MI6 travels back to 1958 for the release of Ian Fleming's sixth James Bond novel "Dr No”, when critics were still struggling with his mix of sex, sadism and snobbery...

Time Tunnel: The Upper-Crust Low Life
3rd July 2007

By the summer of 1958, James Bond was on the radar of popular culture as Ian Fleming's creation had previously charted five literary adventures. The sixth, "Dr No", would venture far from the realistic portrayal of espionage in the preceding title "From Russia, With Love", and instead stray in to the realms of science fiction. Even with its race-car pace and larger than life (titular) villain dubbed "The Man in the Grey Tin-Foil", critics were still grasping at Fleming's mix of sex, sadism and snobbery - including this review from Time Magazine.

In literary London, where the vogue in controversy runs to turtlenecked highbrows and Angry Young Men, the latest brouhaha is whirling around an unlikely book by an unlikelier author: a mystery shocker called Dr. No, by an uppercrust Tory named Ian Fleming.

The book marks the sixth appearance of James Bond, 007 by code number, a deadpan British secret-service agent with high tastes and low instincts. With the help of an estimated 1,250,000 British readers, Bond has boosted Creator Fleming high on the bestseller lists and into the gunsights of outraged critics. They blast him as a kind of Mickey Spillane in gentleman's clothing, his books as "a cunning mixture of sex, sadism and money snobbery" and "a bad symptom of the present state of civilization in this country."

If Author Fleming is guilty of using the old school tie as a cultural garrote, it is, fittingly enough, his own. Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, 49-year-old Ian Fleming served in Naval Intelligence during World War II, is now foreign manager of the proper Sunday Times. He is married to the former Lady Rothermere, whose press-lord husband named him as corespondent in a divorce suit in 1952.

Above: 1st edition Jonathan Cape hardback (UK). Artwork by Pat Marriott.

At Goldeneye, his luxurious Jamaica residence, Clubman Fleming has been host to his convalescing friend, Sir Anthony Eden. His critics find his shockers all the more unspeakable because he is so much a member of The Establishment.* Yet Fleming is no Spillane. His closest U.S. opposite number, Raymond (The Big Sleep) Chandler calls him "masterly." And Novelist Elizabeth Bowen says: "Here's magnificent writing."

The Man In The Grey Tin-Foil
Not all readers will agree that Dr. No, which Macmillan will publish in the U.S. in July, is magnificent writing, but pages of it, at least, qualify for Ezra Pound's classic comment on Tropic of Cancer: "At last, an unprintable book that is readable."

Above: British Pan paperback 1st-3rd editions (1960 onwards).


Secret Agent Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate some mysterious goings-on on a neighboring island. His unknown foes promptly plant a six-inch venomous centipede in his bed ("Bond could feel it nuzzling at his skin. It was drinking! Drinking the beads of salt sweat!").

Bond gets to the small island, drops off to sleep only to awaken to the sight of a beautiful girl, nude but for a wide leather belt around her waist ("the belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic"). After his faithful native servant is scorched to death by a flamethrower Bond and the girl are ushered into the presence of the diabolical Dr. No.

A sort of rich man's Fu Manchu, Dr. No is one of the less forgettable characters in modern fiction. He is 6 ft. 6, and looks like "a giant venomous worm wrapped in grey tin-foil." For hands he has "articulated steel pincers," which he habitually taps against his contact lenses, making a "dull ting." Dr. No's hobby is torture ("I am interested in pain").

Bond survives Dr. No's inventive obstacle course from electric shocks to octopus hugs, buries his tormentor alive under a small mountain of guano, and rescues the girl from a fate as a tasty snack for some giant land crabs.

After giving Dr. No the giant-land-crab treatment, the New Statesman's Critic Paul Johnson suggested that Fleming fans were psychosocial cousins of prison torturers in Algeria. In the current Twentieth Century, Bernard Bergonzi called Fleming's attitude toward sex that "of a dirty-minded schoolboy." He noted that the women are usually pushovers in a Fleming novel, and cited a bra-and-pantie-clad minx named Tiffany Case, who says not too long after she meets Bond: "I want it all, darling . . ."

Bath Cubes By Guerlain
But the critics sound as if they might be kinder to Bond's non-U. penchant for drop-kicking the men and devil-dealing the ladies if he were not such a dandy among the consumer goods, a slave to "crude snob-cravings." The monocle glitters over the private-eyeful afforded by Agent Bond. He smokes Macedonian cigarettes marked with three gold rings. He drinks Dom Perignon champagne, drives a Bentley. At Blades, a posh St. James's Street club that he frequents, "no newspaper comes to the reading room before it has been ironed." He-Man Bond's bath water is scented with Floris Lime bath essence, while his babes splash self-indulgently amid Guerlain bath cubes. To Critic Bergonzi, these cushy "fantasies of upper class life can only be a desire to compensate for the rigors of existence in a welfare state: they have an air of vulgarity and display."

Unsubdued and perfectly self-assured, Author Fleming finally took to print in his own defense. Too much violence? Answers Fleming in the Manchester Guardian: true to "real spy-life." Too much sex? Replies Fleming: "Perhaps Bond's blatant heterosexuality is a subconscious protest against the current fashion for sexual confusion." Too much snobbery? "I had to fit Bond out with some theatrical props ... I myself abhor Wine-and-Foodmanship. My own favorite food is scrambled eggs." Yet, though he has never been known to kick anyone in the groin, and fancies his own Ford Thunderbird over a Bentley, Author Fleming strikes his friends as "awfully like Bond really, appearance, clothes, Floris bath essence and all."

Says Fleming equably: "I am not an entrant in the Shakespeare stakes. I began writing these books because my mental hands were empty and as an antibody to my hysterical alarm at getting married at the age of 43." As for the harsher critics, "they have so many chips on their shoulders they should go into the timber business. I do however apologize for once making Bond order asparagus with bearnaise, instead of mousseline sauce. A writer should acknowledge his shortcomings."

Above: Ian Fleming

*A flexible term, usually critical, for the British ruling class's ruling class, e.g., the Archbishop of Canterbury and all Anglican bishops, certain peers with long bloodlines, top civil servants, Etonian Tories, staunch monarchists, and Times leader writers, all of whom together constitute what has been called "the old-boy circuit" or "the stately domes of England."

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