Voices: I’m Ian Fleming’s biographer – there’s no way James Bond can be made ‘PC’

Ian Fleming’s books have now followed Roald Dahl’s and been pruned of potentially offensive references on the advice of a new tribe of sensitivity readers.

But it’s never a good look to change what an author originally wrote. It smacks of censorship, and there’s seldom much mileage in that.

Of course, there are words and phrases in the Bond novels which look out of place today. References to race, as in the ethnicity of the barman in Thunderball, have reportedly been removed from a new edition of the 007 oeuvre, along with the description of a striptease in Live and Let Die.

However, I feel strongly that what an author commits to paper is sacrosanct and shouldn’t be altered. It stands as evidence of that writer’s – and society’s – attitudes at a particular moment in time, whether it’s by Shakespeare, Dickens, or Ian Fleming.

The only changes to the text should come from the author. So Fleming himself allowed the title of a chapter heading in Live and Let Die, published in 1954, to be altered in subsequent editions because it used an offensive racial stereotype.

But there's no way Bond's character in the Fleming books can be modified to make him politically correct. Fleming created a sexist, often sadistic, killer, with anachronistic attitudes to homosexuals, and to a range of people of different nationalities. These stand as evidence of how Britons (or at least some of them) thought at a particular moment in time.

Posthumous “continuation novels” like the later Bond novels written by Anthony Horowitz can initiate changes if required, though the secret agent’s behaviour in these is surprisingly familiar – except that he no longer smokes like a chimney or drinks quite as much.

Films have more licence in this regard. Consequently EON, the producers of the James Bond movies, have tried to make the central character more sensitive – and even a family man – in the latest instalment of the franchise No Time to Die, which appeared in 2021. But often in the past, when they have attempted any softening of the character, they have returned to the original hard man of Fleming’s books.

I have some perspective on this since, as well as writing a biography of Fleming, I have also written one on Rudyard Kipling, the Anglo-Indian author who kick-started his career with Plain Tales from the Hills, a collection of witty short stories about the Raj.

As a young journalist in India in the later 19th century, Kipling admired the British administration, became a committed imperialist, and thereafter turned his back on any expression of Indian political self-determination.

But while several of his attitudes would be dismissed today, his work – with all its felicities and imperfections – should be left untouched, as it vividly represents how society operated during his lifetime. As a result, his output has found new favour in modern India, not least as a historical source which is studied for its vivid description of the late colonial period.

Similarly, Fleming can be read – along with his contemporary Kingsley Amis – for his sophisticated journalist’s take on the mindless materialism of a society emerging blinking into the world after the deprivations of war, eager for new experiences which include foreign travel and sensual pleasure.

He stated uncompromisingly that his books were “written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railways trains, aeroplanes and beds”. In other words, he was writing for adults on the move in a modern society.

The Roald Dahl stories which recently publicised this issue are aimed almost exclusively at children. While young minds should not be exposed to unnecessary cruelty, characters such as the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull in Dahl’s Matilda have emerged unscathed. Children enjoy the frisson which comes from a sense of naughtiness. Otherwise, the pantomime Punch and Judy would not exist.

It is possible to preface such books with a warning of potentially offensive material and leave it to a reader, or a parent, to decide how to proceed. Inevitably it’s the big names, such as Dahl and Fleming, which are mainly affected.

There is a reason for this, and its name is business. Their popularity means that they are more likely to be filmed or turned into comics, video games, or any other media which copyright holders are drawn to in the promotion of a “franchise”.

Andrew Lycett is the author of ‘Ian Fleming’ and ‘Rudyard Kipling’, both published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson