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Jon Gilbert Interview

27th March 2013

MI6 contributor David Leigh interviews Ian Fleming's bibliographer Jon Gilbert about the life and works of 007's creator

MI6 logo By MI6 Staff
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Jon Gilbert is the bibliographer of Ian Fleming and a James Bond archivist. Last year, he completed the gargantuan 'Ian Fleming: The Bibliography' for Queen Anne Press - a comprehensive 736-page guide to the work of 007's creator. It is not only an indispensable source of information for collectors, enthusiasts, libraries and booksellers alike, but an entertaining and informative volume. Gilbert is one of the foremost experts on the works Ian Fleming. He is a renowned bookdealer at rare book experts Adrian Harrington Limited in London and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Fleming’s works. His research took him to the Jonathan Cape Publishing archive, Eton College Library, the Pan Macmillan archive, Penguin Books Ltd., The Imperial War Museum’s Fleming Exhibition, the British Library and the ‘Bond Bound’ display at The Fleming Collection, London. In addition he has been able to interview colleagues, friends and family of Ian Fleming.

MI6 contributor David Leigh caught up with the author recently to discuss his research.

So, apart from the novels and short stories, what else is in "Ian Fleming: The Bibliography" because it's a huge book (laughing, after having been handed the 3.5 kg book).
Well it covers pretty much all Ian Fleming's written output, not all his journalism there because it's probably impossible to do. I know some collectors that tried but have given up, and a lot of it the journalism was put into book form as well and it covers those sort of anthologies. There are a few articles that I've not included because they wouldn't be considered published material, things like the Naval Intelligence Handbook, he used to do reports for that, a newsletter for the banking companies he worked for, the stock broking companies, so they're not for general circulation, they're mentioned but I haven't described those.

But it covers the important journalism from the '30s, it's even got a note and description of his first published fiction in the '20s when he was a schoolboy and then it goes through his travel writing, obviously the birth of the Bond books and all the Bond books and then his reporting for the Sunday Times. Alongside that, I've also looked at the forewords and contributions he's made to others books, there are seven or eight of those, things like "The Seven Deadly Sins", that was one of his ideas and he wrote the introduction, there was a novel called "All Night At Mr Stanyhurst's", which was a Cape published novel.

 

Fleming loved it, it was written in the '30s but had long been out of print and when Fleming became a successful author he was badgering the publisher to reissue this book. Eventually they did and he wrote the introduction to that.

So, it covers things like that, there's section on the book reviews that Ian Fleming had written of others, he was reviewing books by Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, they're rather interesting as a lot of people don't know about those, omnibus editions and then the collected editions, the boxed sets and larger editions. I think that's probably about it!

How did this project come about? Did you just sit down one day and start compiling data for your own use, or was it for another reason?
No, not really, I've worked in rare books for twenty years, this is our family business and I did my degree in rare books, I did a book binding degree, and we use bibliography when we catalogue our stock on a daily basis. There was never an Ian Fleming bibliography; there have been a few articles in book collecting journals, but no official bibliography. In 2007 we were consulted when the Queen Anne Press were looking to do the collected edition of Ian Fleming for the centenary year, so we had a few meetings and discussions, and I talked about the lack of a bibliography. I'd always wanted to do one but I thought I'd do it in my later years, and really as a result of that the Queen Anne Press and the Fleming family said you're in the right position, you clearly have the knowledge and the passion for it.

I don't remember just deciding and sitting down through 10 or 15 years at that point of book selling I picked up a lot of knowledge, we have a lot of collectors as we specialise in Fleming, so I knew a lot about the issue points and the rarities but I then had to make the decision and go and look at the archives. Various archives and institutions I went to, the Cape archive was probably the most important, but other publishers like Pan, Macmillan, Penguin, all of these publishers that have issued the Bond books over the years, so I went and looked at all their records. I was allowed to photograph them, sit there with the iPhone, go through all the records. You pay a fee, then I could take it away and over the next 18 months or two years I could assess all those records. So, that was good, had I not had that photographic permission it would have been a lot longer.

How open were the publishers to allowing you access?
They were very open once I had permissions in place, and the fact that my publisher, Queen Anne Press, is run by Fergus Fleming and Kate Grimond, Ian Fleming's niece and nephew…

I noticed your James Bond display when I came in. How did you become interested in Ian Fleming and when did you start reading the books?
Well, it was through the books that I became interested in Ian Fleming, like most people I saw a Bond movie before I'd read a Bond book, that's the easier form, and I really enjoyed the films. I saw them in my early teens, eleven or twelve onwards, something like that. I didn't read the books until my late teens and I was really surprised at how different very many of the Bond books were and I really enjoyed them, I thought they were genuinely thrilling, very well written, very pacy, which I suppose at that kind of age I'd had a shorter attention span anyway (laughs), and they engaged me and I wanted to know more about Fleming so I read around the subject, I read some biographies, I read his other works.

I enjoyed his other works, I think his travel writing is very good, he's a gifted travel writer. He probably gets that from his brother, who was a very famous and successful travel author, and he was surrounded by a literary circle, people like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Patrick Leigh Fermor, another great travel writer, Fitzroy MacLean, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, some real stellar names. These were all friends of Fleming and I'm sure they shared ideas, talked about books. I think Fleming is a very good writer, of course his books are popular thrillers, but I think they're more than just aeroplane or holiday reading, I do think they have a literary merit.

Sometimes the Bond books have been looked down upon, certainly by Ann Fleming's literary friends, was that fair and how influential was Ian Fleming as a writer?
I've been told by his niece that he really wasn't too bothered by people's reaction, he was quite a cool customer, and he really didn't pay much attention. The books were controversial, everyone knows lots of stories about the books and the reaction to them, "pornography", "sadism", all these things that were levelled, it really didn't matter to Fleming but there was a literary circle of friends and he did demonstrate on a few occasions that he wanted to break away from the formula of James Bond. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

"The Spy Who Loved Me" was a very different direction and I think he probably agreed it didn't really work. I think it's quite a bold book, a brave attempt at something different, but of course it's not going to satisfy the Bond fans, so the very next book is a formula book, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service"; a good book. I think his short stories are very good, and they're very different. Bond is very often a third party in the story, the stories are told just to Bond.

 

Which is your favourite short story?
I like "Quantum of Solace", I like "Octopussy" as well, and in both those Bond is a very minor part. It's not really a Bond story. Somerset Maugham was the great master of short stories, Graham Greene as well, and he knew both of them and they were both former intelligence personnel too. Fleming always said, "Quantum of Solace" was his homage to Somerset Maugham and Somerset Maugham read his books and commented on them and looked upon them very favourably.

Authors like Cyril Connelly and Raymond Chandler spoke very highly and wrote glowing reviews, so from high literary circles he did get a good reception. I think he was really proud of what he did and, of course because of their success they were commercial, in the end they earned a lot of money, but I do think they have a literary merit, I don't think they're just ordinary thriller fodder and I think that's why they've lasted this long.

I agree completely. You say you got to the films first and then read the books in your late teens but I actually came to the books first, I borrowed my dad's copy of "Casino Royale" when I was eight (laughing) and a lot of it was…
(Laughing) … the torture scene! …

....And because of that I've read it, re-read it so many times, once I was reading it and I guess part of me was still seeing it through an eight-year-old's eyes and I realised that I'd completely missed something or other.
But you enjoyed it as an eight year old?

I did, yes. And I don't think it damaged me too much except that I've had this lifelong obsession with Bond (laughing).
Well there is an adult nature to them, they're very dark. I think they were different to what was available at the time. Some of the early reviews said the books were "Peter Cheyney deluxe", now Peter Cheyney was a hugely popular author in his time who has really fallen out of fashion and unless you're dealing books, a lot of people don't know who Peter Cheyney is. He did a series of novels called "dark thrillers", like Dark Duet, and it's probably not unkind to say they were fairly light thrillers, but that's what they were being compared to. Fleming's had a lot more meat to it that wasn't there before, at least in this country.

Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were very well respected thriller authors in the States but I don't think we had that sort of author here at the time. Somerset Maugham produced the Ashenden series, which was hugely popular but he wasn't known as a spy writer. Graham Greene produced some wonderful Cold War thrillers and spy novels but he wasn't really known as a spy writer. Eric Ambler was perhaps getting to a later point in his career and John Buchan was earlier than Fleming, so I think that Fleming arrived at the right sort of time for his style of espionage fiction.

Why has nobody published a bibliography before do you think?
I don't know, it's a good question, I'm surprised they haven't. The first effort was in 1978 by a man called Iain Campbell, and I think it's a 60 or 70 page book, very good, but it's brief. Obviously a lot's happened since then and far more rarities have turned up. He didn't really have access to the manuscripts, typescripts, proofs, the early material, but what he did was very good -he even called it a preliminary to a bibliography so it doesn't really attempt to be anything more than a checklist. And then we had to wait until the '90s before there was another checklist by a bookseller, a friend of mine in New York called Otto Penzler; his is about 30 or 40 pages and expands a little on Campbell but only talks about the James Bond books, no Chitty, no journalism.

And then an English dealer/collector James Pickard did an article in First Magazine all about James Bond which was illustrated for the first time and that was pretty good, but these aren't thorough bibliographies. I don't think that anyone's really had the time- this has taken me five years and that's some undertaking and sacrifice, and you've also got to be in the right position. As I say, I was fortunate to have meetings with the Fleming family and the Queen Anne Press, and for them to get behind me and support this and allow me to go places. But also, I had to have the will and desire to do that and give up my time and do that. I can see why it hasn't happened.

All of these things take a large slice of your life up, don't they?
It could well have been a thankless task, but fortunately people do seem to appreciate it. The initial response to the book has been very good so I'm pleased with that. I'm hoping people will be able to use it as a great tool for assessing their collection, which is what it's meant to be.

When you started working on it who did you have in mind, who were you writing it for?
Well, being a book seller I had other book dealers in mind, as often stock is poorly catalogued and I think that people need to know what they've got- that's the idea of a bibliography, but the same applies to collectors and anyone who is involved with rare books or old books; librarians, archivists, collectors, and book sellers. So in our field there's quite a broad range of customer for this- not just for rare book collectors.

We've also sold copies to auction houses and libraries; anyone who really needs to use bibliographies or works in the rare book field. If Fleming is the subject, or twentieth century fiction is their genre then this is for them. I could have done a James Bond bibliography, but I felt it was more important to do an Ian Fleming bibliography to pay respect to the author, to try and cover everything that he's done, that's the least I could try and do. Two-thirds of it is obviously James Bond, but there is an awful lot that isn't.

Many thanks to Jon Gilbert and David Leigh of The James Bond Dossier.

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