Book: Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities

Fleming Thrilling CitiesThrilling Cities by Ian Fleming

Vintage (with an introduction by Jan Morris)

“All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns.”  Ian Fleming

After the Second World War, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond and brother of travel writer Peter Fleming), joined the Sunday Times newspaper as Foreign Manager.  He was responsible for sending correspondents around the world and seeing that they delivered “intelligent stuff”.

In 1959, it was his turn and Fleming was urged by his editorial board to “do something exciting and write about it.”  He did and so made two journeys around thirteen “thrilling cities of the world.”  The resulting essays, which Fleming referred to as ‘mood pieces’, were serialised in the Sunday Times in 1959/60 and then published as Thrilling Cities in 1962.

The book follows the two journeys.  The first half recounts a 30 day round the world air trip in 1959 taking in eight ‘exotic’ cities. The second, a six week, six city and 6000 mile trip around Europe in a seven litre Thunderbird made in the spring of the following year (1960).

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1963, Fleming was asked by presenter Roy Plomley whether there was much of him in James Bond.  Fleming laughed and replied:

I hope not…people do connect me with James Bond simply because I happen to like scrambled eggs and short sleeved shirts and some of the things that James Bond does but, err, I certainly haven’t got his guts nor his, err, very lively appetites.

That may be but, as the title suggests, what Fleming records are not the ‘tourist sights’. Instead, he uses his “tin-opener” to “find out what goes on behind the facade” of his stop-offs and reveals the exotic, shady and, at times, seedy background of his James Bond thrillers.

Whether describing Hamburg’s nightlife or Berlin’s transvestites, having tea with Lucky Luciano in Naples, spending time with fortune tellers and geishas, dining with Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin, meeting Hollywood producers or crime reporters in Chicago, Fleming is always in his element and moves effortlessly between respectability (and his Establishment friends and contacts) and the more unusual side of his destinations.

Some encounters, like that in Macao with Dr Lobo, a multi million pound gold dealer, and his “powerfully built butler, who looked more like a judo black-belt than a butler” could almost have come straight from the pages of his novels.

Fleming is equally at ease with a champagne and jet-set lifestyle and provides interesting glimpses of what travel used to be like – smoking on aircraft, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics handed out to passengers, refuelling in ‘the’ Lebanon and flying your car across the Channel rather than using a ferry.  They convey the excitement and glamour of travel at the start of the jet age and also Fleming’s enthusiasm for travel and delight at “hammering out the miles” driving across Europe in the post war period.

On his way, Fleming makes absorbing observations about travel and tourists.  He complains in Honolulu about the “high-pressure tourist atmosphere and the uniformity of the tourist and retire population.”  He prefers his hotels “unsullied by the tourist smear” and accuses tourists who pay to hear the Vienna boys choir of only “collecting the occasion, like a postage stamp.”  In Italy, he avoids Venice, refuses guides and guidebooks at Pompeii and makes wry comments about the country and its people.  In a post-imperialist lament, he notes the decline of British cultural and commercial influence around the world and exhorts younger people to show more interest in the ‘Orient’ and to travel more.

Bond is never far off, whether in the Las Vegas gambling tips courtesy of Fleming’s ‘connected’ contact, the advice on how to drink sake or in the casino at Monte Carlo.  At times it feels as though Fleming is playing to the gallery but perhaps there is more of him in Bond than he admits.  (A distinct possibility for a man whose idea of a literary gaffe is making reference in his novels to half bottles of Pol Roger champagne, when Pol Roger does not in fact produce half bottles.)

Fleming modestly claimed that he was not in the “Shakespeare stakes” and had no ambitions to more serious writing.  However, he was obviously well travelled and had an eye for the interesting and unusual combined with a lust for life and foreign travel.  As a result, Thrilling Cities is never boring but is an enjoyable whistle stop world tour seen through the eyes of James Bond’s creator just before that world was presented to cinema audiences in the first of the Bond films.

It is worth pointing out that Thrilling Cities was not Fleming’s only contribution to the travel writing genre.  In the late 50s while still Foreign Manager at the ST, he sent Norman Lewis to Cuba to report on Castro’s chances against the Batista regime. While there, Lewis interviewed a Dubonnet-soaked Hemingway, an episode recounted by Lewis in The World, The World.  But that, as they say, is another story.

Book: Labels by Evelyn Waugh

Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (1929) by Evelyn Waugh

Published by Penguin Following a brief visit to Athens in 1927, Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary: “The truth is that I do not really like being abroad much. I want to see as much as I can this holiday and shut myself for the rest of my life in the British Isles” (Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.  He may not have enjoyed “abroad” but Waugh did not remain shut in the British Isles for long. Despite insisting that he had no aspiration to be a great traveler and was no adventurer, twenty years later Waugh was able to look back and state: “From 1928 until 1937 I had no fixed home and no possessions which would not conveniently go on a porter’s barrow. I travelled continuously, in England and abroad… It is fortunate that he did as, from his travels in this period, Waugh produced several travel books of which Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, was the first.   Labels recounts Waugh’s journey around the Mediterranean by Norwegian cruise ship in 1929, the same year same year in which Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all that, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front were published. In a 1962 interview with the Paris Review, Waugh was dismissive both of the journey (“I went through a form of marriage and traveled about Europe for some months with this consort“) and of the book (“I wrote accounts of these travels which were bundled together into books and paid for the journeys, but left nothing over.“). The NY Times shared Waugh’s lack of enthusiasm for the book. When Labels was republished in 1949 (in abridged form as part of a collection, When the Going was Good), the NYT simply noted that Labels did not have “a great deal of interest“. This might seem surprising for a journey which included Paris, Monte Carlo, Naples, Malta, Port Said, Cairo, Constantinople, Crete, Athens, Corfu, Venice, Haifa, Nazareth, Barcelona, Seville, and Lisbon as well as modern day Croatia and Montenegro. However, the reader looking for much insight into the places themselves will be disappointed. In that regard, the NYT appears right although dismisses Labels too lightly. In his unfinished essay about Waugh, Orwell observed that Waugh’s books appeared to consist of “high-spirited foolery“, and were “tinged by the kind of innocent snobbishness that causes people to wait twenty-four hours on the pavement to get a good view of a royal wedding.” Both are on display in Labels. Waugh explains early on that his book is so titled because all of the places he visits have already been “fully labelled“. He admits that “there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard” and “no towns so constantly and completely and completely overrun with tourists” as those he visits. Why then engage in writing a travel book about such places? Nicholas Shakespeare provides the motive in his introduction to Waugh Abroad, (Waugh’s collected travel writing); the cruise was part expenses paid trip and part honeymoon. Waugh may also have been trying his hand at travel writing because it was a popular and growing literary genre. Indeed, Paul Johnson, writing in the Spectator notes that Waugh could have joined the circle of travel writers in the 1930s apart from one “insuperable reason”: He travelled to ‘get away’, always a compulsion. But none of his travel books reveals any profound interest in the places he saw, the people who inhabited them or the art they produced. Instead, he looked for bizarre characters or events which could provide material for his anarchic humour in fiction. Waugh’s lack of interest in the places he visits is evident in Labels.  He reserves his enthusiasm for lesser visited destinations – the Croatian coast, Lisbon, Barcelona – and also Malta which he praises as being as not having been allowed to become a “show place”. Generally, Waugh is more interested in lampooning famous places as travel destinations along with those who visit them. He expresses disappointment with many of the sights he visits.   Bored with the “cult of mere antiquity“, the Sphinx is described as “an ill-proportioned composition of inconsiderable aesthetic appeal” while Etna at sunset is dismissed with the sentence: “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting”.  While visiting the Serapeum at Sakkara, he wonders whether the joke is on “us”, longing to declaim – “fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all of these extremities of discomfort and exertion; fancy spending all this money, to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must for ever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls. Waugh also takes a swipe at earnest travellers writing more serious travelogues (Hilaire Belloc, in particular, comes under fire by name and by inference, as “Off the Beaten Track in Surrey” could easily be a reference to Belloc’s Four Men a Farrago).  As a result Waugh recounts not only his journey but also offers insights in to travel, tourism along with different traveller types and motives and is funny doing it. He confesses to preferring the “fleshy comforts” of the cruise ship to the “dirt and indignity” of rail travel and the “cold and noise” of air travel (not to mention air-sickness, which produces a funny anecdote).  When re-joining the cruise ship after a stay on Malta one senses Waugh’s relief at being able to unpack and renew his “acquaintance with the deck bar steward” and of pushing his trunk under the bed “in the knowledge that it would not be wanted again until [he] reached England“. Waugh recognises that travel by cruise ship would not be for the “real travel snob” for whom “recurrent clashes with authority at customs houses and police stations are half the fun of travelling” but prefers it to the “incessant packing and unpacking which is entailed in independent travelling“. Nevertheless, Waugh sets himself apart from his fellow passengers and enjoys observing them exchanging “competitive anecdotes” about their shore adventures and bargaining skills and foresees the pretensions with which trinkets haggled over in bazaars might be presented at home (as a “reminder of those magical evenings under a wider sky“). He delights in the foibles of his fellow passengers who, when encountered in less reputable places ashore, “wink knowingly at you the next morning” and “borrow money at Casinos“. Waugh also captures the frustration of having too little time to see things meaningfully.  In Naples he is “impelled by a restless sense of obligation” to see much more than he intelligibly could and admits disappointment with Mallorca although recognises that may be a result of “excess of variety” brought on by moving so rapidly from place to place so that one “misses the subtler and more fugitive qualities which reveal themselves shyly to more leisured travellers“. At the start of Labels, Waugh proclaims that “[e]very Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist“.  He identifies with “real travel snobs” who shudder at the thought of pleasure cruises and guided tours yet prefers the “outstanding comfort and leisure” of a cruise ship.   On boarding the Stella Polaris, Waugh admits that it is time to give up the pretence and accept that he is a tourist and not a traveller.  To (or for) the reader’s amusement, he struggles to do so though and in Naples, insists on sightseeing alone, ends up wasting money and seeing almost nothing, finally admitting that he might have fared better to join a guided tour.  Perhaps Waugh merely saw, as Fussell later recognised, that “[t]he anti-tourist deludes only himself. We are all tourists now“. Waugh then is a curious type traveller but is nonetheless interesting and funnier for it.  At times, when reading Labels, one wonders why Waugh left the British Isles at all, but we should be glad that he did. Further reading: Times Literary Supplement review of Labels 2011 edition   For an overview of Waugh’s Travel Writing see this article or , for a more detailed analysis, Nicholas Shakespeare’s introduction in Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writing or the chapter, Evelyn Waugh’s Moral Entertainments in Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.