Last week was Heaven-Ali’s annual Daphne du Maurier reading week, so I have indulged myself in all things du Maurier: podcasts, the divine Daphne herself on Desert Island Discs and, of course, a novel: Jamaica Inn. And an astounding revelation about the cover illustrator of this edition, Charles Raymond! #DDMreadingweek
Monday 9 May – Sunday 17 May 2022
When I was in Canterbury in October last year, I spotted a copy of Jamaica Inn and snapped it up, with Heaven Ali’s #DDMreadingweek in mind. I’m still reading and thoroughly enjoying it, so will add my comments about that later. I also took the opportunity to listen to a few podcasts, linked below. What a wonderful author Daphne du Maurier was!
Not surprisingly, Daphne du Maurier is a popular author for bookish types to chat about, so I managed to find a couple of podcasts that fit the bill.
Backlisted. This is my current first port of call for book podcasts. They didn’t let me down . Episode 104 discusses Du Maurier’s creepy short stories in the collection The Breaking Point. Searching on the Backlisted website, I also discovered DDM in episode 78 about Edith Wharton’s short stories, Ghost. Co-presenter Andy Miller talks hilariously about Du Maurier’s final novel Rule Britannia, which seems to fit perfectly with the ongoing mess which is Brexit; in it the ‘failed European experiment’ has been abandoned and Britain has merged with America to form the nation of USUK. Heaven-Ali also reviewed it on her blog in 2019. It sounds like a book I’d like to get my hands on.
Desert Island Discs. On 5 September 1977, Daphne du Maurier was a guest on Desert Island Discs, talking about her life and choosing music to take to the hypothetical island. The only reason I thought of looking this up was that an excerpt was played on the Backlisted podcast, with Daphne being rather arch at the end of the show. The whole programme is available on the BBC Sounds website. It’s so odd to hear the voice of an author who I had always assumed was long gone by the time I read Rebecca for the first time in the ‘70s.
The Bookcast Club, episode 53: Is it worth reading classics? This starts off with a definition of classics (at least 100 years old) and modern classics. Both presenters refer to Rebecca a couple of times as a definite classic that didn’t fit into their category, but felt too old to fit in the ‘modern classic’ category. It found this episode particularly interesting because the hosts discuss set reading at school and one of them, Sarah K. (who I know personally) is Australian and considerably younger than me. The set books at her school have virtually no overlap with what I had to read. Incidentally, Rebecca was not a set book. I wonder how I knew it was a classic. Cultural osmosis?
One sentence reviews
At the back of my 1972 Penguin edition of Jamaica Inn, there are two pages listing Daphne du Maurier’s books. Not an exhaustive list, but useful nevertheless for anyone wanting to read more Du Maurier. What’s more, it’s not just a list, there is a one-sentence review of each book (o two at most.
Jamaica Inn and the Joy of Sex connection!
The cover of this 1972 edition of Jamaica Inn was illustrated by Charles Raymond. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t read the novel because at no point is Mary Yellan described as wearing an off-the-shoulder green dress with her bosom on the verge of escape. And the way that dress is is attached to her body just doesn’t look like it is it physically possible. In an idle moment, I decided to Google Charles Raymond and was astounded to discover that not only was he the artist for many Penguin covers between 1962 and 1965, he was the hirsute male model for the illustrations of The Joy of Sex! The female half of the couple was his wife, Edeltraud. They posed for photographs which were then used as the basis for the pen and ink drawings by Chris Foss. Raymond was responsible for the colour illustrations. Amazing what you find when you look things up on the internet!
My review of Jamaica Inn will probably take a few more days. I have a completely different book to read for my book club on Wednesday, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I wonder if I will find any book serendipity between the two?
This month’s reading theme is royalty and aristocracy. I was surprised to have so many that fit, but it’s already the 12th of the month and I haven’t even started yet. An interesting range of books, from historical to fantasy to non-fiction, with settings from medieval Europe to immigrants in contemporary America and cross-cultural relationships in Africa. Priorities will have to be set.
Left: right royal books
Arthur, High King of Britain (1994), Michael Morpurgo. I’ve read several of Morpurgo’s books and they’re usually very enjoyable. On my shelf since I don’t know when.
Transcendent Kingdom (2020), Yaa Gyasi. I have to read this before my book club on 18 May, so this is one book on the pile that will definitely be read. It’s about a Ghanaian family in Alabama and the opioid crisis. I loved Gyasi’s Homecoming, so I’m looking forward to this. Entered the house the day before yesterday!
A Distant Mirror (1978), Barbara Tuchman. One of my medieval history professors repeatedly recommended we read this. I never did, but I still feel the guilt and never forgot the name of the book. On my shelf since 2008 and still not read! Could this be the month?
The Sunne in Splendour (1982), Sharon Kay Penman. Even though I was enjoying this history of Richard III, the Wars of the Roses, I put it to one side halfway through, when the author made the bad tactical move of starting Book Two, telling the story from Anne’s point of view. I will have to reread my notes and peer at the excellent family tree at the start of tbe book, as I cannot for the life of me remember who Anne is. I am determined to finish it this year. TBR since June 2009.
The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930), E.M. Delafield. I may reserve this for a later date, perhaps for 20 books of summer? I suspect I’ll adore it and assume it would be a perfect summer read. TBR since 2014.
I Capture the Castle (1948), Dodie Smith. Another half-read book a-languishing. As I want to keep it, I may delay again. TBR since 2017.
Anna & the King of Siam (1943), Margaret Langdon. This is the book the wonderful musical The King and I was based on. It’s a keeper, so I may not get to it until I’m desperate to read a book about an Asian country, in this case Thailand, or Siam as it once was. Permanent collection. No rush.
Koning van Katoren (How to Become King) (1971), Jan Terlouw. A Dutch preteen’s classic I have never read, about a 17 year-old boy who volunteers to become king when there is no heir to the throne. But in the best fairytale tradition, he must first carry out seven difficult tasks. TBR since 2014.
Middle: pretenders to the throne
Le petit prince (The Little Prince) (1943), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Non, je ne l’ai jamais lu. I intended to read this years ago when I started reading books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die List, but I lost it when it fell down the back of a shelf. Je l’ai redécouvert, so I should read it before il est disparu again. Sadly, I’m not sure if my French is up to it.
The Castle on the Hill (1941), Elizabeth Goudge. Set at the beginning of WWII, a book about fear, bravery and hope. It seems likely I will see parallels with the situation in Ukraine, so I will try to get to this. Inherited from my mother and TBR since February 2022.
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953), Roger Lancelyn Green. TBR since August 2014. It would be interesting to compare this with the Morpurgo book.
Het woud der verwachting (In a Dark Wood Wandering) (1949), Helle S. Haasse. The Hundred Years’ War, Charles of Orleans, Henry V, Joan of Arc. Recommended to me by many Dutch historical novel fans. I doubt I’ll read it this month.
Het fort van Sjako [Jacko’s castle], Karel Eykman, Peter Vos. A short children’s historical novel set in Amsterdam. TBR since 2014.
Vegas Knights (2011), Matt Forbeck. Urban fantasy. Two trainee wizards try to scam Las Vegas, only to discover the whole place is run by magic. TBR since 2015.
Koning van de baracca’s (2014), Femke van Zeijl. An intercultural relationship between a man from Mozambique and a Portuguese woman. TBR since 2016.
The Shadow King (2019), Maaza Mengiste. Women at war in Ethiopia in 1935. Booker nominee. TBR since November 2020.
Maanpaleis (Moon Palace) (1989), Paul Auster. Dropping out and a road trip from Manhattan to Utah. On the 1001 list. I’d like to read it this month, but time is ticking. TBR since March 2018.
Het luizenpaleis (The Flea Palace) (2002), Elif Shafak. I’ve been wanting to read a ‘proper’ book by this Turkish-British author for ages. I will try to squeeze this in, even though it won’t help reduce the physical TBR as it’s a library book. It tells the stories of the people living in a rundown former palace in Istanbul. On second thoughts, I’ll reserve this for June’s theme: insects and bugs!
Right: lesser nobility
Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), Stephen Donaldson. Fantasy. My husband has half a shelf full of this series. I keep meaning to read one, but doubt I’ll have time this month.
De vrouw met de zes slapers [The (1953), Antoon Coolen. Set somewhere in a sleepy village in the east of the Netherlands. The local castle is deserted until the lady of the house returns to sleep alone, but always with one of six villagers in the corridor outside. Nostalgic with some interesting insights into times gone by. I almost finished this in January 2020. Time to read the rest.
Under the Net (1954), Iris Murdoch. An imposter, hanging on from last month’s 1954 Club. Maybe during 20 Books of Summer. TBR since May 2018.
Jamaica Inn (1936), Daphne du Maurier (not pictured). An atmospheric tale set in Cornwall. Reading now for Heaven Ali’s #DDMReadingWeek. What a writer!
Rabbit-proof Fence (1996), Doris Pilkington = Nugi Garimara. The heart rending tale of indigenous sisters walking across Australia to find their way home, escaping from an internment camp for mixed race children. I may pair this with The White Girl by Tony Birch, an Australian indigenous author. My book club will be reading that in June. TBR since July 2019.
Things I Want My Daughters to Know (2007), Elizabeth Noble. This is really only here for the photo shoot. I only got it recently, so it will have to wait its turn, but I loved her novel The Reading Group so have high expectations. TBR since October 2021.
Jews Don’t Count (2021), David Baddiel. I read an excellent article in the Guardian by Baddiel, pointing out that Jews are often not mentioned when it comes to discussions of discrimination. I will read this sooner rather than later. TBR since 2022.
Looking for Alaska (2005), John Green. Just here for the photo. Maybe later this year, for the ‘colour’ theme. TBR since 2017.
Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), Daniel Kahneman. My husband always buys interesting books at the airport. He probably gives them little more than an executive skim. If only I could read faster! This one’s about cognitive dissonance and taking decisions impulsively or in a more considered way. It does sound fascinating.
Alles is eventueel (Everything‘s Eventual) (2002), Stephen King. Fourteen creepy short stories and an introduction. If I read one a day from now until the end of the month, I can finally clear this space-hogger off my shelf. It’s been TBR since April 2017.
It would be lovely to read all these books, all this month, but that is unrealistic, especially since I have had two extremely long translations to do. Realistically I hope to read:
Jamaica Inn for Daphne du Maurier reading week, deadline 15 May
Transcendent Kingdom for book club, deadline 18 May.
De vrouw met de zes slapers, 90% done
The Shadow King because it’s new and counts towards reading the world
Koning van de baracca’s because if I don’t read it this month, it won’t fit into any other theme
Jews Don’t Count because it’s short, important and I expect one of my sons to want to read it
Alles is eventueel because I can read a story a day but it all adds up to help clear my shelves
The Sunne in Splendour because it’s a guilt-inducing half-read book that also takes up too much space. Perhaps this one will stretch into June
Every month, I pull out a selection of books that fit a certain theme, but choosing which books to read is still difficult. I suppose it’s my own fault for having so much choice, but I am unrepentant. How do you decide what to read next? Do you take part in challenges that help narrow down your choices?
This book is marvellous, full of warmth and humour. It’s all about children getting behind a project and energising the local community to help each other. It’s about making new friends, connecting generations and removing misconceptions about old people and the disabled. There is enough incident and adventure to make it exciting as everyone works together to attract storks to nest on the rooftops of the tiny Friesian village of Shora.
“First to dream and then to do – isn’t that the way to make a dream come true?”
Apart from fairy tales, I thought this was probably the first translated full book I ever read or, to be more accurate, had read to me on school radio. I know exactly where I was sitting in the classroom, aged about nine or ten, twisted sideways on my chair, staring up towards the ceiling where the loudspeaker was. That year the BBC had a radio programme called Man that had a few shows about the Netherlands and the polders. They may have talked about the North Sea Flood of 1953, but I don’t remember for sure. I do remember my teacher telling us that in Margate the wind was so strong that you could lean into it and not fall over. Living so close to the sea, the story of the 1953 floods had a huge impact on my imagination. Even if we did live on top of a small cliff, my biggest nightmare was a tidal wave. After all, the sea was only 200 metres away.
In any case, presumably at the same time as Man, we listened to a story about some Dutch children who wanted to attract storks to their village, The Wheel on the School. I was entranced and remembered the name of the book all my life, but had never seen a copy. Then, several years ago, somebody in the 6 Continents, 6 Countries, 6 Books reading thread at BookCrossing.com wrote that she had read it. When I told her about my fond memories, she was kind enough to send it to me. Since which time it has languished on my shelves with only the odd aborted attempt to read it. But last November I was slightly ill in bed, waiting for the antibiotics to kick in, looking for a comfort read and this fitted the bill for my BookCrossing ‘schools’ theme as well as #NovNov. The plan was to stay awake long enough to finish it in a day.
The Penguin edition I have has blurry little black/white/grey illustrations by Maurice Sendak (he of Where the Wild Things Are) that look like they may originally have been coloured watercolours. Only on the back cover are the stripes on one boy’s shirt blue, and the floor tiles alternating with white ones are coloured in the same blue as the cover itself; very subtle and I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been focussing on the illustrations for a moment.
The translation that wasn’t
My first thought was that the translation is rather stilted. No translator is mentioned, so it’s entirely possible that the author translated it himself…. But wait one moment! When I looked up Meindert de Jong, I discovered that he emigrated to the USA at the age of eight, so he must have written the book in English. It wasn’t translated at all! That would also explain why it isn’t a classic in the Netherlands. In fact, it doesn’t appear to have ever been translated into Dutch, if I look at the editions listed on Goodreads.
Because of this book, I’ve spent my entire life believing that the Dutch believe that having a stork on the roof is good luck. Not that I’ve ever noticed any reference to lucky storks here, except for the traditional baby-delivering storks. There is a tradition in the Netherlands to put a board with the name of your new baby in your front garden to announce the happy news to the neighbours. In the past, this was generally in the form of a stork. They are still around but eclipsed by all sorts of animals, birds and prams. One day I will post a blog post on my expat blog about this tradition. Amusingly, due to more environmentally friendly farming practices, stork numbers have increased. At the same time, so has the birth rate. Spoilsports may be inclined to use this as a good example of correlation not proving causality.
A tribute to childhood in the Netherlands
Even if De Jong spent the majority of his life in America, he was obviously determined to make this book a tribute to Dutch childhood. One of the things he described was the Dutch sport of ditch-jumping (polsstokverspringen or, in Friesian, fierljeppen). It is similar to pole vaulting, but the pole is planted in the centre of a ditch and the jumper swings across rather than trying to clear a high bar. Of course, if they don’t get it right, they end up wet and muddy in the ditch.
I note that the spelling of the children’s names has been adapted so that English speakers pronounce them properly: Jelle becomes Jella, Auke becomes Auka, Eelke becomes Eelka. The village itself is Shora, based on the real Friesian village of Wierum, De Jong’s birthplace and the village where he spent the first eight years of his life.
The only schoolgirl in the tiny village, Lina, realises that their village is the only one that has no storks on the village roofs and starts to wonder why. She takes her task of wondering about storks very seriously, so seriously that the oldest lady in the village, Grandmother Sibble III, notices and asks what is worrying her. She tells Lina that there used to be storks in the village and why they had left. More magical still, she has a sweet tin with storks on it: “Pictures of storks in high sweeping trees were all around the four sides of the candy tin. On the lid was a village, and on every house there was a huge, ramshackle stork nest. In every nest tall storks stood as though making happy noises with their bills into a happy blue sky.”
“Because it was so impossibly impossible, it was so.”
When they put their minds to it, the children realise that the reason the storks have left may be that the old trees blew down in a gale. After thinking a little longer, they realise that the village roofs are too steep for storks to nest on. What they need is a cartwheel to make a base for the storks to build their messy nests of sticks. But there are no cartwheels to be had; people still need them for their carts. The children go out in search of old cartwheels. As in the best stories, this is not at all easy. The children will have to use all their powers of stamina, communication skills, cooperation and daring. Sometimes it’s dangerous. And sometimes their parents just don’t understand why it is so important to them.
I read this several months ago and yet I can still remember some of the incidents. A grumpy old man in a wheelchair threatens the children, but when they explain themselves, he agrees to help and receives a new lease of life. I also remember the storm where the whole village is battered and a daring rescue saves a man trapped under an upturned boat, but I can’t remember the exact details. In any case, I enjoyed it as much as I did as a child. It is packed with incident.
The tin man’s horse “could hear ‘whoa’ ten feet under water. But ‘gee-up’, that he doesn’t understand very well.”
De Jong also used literal translations of Dutch sayings. Every so often I noticed another one of these Dutchified comments:
“Tomorrow morning […] they’d sit stupid and with their mouths full of teeth”. This comes from the Dutch saying ‘een mond vol tanden’, speechless, at a loss for words.
‘I can’t any more’ (Ik kan niet meer) where we would say ‘I can’t carry on. I’m exhausted.’
‘What a work!’ (Wat een werk!), where English would be ‘What a lot of work (for nothing).’
‘The tin man wouldn’t have a red cent to pay me to boot’ uses the Dutch phrase ‘geen rooie cent’, not a single red cent. Apparently this phrase is also used in American English. I wonder if it comes from the Dutch.
Incidentally, it strikes me too that, for publication in the UK, the tin man should have been changed to tinker.
‘Storming’ used as a verb is very Dutch; in English I would say ‘it was stormy weather’, ‘the storm was raging’, ‘it was blowing a storm’ or something similar.
‘I had to argue myself warm to get someone to do something’ is not a phrase I recognise, but an English equivalent would be ‘argue until I was blue in the face’.
In ‘The real trek has still got to come’, the word ‘trek’ is straight from Dutch. It means migration; the main body of birds is yet to come.
I’m beginning to wonder if an English editor ever saw this before it was published! Sometimes I think that it’s deliberate, to give a flavour of the language, for instance he uses the word dominie instead of pastor (though it would have been better in italics, in my opinion). In standard Dutch it’s dominee, which rhymes with day. However, this is set in Friesland which has its own language, Frisian and they use the word dûmny. Of course, the author didn’t have the wonders of internet to check this sort of detail.
Stork conservation in the Netherlands
The natural population of storks in the whole of Europe had virtually died out due to intensive farming. Now that pesticide use has been reduced, they have been successfully reintroduced from zoo-bred birds. I have seen them nesting on wheels on houses or on special tall stork poles with a platform where they can nest. There’s a very good article on Wikipedia that includes information about reintroduction, and wonderful photos that are worth looking at on ooievaars.nl, even if you can’t read the explanatory comments in Dutch.
For me this was a pleasant trip down memory lane, with the added bonus of recognising the Dutch expressions. Of course, I couldn’t have done that as a child because I didn’t speak Dutch then. In fact, I don’t remember anything clunky about the language, so I wonder if the BBC ironed it out for their broadcast. Does anyone else remember hearing this on BBC Schools’ Radio?
Not really a review, not a synopsis. This are my comments on reading Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming, featuring the evil gangster Mr Big, the beautiful tarot card reader Solitaire, and a motley crew of henchmen and marauding fish. Plus some book serendipity and a strange coincidence that threw up my own personal theory about who might have inspired Fleming’s description of his villain, Mr Big.
If you loved the film Live and Let Die, then you might be disappointed by the book. It’s quite a different animal. Some of the plot points were used in other Bond films rather than the one in which Bond meets Solitaire, played by Jane Seymour, a beautiful tarot card reader. As I’m not a Bond film aficionado, I was perfectly happy with the book, except for the racist tropes Fleming used. I remember reading about Jamaica in the 1970s and the (official, white) view back then was that all races got along perfectly well with each other on Jamaica. This is reflected in how Fleming believed he was tolerant, but used racist terms to refer to Black people and used a background of voodoo, superstition and Black gangsters for this book. Looking past this, the villain, Mr Big, is satisfyingly evil and intelligent – a dangerous combination.
Comments and observations: spoilers within
Bond is whisked through American customs and driven to the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan by an FBI man. As he gets out of the car, he catches a glimpse of an older Black man with a female Black chauffeur driving off. Black people are referred to as Negroes, starting on the first page in the comment, “he disliked the idea of his dossier being in the possession of any foreign power. Anonymity was the chief tool of his trade. Every thread of his real identity that went on record in any file diminished his value and, ultimately, was a threat to his life. Here in America, where they knew all about him, he felt like a Negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witch-doctor.” An uncalled for simile made worse by a racist equation of Blackness with traditional African beliefs.
Chapter 2, Interview with M, is a flashback to a foggy day in London when Bond was called in to discuss the case. He has apparently had time off work to have a skin graft to replace the Russian letter ш (sch) cut into the skin on the back of his hand, the first letter of Spion (spy) to mark him asa spy by an agent of “the Soviet organ of vengeance, SMERSH, short for Smyert Spionum—Death to Spies”. (p.13)
The villain: Mr Big
Bond’s target in this book is a Haitian man known as Mr Big who is now a linchpin of the Harlem underworld, running several brothels and nightclubs employing call girls. His enemies have a habit of meeting a sticky end. During WWII, Mr Big was drafted in America, trained by the secret service “who trained him with great thoroughness and put him into Marseilles as an agent against the Pétain collaborationists,” working closely with a Russian agent. After the war, he disappeared for five years, presumed to have been trained as a Russian spy, then returned to Harlem.
“Those who deserve to die, die the death they deserve,” says Bond to Mr Big. Now I’ve read the book, I know what happened and, of course, Mr Big gets an appropriate comeuppance, but given the extent of his villainy, almost any death would have been appropriate.
Zombies and voodoo
“He was known to have originated an underground Voodoo temple in Harlem and to have established a link between it and the main cult in Haiti. The rumour had started that he was the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness, and he fostered the story so that now it was accepted through all the lower strata of the Negro world. As a result, he commanded real fear, strongly substantiated by the immediate and often mysterious deaths of anyone who crossed him or disobeyed his orders.” “They believe the Big Man is the Zombie of Baron Samedi. Zombies are bad enough by themselves. They’re animated corpses that have been made to rise from the dead and obey the commands of the person who controls them.” Fleming claims “the fear of Voodoo and the supernatural, [are] still deeply, primevally ingrained in the Negro subconscious!” Of course, Mr Fleming, this is obviously true for all Black people, all over the world!
Bond’s view of America
To fit in, Bond has to be ‘Americanised’ with a single-breasted suit, “chilly white nylon shirts with long points to the collars, […],unusually patterned foulard ties, dark socks with fancy clocks, two or three handkerchiefs for his breast pocket, nylon vests and pants (called T-shirts and shorts)”, etc. and “two pairs of hand-stitched and very comfortable black moccasin casuals’.” There are also several mentions of Americans wearing ‘Truman shirts’. If anyone knows what these are, I’d love to know.
Some of the comments on American food and habits are rather scathing. Bond makes a comment about Americans adding milk to their scrambled egg and I was mystified because isn’t that how it is made? He is also rather rude about a Florida town full of ‘oldsters’ sitting on benches (Davenports) “like the starlings in Trafalgar square”. I would have expected sparrows or pigeons, but in any case Bond has a horror of becoming like those white-haired and blue-rinsed pensioners. Another poke at America is when his colleague tells him “to avoid words of more than two syllables“. Fleming really wasn’t out to make friends, was he?
An alternative title in Dutch is Moord onder water (murder underwater), but it doesn’t really fit very well with the actual events. The title in English is introduced when Bond decides to go to Harlem to see Mr. Big’s area of operations. Captain Dexter agrees, but tells him not to stir up any trouble.
“‘This case isn’t ripe yet. Until it is, our policy with Mr. Big is ‘live and let live.’ Bond looked quizzically at Captain Dexter. ‘In my job,’ he said, ‘when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s ‘live and let die.’”
Bond and his friend and CIA colleague Leiter go out on the town, ending up at a club called The Boneyard. We know that the Boss (Mr Big) knows exactly where they are, has placed them at a particular table and planned an ambush. When they arrive there, after midnight, I was surprised to find they order Scotch and soda and ham sandwiches. The walls are lacquered black to offset the reflections of lights on the different coloured ‘witch balls’ hanging around the room. “The whole scene was macabre and livid, as if El Greco had done a painting by moonlight of an exhumed graveyard in a burning town.” That would have been a wonderful description if Fleming hadn’t added racist slurs and sexualised descriptions of the people. Yes, I know it was in a strip joint, but he spent far too long describing the woman dancing. And many of the words he used about Black people were negative and related to animals: feral, chienne, growling. Mr Big’s eyes “were animal eyes, not human, and they seemed to blaze.”
The description of Mr Big
“It was a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round. The skin was grey-black, taut and shining like the face of a week-old corpse in the river. It was hairless, except for some grey-brown fluff above the ears. There were no eyebrows and eyelashes and the eyes were extraordinarily far apart, so that one could not focus on them both, but only on one at a time. […] The nose was wide without being particularly Negroid. The nostrils did not gape at you. The lips were only slightly everted, but thick and dark. […] There were very few wrinkles or creases on the face, but there were two deep clefts above the nose, the clefts of concentration. Above them, the forehead bulged slightly before merging with the polished, hairless crown. Curiously, there was nothing disproportionate about the monstrous head. It was carried on a wide, short neck supported by the shoulders of a giant. Bond knew from the records that the Big Man was six and a half feet tall and weighed 280 pounds, and that little of it was fat. But the total impression was awe-inspiring, even terrifying, and Bond could imagine that so ghastly a misfit must have been bent since childhood on revenge against fate and against the world that hated because it feared him.”
Was Mr Big based on wrestler Maurice Tillet?
With a few exceptions, this description fits perfectly with a real person I looked up a few days ago (I can’t remember why), the French wrestling champion Maurice Tillet who had a medical condition (acromegaly) that made his head and hands continue growing. He had originally planned to become a lawyer, but his disease prevented this. After WWII he became a worldwide wrestling star, who had visited the UK and was based in the USA. Fleming must have known about him and could have shoe-horned him into his new novel in the guise of Mr Big, changing his race to fit his setting. Even his weight fits, though Fleming makes him taller. Also note that the actor playing Mr Big in the 1973 film bears no resemblance to the description and the whole story was completely changed for the film.
A blogger who has been researching Tillet’s life for years has even gathered some circumstantial evidence that, like Mr Big, Maurice Tillet may have been a spy. After all, he had been in the French navy, spoke several languages and seems to have spent time with several celebrities who were spies, or were suspected of being so. This includes Josephine Baker and even his own manager, Karl Pojello, a Lithuanian-American. Who knows, maybe he even met Fleming, who had also worked in intelligence. This makes it even more likely that he could have been the model for Mr Big!
It is entirely probable that Fleming saw Tillet fighting, live or saw him in black and white on TV or in the newspapers. He may have assumed he was black. He retired from wrestling in 1953, perfect timing for Fleming to write him into his new novel. Sadly Tillet died (perhaps of a broken heart) in September 1954 and the book was published in April of the same year, Fleming could easily have had him in mind when writing Mr Big. He was at one time listed as the highest paid sportsman and also appeared in films, so was a well-known figure. Fleming did make notes on his inspirations for names, so perhaps his notebooks reveal the truth. I have absolutely no proof of this whatsoever, it is simply sheer coincidence that I was reading about him a few days before reading the book. What is almost certain is that Tilley was used as the inspiration for Shrek’s appearance, though Dreamworks refuse to corroborate this.
Before he went to America, Tillet had bit parts in films, including as the barman in a 1935 film starring Josephine Baker, Princesse Tam Tam. In this excerpt with Baker singing, dancing and drinking a glass of water without using her hands, you can see that his appearance was not unusual at this stage, just something of a gentle giant. 15 years later he was virtually unrecognisable.
Locations: write about what you know
In 1952, Fleming and his wife Anne visited New York, took the Silver Meteor train to St. Petersburg in Florida, then flew to his Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica, all locations used in Live and Let Die. In May 1953 he travelled to the USA on the RMS Queen Elizabeth, a ship he used as a setting in his 1956 book Diamonds Are Forever (link to my review for the #1956club. In Live and Let Die, Bond takes the Silver Phantom train to St. Petersburg, Florida from Pennsylvania Station, passing through Washington, Jacksonville, and Tampa, then changing to the Silver Meteor.
Bond, health, booze, drugs and smoking
When Mr Big is interviewing Bond, one of his henchmen breaks Bond’s little finger on his left hand. Bond faints. Who would have thought Bond was such a wimp? I somersaulted over my bicycle handlebars a few years ago and fractured the same finger. It really didn’t hurt that much! In fact, the adrenaline meant that I didn’t realise it was broken until I looked at it. I certainly didn’t faint. They do say women have higher pain thresholds than men. Poor Bond, his little finger is so painful, he is unable to make love to Solitaire when they are alone on the train. It’s probably just as well. If he had, maybe that would have been the end of him once and for all. Saved by a painful pinky!
Another instance of Bond showing us that he isn’t fearless is when he flies to Jamaica; he is suddenly aware of his mortality and the vulnerability of planes. I was also surprised to discover that Bond’s lightning fast reactions are enhanced by drugs. Perhaps that is to compensate for the vast quantities of booze he regularly consumes at all hours of the day, including breakfast. It’s interesting to note that even in 1954, Bond knows his drinking and smoking habits are not good for him. When he needs to get fit in earnest, he stops smoking and drinking and starts exercising, swimming and running.
As in all good Bond stories, the villain has a secret lair, preferably on an island or on top of a mountain. This time it’s an inhospitable island off the coast of Jamaica which had once been a pirate’s base. Here, Fleming throws in a little history that doesn’t put Britain in a particularly good light, or shows how sneaky they were, depending on your viewpoint. To avoid war with Spain in Europe, the colonial government of Jamaica pretended not to notice Bloody Morgan’s piracy until the Spanish had left the Caribbean. He was then given a knighthood and became Governor of Jamaica. In any case, the denouement takes place in and around the island, with Bond approaching underwater and fighting off a large octopus before even reaching the island and having to deal with his human enemies.
In the final scene, Mr Big toes a torpedo-shaped paravane behind his boat, the Secatur. I didn’t understand the description, so looked it up. Torpedo-shaped paravanes were used for minesweeping, so were unlikely for a private boat. There are other sorts, also known as water kites, used for placing bait at specific levels for sport and commercial fishing and scientific purposes, which seem perfect for collecting rare fish such as those caught by Mr Big’s contacts. The torpedo shape (which Fleming repeats multiple times, without really explaining what it looks like) fits the Bond’s persona much better.
Another gadget Bond mentions are nightglasses. I didn’t realise they existed in 1954. In fact the first ones were developed in Germany in the 1930s, but as Fleming liked to refer to cutting edge technology, he was probably referring to US military night vision developed in 1948 or perhaps he had even heard talk of something that was still being developed, since the ITT corporation started to supply the US military with night vision equipment in 1958, four years after Live and Let Die was published.
Book serendipity: Bond recommends a book!
Bond, I was surprised to discover, is keen on researching his work by extensive reading. In preparation for this job, he is reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree, a book which I do not possess. However, mere hours before I read this part, I had coincidentally picked up two of his other books from my bookshelf to see which countries they covered (the Netherlands and further travel across the continent). I understand why Bond was reading The Traveller’s Tree as part of the preparation for his assignment; it’s a travelogue of several Caribbean islands. Live and Let Die directly quotes about two and a half pages of lurid description of voodoo rites. I think I’ll probably give that book a miss!
Book serendipity: Trenton, New Jersey
This is the third book I have read recently that mentioned Trenton:
The whole of Janet Evanovich’s Two for the Dough is set in and around Trenton
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s Americanah, Ifemelu travels to Trenton to visit a Black hair salon
In Live and Let Die, Bond sees Trenton from the train
Once more I prolonged my reading by Google reading, i.e. looking things up as I go along, a term I first encountered in Shawn the Book Maniac’s video about Reading Wales month. In spite of the old-fashioned view on race in Live and Let Die, it always amazes me just how many fascinating little details I pick up reading a book that was written decades ago. I don’t feel compelled to search out all the Bond books, but I have at least one more unread on the shelf and, if it should happen to fit in with a challenge, I just might go ahead and read it.
I’ve never been much of a fan, but after watching a few one Christmas, I must say it’s actually quite fun pointing out the sexism and enjoying the clothes, groovy decor and the scenery. Sean Connery is, of course, the best Bond by far, even if the films are shinier nowadays. Do you agree with me? And have you read any Bond books? Or are there other authors who write similar books that bring the genre up to date?
When I was looking for books to read for the 1954 club, I discovered that I have a number of books that were published in 1953. So I’m all set for 1953 Club, whenever that happens!
Books on my shelf published in 1953
The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley. Read long ago.
The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham TBR
De vrouw met de zes slapers [The woman with the six overnight guests], Antoon Coolen, 75% read.
The Heart of the Family, Elizabeth Goudge, TBR
The Overloaded Ark, Gerald Durrell TBR, possibly a reread
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, Roger Lancelyn Green TBR
A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin TBR
Heimwee naar de jungle (The Lost Steps), Alejo Carpentier, half-read; I must finish reading this! I think it may be on the 1001 list.
It wouldn’t surprise me to find that I have some children’s books lurking on my shelves that were published in 1953, either. I can’t wait to find out what year the next book club will follow. It’s a bit soon for 1953, methinks.