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Happy Birthday, Mr Fleming

“At 7.30 on the morning of Thursday, August 12, Bond awoke in his comfortable flat in the plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road and was disgusted to find that he was thoroughly bored with the prospect of the day ahead. Just as, in at least one religion, accidie is the first of the cardinal sins, so boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.”

From Russia With Love.

It is a measure of the achievement of what Ian Fleming produced that, for all the criticisms hurled at his 007 adventures for their supposed snobbery, sexism and violence, that no-one ever accused his output of being boring and that he ended up producing the most famous fictional British character of all time, apart possibly from Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes. Born on this day in 1908, Fleming died at the relatively young age of 56 in 1964, just when the movies made out of his books were going into overdrive. Goodness knows what he’d make of the hoo-ha marking his centenary.

Sebastian Faulk’s new book, which he has tried to write in the Fleming style, is in the mail. I’ll put up a short review when I get it. With any luck, the book will be fodder for another great film with Daniel Craig.

Update: here is an article in the New York Times about Fleming and the new book. It is pretty harsh about Fleming, calling him a nasty piece work, including the sin of anti-semitism. Really? I cannot remember anything in the books that refers to Jews in a clearly disparaging way. Considering his depiction of the Nazis in Moonraker, I’d say that Fleming was pretty sound, in fact. As far as I know from reading his books or the excellent biography of him by Andrew Lycett, this was not an issue that came up. Was he a racist? Well, his portrayal of blacks in Live and Let Die is a bit condescending. He writes about people of different races, such as Koreans and Turks, in ways that sometimes paint too broad a brush, but I do not get the sense that he damned whole swathes of humanity because they had different skin colour. The NYT reviewer also refers to Fleming as a “failed” journalist. That is flat wrong. He worked for several years at Reuters and covered the Moscow show trials of the early 1930s with considerable aplomb; after the war, he worked as a senior executive at Kemsley Newspapers, responsible for running foreign news and training up staff as well as checking copy; he also had a column at the Sunday Times. Yes, he was not, by his own frank admission, one of the “greats”, but to say he was a failure is grossly unfair. At least – unlike the NYT – he did not make up news stories and kept his fictional skills for his novels.

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12 comments to Happy Birthday, Mr Fleming

  • guy herbert

    What’s striking about the books today is how imaginative they are compared with their successors and the movies made from them. The tropes, now clichés, of ‘action adventure’ were very largely invented by Fleming.

  • manuel II paleologos

    I’m not holding my breath for the new one. I hate Sebastian Faulks.
    Birdsong – WW1 for girls. Historically and geographically incoherent, and entirely unengaging characters. Was faintly disappointed when he didn’t die at the end (well, not immediately).

    You should read Charlie Higson’s “junior James Bond” books. They’re ace.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    manuel, your judgement has always struck me as pretty accurate so I fear I am going to be disappointed by Faulk’s book. The problem is that getting the I.Fleming “tone of voice”, with its strict economy of words, wonderful grasp of detail and the eccentricities of life, is tough. A lot of imitators play up the gadgets and the action and ignore the other stuff.

    A writer who employed a similar style to Fleming was Eric Ambler, who I think should be more widely read. His books are great.

  • Julian Taylor

    And many happy returns to Mr Pearce as well.

  • Robert Hale

    Kingsley Amis did quite well in Colonel Sun, I thought. I read it last week.

  • Nick M

    It’s also Kylie’s 40th Birthday. Clearly an auspicious day to be born.

  • ian

    Any resemblance between Fleming’s Bond and the films is pretty minimal. I’ve read the books but found them thoroughly uninteresting. Len Deighton is a much better writer with much more complex characters.

    As for Fleming inventing ‘action thrillers’ look at John Buchan or Rider Haggard

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I’ve read the books but found them thoroughly uninteresting.

    Christ, what does it take to get you excited? I find them very interesting, or at least I did back when I read them. How could anyone find From Russia with Love to be dull?

    I must say I do agree with you about the films, though. I also agree about Deighton. His early books are fine, I also like his non-fiction stuff about the Battle of Britain, etc.

  • J

    I thought Birdsong was hopelessly overrated. Not a bad book, but very unremarkable, and a deeply silly opening plot about sexy socialist officer shagging wife of evil bourgeois Frenchman – pathetic. It was indeed a war story for people who don’t read war stories.

    For all I know he may have written other much better books, but I’m not encouraged to try them.

  • squawkbox

    I find Fleming’s output very mixed. “Live and Let Die” and “From Russia with love” remain two of my favourite thrillers, but his later books have more in common with the ‘sex and shopping’ genre, with an average of two designer labels per page. I doubt many people were ever really interested in who makes Bond’s shirts or his latest love interest’s shoes.

    That said, I’m not really looking forward to Sebastian Faulks’ Bond, who I’m sure will be gloomy and angst-ridden.

  • manuel II paleologos

    Actually, the main thing I didn’t like about Birdsong is that it’s a book which uses a lot of trivial detail to cover a basic lack of wider accuracy of time and place. That might be a benefit in a James Bond novel; you could argue Fleming did the same thing, but with more panache. I imagine a Fleming account of the Battle of the Somme might be just as annoying.

    The only bit I liked was the trip post-war to Thiepval; he captures that beautifully.

  • Prediction: in 15-20 years Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe will be playing James Bond on film. And Alan Rickman will be playing M.