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Series: The week in booksPrevious | Next | Index The week in booksThe male desire for explanation; the real Quantum of Solace; and merchandising fiction
Andrew Lycett writes:
It has been half-term, but I was not expecting the eager hordes when I visited the Imperial War Museum's exhibition on James Bond's creator. Ian Fleming's centenary has put him firmly back on the cultural map. Strange, then, that Quantum of Solace, the Bond film released this week, should bear no relation, bar the title, to Fleming's short story of that name. The title has a Hollywood portentousness, but the story - about a bitter matrimonial struggle in the colonies - is most unBond-like: no action; rather, a tropical mood piece in the style of Somerset Maugham.
By 1959, Fleming had written seven well-received 007 novels. But he was not satisfied with his success. His books might be popular, but not with the people he wanted. The previous year, Paul Johnson in a New Statesman essay had described Dr No as "without a doubt the nastiest book" he had ever read. Closer to home, Ann, Fleming's high-born wife, could not disguise her distaste for Bond - a standing joke with literary friends such as Evelyn Waugh and Cyril Connolly.
Every winter, Fleming would go for three months to Goldeneye, his house in Jamaica, where he knocked out the latest of his Bond stories. But in 1959 his fire had gone. Ann had refused to accompany him and, unable to concentrate on a full-scale novel, he attempted a book of short stories, published the following year as For Your Eyes Only. But even a quota of five mini-007 tales proved beyond him. So he turned to his girlfriend in Jamaica, Blanche Blackwell, for the real-life tale that became his story "Quantum of Solace". Blackwell revealed how, in 1938, she had visited her then husband, Joe Blackwell, in Mandeville, where he had been seconded to the local constabulary at the time of a rebellion that threatened to bring the colony to its knees. She had been appalled to witness one of his fellow officers being humiliated by his wife's very public extramarital affair.
She had been reminded of these events when her friend, Sylvia Foot, the wife of a recent governor general, asked her to help an unfortunate woman who had been abandoned by her husband, a former deputy police commissioner on the island. This was Elspeth Smith, the brazen adulteress of Mandeville. According to Foot, the police officer, Clive Smith, had become deputy commissioner in Jamaica. But his wife's infidelities rankled. After a trip abroad, he told her he would no longer communicate, except in writing. When, a year later, she asked for a divorce and alimony, he informed her she would be financially secure since she had the house, the car and all the furnishings. Soon afterwards, he moved to Barbados as commissioner of police. When Elspeth Smith came to sell up, she found nothing paid for. Thus Foot's appeal for charity. But Blackwell, recalling Elspeth's behaviour in 1938, felt no inclination to help.
Fleming changed the Smiths' home to Bermuda and made the policeman a diplomat, but kept the gist of the story, which in his version was told to Bond in an after-dinner conversation in Nassau about the nature of marriage. He had the narrator, the governor of the Bahamas, defining the Quantum of Solace as a precise equation of the amount of comfort necessary between two people if love is to flourish. If this figure is zero, there can be no love. Bond clearly understood, for he added that "when the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you ... you've got to get away to save yourself".
In taking this line, Fleming was commenting on his own parlous marriage. The new film makes some small obeisance to this idea by insisting that Bond is inspired by a residual sense of love to find the killers of Vesper Lynd, his girlfriend in his previous cinematic outing, Casino Royale
Blackwell at least received recompense for her authorial help. Fleming acknowledged her role by giving her what he called "a fat present" - in reality a slim wristwatch from Cartier. At last, a true Bond touch.