Revelling in the Reeperbahn
Nick Smith reviews a new edition of Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’
It’s been a busy time of late for James Bond aficionados. There’s been the release of the latest movie Quantum of Solace as well as Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care, apparently the last ever Bond novel. The latter was published last year on 28th May, on what would have been Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, and the Queen Anne Press brought out a sumptuous 18-volume centenary edition of the author’s complete works at the same time.
For those not suffering from Fleming fatigue, wondering if there’s a little something left in the tank, there are reissues of two of Fleming’s works of journalism: The Diamond Smugglers, a piece of investigative journalism that penetrates the world of international gem trafficking, and Thrilling Cities, thirteen essays of travel writing, urban portraiture commissioned by the Sunday Times exactly 50 years ago. Of the two Thrilling Cities is by modern standards the better book, and there will be travel editors up and down the land tearing their hair out that they neither have the budget nor a sufficiently imaginative publisher to allow for the commission of a series of such sustained brilliance as this.
Despite being overlooked by collectors – you can get a decent UK first for around £100 (compare that with, say Thunderball) – Thrilling Cities is Fleming at his best. There are a few negative comments to make about it because any collection of newspaper articles bundled up for publication, as a book will suffer from inconsistencies and repetitions. And although it is tempting to say that Ian Fleming Publications could have produced an edition with more critical apparatus and textual analysis, at the end of the day we’re dealing with journalism that was – no matter how good – of its day. To me at least the most important concern is that we’re presented with the unexpurgated versions of Fleming’s essays. He rather revels in the strip clubs, topless mud wrestling and red light districts of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn and so would have been peeved to have found these details hacked out by assiduous sub-editors working under a nervous editor’s instructions.
Another problem with reproducing newspaper journalism is with the contractual obligation stuff that all travel hacks have to (quite often against their will) include. There will be nightclubs that have given you a smashing night out, restaurants that have killed the fatted calf, as well as airlines and hotels that have upgraded you to both seats and suites bigger than your house. All this has to be paid for with name checks and superlatives. Despite having bought a round-the-world air ticket for £803 19s. 2d. and having drawn £500 in travellers’ cheques from the Chief Accountant, Fleming is no exception to this time-honoured barter system and there are times when his (often very amusing) ‘Incidental Intelligence’ notes extend to several pages, as with New York.
By contrast there is no incidental intelligence relating to Monte Carlo, the last thrilling city in the series. Maybe this is not that much of a discrepancy, as the essay on Monte Carlo is so lacking in local colour of any description it is hard to believe that Fleming ever even went there, at least for this commission. Some early editions of Thrilling Cities have the so-called ‘lost Bond story’ – ‘007 in New York’ – appended to the New York essay, but this reprint doesn’t, which is a shame because it’s not well-known and this edition might have benefitted from its inclusion.
Fleming’s journey is divided into two series: the first is a truly global jet-setting affair, with the second a rather glamorous blast around Europe in his seven-litre Thunderbird, which he tells us is ‘very comfortable, roomy, and as quick as hell.’ And off he went leaving ‘humdrum London’ not because he could see much literary merit in the enterprise but because he wanted to ‘see the world, however rapidly, while it was still there to see.’
Anyone expecting Fleming to be a fish out of water in the travel genre will be sorely disappointed. He’s a terrific journalist and travel writer whose observations are blunt, colourful, patriotic and at times reassuringly elitist. Hard for us to imagine now of course, but at the time you could only do journeys like this if you were the creator of James Bond with a seemingly unlimited license to travel. This license came from Leonard Russell, Features and Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, who in October 1959 ‘came up with the idea that I should make a round trip of the most exciting cities of the world and describe them in beautiful, beautiful prose.’
Of the 14 cities Fleming visits I’ve been to only four, which in itself says much about what cities were thrilling then and are no longer now. The way in which European travel has changed over the past half a century means that many of the places Fleming visits are now industrialised clichés where you might stop in order to change plane while heading for somewhere thrilling in Africa (a continent studiously avoided by Fleming). Having said that, the shared experience is important because it shows just how good he is at grasping the essential character of the city.
Even so we’re worlds apart: I can honestly say that I’ve never stayed at the house of the most powerful English taipan (‘big shot’) while in Hong Kong. Likewise, in many visits to New York I’ve never dined where it’s necessary to tip the headwaiter $50 simply to get a table and wouldn’t know where to. While in Hamburg I’ve certainly been to gigantic Bavarian beer halls, my head half blown off by brass bands, but I’ve never found places where ‘you can enjoy really hot jazz.’ In Geneva I’ve paid ten pounds for a fried egg and yet never encountered a single occasion where a working knowledge of the anonymously numbered banking account system has been absolutely necessary.
Fleming’s world is swanky and suave – just like James Bond – and the reason his cities are thrilling is simply that he seeks out what the guidebooks omit. Doors fling themselves open before his fame and charisma, both a better passport than a passport. But at other times the thrills turn into grief simply too hard to bear. He leaves Berlin without regret: ‘From this grim capital went forth the orders that in 1917 killed my father and in 1940 my youngest brother.’ For all these quite unexpected personal reflections, Jan Morris is entirely correct when she says in her introduction to this new edition of Thrilling Cities that as P.G.Wodehouse is to the comic novel so is Ian Fleming to the thriller. His travel journalism is wonderfully flashing, humorous and quick as hell. Those who through over-familiarity with the Bond novels have grown tired of Fleming should get hold of a copy of this marvelous edition of Thrilling Cities and have their faith restored.
Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ is published by Ian Fleming Publications, £15.00 · ISBN 978-1 -906772-00-0
Nick Smith regularly writes travel features for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award
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