Writing Portfolio


Ian Fleming's war

The creator of James Bond continues to fascinate to this day, and I have found him cropping up in several books I’ve been reading recently. He has, for example a walk-on role in Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor (Paddy, whose book The Traveller’s Tree was used extensively by Fleming in Live and Let Die, dropped in on him in Jamaica while he was busy writing Casino Royale).

As was the case with Paddy and many others of his generation, Fleming’s life was very much defined by what he did in the Second World War. Indeed, the war came as a release for Ian Fleming, who by 1939 was an ex-public schoolboy who’d flunked Sandhurst, had a go at journalism and ended up in an undemanding desk-job at a stockbroker’s in the City – in contrast to his elder brother Peter who had made a name for himself as a travel-writer. An interview with Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, changed all that and Fleming was finally able to find his role in life as a naval intelligence officer – a role in which he excelled.

Fleming’s war work is covered by Ian Fleming’s Commandos: The Story of 30 Assault Unit in WWII by Nicholas Rankin which was published last year. If, like me, you like war adventures such as Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and more recent fare like Agent Zigzag, and find the whole Bletchley Park story to be fascinating, I suspect you will find it hard not to be drawn to a book about a commando unit formed by the creator of the world’s most famous fictional spy with the aim of capturing intelligence data intact.

These men, who Fleming rather unflatteringly referred to as his ‘Red Indians’, all volunteered for commando work from the regular forces (this being a naval intelligence unit, they were mostly Royal Marines with a few naval officers). After being highly trained in the ways of sabotage and silent killing at places like Achnacarry they were blooded at Dieppe before being given the unenviable task of going in with the first wave of troops who went ashore at places like Salerno and the Normandy beaches, with orders to find and capture the Germans’ code books, radar equipment and Enigma machines before they had a chance to destroy them. Fleming, who knew too much to be allowed into the field (much to his own frustration), chose their targets and later used their experiences as the basis of the Bond novels.

I enjoyed this book. It’s well-paced, providing a thorough context in terms of intelligence work and the use of irregular forces before turning the focus on the commandos themselves (as befits a man who was always the brains behind the operation and rarely in the thick of the action, Fleming himself becomes a background figure who occasionally interacts with the commando officers but rarely with the NCOs and men – most of whom had no idea of the wider context of what they were doing at the time). There’s humour and pathos amid the firefights and destruction, and Rankin never stoops to glorify the war. Towards the end of the war, 30 Assault Unit came into its own, capturing a mass of material ranging from weapons blueprints to scientists to submarines to admirals and the entire archive of the German navy going back to the nineteenth century. For obvious reasons thats not a story that was widely told at the time (and the men of 30 Assault Unit aren’t alone in that; for example, the codebreaking achievements of Bletchley Park weren’t made public until the 1970s), and it’s good that we can finally hear the stories of a very brave group of men.

Rankin has also included a lot of tie-ins with quotes from Bond novels, which is understandable as James Bond is the reason why most people have heard of Ian Fleming (which in turn is why his name features prominently on the title of Rankin’s book) and it’s actually very interesting to see how parts of his books tie in with his war work. A lot of the character names are the names of people who Fleming worked with (rather amusingly, one officer was very disparaging of Fleming at the time but later changed his mind after he ‘became’ a character in one of the books), but there are quite a few plotlines which relate directly to the war. To give three examples: From Russia with Love is all about MI6 trying to get its hands on a top-secret decoding machine; the villain of Moonraker is an ex-Nazi who changed his identity in the chaos surrounding the war’s end (a chaos in which 30 Assault Unit was uncovering all sorts of secrets); and finally, you’ll certainly have a new perspective on the short story Octopussy after reading this.

Ian Fleming also makes an appearance in Op. JB: The Last Great Secret of the Second World War by Christopher Creighton, a supposedly factual account where he accompanies the author on a top-secret mission to Berlin at the end of the war to extract Martin Bormann under the cover-name of ‘James Bond’ (which is what the ‘JB’ stands for). Surprisingly, the publishers of this story didn't market it as fiction, and it comes with an oft-repeated caveat that all official records relating to the events described have been destroyed (some of them by the author!). I don’t believe this. It’s too far-fetched, there are too many cameos by famous people – over the course of the book, the author/narrator meets with Churchill, the King, Eisenhower, Rommel and even Hitler himself – and the overall effect is that of an attempt at a war-story along the lines of The Eagle has Landed. The blurb on the cover boldly proclaimed: ‘Fact or fiction – decide for yourself’. After reading it, I decided that it’s fiction, and rather low-grade fiction at that. Don't bother with this one.


Adventures on the Blue Nile

Africa has featured on the BBC’s schedule a lot recently, most notably David Attenborough’s epic wildlife series and the more tongue-in-cheek special on Top Gear. Their ‘quest’ to find the source of the Nile in a trio of second-hand estate cars has been rather amusing and it brought to mind an episode from my own African adventure, when I got to visit one of the Nile’s sources.

 Ethiopia is an interesting country in many ways and experiencing it for the first time is a complete culture-shock. One of just two African countries not to have been colonised in the nineteenth century, it has its own distinct language and alphabet, and it is widely to be believed to the region from which homo sapiens originated. Its take on time is very different from our own, and to the tourist this is somewhat disorientating. I was there in August 2005 but according to all the local calendars it was in fact November 1997, and as far as telling the time of day is concerned, 12 o’clock happens to be at dawn. Thus, when you are told that a bus is leaving the following day at 11, they mean it’s leaving at 5am.

The buses, which usually leave before dawn, are dilapidated vehicles that, once they get out of the towns, invariably have to cope with unsealed roads. Punctures are frequent. While the buses are in motion, no-one is allowed to open any of the windows (no matter how hot or smelly it becomes) as this brings in evil spirits. This was how I, very often the only faranju (white man) on the bus, travelled around the whole country, trying to communicate with the locals (taking packets of biscuits onto the buses helps to break down the barriers), marveling at the scenery and listening to a lot of the Amharic pop music that all Ethiopian bus-drivers love to play on the PA system.

My African travels had started in Cairo, from where I’d followed the Nile south down to Aswan, then into Sudan via Lake Nasser. At Khartoum, the Nile’s two main tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, meet. Of these, the White one is the longest but the Blue one, coming as it does from the Ethiopian Highlands, supplies most of the Nile’s water. From Khartoum, my journey took me into northern Ethiopia where I experienced a complete culture-shock as I travelled along the northern circuit, taking in the historic towns of Gondar, Aksum and Lalibela before reaching Bahar Dar, a pleasant city located on the shores of the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana.

The hotel I stayed in was right next to the lake and organised boat trips for any guests who wished to visit the island monasteries for which it is famous. The man behind the reception desk put me onto a man who he called the ‘official guide’, who I found by the boats having an argument with a French couple who (also) wanted to visit the island monasteries but were tempted by another guide who was charging a quarter of what this man wanted. He had a ready answer to that: “He has no official licence. He knows nothing. That’s why he’s only charging 5 birr!” Eventually, they, and yours truly, went with the official bloke.
From our boat, Lake Tana seemed like a very peaceful place, and it wasn’t long before we got to see some of the traditional papyrus-reed canoes, which the guide said last for about four months before the papyrus becomes waterlogged and a new canoe has to be built. They have been used by local people to travel on the lake for thousands of years.

We were taken to three monasteries, and although it was great fun arriving at the islands and being greeted by groups of children trying to sell us the usual trinkets before we’d made it off the jetty, I found myself unimpressed by the monasteries themselves. That’s probably more to do with me than it is with them; I’m sure that they are fascinating in their own right, but I had just come from Aksum (where Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant to be located) and Lalibela (home of the famous rock-hewn churches), and as a result I was already overwhelmed by what I had learned about Ethiopian Christianity and was very much ‘churched out’ by this stage of my journey. Back at the hotel, I felt relieved that I had only opted for a half-day boat trip rather than the full-day one.

Much more to my liking was the excursion I took to see the Blue Nile Falls, some twenty or so miles south of Bahar Dar.

This started with an hour-long morning bus ride to the village of Tis Abay in a vehicle which looked as though it had been made by welding bits of old minibuses together. It was the only bus I travelled on in Ethiopia where I got to sit next to an open window – although it was only open because it had no glass.

I had two options once I got to Tis Abay. I could either take a boat trip across the river (above the falls) or walk the long way round to approach the falls below; having assumed that there would be plenty of walking that day, I had put on my hiking-boots on rather than my sandals or trainers so I went for the latter. My guide, a local man called Joseph, was a friendly and knowledgeable type who spent much of the walk telling me all about the new hydro-electric power-station which had been built a couple of years previously. Water from the Abay river (as the Blue Nile is called in Ethiopia) is diverted by a canal to run through the hydro-electric generators, thus providing electricity for most of the region while reducing the flow of the falls somewhat. This is to the extent that in the dry season there is not much to see at all by way of a waterfall. “I had this German tourist once,” said Joseph. “He said, ‘you haven’t taken me to the waterfall, I want my money back!’ But I had – I had to tell him about the hydro-plant and the dry season. He didn’t believe me and swore that I’d taken him to the wrong place!” Since I was there in August, at the height of the wet season, not getting to see any water at the falls wouldn’t be a problem.        
The walk to the falls lasted for about half an hour, including the crossing of the fast-flowing Blue Nile by way of a stone bridge that had been built by Portuguese missionaries – the first Europeans to come to this part of the world – in the seventeenth century. The path then took us up to the viewpoint over the falls themselves, which looked spectacular. They’re over a hundred feet high and stretch a few hundred yards across. A lazily-flowing river above the falls, the Blue Nile seemed to transform into a raging torrent before my eyes. An incredible amount of spray was being thrown up, which makes the local name for the falls, Tis Issat (‘smoking water’) very appropriate.

Walking down from the viewpoint, Joseph took me even closer to the waterfall, a walk which involved having to wade through a fast-flowing tributary en route. For this, I had to take my boots off and roll my trousers up to the knees. A local boy clad in a dirty tee-shirt and wielding a long stick was on hand to carry my boots for me; he lent me his stick so I could keep myself steady, and as I waded through the river I momentarily felt like a character in some old-fashioned exploration adventure.

From there, we walked up to the base of the falls, scrambling down a rocky outcrop and past a small herd of cattle – God knows how they got there – to get to the edge of the pool at the bottom of the waterfall itself, and got absolutely covered in spray. I could barley hear myself think above the sound of the falls.

We then climbed a narrow path up to the top of the falls, where I got Joseph to take my picture before he led me across a boggy field to the next stage – a small boat across the river and back to Tis Abay. By now I was very glad I’d chosen to wear my boots for this trip, as the field was a quagmire. Less lucky than me were a group of Italian students who’d gone on a walk by the top of the falls in their flip-flops, and were now reduced to walking bare-foot and slipping over in the mud at regular intervals as they made their way back to the village, from where we would all get the bus back to Bahar Dar.

The next day, I took a bus to Addis Ababa, the capital. This took two days – two days of closed windows, body odour and Amharic pop music! The highlight was without doubt the Blue Nile Bridge – after the falls, the Blue Nile flows through a gorge as it heads westwards, out of the mountains and then north towards Sudan. The road had to descend down to the bridge itself, and then climb up the other side; being in a window-seat I had a great view of the gorge and the bridge from on high, although sadly the driver didn’t stop to let the only faranju on board take some pictures of what would be my last view of the Nile.