Article by David Craggs
For many Bond literary aficionados The Spy Who Loved Me was and remains an anomaly. It represented a brave departure in terms of format and style and when published back in 1962, it garnered Ian Fleming the worst critical reviews of his career. He consequently lobbied Jonathan Cape to suppress the hardback launch, he prohibited paperback publication until after his death and also stipulated that only the title be used in any film deal. He all but made the book disappear. Part of me wished he had.
If it was not a lucky book its author, it certainly was not a lucky book for me. It got me brutally thrashed, nearly expelled from school and was a source of great embarrassment to my late mother. To explain the unusual relationship I have with this, Fleming’s ninth and most infamous novel I have to take you right back to my not so swinging ‘60s and the very start of my relationship with 007.
My first years were spent in Ferryhill, a small Durham mining town, I may very well have remained there were it not for the untimely and tragic death of my father. This resulted in me being dispatched to the South of England for incarceration in a particularly draconian boarding school.
The mission of this establishment was supposedly to educate the off springs of the deceased whilst providing the parental guidance that they had so devastatingly lost. They set about doing this by imposing a reign of terror that had more in common with Colditz than the playing fields of Eaton. Some of its more brutal enforcers would have made prime candidates for the STATSI, SMERSH or even SPECTRE. Indeed, their enthusiastic support for the institution’s guiding principle that no boy should escape unharmed would probably have seen them drummed out of the GESTAPO for cruelty.
That said, for better or for worse, this was to be my lot for 32 weeks of every year. Between 1961 and 1969 my only respite was to be the thrice annual return home for the holidays and it was during one such vacation, the Easter break of 1963, that I first encountered James Bond.
Intrigued by Mitchell Hook’s fabulous poster I persuaded my mother, Gladys, to accompany me to see Bond’s first cinematic outing at our local flea pit. To say that we both emerged as enthusiasts would be the understatement of the decade. Within the week, I returned for a further four viewings .Those were the days when you could slump down in your seat to avoid the ushers and take in a couple of consecutive showings – two for the price of one – and my lifelong fascination with the world’s most famous secret agent had well and truly started.
The following week I traveled to Durham City to kick start my reading relationship with Ian Fleming. I began by buying the Dr No movie tie-in and Casino Royale from the city’s then landmark bookstore, The House of Andrews. Back then they really knew how to promote an author and, to coincide with the release of the first movie, there were huge displays of Bond books. At that juncture Thunderball had just been published by PAN with its amazing Raymond Hawkey bullet hole cover and OHMSS had just been released by Cape as a hardcover.
I returned home determined to first read Dr No and then to tackle the rest in chronological order.
The books proved a huge success. I found literary Bond even more intoxicating than his screen persona. He became my 007. He took me with him on his adventures to faraway places and I went to sleep with him under my pillow. He quickly superseded Biggles as my go to hero and he became a true escape from my worries of returning to Colditz.
My mother, also an avid reader, read the books and proclaimed them good but a little racy. The racy part wasn’t lost on me. My hormones were starting to rampage and I found Fleming’s descriptions of Honeychile Rider and Vesper Lynd and Bond’s shenanigans with them immediately intoxicating.
Prior to returning to school I visited The House of Andrews and bought the remainder available in PAN paperback. I was determined to become the leading authority on literary Bond and when it came time to return to Colditz my heavy heart was lightened in the knowledge that my new found friend was safely packed at the bottom of my suitcase.
Back at school I discovered that I wasn’t the only boy to have been smitten by Bond mania. Dr No the movie had kick started a huge interest in 007. That said, comparatively few were aware of the source novels and my growing knowledge of the books made me an opinion leader. My status with my fellow inmates was enhanced enormously and before long I became the self-appointed curator of a Bond library and was doing a roaring trade lending out my precious cargo in return for small but cumulatively significant financial contributions. Unfortunately this was when things started to go more than a little awry.
Bond awareness amongst the school faculty had also grown and initial proclamations like; ‘You shouldn’t really be reading this’ quickly moved to ‘Give me this filth, you won’t be seeing this again’.
In short order the school’s sinister and villainous Headmaster, The Colonel, announced a complete ban on the corrupting and morally bankrupt works of one Ian Lancaster Fleming. A move that I considered somewhat bizarre coming from a man whose principle pleasure was derived from caning the inmate’s naked bottoms!
I immediately sent out instructions that security had to be tightened and readers should take great care to keep my cherished books out of the GESTAPO’s hands.
Reading them in dust jackets from permitted authors became one of the favoured methods of disguise but inevitably a couple of the more incompetent inmates got caught and my precious copies of Moonraker and From Russia with Love were confiscated.
I repatriated them by launching midnight raids on the offending master’s rooms I moved my entire stash out of my personal locker and hid them in plain sight in the school library. A master stroke that defeated the complete house search that followed the break-ins.
Returning for the summer vacation with my precious cargo intact, I started reading Thunderball during the journey home.
There was little more Bondonian than sitting in a first class carriage of The Flying Scotsman as it weaved its way North – brandishing Hawkey’s PAN cover in one hand and a cigarette in the other – I felt every inch the agent in making. This was definitely going to be the life for me. Mark you, I couldn’t find a woman on the train that bore the faintest resemblance to any of Fleming’s creations but that didn’t limit my imagination.
Finishing Thunderball left me in a Bondless void. I’d read all of the paperbacks and the prospect of waiting out the customary two year gestation period between the Cape and the PAN editions was too much to bare. I simply had to find a way to persuade Gladys to buy me the hardback. Not an easy task when considering a cover price of 16/- .The average weekly wage back then was only £16. Within this context a hardback cost a veritable King’s ransom.
Happily, Gladys regarded Bond’s effect on me to be largely positive. His influence had resulted in my developing a sense of the sartorial and I’d even started to behave differently towards my elder sister’s female friends. All positive developments in her eyes and thankfully there is nothing like a mother’s love for her son and within a couple of days I was on the way to The House Of Andrews with the requisite funds burning a hole in my pocket.
Buying my first Fleming hardback was an event to be savoured. I perused the store’s entire fiction department before making my way towards a huge factice of Chopping’s brilliant OHMSS cover art that was strategically placed over a stand full of first editions. I selected a virgin copy from the middle of the stack and it was whilst examining my prospective purchase that I discovered from the bibliography at the front of the book, that this was not – as I had supposed – the tenth Bond novel but was in effect the eleventh and there had been a book after Thunderball called The Spy Who Loved Me.
This was a complete revelation and posed a number of questions. Why hadn’t I heard of it before? Was it available in PAN paperback? If I was to stick to my plan of reading Bond in chronological order shouldn’t I be reading this before OHMSS?
I approached one of the store assistants full of excitement.
‘Excuse me’ I said. ‘I’ve just noticed there’s a Bond book I was unaware of called The Spy Who Loved Me. Have you got it?’
He looked a little sheepish. ‘No we don’t carry that one. Evidently it’s a bit special and it’s only available by personal order’ he replied.
‘But surely it must be out in paperback soon?’
He rifled under his counter for the catalogue of forthcoming releases.
‘I’m not sure it is’ he said. ‘If it was being released in the next six months I’d have notification here and there’s no mention.’
‘You said it was a bit “special” and that you don’t carry it – what exactly do you mean?’ I enquired.
It transpired that with the growing popularity of Fleming, his manager had been obliged to brief the store staff that they wouldn’t be stocking The Spy Who Loved Me because it was considered way too risqué. Furthermore, Bond didn’t appear until two thirds of the way through the book and the publishers thought that this would disappoint 007’s growing army of fans.
A bizarre explanation I thought. With my hormones risqué was not just good it was a prerequisite. What’s more, Bond hadn’t appeared in From Russia with Love until well into the story and that I’d found to be one of Fleming’s best. An opinion I hold to this day.
The assistants attempt to deter me had the reverse effect. It piqued my interest.
‘Could you order it?’ I enquired.
‘I could’ he said ‘but it will cost you 15/- in advance and won’t be delivered for some weeks.’
My desire to read Bond in chronological order lead me to momentarily consider diverting funds from my planned purchase of OHMSS but that would mean waiting. My desire to have the latest and the greatest was too great. Furthermore, although I didn’t plan to take my PAN editions back to school (too risky in the current climate) I did aim to take OHMSS with me. Possession of the hardcover was bound to further elevate my status as Bond guru and there were significant lending revenues to be made.
I enjoyed 007’s eleventh outing enormously, as did Gladys. Bond finally married and although his matrimonial bliss was cut tragically short, I think the fact that his nuptials actually took place satisfied the protestant in her.
I used mother’s heightened state of Bond euphoria to launch the idea of placing a special order for The Spy Who Loved Me. She acquiesced. Instructions were given to The House of Andrews and as delivery would not take place until after my re-incarceration, a plan was devised to get the book to me.
The plan took cognisance of the school’s strict control over communications. No access was given to telephones and outgoing mail was heavily censored. Letter writing was compulsory and took place weekly on Sundays with submissions presented to supervising masters who had inmates seal the censored and approved correspondence in front of them before handing them over for posting.
Incoming mail was not vetted in the same way. Masters knew that mothers would revolt if they knew their correspondence was being read and letters were dished out unopened during the mid-morning break. The same rule did not apply to parcels which were opened on an ad hoc basis depending on the shape of the parcel. If it looked abnormal the contents would be scrutinised. A book shaped parcel had never, to my knowledge been opened.
With this regime in mind, I gave Gladys strict instructions to forward the book when it arrived from The House Of Andrews but not to enclose her customary letter. Although the overall plan would prove to be a complete disaster the aspect of leaving out the letter was to be a saving grace of sorts!
Three weeks into the term, Gladys advised me that the book had arrived and that I could expect to receive it shortly.
Waiting for it was torturous. My excitement level was off the Richter scale. On or about Wednesday of the following week, I arrived for the mid-morning break to see a hardback shaped parcel in the pile. I waited with baited breath for distribution by the duty master. The particular villain responsible on the day in question was known as The Penguin. A nomenclature he enjoyed due to his peculiar splay footed gait. Something that was evidently a result of some unspeakable torture that he had suffered when imprisoned in a Japanese camp during world war two. Nobody knew if this was true but given the pain he inflicted on us – his specialty was spanking bare bottoms with a table tennis paddle – many boys wished that Hirohito’s finest had held onto him a little longer.
The Penguin attacked the pile with gusto. Slinging letters and parcels to addressees who caught them dexterously as part of his game. When he came to my parcel, he paused, picked it up and rattled it next to his ear. The little bastard then looked directly at me, tore it open and exposed Chopping’s beautiful artwork featuring the Fairbanks dagger and the rose. My heart sank and in a room full of boys you could have heard a pin drop.
He summoned me immediately to his study. ‘Everybody has been warned about this filth’ he proclaimed. ‘Who has conspired to send you this? Was it your mother?’
‘I’ve no idea’ I heard myself saying. ‘Maybe there’s a letter in with it’ I suggested. Hoping like hell that Gladys had followed my instruction. He shook the book – nothing fell out. Thank God I thought.
The Penguin peered at the post mark. ‘It’s from Durham’ he said. I managed to refrain from congratulating him on his advanced observational skills. ‘OK, I will be passing this to The Colonel. He will deal with both it and you. You’ve gone too far this time Craggs. There will be a full house search immediately.
I was obliged to face the study wall whilst his henchmen ransacked the house. Never a popular move with the inmates. Had contraband been found, my fellow pupils would have blamed me. Happily, they drew a blank and importantly my cherished copy of OHMSS remained safe. I’d rented it out to a boy in another house.
The Penguin returned and I was dismissed. ‘You’ll be hearing from the Colonel and so will your mother’ he said.
No table tennis paddle for me. It was going to be the demonic Colonel’s swishy cane – the gold standard in corporal punishment. More importantly, Gladys looked like she was going to get roped in. Not good news at all. I started to formulate a plan but I couldn’t do anything until Sunday.
Happily I wasn’t summoned that week. Making you wait was part of the game. They always liked to add a little psychological torture to the physical. I used the time to compose a letter to Gladys explaining the disaster and my plan.
She wasn’t going to be best pleased but she was a game girl. She’d worked in a bomb factory during the war and had been selected to present Churchill with his cigar on the occasion of his visit. Together with the rest of her generation, she was not easily defeated.
I suggested she wait for The Colonel’s admonishment and then respond with indignation, claiming that an errant uncle had mistakenly sent a book to me that was intended as a birthday present for my elder sister. She’d had no knowledge of it but the item should be returned without delay. The explanation was thin but couldn’t be refuted. It wouldn’t save me a beating but it should get us the book back.
Letter writing that Sunday was supervised by The Penguin. I composed a fake missive to Gladys portraying a life of bliss and took it up for inspection. He corrected a couple of spelling errors and handed it back for sealing. At that juncture I had a friend distract him whilst I substituted the real letter. I sealed it and dropped it onto a pile for posting. Phase one was complete.
In assembly the next week, The Colonel announced that more Fleming filth had been found and that the perpetrator was going to face the most serious of punishments. He then closed by publicly summoning me to his study.
As the head honcho, The Colonel lived out his life of unmarried bliss in a grace and favour house. His study was separate and was a grandiose affair situated off a marble corridor in the main building. You entered through an outer office that was staffed by his secretary, an ugly, middle aged Irma Bunt lookalike.
On arrival, Irma announced my presence and The Colonel boomed ‘send him in’ from his inner sanctum.
When I walked in, the old pervert remained seated and peered at me from behind his huge polished desk. My beautiful copy of The Spy Who Loved Me lay between us with the dust cover leaf placed about a third of the way through. The bastards reading my book I thought.
‘You know why you are here but I’m told you are saying you don’t know who sent you this filth?’ He gestured at my new Fleming.
‘That’s correct sir’ I replied.
The Colonel pushed back from his desk. He was still wearing his graduation gown. A sure sign of how institutionalised the old pervert had become.
‘You know these disgusting works are banned and despite that you arrange for this to be delivered and then have the audacity to deny knowing who sent it. This is an outrage and I’m not sure we’ll be able to keep you here.’
Chance would be a fine thing I remember thinking.
‘I’ll be writing to your mother in the strongest terms, demanding an explanation’ he added.
‘Meanwhile it will be four strokes for the book and two for lying. Now drop your trousers and bend over that chair.’ He gestured towards a straight back chair that he’d ceremoniously positioned in the middle of the room for this precise purpose.
I did as instructed and although I couldn’t see him I could hear him fishing behind a curtain to find his long cane. I then heard him swish the thing a couple of times. Taking practice strokes to further terrorise the victim was part of his game. I’d been beaten before and knew that the only way to handle the thing was to block everything out and take yourself to another place. In this instance I thought of Bond and his torture at the hands of Le Chiffre. If he could handle that then surely I can handle this would have been my thought process.
When the pain came it was excruciating. Not to cry out was key as the building echoed and other boys would hear. Not to mention it would heighten the pleasure that The Colonel and the Bunt lookalike clearly derived from these admonishments.
Not crying out was one thing but stopping the tears of pain was impossible. They streamed down my face. After what seemed an eternity, the last stroke came.
‘Put yourself straight and clean yourself’ instructed The Colonel.
I straightened myself. Wiped my face, shook the old bastard’s hand – yes unbelievably that was part of the routine – and exited past Blunt.
I learnt from one of Gladys’s latter letters that our plan had worked. The book was returned but without a note of apology. When I returned home the first thing I did was to read it.
Frankly, my youthful self was mightily disappointed. As we all know, this was no normal Bond thriller. Fleming broke completely with his formula and to read about Bond through female eyes was not exactly what I’d been expecting. Furthermore it was extremely explicit but not in Fleming’s usual glamorous way. And Bond, when he finally did appear looked at one point that he might be outwitted by a couple of lowlifes.
For the first and only time, Ian Lancaster Fleming disappointed me. That said, I didn’t hold it against him. The completest in me demanded that I have the book and the Chopping artwork offered a level of solace.
Ironically, Fleming himself was also disappointed. Writing to Michael Howard at Jonathan Cape he said: ‘I’ve become increasingly surprised to find my thrillers, which I designed for an adult audience, being read in schools, and that young people were making a hero out of James Bond …. So it crossed my mind to write a cautionary tale about Bond, to put the record straight in the minds of young readers….the experiment has gone very much awry’.
It went awry for Fleming. It certainly went awry for me!
That said, fifty three years later, I view the book rather differently. Until this year it remained the only Bond book that I’d only read once. I picked it up again with a view to seeing if it was really as bad as I remembered this time I discovered something remarkably contemporary about it.
I found that Fleming had actually done a great job of narrating from a female perspective and that he gives a very credible female view of masculinity. He really exposed his feminine side.
The story I also found to be quite gripping and written with a Hitchcockian, noir construct that would have made a great movie in the style and vein of ‘Key Lago’.
Yes, it was a departure but in retrospect I think a rather successful one that was probably way ahead of its time.
Certainly it maintains a very personal resonance for me and hopefully this tale endorses the good that is to be had from reading and how books can help us through dark periods in life. I owe a lot to Ian Lancaster Fleming. He turned me into an avid lifelong reader who has and continues to enjoy a wide spectrum of books. He also made me dream and I went on to live the dream.