In 1959, The Sunday Times gave James Bond writer Ian Fleming a round-the-world plane ticket and charged him with quickly traveling through 14 of the world’s major cities. (Fleming had been foreign editor for the paper for some time previously.) The result is Fleming’s Thrilling Cities, a memorialized account of the writer’s experiences. While I am a known fan of the James Bond books (you’ll find several of my reviews on this very site), this little non-fiction gem is one of my favorites of all of Fleming’s books. It combines Bond’s love of the sensual pleasures in life with humorous (dry, like a martini) writing about what the globe right after World War II.
Fleming’s tone is lighter than what the reader gets in the Bond books. In Cities, Fleming is sitting next to the reader in a theater or crowded restaurant, whispering cheeky asides and sharing what he really thinks. It’s an intimate, casual tone for the most part. In my opinion Fleming is also more descriptive in his travel writing than in his fiction. A sample of his visit to Waikiki:
Far below me, on the moon-burnt beach, an elderly woman, probably a General Electric cashier, was holding up her muumuu while the small waves washed her feet. She looked forlorn and unloved in this place of the eternal honeymoon. The next day, probably, she would be back in Seattle, Iowa, New Orleans. Now, in the path of the moon and with the gay flambeaux and the crooning guitars behind her, she was having her last paddle. She seemed to represent the tragedy of all ended holidays. I drew the jalousies and went to bed.
Fleming is a product of his times, as we all are, and some of his language and worldview will likely sound dissonant or even offensive to a reader in 2017. However, the Fleming who wrote this book has a bit of a more nuanced worldview than one might expect, or one might expect that classic Bond had. This is especially obvious when he talks with mixed emotions about visiting Germany, and his nuanced views on the West trying to assert itself (“Successful propaganda only comes from strength. To offer people better shoes and clothes, and jazz, is not enough,”). It is also worthy to note that Fleming was a man who, despite his admitted old-man thinking (“It seemed to me there were periods when the liberal spirit got a little bit out of hand,”), he was also a man who wanted to know the world and its people better. As he writes:
Travel broadens the mind and it is broad minds we need in a world that is so very much broader than the posters of travel agents suggest.