Review by Jonathan Hopson
‘Who was Robert Harling?’ asks Fiona McCarthy in her foreword. The answer is a man of mystery who played many roles – type designer, advertising executive, sailor, commando, novelist, architectural critic, magazine editor, lothario in fedora and tight trousers. Fellow typographer Ruari McLean summed him up as
‘one of those people capable of doing at least four jobs at the same time … writing was the only thing that he was dead serious about … an exceptionally non-boring person. One probably never knew much about him; but one never forgot him’.
Obscuring his lower-class origins, Harling invented himself as a man of action and letters. Just the type to appeal to Ian Fleming, who commemorated him twice in the Bond canon, as the Bahamas police commissioner in Thunderball and the Chelsea Clarion’s typesetter in The Spy Who Loved Me.
It was an interest in fine printing that first brought them together. Fleming had subscribed to Harling’s journal Typography since its inception in 1936 and was impressed enough to commission him to redesign the Admiralty’s Weekly Intelligence Report on the eve of war. Harling then volunteered for the Navy. His semi-fictional Amateur Sailor (1944) was praised by John Masefield as the finest eye-witness description of the Dunkirk evacuation. His next book Steep Atlantick Stream (1946) recorded his service on a corvette in the Western Approaches. Ruari McLean also alludes to Sailors in Jeeps, an unfinished manuscript account of his naval intelligence work which was probably absorbed into this memoir.
In 1941 Harling was transferred to the Inter-Services Topographical Department, utilising his previous experience compiling graphic data on the impending war for the News Chronicle. This brought him once more into the orbit of Fleming at the Naval Intelligence Division. His typographical expertise was also required to produce ‘pocket target guides’ for the commandos of Thirty Assault Unit, formed under Fleming’s direction to seize enemy intelligence. There was an intriguing interlude scriptwriting radio broadcasts for the secret ‘black propaganda unit’ at Bletchley, led by Fleming’s former press colleague Sefton Delmer. After the D-Day landings, Harling operated with 30AU in the field, rounding up Nazi scientists in Saxony and disarming the German navy in Norway, among other exploits. A meeting with the histrionic General Patton is particularly memorable. Throughout, Harling closely observes Fleming, a back-room figure highly respected by his superiors (though not by all his subordinates). Behind his normally unflappable façade, Harling detects the strain of immense responsibility.
Such vivid recollections of wartime experience take up the first half of the book. The narrative drive inevitably slows with peacetime and the return to civilian life. Although Harling followed Fleming to the Sunday Times as design consultant, he conveys little of the atmosphere of old Fleet Street that distinguishes his novel The Paper Palace (1951). There are other surprising omissions, notably his influence on the design of Fleming’s books (such as the adoption of Tea-Chest type for Richard Chopping’s covers). Modest to a fault, Harling barely mentions his own Cold War thrillers and offers little serious criticism of Fleming’s fiction. There is however an amusing chapter on the Dropmore Press publishing venture which recalls intimidating encounters with such eminent authors as Osbert Sitwell and Evelyn Waugh.
The book’s post-war focus shifts instead from the professional world to personal relationships and domestic arrangements. A warning to the prudish – Harling and Fleming were fascinated by sex and discussed it without inhibitions. Some rather louche conversations are reproduced apparently verbatim and the banter will appeal or appal according to taste and inclination. Somehow Harling managed to combine his sexual adventurism with a long and happy second marriage. Fleming enjoyed no such contentment. In Harling’s frank judgment, he was too selfish to love wholeheartedly and he never truly recovered from losing his paramour Muriel Wright to a flying bomb in 1944. Fleming’s troubled marriage to Ann Charteris is described with sympathy to both parties. As a long-serving editor of House & Garden, Harling is well-qualified to offer insights on the couple’s choices of residence, from various West End addresses to the disastrous purchase of Sevenhampton House. The spartan but picturesque Goldeneye deservedly receives a chapter to itself as Fleming’s Jamaican retreat from complexity.
The conclusion reprint two texts by Harling on Fleming: a 1963 profile for Vogue and the Sunday Times obituary. The former describes him as ‘like a handful of seawater; he slips away through your fingers – even while you’re watching’. This memoir portrays a similarly enigmatic figure, an impression of strenuous gaiety and deep melancholy, illuminated by glimpses of what Graham Greene termed the ‘splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’.
Jonathan Hopson works in the National Art Library which forms part of the Word & Image Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.