TRAVEL WRITING STEMS from a variety of motives – to inform, to amuse, to educate, to show off or to make a bit of money. But sometimes the best travel writing comes from writers who don’t even want to be there in the first place.
That was the case for Ian Fleming in 1959, when The Sunday Times all but forced Fleming to make a several-weeks’ trip around Asia and then on to the United States via Hawaii. Despite Fleming admitting himself to be “the world’s worst sightseer”, who “had often advocated the provision of roller-skates at the doors of museums and art galleries”, the trip went ahead and resulted in a series of articles for the paper, one for each city visited; these articles were later compiled to form one of Fleming’s few non-James Bond books, Thrilling Cities.
But Bond aficionados will find much that is familiar; not only the glamour, but the seediness, the snobbery, the murky threat of violence, the constant boozing and the malaise of the novels can all be easily recognised throughout the travels recorded here. The first city visited is Hong Kong, where Fleming’s descriptions are enjoyable both for what has changed – “when the remaining forty years of our lease of the mainland territory expire, I see no reason why a reduced population should not retreat to the islands and the original territory which we hold in perpetuity” – and for what is still eminently recognisable: “the streets of Hong Kong are evidence that neon lighting need not be hideous, and the crowded Chinese ideograms in pale violet and pink and green with a plentiful use of white are entrancing not only for their colours but also because one does not know what drab messages and exhortations they spell out”. While staying in Hong Kong, Fleming also makes a jaunt to Macau, where he latches on to stories about the gold-smuggling trade, with “the internal Geiger-counter of a writer of thrillers ticking furiously”, before making his way on to Tokyo.
“I hate, small, finicky, breakable things, and I am slightly over six feet tall”, complains Fleming, who has had reservations about Japan from the beginning: “Before and during the war they had been bad enemies and many of my friends had suffered at their hands.” But in his short three days there, Fleming is won over both by his companions – Orientalised Australian Dick Hughes and Japanese “Tiger” Saito – and by the eccentricity and charm of Japanese culture. Despite feeling clumsy, awkward, and out of place, a good-humoured, “when in Rome” attitude soon overtakes him, and in a brief three days he manages to take in a meeting with Somerset Maugham, a Judo demonstration, a Japanese bath, a visit with a soothsayer, and an evening with geishas, all sake-soaked and never in violation of his anti-itinerary: “no politicians, museums, temples, Imperial palaces or Noh plays, let alone tea ceremonies.” The judo, bath, geishas, and Maugham are uniformly delightful, but the soothsayer is rather a wash, predicting Fleming will live to eighty, return to Japan, and is about to enjoy a streak of good luck. The latter cheers him, his companions having dispensed grave warnings to him against his flight out of Tokyo: flying on Friday the 13th is bad enough but, going Eastward to Hawaii, he will cross the dateline and experience two Friday the 13ths in a row.
As with the soothsayer’s other predictions, the streak of good luck is nonsense. The flight gets off to a bad start, rattled by Typhoon Emma, but Fleming doesn’t mind. His devil-may-care alter ego Bond actually prefers to fly on the 13th, he reminds us: “There are practically no passengers and it’s more comfortable and you get better service.” The comfort, the service, and the drinks see him asleep by midnight. After four hours, the voice of the captain awakes him: “There has been an explosion in number three engine and a fire […] I have no hydraulic pressure.” Luckily, this happens to be the most unflappable airline pilot in the world: “We have altered course for Wake Island where I shall carry out a no-flap landing at an unusual altitude and faster than is the custom […] I have made many three-engine landings and also many without hydraulic pressure, so – see you on the ground!”
In their own day, most of the appeal of the Bond novels and, by extension, Thrilling Cities, was aspirational; the diabolical villains and lurid exploits were just conventional story-building elements. Air travel alone was a thrilling and romantic experience, beyond the means of most, never mind staying in the best hotels, playing in the best casinos, wearing the finest suits, drinking the finest wine, eating the best caviar – the novels work as a sort of lifestyle porn, and Thrilling Cities, lacking the villains and the exploits, still works on the same level. Today, air travel, exotic places, skiing, fine dining and cocktails are no longer unobtainable for the average person, but that aspirational element remains; rather than vicariously living like an international playboy, today’s reader instead longs for a time when boarding an aeroplane was an adventure rather than a chore.
With a USAF rescue-plane and two Navy craft deployed, the captain breezily makes his landing (“To lighten the load, I am about to dump fuel, so there will be no smoking please.”) and Fleming’s en route to Honolulu, where his spirits remain high despite his failure to take to surfing, his distaste for plinking ukulele music and his dismay at hordes of elderly American tourists.
Fleming’s thriller-writer senses kick in once again in Los Angeles as he discusses the Mafia with Police Captain Hamilton, and his gambling connoisseurism in Las Vegas, providing a quick summary of how to gamble sensibly that is the level-headed antithesis of Mr. Bond’s high-stakes play. Speaking of Bond, Fleming was so wearied and miserable by the time he reached New York (via Chicago) that, as an apology for his rubbishing of the city, American readers were offered a humorous short-story about him. “007 in New York” isn’t much of a thriller but its throwaway nature is precisely what makes it enjoyable, with a rare and light-hearted ending in which Bond fails his mission – plus, there’s a recipe for “scrambled eggs James Bond”.
Fleming’s trip was so successful that, having barely finished submitting his articles, Fleming found himself being asked by the paper to make another trip. The Sunday Times had Latin America in mind, suggesting the appropriately thrilling Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana, but an already-weary Fleming was only willing to go as far away as Europe, making most of the trip in his own car and finding many of his destinations boring or repellent.
First on the agenda was Hamburg, where Fleming – often caricatured as an old Tory, but really more of a libertarian – briefly praises the sex industry (“normal heterosexual ‘vice’ is permitted to exist in appropriate ‘reservations’ and on condition that it remains open and light-hearted. How very different from the prudish and hypocritical manner in which we so disgracefully mismanage these things in England!”) before moving on to Berlin where he is oppressed by Modernist architecture, Cold War tensions and the spectre of Hitler.
In “The Living Daylights”, James Bond thinks of Berlin as “a glum, inimical city dry varnished on the Western side with a brittle veneer of gimcrack polish, rather like the chromium trim on American motor-cars”. If anything his creator is even harsher, but one wonders whether it’s the ghastliness of the city itself or the ghastliness of his mood that’s to blame. Fleming was periodically weighed down by a kind of directionless, spiteful ennui, which often fired his best writing – Casino Royale, From Russia, with Love, “The Living Daylights”, “Octopussy”. Reading his novels in sequence, one is bewildered by the mood swings between, for instance, From Russia, with Love, the cynical book in which Fleming comes closest to Le Carré, and actually kills 007 at the end (obviously, it didn’t stick), and its follow-up, the dizzyingly exuberant Doctor No. Today, he’d probably be called bipolar.
Even so, Fleming takes out some frustrations in a still-thrilling description of buzzing down the Autobahns, which takes up a good third of the chapter and makes the arrival to pleasant, dull Vienna rather an anti-climax, as is Geneva (“to include Geneva among the thrilling cities of Europe must seem to most people quixotic”). Italy is a bright spot: tracking down retired gangster Lucky Luciano in Naples, and Gracie Fields in Capri, before noting down an amusing bit of bother in Pompeii when a French tourist’s wife is refused entry to the Lupanar, where “childish pictures […] show you how to make love – if you were the right shape and extremely athletic”. The unimpressed Frenchman protests, “Pah! […] You think I have come a thousand miles from Paris to see that? Why, I was doing it myself when I was sixteen! […] These stupid Romans had no idea how to make love. And you mean to say you won’t let my wife see this nonsense!”. And after a discourse on how ugly and dull lava is, our author makes his way to Monte Carlo, where an amusing encounter with a sarcastic English girl and a visit to Jacques Cousteau both prove so restorative to the author’s spirits that he ends up closing the book with an incongruous “What fun it all was! What fun ‘abroad’ will always be!”
Still, travel at the best of times tends to take it out of us, but in another six weeks, six months, or a year we find ourselves looking back on our adventures with nothing but fondness, and presumably it was so for Fleming too, who probably expected to make a third trip once he’d recuperated sufficiently. Sadly, a heart attack at 56 meant that not only would there be no third trip, there’d be no more of his Bond novels either. Given how many of his experiences and impressions from Tokyo made their way directly into You Only Live Twice, it’s hard not to wonder what sort of adventures he was planning for Bond in Macau, Honolulu, or Naples. Still, the adventures recorded here provide an appropriately thrilling little volume which, if it is too dated to be of much value as a guidebook, is so of its time as to be indispensable as social history, and should be treasured and re-read as the witty, crotchety, yet always endearing record of a reluctant traveller.