The record-breaking success of “Spectre” may reinforce James Bond’s status as the most glamorous of all secret agents, but he’s still not as glamorous as his creator. An old Etonian from a merchant-banking family, Ian Fleming was a globe-trotting journalist and a naval intelligence officer before he turned to fiction, and, according to a new volume of his letters, even the tools of his trade were luxurious. “The Man with the Golden Typewriter” may have a fancifully Bondish title, but Fleming did indeed order himself a gold-plated typewriter as a reward for finishing his first 007 book, “Casino Royale”, in 1952.
That said, the Fleming we get to know in his letters isn’t just the playboy who dashes off novels in between cocktails and scuba-diving in Jamaica, but the tireless professional who scrutinises every aspect of their publication and promotion. He even writes to his publishers, Jonathan Cape, to apprise them of printing errors, in his typically courteous, elegant yet steely manner: “In the course of the innumerable editions of ‘Casino Royale’ which will now, I presume, flow from your presses, would you please correct a rather attractive misprint on page 96, line 13, and make the ‘Ace of Spaces’ into the ‘Ace of Spades’?”
The wry reference to “innumerable editions” was only half-joking. Fleming never describes his books as being anything other than lowbrow entertainment, but he doesn’t see why they shouldn’t be bestsellers. “The field of thriller writers is extremely bare,” he insists to his editor. “There is a vacuum to be filled and I really do not see why we should not fill it... So you will see that I am a very willing horse and I am only hoping that my stable will show an equal zest!”
A frequent complaint of 21st-century authors is that they are expected to spend as much time promoting their books as writing them, but they could hardly do more than Fleming was doing 60 years ago. In letter after letter he butters up American journalists in the hope of a review, chivvies Jonathan Cape to make sure that his books are in the shops, and outlines advertising campaigns which were partly self-funded (“Would it really be fair for me to pay 50% of the cost?”). He also helped pay for his books’ cover artwork, as well as unearthing photographs of knives and diamonds for the illustrators to copy. And all for what, initially, was an insubstantial return. “My profits from ‘Casino [Royale]’”, he notes, “will just about keep [my wife] Ann in asparagus over Coronation week.”
What has changed since Fleming’s day is that an author can now check almost any incidental detail online, whereas he wrote regularly to experts on coins and cars, asking them politely for technical specifications and romantic-sounding names. Not that he didn’t slip up occasionally. Fleming’s correspondents loved to spot inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his books, and he is at his most endearing in his good-humoured replies to their critiques. Why had M’s office moved from the ninth floor to the eighth, asks one fan. Fleming’s gracious response is a short story in itself: “The floors were re-numbered when two floors were concertinaed into one to accommodate very large and bulky equipment for a new communications centre. The top floor is now the eighth.”
And if that doesn’t suffice, he resorts to a tongue-in-cheek mea culpa: “You will realise, of course, that in writing James Bond’s biography I am entirely dependent on what he tells me, and if he is occasionally equivocal, particularly in the matter of dates, I assume that he has some sound security reasons for confusing me.”
What is most amazing about these exchanges is that Fleming doesn’t just welcome his fans’ appraisals, he asks them to elaborate: “An author is always interested in learning these things from his readers and, if it would amuse you to put down in two or three hundred words what you like and dislike about my books, in exchange I will send an autographed copy of the latest one, ‘From Russia With Love’, which will be coming out in about three weeks’ time.” The man with the golden typewriter could have a golden heart, it seems. This revelatory collection, edited by his nephew, Fergus Fleming, may only be a slice of Fleming’s correspondence (the “James Bond letters”) but it is as much a page-turner as any of his novels, and it has a far more generous and lovable central character.
Fleming died in 1964 at the age of 56, so he didn’t live to see Bond mania reaching the heights that most of us have grown up with. But the first two 007 films were released in his lifetime, and the third was in the can. Notwithstanding the old rumour that he wanted Cary Grant to play the lead role, he approved of the ultimate selection. “The producer, Terence Young, seems very nice and the man they have chosen for Bond, Sean Connery, is a real charmer – fairly unknown but a good actor with the right looks and physique.” The Fleming of “The Man With The Golden Typewriter” is a real charmer, too.
The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters is out now (Bloomsbury)