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.