche, among other things). His account of his time at Reuters, or Telenews, as it is called in the book, includes a portrait of Fleming, who, in the book is goes by the name of Hugo Dropmore. In his recently published Ian Fleming: the Notes, John Pearson comments on the quotability of Jacob's character study. He's not wrong: it's full of zingers: 

"Hugo Dropmore was a cross between Mr Darcy and the hero of a book by Stephen McKenna" (a novelist whose characters tended to come from upper-class circles); 
"He looked like a young actor who has never toured, but started right in the West End"; 
"He seemed to know something about everything; but if a subject arose on which he was not informed, he would own it at once, and it no longer seemed to matter;" 
"His good taste was such that you never observed what he was up to until it was too late." 

I could go on. These have more than the ring of truth, but I can't imagine Ian Fleming being particularly displeased with the characterisation. The choice of pseudonym is interesting. Dropmore Press was the name of a small publishing house owned by newspaper baron James Kemsley. Ian Fleming was involved with Dropmore from 1949. I don't know whether or not Alaric Jacob based the name Hugo Dropmore on this, but the coincidence is striking.

Over the years, Ian Fleming developed a deep friendship with writer Noël Coward. Fleming had leased a beachside home at St Margaret's Bay in Kent from Coward, and the playwright was an early guest at Fleming's Jamaican home, Goldeneye, famously labelling it 'Goldeneye, Nose and Throat' on account of its resemblance to a hospital (ironically, a leading brand of eye medicine in Jamaica at the time was Golden Eye Lotion). The two became neighbours of sorts when Coward himself came to live in Jamaica. As Fleming discovered, the only problem with being friends with a playwright is that one can end up as a character in a play. This is precisely what happened to Fleming - twice.

Volcano, written in 1957, is a play set in the fictional South Sea island of Samolo, standing in for Jamaica. It focuses on six individuals, whose relationships are tested by marriage breakdowns and infidelities during the eruption of the local volcano. Early on, we discover that Adela Shelley, a widow and resident of the island, had had an affair with Guy Littleton, who has flown in from London with his wife Melissa. Coward based Adela on Blanche Blackwell, a neighbour of Coward's in Jamaica, while Guy and Melissa were a thinly disguised Ian and Ann Fleming. The play, while set far away from Jamaica, painted a picture that Ian and others would have recognised, fictionalising the real-life affair between Blanche and Ian and giving voice to the sort of feelings that Ann had expressed about Blanche, Ian and Jamaica itself. 

Goldeneye is also alluded to in the play. Guy and Melissa are staying at 'Le Tellier's beach house'. Melissa tells Adela: 

"Guy loves it because of the lagoon and the reef; he spends most of the day under water spearing those unfortunate fish...Mr Le Tellier must be a rather Spartan type, the furniture is so unforgiving. He built the house by himself, didn't he?"
Perhaps fortunately for Ian and Ann, the play was never publicly performed until 2000, although it did have a rehearsed reading in 1989, with Judi Dench in the role of Adela and her husband, Michael Williams, in the role of Guy. The play was performed again in 2012, with Judi's daughter Finty taking a role.  

Reading the play, I was reminded of 'Quantum of Solace', Ian Fleming's short story, published in 1960, which deals with the breakdown of a relationship. Though the tale was inspired most directly by 'His Excellency', a short story by Somerset Maugham, its themes could easily have been drawn from Coward's play. 

Noël Coward returned to the subject of love and lust in Samolo in his 1960 novel Pomp and Circumstance, a comical tale set against the backdrop of an impending royal visit. Ian Fleming once again proved inspirational, spawning a character called Bunny Colville, whose roving eye leads to all sorts of complications among Samolan high society. Bunny's tropical house, incidentally, has the hallmarks of Goldeneye: an uncomfortable house that overlooks a coral beach (accessed via concrete steps), a large living room, and the general appearance of an austere and over-masculine barrack. 

Since his death, Ian Fleming has made further appearances in novels, for instance in William Boyd's Any Human Heart. But it is worth returning to his earliest appearances - written by people who knew him best. 

References:

Coward, N, 1960 Pomp and Circumstance, Heinemann

Coward, N, 2018 Collected Plays: Nine (introduced by Barry Day), Bloomsbury

Jacob, A, 1949 Scenes from a Bourgeois Life, Secker and Warburg

Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, Turner

Nicolson, H, 1944 Public Faces, Penguin

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