The Man With the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters

edited by Fergus Fleming

Bloomsbury Publishing

4/5 stars

Yes, he had a gold-plated typewriter, which he bought to celebrate the completion of Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel. “His literary acquaintances considered it the height of vulgarity,” writes Fergus Fleming, his nephew.

Now, I like to think I know a little bit more about Bond and Ian Fleming than the average reader, because I was once honoured to be asked to write the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of what they called the Blofeld Trilogy – the trio of novels that feature the fearsome head of Spectre. But I wish this book had been around before I’d started: it gives a more rounded – and sympathetic – portrait of Fleming than I gave.

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For one thing, he was nicer than I had been led to believe. Even those who rejected Paul Johnson’s famous line about the Bond books being “snobbery with violence” allowed it to seep into their judgments about Fleming’s character to some degree. The line wouldn’t have stuck if there hadn’t been at least a grain of truth in it. One of an author’s guarantees of good character is the way he or she writes back to members of the public who have troubled to write to him or her. Even though the 1950s and early ’60s may have been a more gentle time, he still took pains, on the evidence assembled here, to reply with courtesy and warmth, even when being chided for being one of the chief symptoms of the moral decay gnawing at the heart of the country.

As for how he saw Bond, Fleming’s remarks are a revelation. He referred to himself as “Bond’s biographer”; when he listed the ingredients of the spy’s take on the Martini – a fancy and implausible mixture of gin, vodka and Kina Lillet – I assumed this was the kind of thing Fleming drank himself, suggesting a deep character flaw and a devastated palate. But, no, he made it up, and when he finally tried it, he found it “unpalatable”.

The letters – mostly from Fleming to his publishers, to experts in such fields as guns and cars, and to writers such as Raymond Chandler and Noel Coward – are full of good jokes. There’s Coward’s famous letter in which he arches an eyebrow at Fleming’s description of Honeychile Rider’s bottom, in Dr No, being like a boy’s (“I know that we are all becoming progressively more broad-minded nowadays, but really old chap what could you have been thinking of?”); or Evelyn Waugh ’s advice on how best to recuperate from a heart attack (“Be sucked off gently every day”).

Incidentally, Coward’s remark comes the page after a letter from Fleming to The Guardian (which had said, in effect, that he was a symptom [of] the moral decay gnawing at etc) in which he says: “Perhaps Bond’s blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest against the current fashion for sexual confusion.” That’s an interesting juxtaposition.

In short, this is a book that is far more interesting and entertaining than you might have thought; you don’t have to be a Bond nut to enjoy it. The underlying story is sad: as Fleming’s health failed, his marriage disintegrated and the quality of the books dipped (Fergus Fleming is kinder about The Spy Who Loved Me than most people, including dismayed fans at the time). But for much of the book we are revelling in Fleming’s success, roaring down to Maidstone with him in his Studebaker Avanti, wrangling with his editor about Bond’s plights, and cheering him on when he suggests to his editor – after the architect Erno Goldfinger expressed disquiet at the appropriation of his surname – that he “put in an erratum slip and change the name throughout to GOLDPRICK and give the reason why”. Goldfinger was eventually mollified; but wouldn’t that have been fun?

The Guardian