Ian Fleming and William Plomer’s ‘Turbott Wolfe’

Article by Edward Biddulph

During his career as the author of the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming received hundreds of letters from his readers. Readers wrote to express their admiration for the latest novel or to point out errors or an incorrect reference to some luxury product. Some readers simply wrote to ask for Fleming’s autograph. Fleming would reply to many letters, and occasionally the reply began a fruitful correspondence that had an impact on Fleming’s writing. The exchange, for example, between Fleming and firearms expert Geoffrey Boothroyd, which led Fleming to change Bond’s standard handgun from a Beretta 418 to a Walther PPK, is well known.

William Plomer

William Plomer

Ian Fleming was also a keen reader (see the Top Ten Books of Ian Fleming), and wrote fan mail himself. In 1926, aged 18 and still at Eton, Fleming read Turbott Wolfe, a South African-set novel published by The Hogarth Press in the spring of that year (a printers’ strike had prevented the book appearing in 1925, the year it was officially published). Fleming was so taken by the novel that he wrote a fan letter to its author, William Plomer.

The correspondence that followed was the beginning of a lasting friendship and was to prove crucial for Fleming’s career as a novelist. William Plomer encouraged Fleming’s  writing and persuaded Jonathan Cape, for whom he was literary editor, to publish Casino Royale (1953).

He became Fleming’s literary editor, and undertook the task with sensitivity and devotion.

Turbott_Wolfe

Turbott Wolfe begins at the end. Dying of fever, Wolfe recounts his experiences as a trader in the South African province of Natal in the 1920s to a fictionalised William Plomer. Over the course of the book, Wolfe describes his time at the trading-station of Ovuzane and his relationships with the Africans, with whom he mostly traded, and the white population of British, Dutch, Norwegian and other European settlers.

Reading it now, the book is shocking in its representation of the attitudes of the white settlers to the black population, and lines such as, “’Shake hands with a native!’ they [the settlers] would have shrieked. ‘Why, they are just like animals,’” make difficult and highly uncomfortable reading. Ironically, though, the book was controversial on its publication in 1926 because of its sympathetic portrayal of Africans through Turbott Wolfe, who by the standards of the time is liberal and progressive. From a modern perspective, of course, Wolfe’s own attitude is at best patronising, and at worst as racist as that of his fellow Europeans. For instance, he maintains a clear master/servant relationship with his staff, calling his storeman, ‘boy’, and struggles with his conscience when he is attracted to an African woman, Nhliziyombi (“I was afraid of falling in love with her,” he tells Plomer)

A little reluctantly, Turbott Wolfe becomes involved in an anti-colonial political movement called ‘Young Africa’, and is ultimately forced out of Ovuzane when the white settlers bring their disapproval of Wolfe’s friendly relations with the Africans before the Commissioner of Lembuland (“’I trust that you will have him closely watched before the White Man’s Prestige is trampled any further in the mud’”, says one).

Turbott Wolfe is an unusual novel, and it is difficult to see what attracted Fleming so strongly to it. That said, the passages describing Wolfe’s ‘affair’ with Nhliziyombi are sensual, and possibly the teenage Fleming was excited by this element of passion and forbidden love. But Fleming may also have identified with Wolfe’s progressive attitudes and agreed with sentiments of the Young Africa movement that the future of the continent lay in the hands of black Africans.

first_live_and_let_die_book_1954

Something of Ian Fleming’s progressive views (that is, from the standpoint of his and preceding generations) can be detected in the Jamaican- and American-set Bond novels. For instance, M tells Bond that black ‘races’ have “plenty of brains and ability and guts” (Live and Let Die, chapter 2), while Bond’s relationship with Cayman Islander Quarrel in Live and Let Die and Dr No is affectionate and respectful, if not entirely equal; Bond “liked him immediately,” but their relationship was “that of a Scots laird with his head stalker” (Live and Let Die, chapter 17). It is in lines such as these that we hear Fleming’s voice.

In his address at the memorial service to Ian Fleming on 15th September 1964, William Plomer spoke about a book that Fleming read as a teenager. It was by “a then unknown writer – a book which in its season was probably an outstanding worst-seller, but which turned out to have a lasting influence” on Ian Fleming. The unnamed book is almost certainly Turbott Wolfe, and its influence was not only lasting, but profound. Had the young Ian Fleming not read the book, he might never have struck up a relationship with Plomer, and the publication history of the Bond novels would have been very different.

Incidental Intelligence

Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 12.38.38 PMEdward Biddulph is the author of ‘James Bond memes’, a blog which examines Fleming’s writing, the Bond films and the Bond phenomenon. He is also the author of Licence to Cook, a James Bond cookbook, as well as a number of Bond-related articles. Edward is an archaeologist based in Oxford, UK, and has several academic papers and monographs to his name.

Check out Edward’s Licence to Cook: Recipes Inspired by Ian Fleming’s James Bond – The print edition is also available on Amazon, while the digital edition is also available via Barnes and Noble and iBookstore. This cookbook is full of exciting recipes inspired by the food that Bond eats in the novels and short stories.

Plomer on Fleming: the view from Fleming’s editor (James Bond Memes)

007 in Depth: William Plomer Interviews Ian Fleming

William Plomer: The forgotten link between Britten and Bond

Learn more about William Plomer

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5 thoughts on “Ian Fleming and William Plomer’s ‘Turbott Wolfe’

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  4. Hello,
    I have just read a short story by Plomer and I was wondering where “Lembuland” is/was.
    But I could not find anything with Google. Also the place mentioned above, Ovuzane, cannot be found.
    Is somewhere in Natal and too small for Google??

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