Betjeman and Fleming – An Unlikely Friendship

Article by Graham Thomas

John Betjeman (1906 -1984) was Poet Laureate, a lover of English churches but was not a spy and, so far as is known, did not come across Fleming during the War. (Unlike other literary figures.) Eventually, he and Fleming did become good friends and while there is now little in the way of available records, some snippets do exist, and it makes for a minor but interesting story.

Beginning in 1951, Betjeman wrote regularly for the Daily Telegraph and his articles included book reviews. When Casino Royale was first published, he was assigned the task of reading it and his review published.

Casino Thrills – Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming should I suppose, rightly have been relegated to the reviewer of thrillers. But those who know the sweating excitement of gambling in a casino, the dry shuffle of cards, the intent faces of the gamblers pretending to be bored, and the awful depression of staking everything and losing will be excited by this spy story for other than the usual thriller reasons.

It is as exciting as a gamble, as well as a story of an English secret service agent who is employed to out-gamble a Communist agent who has foolishly been spending his Trade Union funds in a French casino. It suffers from falling apart two-thirds of the way through when it becomes a rather physical love story on a different plane from the earlier part of the book.

Ian Fleming has discovered the secret of narrative art – a secret which Neville Shute told me lately – which is to work up a climax unrevealed at the end of each chapter. Thus the reader has to go on reading.

Sir John Betjemin

Sir John Betjemin

He was known to be caustic when needed without being unfair, and his reviews were usually well regarded. At this time there is no evidence that the two men were acquainted and so it is clear that he had been genuinely impressed with the quality of writing even if Robert Harling, a close friend of Fleming writes about Fleming meeting John Betjeman for the first time. This was in his book Fleming: A Personal Memoir and although a specific date is not given it is around 1960.

Harling was lunching Betjeman at Scotts (one of Fleming’s favourite haunts) where they were discussing the possibility of Betjeman writing a feature for House & Garden, where Harling was editor. He had also invited Fleming who had once expressed an interest in meeting the poet. Harling said they became immediate friends and companions and the two would go out on visits together: Fleming introduced Betjeman to the people he would buy brass reliefs from, while Betjeman, in turn, would take Fleming to various less well-known churches and lecture Fleming on their architectural merits.

Certainly, over the next few years, they remained friends.

‘The Bond world is as full of fear & mystery as Conan Doyle’s Norwood and Surrey and Baker Street… This is real art & the proof of it is in the reading & the filming… I look up to you, old boy, as I look up to Uncle Tom Eliot & Wodehouse and H Moore & I suppose Evelyn [Waugh]… Write on. Fight on. Let not popularity worry you and evildoers stop you writing as it does yours ever, John B.’

Betjeman wrote this letter to Fleming in December 1963, having just watched ‘From Russia With Love’, a few weeks after its premiere. He was telling Fleming that he should consider himself among a few great writers who had created a world that would endure. But it was also a letter of commiseration because Fleming had finally lost the court case with Kevin McClory over the Thunderball authorship dispute; Betjeman was trying to support him at this difficult time.

It seems likely that there was at least some regular and frank correspondence between the two men but little of it now exists. In 1964, as he was about to embark on The Man with the Golden Gun, Fleming wrote a poignant letter to Betjeman, ‘I must warn you that I am seriously running out of puff,’ he complained. ‘My inventive streak is very nearly worked out.’

Fleming had written in a similar vein to his friend and editor of many years, William Plomer, complaining that, ‘This is, alas, the last Bond and, again alas, I mean it, for I really have run out of both puff and zest.’

Fleming had died in 1964 and we need to jump forward to 1971 when Betjeman was asked to give evidence at a local government planning enquiry as the Greater London Council had threatened to demolish the historic Rules restaurant as part of the development of Covent Garden. In giving spoken evidence Betjeman said,

‘I have been asked to speak up for [the] restaurant which I have patronised off and on since the late twenties. This I gladly do; not just because Rules is, at present, an excellent restaurant – and incidentally I might just say that I was not asked to lunch by Mr Wood and this is a purely voluntary statement. Not just because Rules is an excellent restaurant but because its interior on the ground floor is unique and irreplaceable and part of literary and theatrical London. As at present furnished, its interior is historic.’

He was successful in helping persuade the council not to proceed with demolishment. Thankfully so as this leads to the last connection: in the 2015 movie Spectre, M, Q and Moneypenny meet at Rules. Filming took place inside and outside the restaurant and, of course, featured the wonderful interiors that Betjeman had described.

Incidental Intelligence

An Epicurean Guide to Ian Fleming’s London

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