This week I happened to come across an ancient recording of Ian Fleming being interviewed by Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs. In a voice-over, Kirsty Young said that the ten minute extract was the only recording the BBC had of the programme, and it contained none of the music Fleming chose.
I actually remember the programme. As a kid, I was an inveterate fan. He kept choosing records by The Ink Spots. All The Ink Spots records sounded the same to me. There was a laid back pam-pa-ram-pa intro with a tinkle of ivories and then a high pitched tenor voice which for some unaccountable reason reminded me of Lord Haw-Haw came crooning in mostly with a tale of forlorn love told in perfect anachronistic diction. Then a very sad black man mused in spoken prose. And it was always the same. It never varied. Don’ you go blabbin’ to dem trees. Oh yes you did! I suppose it was all vaguely Caribbean.
Plomley asked Fleming about the critics’ adverse reaction to the sex and sadism in his books. Of the sadism, Fleming defended it on the grounds of verisimilitude, saying specifically it was no good trying to depict the world as John Buchan depicted it. It set me wondering about the relationship between John Buchan and Ian Fleming. You can think of the James Bond canon as a series of Mickey Spillane novels translated into old Etonian, but I think the accent is more Scottish than that.
Ian Fleming loved the set piece, usually in the form of a contest: baccarat, bridge, chemin-de-fer. If there was nothing else to hand, Bond would even play scissors-cut-paper. Perhaps the great set piece in the Bond canon is the game of golf with Goldfinger. Bond’s task is doubly hard in that Goldfinger is a cheat, just as Moonraker’s Sir Hugo Drax was a cheat. Drax is really a dry run, a rehearsal, for Goldfinger. Both men are immensely wealthy, powerful, and physically repugnant. Both are megalomaniacs whose Grand Designs are conceived on a cosmic scale of indiscriminate destruction and personal aggrandisement.
John Buchan shows the same fascination for the set piece at the close of The Three Hostages. Again, we witness a sporting contest between the protagonist and the great foe. But where Fleming used the set piece as a preliminary skirmish, Buchan chooses to culminate the Richard Hannay tetralogy with an elemental struggle between Dick, and Dominick Medina, on the deer stalk at Machray. It is the culmination of the whole Richard Hannay saga. (Although The Island of Sheep is a fifth Hannay adventure, the focus by now is shifting to the next generation, to Peter John, with his goshawk. Eyass or passage-hawk, he asks Archie Roylance, when Archie offers to get him a peregrine, tassel-gentle or falcon-gentle. Buchan, like Fleming, was fascinated by worlds, by misteries.)
Dominick Medina is not unlike Drax and Goldfinger, with his head as round as a football. He too is a megalomaniac, whose vanity has been cut to the quick, since Dick has outwitted him. He challenges Dick to a duel somewhere in the Pyrenees, and Dick wires him and tells him not to be a fool. Sooner or later these two men need to have it out.
Bond would not have been comfortable on a grouse moor. He occupies a different world. Part of his broad appeal is that he is rather a classless individual. Dick admits to being quite at home with the upper echelons, just as his creator was. Buchan wrote a book on the huntin’ fishin’ shootin’ world in which the protagonist bags a “Macnab” – a salmon, a grouse, and a deer, all on the same day. The ultimate set piece. James would not have been interested, although he might have looked twice at a “Royal Macnab” – all of the above, with Himself’s daughter thrown in. Buchan would have found that notion unconscionable.
It was a good clean fight, out on the hill, hardly a fight at all, when Dick realises that like a fool he has brought the wrong cartridges. After that, it’s a hunt. And when Medina gets into difficulty on a cliff face Dick offers to help him. That Medina accepts his help is the greatest compliment Dick ever received. I can’t see Bond showing the same magnanimity to Red Grant, or Goldfinger, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
I wonder how much of Richard Hannay there is in James Bond. If Fleming is Buchanesque, yet the one great disparity between the two canons is the way the authors, and their protagonists, treated sex. Not that Hannay’s world is devoid of sex. He clearly fancies Mary from day one when he espies her in her V.A.D. uniform. But the carnality of it all is subsumed in his overflowing love for her. “I didn’t even think of her as pretty, any more than a man thinks of the good looks of the friend he worships.” When Dick and Mary finally get it together in the Picardy Chateau the description is not exactly like James and Vesper in a French hotel, or James and Solitaire on the train. In Memory Hold the Door Buchan described a bizarre occasion when he and Henry James found themselves examining a collection of literary erotica. “Nauseating, perhaps,” was Henry James’ comment, “but how quite inexpressibly significant.” One imagines Buchan might have said as much about Bond’s sexual excursions.
Just as Buchan shied from being sexually explicit, Fleming clearly has an aversion to exploring emotional feeling too deeply. I suppose it’s the Anglo-Saxon litotes tradition of the stiff upper lip. Throughout the canon, from the Vesper days, Bond buries his emotions. Later on, spontaneously, he composed for Tiger Tanaka a haiku of extraordinary emotional power. But when Tanaka tries to probe beneath its surface, James is very offhand, and changes the subject.
So Dick is rather priggish and James is rather cold, and yet you have the feeling that they are both pulling it off with a big effort. I wonder what they would have made of one another, if M and Sir Walter Bullivant had put their heads together and come up with an assignment for them. Maybe they are more alike than they seem. In Mr Standfast, When Dick and Lancelot Wake find themselves alone after the ladies have withdrawn from dinner at Fosse, Dick says, “I stood up with my back against the mantelpiece for as long as a man may smoke a cigarette, and I let him yarn at me, while I looked steadily at his face.” That sounds like Bond. There is something cold and steely about that. Just occasionally, Buchan anticipates Fleming. “Odd,” said Sir Walter Bullivant (in the midst of muffins and marmalade) to Dick in The Thirty-nine Steps, “that the code word for a Sous-chef d’Etat Major-General should be ‘Porker’.” M en pantouffles might have said just that. The intelligence worlds Hannay and Bond occupied were essentially the same, only about forty years apart.
Buchan and Fleming both had a curious preoccupation with androgyny. As soon as Dick saw Mary walking across the lawn, he said, “She moved with the free grace of an athletic boy.” And when Bond first espied Honeychile Rider on the beach at Crab Key, Fleming compared the firm contour of her behind to that of a boy. Noel Coward took Fleming to task about that, one night at Goldeneye. “Dear boy, what were you thinking of?”
Sexual ambivalence was thematic for both authors. In Goldfinger, Tilly Masterton, Pussy Galore, and Pussy’s all female flying circus, are all lesbian. In Buchan’s Greenmantle, Stumm, the big bruising Teutonic “back-number”, is homosexual. As for Sandy Arbuthnot’s relationship with Hilda von Einem, it’s definitely a bit weird. Buchan might easily have described it as queer.