I’m writing this on an aeroplane to Istanbul, off for a “mimibreak”*. Treating myself to a trip, all on my own, in order to see the world and do some uninterrupted reading. I have a far too big pile of books for three nights out of London, but have already finished one, so I wasn’t perhaps too optimistic. I’ve brought books by some of my favourite writers, as well as a couple of trashy reads I’ve been saving for when I felt like I deserved a literary rest. I started with a book both trashy and by an author I enjoy – The Diamond Smugglers by Ian Fleming.
No one has ever described this text – out of print for about 60 years until 2013 – as a work of seminal non-fiction, but nor have many people given Ian Fleming as much time and attention as I have over the years. His novels are fun, but empty, entertaining but without much heart. No one reads of Bond and learns anything, but it is very hard to not be from my socio-cultural background and not find Fleming’s spurious science facts deeply entertaining. Homosexuals, the narrator of the Bond books informs us, cannot whistle.** People immediately die if their skin is completely painted. There are others, I’m sure, that I can’t remember off the top of my head. Fleming’s writing is most entertaining when it leaves the real behind, when it encapsulates the ridiculous pomposity of his era – its social attitudes, its priorities and its peccadilloes. In The Diamond Smugglers, Sir Ian tries to give the reader facts, and it is only when he veers away from anything close to reality that the book is great reading.
The premise is this: Ian Fleming, famous thriller writer, is invited by a newspaper to interview a man who has recently left a private company specialising in the investigation of diamond smuggling. Fleming goes to Tangiers, meets the man, interviews him in hotel rooms, cafes and on the beaches beside the Caves of Hercules***, then types up the interviews, apparently with his interviewee’s editorial help and a female typist there to assist, who is mentioned once the whole time.****
Each chapter – which was originally published serially – deals with a different smuggling case, each with a patronising tone towards the “blacks” who do the mining, but an equal villa villainisation of the “whites” from Europe who come down to Africa only to disgrace “us” through their terrifying avariciousness and frequent fuck ups.
The smugglers are almost always caught by this team of ex-security officials funded by De Beers, and whenever they fail to catch a king pin they are chasing, they instead arrest a load of people at the bottom of the organisation and pretend that’s a good result. It’s all very clubby, incredibly colonial – “problem down in Africa, chum, sort it all out, ya, toodley pip”, which though very much Bond in world is very different in fun. There’s no glamour here, instead huge amounts of sterile facts about the value and weight of illegal shipments of diamonds. And diamonds aren’t really very exciting for me, I don’t really care. I read Fleming because I like his descriptions of said glamour, but also the violence, gluttony, lust, evil. Here there is none of that – the villains are all disgruntled men in middle management – hardly fucking Blofeld.
Also, the book lacks a coherent structure – there is no massive smuggling ring that is cracked by the book’s end, there is no “complete justice” and even if one is meant to see De Beers retaining a global semi-monopoly on diamond sales as a good thing, there is little to be reassured by at the end. Nothing is done, Fleming’s interviewee has left his company seeing his job complete, even though it is very clear it isn’t – new smugglers are always rising to replace those they prosecute, and the big European buyers all seem to evade capture. What comes across, really, is a rather bullying and self-important attitude that considers anything of value found in the ground of Africa to be automatic property of an absent Englishman several thousand miles away.
There is one wonderful moment in the book, enough to justify the two hours it took to read, where Fleming describes the death of a man who drove a Land Rover into an ostrich and was killed when the ostrich’s leg entered through the car window and stabbed the man in the chest. Absurd. And that is where Fleming is best – writing about ridiculous violence that has never, and will never, come to pass.
One day I’ll reread some Bond, but I doubt I’ll ever reread this. There’s a reason it was unavailable for more than half a century…
* This is a term I’ve invented myself in order to describe my solo travel antics. Think of it as the gentrified, adult development of the “twatpacking” hashtag I used the last time I went away on my own. That time I had a big backpack with me, stayed in a lot of hostels and was gone for weeks. This time I’m carrying a small, designer, rucksack and staying in a chic hotel. These elements may have changed, but I still intend to do little other than eat well, relax on the banks of the Bosphorus, read in street side cafes and scrawl self-involved notes in an exercise book. Some things – the important things – do not change.
** There is an edge of establishment satire to Fleming’s writing that people often ignore. This was obviously not something he believed, because it’s clearly nonsense.
*** Which I myself visited on my long-ago North African travels. Though, when I was there, there were no swarms of beached jellyfish that one could pop with the heel of a shoe. Incidentally – complete aside – airport security this morning, on flicking through my passport, commented in a somewhat sinister way, “You like the Islamic countries, don’t you?” I don’t really understand what this was meant to imply. I replied that I went to North Africa once two years ago, but the police officer seemed suspicious still. I didn’t feel like arsily responding with a count of how many times I’ve been to Italy, Spain, France and Norway (7, 3, 2, 1, respectively) in the time since would do me any favours. Also it made me realise that I’ve been to Italy SEVEN TIMES in the last two years.
**** Though I will gently dispute Fleming’s accusations of homophobia, not even I would even whisper a word disagreeing with the commonly held opinion that the man was a sexist.