An Interview with Fergus Fleming
To celebrate the release of The Man with the Golden Typewriter, we spoke to Fergus Fleming about his inspiration for the book, his developing view of his uncle Ian Fleming, and some of the amusing correspondences encountered in his study of the letters.
Naturally, we began by asking Fergus what had led him to begin compiling a book of Ian Fleming’s letters; was there a particular letter or correspondence which caught his interest? According to Fergus:
‘A book of Ian’s letters was long overdue and, somewhat rashly, I raised my hand. Even more rashly, the offer was accepted.’
So the process began, but the resulting book was not simply called ‘Ian Fleming’s letters edited by Fergus Fleming’. With the book’s actual fantastic title in mind, we asked Fergus about the story behind Ian Fleming’s golden typewriter.
‘The golden typewriter was Ian’s great joke to himself. Just imagine his glee when it arrived in all its glittering splendour (smuggled in from America by his friend Ivar Bryce to avoid taxes). Serious-minded contemporaries considered it the height of vulgarity, but Ian didn’t care. Let them sneer! He had a golden typewriter and they didn’t.
The machine in question was a Royal Quiet De Luxe and cost the princely sum (then) of $174. It wasn’t the only one in the world: the Royal Typewriter Co. produced a small run of them as an advertising gimmick. They were often given away as sports prizes or to favoured employees. None, however, have achieved the same iconic status as Ian’s. In 1995 an unknown bidder – rumoured to be Pierce Brosnan – bought Ian’s Quiet De Luxe for a sum that has been calibrated by the Guinness Book of Records as the highest ever paid for a typewriter.
Did Ian use it for the Bond novels? My impression is that he didn’t. It doesn’t seem to feature in any of the pictures of him at his desk. But who knows?’
As Ian’s nephew, Fergus grew up in a household which was certainly familiar with James Bond. We asked Fergus about his awareness of his uncle’s works and emerging legacy whilst growing up.
Ian’s books were on the shelves when I grew up, but I don’t remember them being held in particular reverence. As he said to Raymond Chandler, ‘[I] meekly accept having my head ragged off about them in the family circle’. My father was so horrified by The Spy Who Loved Me that he made my mother read it under a brown paper cover. His brother Peter was also a writer, and his books too were on the shelves. So it was just an accepted fact of life that our family wrote books.
But I will say this. When checking a fact in You Only Live Twice, I used an original copy. And there, all at once, was the excitement of it. The Chopping jacket, the typeface, the Cape logo, the smell, the feel of the paper, the price – 16s. net – and the memory of something you will never find in a bookshop today. For a moment I caught the thrill that Ian, and his readers, must have experienced when the latest Bond came out.
And did Fergus have any favourite letters or correspondences discovered during his research?
One of the best is Ian’s apology to Mrs James Bond. Her husband was an ornithologist whose book ‘Birds of the West Indies’ happened to be on Ian’s desk in Goldeneye when he wrote Casino Royale. In 1961 she caught up with him and demanded an explanation. ‘Your husband has every reason to sue me in every possible position and for practically every kind of libel,’ Ian replied, adding that he had chosen James Bond because it was plain, masculine and anonymous – unlike Peregrine Carruthers or some such. In recompense: ‘I can only offer your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may see fit. Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.’
Ian Fleming was extremely creative. The recently published Trigger Mortis included material from a television treatment that was never published; did any of the letters mention ideas or plots that were never used in the James Bond books?
‘This is a sensitive matter that falls under The Official Publishing Secrets Act and as such I am not permitted to disclose the contents of any files that may or may not have come to my attention. That said, he did float the possibility of setting a Bond novel in Australia – which would have been interesting.’
Given the highly personal literary form of the letter, Fergus’ editing gave him a unique insight into Fleming’s thoughts and attitudes towards his interlocutors. Through reading the letters, did Fergus’ opinion of Ian Fleming change at all? And were there any particularly surprising aspects of his character that he was previously unaware of?
‘Ian has been portrayed so often in films and books as a callous, suave womaniser – in essence a mirror image of Bond – that I was prepared for something along those lines. To my surprise it didn’t materialise. Of course, this isn’t a biography and a fuller examination would probably confirm the accepted picture. All I can say is that his letters reveal a man who was witty, punctilious and kind, assailed by fits of self-doubt yet resolutely optimistic, who worked hard to make a living the best way he knew. ‘
Buying a golden typewriter might be seen by some as eccentric. Having gathered a good sense of Fleming’s personality through his correspondences we asked Fergus whether he felt Ian to be a true eccentric, or whether the typewriter was more a symbol of a persona he enjoyed cultivating as the writer of thrilling, and at times bombastic, fiction.
‘No, Ian wasn’t an eccentric. I would say he was more a romantic. He enjoyed turning dreams into reality and vice versa. He had an urge to tell stories. If he could make life a story – the martinis, the golden typewriter – then all to the good. If he could make a story out of life – to tell people what he saw, what he experienced, and how it inspired him – then so much the better. ‘Writing makes you more alive to your surroundings,’ he once said, ‘and since the main ingredient of living…is to be alive, this a quite a worthwhile by-product of writing.’ If writing made him alive, so did the imagination that underpinned it.’
The Man with the Golden Typewriter was published on the 8th October and is available to purchase here