I haven’t read many spy novels; it’s not really the sort of genre that appeals to me. The one major exception here is the Ashenden stories of William Somerset Maugham, loosely based on his experience of working for British Intelligence during the First World War, but these are intelligent tales of intelligence. Besides, I love all of Somerset Maugham’s writing. And – hey – who could possibly forget the Hairless Mexican!
It’s not Maugham I’m thinking of but another writer altogether, one far more central to this style of fiction. He is Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels. As I say, I’ve not read many spy novels, not even many novels by Fleming, but it was one of his books that had a major impact on, of all things, my developing political consciousness. It was From Russia with Love.
I was nine when I read it, my first encounter with James Bond. It wasn’t meant for me; it was part of father’s holiday reading. He put it down; I picked it up. I’m sure he did not mean me to read it – far too adult – but read it I did. I was horrified and fascinated. It was the first time I ever came across a description of what I now understand to be a sadistic serial killer, a man who takes pleasure in suffering and death. It was the first time I ever had a close encounter with communism, no more than a vague bogey man in my mind.
So, there they were, the sadist and the communists, combined in an organisation called SMERSH, a Russian acronym, coined by Stalin himself, literally meaning “Death to Spies.” From
Russia with Love was just topical entertainment, written at the height of the Cold War. But Fleming’s political purpose, it seems to me, goes deeper. He makes one loath communism, he made me loath communism, but he also – what an admission! –warmed me to fascism.
Again I had no real idea what fascism was and certainly no conception at this time of the horrors committed by the Nazis. I just remember the SMERSH operatives complaining about General Franco’s security forces, the ‘fascists’ who had managed to eliminate some of their best agents. At this point in the book I had such a horror of communists that if they had damned the devil I would have looked for points in his defence. I’m sure that Fleming was showing, albeit briefly, his own political sympathies here. His political sympathies had a lasting effect on mine!
Russia with Love I’ve only read two other Bond novels, Doctor No and You Only Live Twice. Incidentally, if you only know the character from the movies the novels will come as a bit of a surprise. Bond is not nearly so smooth and insufferably smug! Altogether there is a far higher standard of verisimilitude, without all of the outrageous plot devices, i.e. devices, loved by the movie makers.
I was soaking in the bath this morning when, for wholly unexplained reasons, Bond and SMERSH came to mind, or rather my mind was entered by the shadow of an impressionable little girl from all those summers ago. I shall leave you with one of my favourite anthems. Always keep your face to the sun.