By Matthew Blackman
On May 12, 1952, Ian Fleming was having lunch at a restaurant in London with the South African writer William Plomer. The two had been friends for years and had worked together in Naval intelligence during World War II. “How,” Fleming suddenly asked, “do you get cigarette smoke out of a woman once you’ve got it in?”
Plomer, bemused, carried on eating, unsure what Fleming was talking about. “You can’t use ‘exhales,’ while ‘puffs out’ sounds silly.” According to Plomer’s biographer, Peter Alexander, Plomer looked up sharply and exclaimed: “You’ve written a book!” After a pause, Fleming admitted that he had. The book was Casino Royale, and Plomer would ultimately be the man who would get it into print, despite the fact that even Fleming’s publisher hated it.
In many ways Plomer was an unlikely person to steer the world’s most famous secret agent into being. Born in 1903 in the tiny dusty colonial outpost of Pietersburg, in northern South Africa, Plomer was bookish and reclusive. And, very un-Bond-like, he hated gadgets — he refused to have even a telephone in his house. But there was another side to him, a side that sustained friendships with people of diverse backgrounds and vastly different personalities.
Like George Orwell, Plomer was the son of a colonial civil servant and grew up between places. He was partly educated in Great Britain, partly in South Africa. And, also like Orwell, he diverged from his social set, avoiding college for a career as a sheep farmer in South Africa, even though all he ever wanted was to be a writer.
After a year of apprenticing on a sheep farm, Plomer went to Zululand to help his father, who had bought a broken-down old trading station in a beautiful, extremely remote part of the region. There, the 19-year-old Plomer sat down many nights with an oil lamp and a pencil to write his first novel, as well as try his hand at poetry.
The poetry he sent to a man by the name of John Langalibalele Dube, who lived about 80 miles away. Dube was the founding president of the African National Congress — the political party later led by Nelson Mandela — and editor of the Black-focused newspaper Ilanga Lase Natali (The Natal Sun).
Dube liked the poetry and published it. More than that, the two men became friends. Through this friendship and others with activists of colour, Plomer developed loathing for white South African racists, a feeling he expressed through satire in his first novel, Turbott Wolfe. When the 21-year-old Plomer finished Turbott Wolfe, he sent it unsolicited to Britain’s Hogarth Press, the publishing house run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Plomer claimed that the two were drawn to the manuscript, which dealt frankly with interracial love, only because it was written “with hard pencil on thin paper” — he had no typewriter and ordinary paper was heavy and expensive to mail.
The Woolfs decided to publish the novel immediately, and it was well-received in Britain and the United States. In South Africa, though, it was a different story: Many white racists in the country were horrified by the plot. Under considerable social pressure, Plomer — who at 22 had begun to realize and accept his homosexuality — jumped on a ship bound for Japan and wound up settling in London, in 1929. In later life, he wrote of his native country, which had by then begun the policies of apartheid: “I could not imagine living there in a state of tension that I should only find endurable if bent on martyrdom.”
While living in England, Plomer continued to write, publishing several novels, but he had no steady income until, a decade later, he was offered the position of literary adviser to the publisher Jonathan Cape. The job was not an easy one, as Cape, a tall and forbidding figure with iron-gray hair, was known to be a hard-nosed businessman from a tough working-class background. What’s more, Cape had a passionate dislike for fictional thrillers, which Plomer enjoyed. Plomer is said to have found it hard to work for Cape although he respected him as a publisher.
In 1929, Plomer received a party invitation from a man he had never met who professed to have enjoyed Turbott Wolfe — aspiring writer and journalist Ian Fleming. The two would strike up a lasting friendship. Although Plomer never shared Fleming’s passion for women, fast cars and gambling, their mutual enjoyment of witty conversation is what kept the friendship alive for more than 30 years, until Fleming’s death in 1964.
When Fleming finally gave Plomer Casino Royale to have a look at, Plomer “was greatly impressed by it,” Alexander says. The same could not be said for Plomer’s publishers. None of the company directors enjoyed the book or wanted to publish it, with one decrying the novel as “deeply shocking” and cynically violent. Cape himself only read it because of Plomer’s insistence that it had to be published, and would would never read another Bond novel again.
Still, Cape ended up publishing it in 1953 and in doing so created a cash cow for the publishing house. Throughout their friendship, Plomer continued to offer Fleming literary support: The novel Goldfinger, which has never gone out of print, is dedicated to him.