Sex, snobbery and sadism

<strong>The <em>New Statesman</em> 5 April 1958</strong>

Ian Fleming invented his hero James Bond

I have just finished what is without a doubt the nastiest book I have ever read. It is a new novel entitled Dr. No and the author is Mr. Ian Fleming. Echoes of Mr Fleming's fame had reached me before, and I had been repeatedly urged to read his books by literary friends whose judgement I normally respect. When his new novel appeared, therefore, I obtained a copy and started to read. By the time I was a third of the way through, I had to suppress a strong impulse to throw the thing away, and only continued reading because I realised that here was a social phenomenon of some importance.

There are three basic ingredients in Dr No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a school boy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult. Mr Fleming has no literary skill, the construction of the book is chaotic, the entire incidents and situations are inserted, and then forgotton, in a haphazard manner. But the three ingredients are manufactured and blended with deliberate, professional precision; Mr Fleming dishes up his recipe with all the calculated accountancy of a Lyons Corner House.

The plot can be briefly described. James Bond, an upper-class Secret Service Agent, is sent by his sadistic superior, M., to Jamaica, to investigate strange incidents on a nearby island. By page 53, Bond's bodyguard, a faithful and brutal Negro called Quarrel, is already at work, twisting the arms of Chinese girl to breaking point. She gouges his face with a broken flash bulb, and in return, he smilingly squeezes the fleshy part of her thumb (described by Fleming as the 'Mount of Venus', because if it is well-developed then the girl is 'good in bed') until she screams. ('She's Love Moun' be sore long after ma face done get healed', chortles Quarrel.) Next, Bond's mysterious enemies attempt to poison him with cyanide loaded fruit, and then insert a six-inch long venomous centipede in his bed ('Bond could feel it nuzzling at his skin. It was drinking! Drinking the beads of salt sweat!').

Bond visits the island, falls asleep, and on waking sees a beautiful girl, wearing only a leather belt round her waist ('The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic'). Her behind, Bond notices, 'was almost as firm as a rounded boy's'. The girl tells Bond she was raped at the age of 15 by a savage overseer, who then broke her nose. She revenged herself by dropping a Black Widow spider on his naked stomach while he slept ('He took a week to die'). Bond rejects her urgent invitation to share her sleeping bag. Then the enemy arrives – huge, inhuman Negro-Chinese half-castes, known as Chingroes, under the diabolical direction of Dr No. Quarrel is scorched to death by a flame-thrower, and Bond and the girl are captured.

There follows a vague series of incidents in a sort of luxury hotel, built into the mountain, where Dr No entertains his captives before torturing them. This gives Fleming an opportunity to insert his snob ingredient. A lubricious bathroom scene, in which the girl again attempts to seduce Bond, involves Floris Lime bath-essence, Guerlain bathcubes and 'Guerlain's Sapoceti, Fleur Des Alpes'. Bond, offered a drink, demands 'a medium vodka dry Martini' ('I would prefer Russian or Polish vodka'). A third attempt by the girl is frustrated only by Bond's succumbing to the drugs inserted in his breakfast. At last Dr No appears, 6ft 6in tall, and looking like 'a giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil'. Some years before, his hands had been cut off, but he is equipped with 'articulated steel pincers', which he has a habit of tapping against his contact lenses, making a metallic noise. He has a polished skull, no eyelashes, and his heart is on the wrong side of his body; he is, needless to say, Chinese (with a German mother). His chief amusement is to subject his captives to prolonged, scientific tortures. ('I am interested in pain. I am also interested in finding out how much the human body can endure.')

Bond contemplates stabbing No's jugular vein with the jagged stem of a broken wine-glass, but reluctantly abandons the idea. The girl is taken off, to be strapped, naked, to the ground and nibbled to death by giant crabs. Bond is put through an ingenious, and fantastically complicated, obstacle course of tortures, devised by No. First come electric shocks. Then an agonising climb up a steel chimney. Then a crawl along a red-hot zinc tube, to face 20 giant Tarantula spiders 'three or four inches long.' Finally Bond is hurled into the sea, where he is met by a 50-foot giant squid (everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics). Having survived all these, Bond buries No alive under a mountain of bird-dung, rescues the girl and at last has a shot at a jugular vein, this time with a table-knife. He also shoots three Chingroes, one in the head, one in the stomach and one in the neck. The girl's feet get cut up, but they tramp to safety, 'leaving bloody footsteps on the ground'. The story ends with Bond biting the girl in an erotic embrace, which takes place in a special giant sleeping bag.

I have summarised the plot, perhaps at some wearisome length, because a bare recital of its details describes, better than I can, how Fleming deliberately and systematically excites, and then satisfies the very worst instincts of his readers. This seems to me far more dangerous than straight pornography. In 1944, George Orwell took issue with a book which in some ways resembles Fleming's novels – No Orchids for Miss Blandish. He saw the success of No Orchids, published in 1940, as part of a discernable psychological climate, whose other products were Fascism, the Gestapo, mass-bombing and war. But in condemning No Orchids, Orwell made two reservations. First, he conceded that it was brilliantly written, and that the acts of cruelty it described sprang from a subtle and integrated, though perverse, view of human nature. Secondly, in contrasting No Orchids with Raffles – which he judged a healthy and harmless book – he pointed out that No Orchids was evil precisely because it lacked the restraint of conventional upper-class values; and this led him to the astonishing but intelligible conclusion that perhaps, after all, snobbery, like hypocrisy, was occasionally useful to society.

What I wonder, would he have said of Dr. No? For this novel is badly written to the point of incoherence and none of the 500,000 people who, I am told, are expected to buy it, could conceivably be giving Cape 13s. 6d. to savour its literary merits. Moreover, both its hero and its author are unquestionably members of the Establishment. Bond is an ex-Royal Navy Commander and belongs to Blades, a sort-of super-White's. Mr Fleming was educated at Eton and Sandhurst, and is married to a prominent society hostess, the ex-wife of Lord Rothermere. He is the foreign manager of that austere and respectable newspaper, the Sunday Times, owned by an elderly fuddy-duddy called Lord Kemsley, who once tried to sell a popular tabloid with her slogan (or rather his wife's slogan) of 'clean and clever'. Fleming belongs to the Turf and Boodle's and lists among his hobbies the collection of first editions. He is also the owner of Goldeneye, a house made famous by Sir Anthony Eden's Retreat from Suez. Eden's uneasy slumbers, it will be remembered, were disturbed by (characteristically) giant rats which, after they had been disposed of by his detectives, turned out to be specially tamed ones kept by Mr. Fleming.

Orwell, in fact, was wrong. Snobbery is no protection: on the contrary, the social appeal of the dual Bond-Fleming personality has added an additional flavour to his brew of sex and sadism. Fleming's novels are not only successful, like No Orchids; they are also smart. The Daily Express, pursuing its task of bringing glamour and sophistication to the masses, has serialised the last three. Our curious post-war society, with its obsessive interest in debutantes, its cult of U and non-U, its working-class graduates educated into snobbery by the welfare state, is a soft market for Mr Fleming's poison. Bond's warmest admirers are among the Top People. Of his last adventure, From Russia, With Love, his publishers claim, with reason, that it 'won approval from the sternest critics in the world of letters.' The Times Literary Supplement found it 'most brilliant', the Sunday Times 'highly polished', the Observer 'stupendous', the Spectator 'rather pleasant'. And this journal, most susceptible of all, described it as 'irresistible'. It has become easier than it was in Orwell's day to make cruelty attractive. We have gone just that much farther down the slope. Recently I read Henri Alleg's horrifying account of his tortures in an Algiers prison; and I have on my desk a documented study of how we treat our prisoners in Cyprus. I am no longer astonished that these things can happen. Indeed, after reflecting on the Fleming phenomenon, they seem to me almost inevitable.