“At six o’clock that Tuesday evening towards the end of May, James Bond was thrashing the big Bentley down the Dover road along the straight stretch that runs into Maidstone.” So begins the famous secret agent’s first working trip to Kent, as narrated by his creator, Ian Fleming, in the novel, Moonraker1. Fleming’s connection with and affection for Kent was profound and of long standing. He was a talented amateur golfer, with a handicap at one time of nine, the same as he ascribed to Bond – one of the many conscious similarities between author and character. Fleming first visited Royal St Georges at Sandwich Bay when he was in his twenties and was a member of the club until his death at the age of fifty-six – in fact, he was captain-elect in 1964, the year he died, and had lunched there the day before his final, fatal heart attack.
Fleming’s fondness for Kent flowered from its roots as an occasional golfing retreat to what was to become, for a time, a blissful domestic haven. Beginning in 1948, he regularly visited his friend Noel Coward at Coward’s residence ‘White Cliffs’, situated in Kent’s St Margaret’s Bay area. In 1951, so enamoured of the area, Fleming took on the lease of a nearby property, which he called ‘Summer’s Lease’, from author Eric Ambler (another friend of Coward’s) and then, in the same year, the lease of White Cliffs when Coward vacated the property. Fleming and Ann Rothermere, whom he married the following year, lived there until 1957. Then, with Ann expressing a desire to move away from the seafront in St Margaret’s Bay, Fleming bought ‘The Old Palace’ in Bekesbourne, near Canterbury, where the two of them lived for a couple of years before moving into a flat in Whitehall in Sandwich Bay.
With so much invested in Kent, both financially and emotionally, it was natural for Fleming to mine it as a source for what was to become his career as a writer of supremely entertaining thrillers. For twelve years, from 1952, the year of his marriage to Ann, he wrote a book a year about the cool secret agent sent by M, the head of the service, to fix problems that only a man with a licence to kill could resolve. During that sequence, there are two books that stand out in connection with Kent – the aforementioned Moonraker, and Goldfinger, two of Fleming’s most popular and well-known novels – and a third, You Only Live Twice, that mentions the county obliquely but with a resonance that reverberates back through the whole of the canon.
Published in 1955, Moonraker2 is the third of Fleming’s Bond novels and is set entirely in England (the only book in the sequence to be so set) in the early 1950s. More than half of the narrative takes place on the Kent coast, three miles north of Dover on the Deal Road, near Kingsdown and St Margaret’s Bay, the area Fleming knew so well. There, on the top of the cliff, Fleming imagines a rocket-testing station securely guarded by RAF personnel, staffed by fifty German guided missile experts, and financed and supervised by the mysteriously wealthy English entrepreneur Sir Hugo Drax, who has pledged to design and build the country its first operational atomic rocket with a range that will enable it to reach every capital in Europe. (Fleming wrote the novel contemporaneously with Britain’s nascent nuclear programme and its publication pre-dated the equipping of the country’s V-bombers with their first operational nuclear weapons in 1956.) In the wake of a curious murder-suicide involving two of the personnel at the site, Bond is despatched by M to act as its security officer and, with the help of Special Branch officer Gala Brand, uncovers a plot to destroy the heart of London and kill millions of its citizens.
Fleming contrasts the heartlessness of the antagonist’s plot (“But the scream was only in her mind and Gala, her body a twisted black potato crisp amongst a million others, had already fainted.”3 with the beauty of the Kent countryside: “To their left the carpet of green turf, bright with small wildflowers, sloped gradually down to the long pebble beaches of Walmer and Deal, which curved off towards Sandwich and the Bay. Beyond, the cliffs of Margate, showing white through the distant haze that hid the North Foreland, guarded the grey scar of Manston aerodrome above which American Thunderjets wrote their white scribbles in the sky. Then came the Isle of Thanet and, out of sight, the mouth of the Thames.”4 Set only a few years after the end of WWII, the novel is at once a warning of the danger the country still faces from both old and new foes – albeit described in Fleming’s customarily incredible and overblown style – and a paean to the glory of the landscape that, in the hands of a paranoid fanatic in the book, is being twisted and moulded (“In his mind’s eye Bond could see the blazing white shaft of flame come howling out of the face of the cliff and he could hear the sea hiss and bubble as the liquid chalk poured into the water”5 to deliver a dagger into the heart of the nation and destroy it forever.
During Bond and Gala’s golden afternoon walk along the shoreline towards St Margaret’s Bay, Fleming compares the scream of a rose as it’s picked (“one of the most heartrending sounds in the world”6) with the business of killing as dispensed by agents like Bond. Bond says the difference is that “flowers can’t shoot back,” and it’s this freedom for humanity to choose whether to use its physical and psychological powers for good or ill that, simplistically and stylistically presented by Fleming in the pro- and antagonistic shapes of Bond and Drax, drives the story towards its explosive finale.
In Fleming’s hands, the White Cliffs become both symbol of Britain’s seeming impregnability (“They scrambled down a steep cliff-path to the beach and turned to the right beside the deserted small-arms range of the Royal Marine Garrison at Deal . . . until they came to the two-mile stetch of shingle that runs at low tide beneath the towering white cliffs to St Margaret’s Bay.”7) and would-be means of Bond and Gala’s death “ . . . there was a puff of black smoke and a soft boom from the top of the cliff and a great section of white chalk directly above Bond and Gala seemed to sway outwards, zigzag cracks snaking down its face . . . the air was full of thunder . . . his breath was stifled . . . the sun had gone out. His back was numb and aching under a great weight and in his left ear, besides the echo of thunder, there was the sound of a choking scream.”8.
This, then, is Fleming immersing his creation, the secret agent James Bond, in his world. In the two previous novels, Fleming had already introduced Bond to Royale-les-Eaux/Deauville (Casino Royale) and Jamaica (Live and Let Die), both of which Fleming was familiar with, but this is Fleming bringing Bond into his home and introducing him to his family. It’s Fleming finally admitting to Bond, “You’re me, like it or not,” and Bond shrugging his shoulders and accepting it.
Fleming’s love affair with Kent continued in his seventh Bond adventure, Goldfinger. This time, however, Bond’s sojourn there is briefer, as he pursues the titular villain to his base in Reculver for a round of golf at Royal St Marks, baiting Auric Goldfinger as he cheats his way round the course. By this stage, half-way through the fourteen books Fleming wrote about his agent, the formula for success was pretty well set: Bond’s initial meeting with M; the larger-than-life villain; the female accomplice; Bond’s jousting with the enemy; his capture/imprisonment/torture/escape; the explosive climax. Moonraker has all of these, as has Goldfinger; and although the formula hadn’t at that stage turned stale it wouldn’t be long before Fleming tired of his alter ego and it began to show in his writing.
In Goldfinger, though, Fleming still writes “wincingly well”, as The Sunday Times had put it, without a wasted word, the narrative speeding from one excitement to the next. But Fleming still has ample time for Kent: “Now Bond was running through the endless orchards of the Faversham growers. The sun had come out from behind the smog of London. There was the distant gleam of the Thames on his left . . . Bond left the Canterbury road and switched on to the incongruously rich highway that runs through the cheap bungaloid world of the holiday lands––Whitstable, Herne Bay, Birchington, Margate.”9. Then on, to the fictional golf course that Fleming called Royal St Marks but which was based firmly on his beloved Royal St Georges, and an epic match play duel with Goldfinger extending over two chapters, a story-within-a-story that imparts real golfing knowledge but doesn’t exclude those with little interest in the game. This was a skill Fleming was born with, to convey information effortlessly without descending to rote – brilliantly demonstrated in Moonraker, with the opening third of the novel depicting the bridge game to which Bond has been invited by M to help him discover how Drax is cheating.
In Goldfinger, there are two of these initial skirmishes with the villain – the match play golf and, before that, a game of canasta that introduces Bond to his adversary – leading to the final confrontation and Bond’s thwarting of Goldfinger’s plan to steal billions of dollars from Fort Knox (the “Crime de la Crime”, as Fleming describes it).
But it is Kent that is Bond’s anchor, even if most of the action in the Bond canon takes place elsewhere across the globe. In a coda that underscores his affection for the county, Fleming makes this clear in You Only Live Twice, the twelfth of the novels and the last published before his death, by explaining that the young James Bond was raised in a village in Kent. In an “Obit” (which thankfully turns out to be premature) M writes about Bond: “ . . . the youth came under the guardianship of an aunt, since deceased, Miss Charmain Bond, and went to live with her at the quaintly-named hamlet of Pett Bottom near Canterbury in Kent. There, in a small cottage hard by the attractive Duck Inn, his aunt, who must have been a most erudite and accomplished lady, completed his education for an English public school, and, at the age of twelve or thereabouts, he passed satisfactorily into Eton . . . ” Later in the obituary, Bond’s secretary concludes: “ . . . may I suggest these simple words for his epitaph: ‘I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.’”10
This was Fleming’s philosophy as much as Bond’s. He didn’t try to prolong his life, in Kent or elsewhere, eschewing medical advice to give up the heavy smoking that was contributing to his heart disease, and died at the premature age of fifty-six. But in the twelve short years from immediately prior to his marriage to Ann Rothermere, when he first tapped the keys of his typewriter to chronicle the adventures of James Bond, to his death in Canterbury in August 1964, he managed to cram in fourteen books about his secret agent, two books of non-fiction, and a children’s book (Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang) that was also set partly in his beloved Kent. As the obituary said about his fictional alter ego, he used his time.
Fleming, I. Moonraker (Jonathan Cape, 1955, p96). ↩
Moonraker, the novel, as written by Fleming, has little if anything in common with the film of that name. If one disregards the character of Bond himself (admittedly, that’s a big if), that of the principal antagonist, Hugo Drax, and perhaps the rocket for which both book and film are named, then the two have nothing in common. ↩
Fleming, I. Moonraker (Jonathan Cape, 1955, p187). ↩
Fleming, I. Moonraker (Jonathan Cape, 1955, p151). ↩
Fleming, I. Moonraker (Jonathan Cape, 1955, p157). ↩
Fleming, I. Moonraker (Jonathan Cape, 1955, p153). ↩
Fleming, I. Moonraker (Jonathan Cape, 1955, p154). ↩
Fleming, I. Moonraker (Jonathan Cape, 1955, p162). ↩
Fleming, I. Goldfinger (Jonathan Cape, 1959, p90). ↩
Fleming, I. You only live twice (Jonathan Cape, 1964, pp 240 – 243). ↩