The Man with the Golden Typewriter by Fergus Fleming, contains numerous unpublished letters by Ian Fleming, which have been sourced from the Fleming Archive, the Cape Archive and private collections from around the world
On 16 August 1952, Ian Fleming wrote to his wife, Ann, ‘My love, This is only a tiny letter to try out my new typewriter and to see if it will write golden words since it is made of gold’. He had bought the gold-plated typewriter as a present to himself for finishing his first novel, Casino Royale.
Fleming’s output was matched by an equally energetic flow of letters. He wrote constantly, to his wife, publisher, editors, fans, friends and critics, charting 007’s progress with correspondence that ranged from badgering Jonathan Cape about his quota of free copies – a coin was tossed; Fleming lost – to apologising for having mistaken a certain brand of perfume and for equipping Bond with the wrong kind of gun. His letters also reflect his friendships with contemporaries Noël Coward and Somerset Maugham.
We chatted with the book’s author, and not least, Ian Fleming’s nephew – Fergus Fleming.
What was the process for assembling this book and choosing what to include?
The structure was dictated by the chronology of Ian’s output, a chapter being devoted to each of the Bond novels. Where there were sustained exchanges – for example, with Geoffrey Boothroyd (aka Bond’s Armourer, Major Boothroyd), and with his friends Raymond Chandler and Ernie Cuneo – these became stand-alone chapters.
What was included? The first rule was that apart from stand-alones the book would feature only Ian’s material. Some of his fans wrote charmingly, and it would have been fascinating to include their letters, but they were unevenly distributed and the multitude of voices would have been confusing. As always, however, there were exceptions to the rule. It made no sense to exclude comments from his editors at Cape, as they were pertinent to the creation and evolution of Bond. And, if given the option of having a witty letter by (say) Noel Coward or excluding it because of some self-imposed dictat – well, the answer is obvious.
What particularly exciting or surprising revelations did you learn from the letters?
No particular revelations as far as Bond is concerned – that is to say, no new plots or undiscovered details, save for a vague hint that an adventure might be set in Australia. But Ian himself was a revelation. He has acquired a reputation as a flesh and blood version of James Bond: suave, troubled, ruthless and cruel. Perhaps he was all those things. But in his letters he comes across as hard working, courteous and considerate, with a fondness for closing on an upbeat note – a habit that he shared with his brothers Peter and Richard.
Joan Howe, a secretary who typed the first draft of Casino Royale and emigrated to Canada in 1953 – with ‘a weak lung’, very much part of that smog-laden period – recalled that, ‘He was a good man. I wish they hadn’t written those horrid biographies about him.’ Which is unfair to the biographers but nevertheless makes one wonder how best to interpret his character: through his own words or those of others; whether, as has been said, he showed so many faces to different people who no single aspect can be relied upon; or whether he has simply been submerged as an individual by the fame of his creation.
He described himself as a writer of suspense. I would say rather that he was a writer of sensation, and it was this that both made his books successful and lent him a certain notoriety. It clearly disturbed one correspondent who offered, in chillingly polite terms, to kill him should the opportunity arise.
Could you tell us the story behind the golden typewriter and whether he actually wrote on it?
The golden typewriter was considered the height of vulgarity by Ian’s literary contemporaries. Of course it was! And why not? Just imagine owning such a thing in austerity Britain. How it must have made him laugh.
It wasn’t, in fact, a custom-built machine. Instead it was part of a limited run produced by the Royal Typewriter Co. as a publicity stunt. Apparently several were given away as sporting prizes or to employees of the company. It is said that when Ian’s model was auctioned in 1995 it went for more than £90k, which entered the Guinness Book of Records as the highest price ever paid for a typewriter.
Did Ian write the Bond books on it? Some say yes, some say no. There is a photo of him with it in his London office, but it doesn’t feature in pics of him at his desk at Goldeneye.
How has Ian and Peter Fleming’s writing influenced your own?
Neither Ian nor Peter had a direct influence on my writing. Any similarity is more likely genetic: we seem to share the same affinity for risky escapades in distant places, and maybe too, the same sense of romance. But every writer has his own voice.
Ann Fleming’s letters were published 30 years ago–why has it taken so long to publish Ian’s?
Ann was a society figure, and a notable character in her own right, who corresponded intelligently and wittily with many famous people. Wearing a publisher’s hat I reckon her letters would have been a very good proposition when they came out in 1985. Ian’s letters, by contrast, are more businesslike and less discursive. That said, I am not sure why they haven’t been published before. There is a tide in these matters and now seems to have been the time.
Will the Queen Anne Press be releasing any more unseen Fleming material or a stand-alone ‘Talk of the Devil’ volume?
There might be something in the pipeline. Or there might not. We shall see.
Fergus is the son of Richard Fleming, Ian’s younger brother and is a Director of Ian Fleming Publications (IFP), which manages his literary estate with his cousin Kate Grimond (daughter of Peter Fleming). He is also the co-publisher of Queen Anne Press.
He is also a freelance writer living in London and Gloucestershire. Educated at Oxford University and City University, London, he trained as an accountant and barrister and has worked as a furniture maker. Fergus is also the author of Amaryllis, a portrait of his aunt, and of several children’s books. His non-fiction books Ninety Degrees North, Barrow’s Boys and Killing Dragons are published by Granta Books.