Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities

I've finished Thrilling Cities, by Ian Fleming, one of his two non-fiction books. I talk about his other, The Diamond Smugglers, here.

Fleming was commissioned by the Sunday Times of London to take two trips - one through the Orient and United States and the other through Europe - and write of his experiences in each one. The collected columns are here in this book.

First published in the early 1960s, Thrilling Cities is certainly outdated, and I'm sure it wouldn't do anyone any good as a guidebook. But as a travelogue it is certainly interesting. Fleming does hit a few of the must-see tourist sites, but for the most part he hits up the underground joints, off-the-beaten-path eateries, and after-hours clubs. Fleming was of course famous at the time for James Bond and if he told of these thrilling cities with a thriller-writer's touch, who can blame him?

I'm glad I read this book for two reasons. One, travelogue is not a genre I'm overly familiar with, and I enjoyed this one. I'd like to try more. Two, I tend to look at the tabletop gaming applications for pretty much everything I read, and Thrilling Cities could easily serve as a "spy locale" sourcebook. I recently reacquired the old Top Secret, S.I. game from TSR. If I wanted to run a Cold War era campaign and needed a great sourcebook for the world's thrilling cities, what could be better than a first-hand account from the creator of James Bond himself? It might be a bit dated for games set in the 1970s or 80s, but if you weren't overly concerned with exact historic accuracy, this book would have everything you needed to describe exotic cities. Even if you were a stickler for historic accuracy, you can certainly soak up a lot of atmosphere from this book. And if you set the game in the 1960s, you'd have one hell of a realistic and accurate backdrop.

Speaking of travelogues, next up is The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which I'm about a fourth of the way through. Oddly, certain parts of it resonate with Fleming's book. I guess that stranger-in-a-strange-land feeling is the same no matter what era you live in.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Vinyl Renaissance

That's the name of a record store in Kansas City, but what I'm referring to is my own personal vinyl renaissance. Lately I've been buying and listening to music on LP. I have always loved that hiss and pop of old vinyl. Maybe it's just nostalgia; records are certainly not the most hardy or convenient medium. But older music produced to sound good on vinyl sounds much better on vinyl than in digital form. Most of the time people say it sounds "warmer" and I agree, but I can't be sure why that word fits. With vinyl, I sense more of the "space" of the sound - what Jerry Garcia called the "sound of heavy air." It's a more active form of listening to music. The turntable requires my attention every now and then. When I listen to digital music, it's usually as background. When I listen to my turntable, it's because I'm listening.

My collection is not extensive. Most of what I've got I picked up at various sales at places like the much-lamented Recycled Sounds. Some of my stuff I actually found at thrift stores. I have everything from mainstream rock like Boston's first album - which I really don't listen to - to a weird-ass 1950s electronic interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (I don't really listen to that, either...).

But for years I didn't have a solid turntable. That changed last year when my son got me a refurbished TEAC. Recently, I got a new receiver and speakers and I'm definitely experiencing a renaissance.

New purchases: I was thrilled to find Doolittle by The Pixies - a classic if there ever was one, a record that changed my life in many ways, and one I'd previously experienced only on cassette back in the day....I also re-equipped myself with my two favorite T. Rex albums, Electric Warrior and The Slider (and man does Marc Bolan sound great on vinyl). My recent interest in Blue Oyster Cult has its place here too with my favorites from them: Cultosaurus Erectus and Fire of Unknown Origin.

Warren Zevon gets regular spins - I've got all his studio albums - and one I play all the time is The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Rick Wakeman. 

Is there a point here? Not really, other than this: records are cool. I like playing with them, listening to them, slipping them into and out of plastic sleeves. To me, putting a needle on some "wax" and getting a sound to come out is more magical, somehow, than my entire laptop.

The older I get, the more I want to reconnect with the kid I used to be. Vinyl is a great way to do it. It's not just the music. It's the act of lowering that needle, hearing the subtle hiss that means the music is about to start, sitting back and letting it fill the space between my ears. That's therapy.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Diamond Smugglers

Even though I have let my Bondage series (where I review the James Bond movies) linger just post-Timothy Dalton, I still have a great love for the franchise. Picking up a used copy of the old TSR game Top Secret, S.I. returned my interest to spy stuff.

It's funny that as much as I enjoy Bond movies, I've not read many of the original Ian Fleming books. My son found an old copy of The Man with the Golden Gun and gave it to me for Christmas. The only others I'd read were Casino Royale, The Spy Who Loved Me, and For Your Eyes Only. None of them were anything like the movies, of course, the Bond movies being among the very worst films of all time in the "true to the source material" category. Nevertheless, I was inspired to dig in to Ian Fleming's original version of everyone's favorite spy.

Luckily, a very handsome set of reissues has come out recently, and I treated myself by picking up every single one of Ian Fleming's Bond books (it shouldn't matter, but the covers are awesome, and look great together on my bookshelf).

In that series, however, are two non-fiction books Fleming wrote. One is called Thrilling Cities, which I'll discuss later. The other is called The Diamond Smugglers, and it was thoroughly entertaining.

Fleming interviews a real-life spy who gives a "tell-all," or "tell-most," about British efforts to thwart rampant diamond smuggling in Africa. The spy, whose fake name for Fleming was John Blaize, frankly wanted a little bit of credit, and wanted the world to know what a big problem diamond smuggling was, and furthermore had permission from his superiors, who felt that revelations about the case would help national security more than it would hurt. Blaize was familiar with Fleming, admired his book Diamonds Are Forever, and sought him out. Fleming spent some time with Blaize in Tangiers, interviewing him, and the book is the result.

Either that, or Fleming made the whole thing up. But if he had, he would have included some gunfights or scantily clad women with ridiculous names.

Truth is, Blaize (through Fleming) weaves an extremely entertaining spy story out of very boring ingredients. There's not a single fist-fight, let alone a gun-fight. Aside from one guy who got a fever in Africa, no one died or came to grief. But over the course of several years, a spy ring put a huge dent in the diamond smuggling business (particularly out of Liberia and Sierra Leone) that, the publishers note, it has still not recovered from.

The book is slim and it's a quick read, feeling more like a lengthy magazine article than a book. If you want to hear a real-life spy story, and learn about the unglamorous workaday world of real-life spies, I heartily recommend this book.

It did give me some great ideas for a Fleming-esque villain character I've been working up for a hypothetical future spy game: Diamondface.