Tuesday 24 July 2012

From Ana with Love

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!

Aside From 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.  


  1. Our deep ideological orientations are set very early it seems (genes play a part, and early experiences of course), and I think this is one of the most interesting things about people. The honesty and directness of your post is refreshing. This sort of talk is unusual, and I suspect the attitudes you express (which I for one share) are not all that common these days. You obviously picked up more than the odd book from your father and your family generally. Familia et patria.

  2. Who is your favorite 'Bond'?

    1. You mean movie Bond, I assume? I used to have a bit of a thing for Piers Brosnan, though that was nothing to do with the character. I think the old movies are better, those with Sean Connery, before the whole thing became a parody of itself.

  3. I'm afraid Bond (and Fleming) never left a lasting effect - except for one line from the start of Dr No referring to "the zing and tinkle of crickets and frogs".

    I think fascism was seen as a bulwark against communism: Churchill wrote of his bitter disappointment when Mussolini joined the Axis. I reckon he and Fleming must have turned a blind eye to Franco's flirtation with Hitler.

    1. Indeed, Joe, though that was a very brief dalliance.

  4. I am truly shocked by this post. You must surely be exaggerating. if not, there are serious holes in your cultural education that can only be remedied by immediately reading the following authors:

    John Buchan (The Richard Hannay books),
    Erskine Childers (Riddle of the Sands),
    Eric Ambler (all),
    Geoffrey Household (all, but esp. Rogue Male),
    Alistair Maclean (Ice Station Zebra, Night Without End, etc.),
    Len Deighton (Funeral in Berlin, The Ipcress File),
    John LeCarre (earlier books best - from Spy Who Came in From the Cold to The Little Drummer Girl)
    Anthony Price (The Labyrinth Makers, The Alamut Ambush, etc.)

    For good measure, look out the following authors:

    Nicholas Monsarat (esp. The Cruel Sea)
    Hammond Innes
    Gavin Lyall

    All wonderful yarn spinners, and some great writing, too. Best of all, none of those tedious, overwrought 900 page tombstones so beloved of modern publishers.

    To your father's library go!

  5. yes, Sean Connery was the best.

    1. I certainly enjoyed some of those old movies though You only Live Twice, for example, has almost nothing in common with the book, apart from the Japanese setting.

  6. What did you make of the other two Bond novels you read? (sorry confirmed/terminal Bond fan, it's a legal requirement that I ask)

    I agree the books have a much greater realism about them. Certainly the 'baddies' in films tend to be cartoon characters bent on world domination via fantastic schemes however in the books they tend to be more human and motivated my more human things: money or ideology. The lack of outrageous gadgets also increases the believability of the plots (despite this the KGB studied the films for equipment ideas and the Royal Navy tried to develop the miniature breathing apparatus in Thunderball).

    If you're interested in exploring more of the books I would highly recommend 'Casino Royale' which contains identifiable elements of Fleming's own wartime service and 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service' which is a generally good example of a Bond novel and worth reading for the last couple of chapters alone.


    p.s. good shout with Sir Sean; the original and best!

    1. I finished both, JR, so I must have enjoyed them! I intend to discard books that I don't like. Thank you for those recommendations. I'll have a look at both and add my assessment at some future point.

      Speaking of Sir Sean and film adaptations, I saw You Only Live Twice a while ago. It was an enjoyable jaunt but the only thing it has in common with the novel is the setting and the title!

    2. Glad you did! How quickly do you tend to reach the discard point?

      I agree, there are quite a few films that bear very little resemblance to their namesakes. A few others that take parts from other Bond books. Since the films were my first introduction to Bond, I have a lasting soft spot for them.

      One thing I particularly like about 'You Only Live Twice' is that the screenplay was written by Roald Dahl who was a spy himself during World War 2. There is some evidence to suggest that Fleming and Dahl both knew each other and worked together during the war although details are a bit scarce.


    3. Fairly soon. I think I only got sixty pages or so into Uncle Tom's Cabin. With others I've forgotten I don't think I even got that far. That's an interesting point about Fleming and Dahl.