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Ian Fleming still has a licence to thrill

06-May-2010 • Literary

Could Brighton take a villainous panto lesbian to its heart, asks Rowan Pelling in The Telegraph.

As I arrived in Brighton last Sunday, I overheard someone say to a man in a tutu carrying a Yorkshire terrier, "We're a broad-minded bunch here." Quite so: at the tail end of the week when Gillian Duffy was branded a bigot, the city's readers were embracing a novel where xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny run riot – a book where a Turkish secret agent is praised for lacking "the banana skin handshake of the East that makes you want to wipe your fingers on your coat-tails" and the hero declares, "There's no reason why a Russian girl shouldn't be just as silly as an English one."

The organisers of this month's Brighton Festival had decided to stage a "Big Read", and the chosen work was JFK's favourite: From Russia With Love. This seemed brave even for pansexual Brighton. After all, Ian Fleming's novel features not only the most villainous pantomime lesbian in the annals of fiction, the poison-booted Rosa Klebb, but the description of members of the intelligentsia as "long-haired perverts" by the officious Captain Troop (prompting Bond's laconic response: "Not all intellectuals are homosexuals. And many of them are bald").

I've adored the Bond books since childhood, when they introduced me to that particularly heady cocktail of sex, power and violence. As 007 says when watching two naked gipsies fight to the death (quoting his French friend, Mathis): "J'aime les sensations fortes." I relished Fleming's gift for detail, even more lavish when detailing a good breakfast or a fast car than when describing a woman's body.

Fleming once told Somerset Maugham: "We are the only two writers who write about what people are really interested in: cards, money, gold and things like that." His insight remains true, although modern readers can darn near forget what it feels like to be thrilled in a book market stuffed with misery memoirs, pet stories and celeb biographies.

No wonder, during our panel discussion, that the audience in Brighton shared our enthusiasm for Fleming's deft sentences, with their refreshing lack of taboo. Bond has the same appeal to 21st-century readers as Gene Hunt, or the cast of Mad Men, whirling us back to a world where men were men, women were sex objects (or homicidal lesbians), and you knew exactly who the villains were – generally because they had a thick Russian accent, and a boil on their neck.

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