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  • James Woodhouse


Updated: May 27, 2023

“As for me, my first memory of any significance is of a brilliant spring morning in Louis Trichardt. It had rained in the night, but now the sky was cloudless and the world of a celestial freshness and fragrance, exhaled by the sparkling green veld and wafted in the air. I strayed out of the garden, and standing on the bank of a stream suddenly saw on the opposite bank, perhaps twelve feet away, two large birds, a kind of wild duck perhaps. One was resting on the ground; the other stood beside it. Their plumage gleamed like many-coloured enamel in the sun against a background of reeds, their eyes glinted like jewels, and they showed no sign of alarm, but watched me as I watched them. My feeling was partly one of delighted discovery, like that of an ornithologist discovering a new species, partly of pure delight, both heightened into a kind of ecstasy, as of mutual understanding and joy, as if the birds and I knew that we were part of the same life and that life was splendid.”

“After this came a rush of sensuous experience of a growing and a shining world which could be touched and heard and smelt and tasted as well as seen – the forms and textures of plants, the rasping leaves of the Cape gooseberry; the clear yellow flowers and hairy swollen pods of a nameless shrub; the long white thorns like steel nails that stuck out everywhere from the thorn trees; the intense perfumes of the small aromatic flowers of the veld; the metallic dinning of the cicadas at midday and the cool colloquies of doves in the afternoons. Then there were insects – the multitudes of flying ants that came fluttering and flickering out after rain, shedding their talc-like wings, which they left thickly littered upon the moist earth; the flexible, hard-shelled, varnished millipedes which curled up when touched; the striped hornets; the tarantulas that waited, motionless as ornaments, on a whitewashed wall.”

“At night one could hear lions roaring far off, or the nearer howling of jackals, more sad and wonderful than frightening, or the loud choruses of frogs never tired of congratulating the full moon on its brilliance and always using the same formula:


SECOND FROG: est allé

THIRD FROG: Et oú? Et oú?

ALL: Á Cognac, á Cognac, á Cognac . . .

(Extract from Turott Wolfe by William Plomer)

William Plomer was born in Pietersburg on the 10th of December 1903. His father was working at the time for the Repatriation Commission and later accepted a commission in the Department of Native Affairs before becoming what Plomer described as “an itinerant magistrate and tax gatherer” in the “immense area between the Dwars and Limpopo rivers, travelling in a covered wagon drawn by eighteen donkeys and accompanied by eighteen mounted policemen . . .”

The family moved to Louis Trichardt in 1907, but as soon as he was old enough, Plomer was sent to school in England and despite several trips back to South Africa, it was only after the conclusion of the First World War that Plomer found himself returned permanently to the country of his birth. Plomer, being Plomer, had turned down a place at Oxford to become a farmer in the Stormberg. It was here, aged twenty, that he began his first novel – Turbott Wolfe.

Two years later, in 1925, Turbott Wolfe had been published to critical acclaim – and caused general outrage, due to its themes of interracial love and marriage – and Plomer was on the verge of starting the short-lived literary experiment Voorslag with Roy Campbell and Laurens van der Post. This explosive attack on the fabric of white South African society, in which Campbell notoriously accused his compatriots of “reclining blissfully in a grocer’s paradise and feeding on the labour of the natives” led to Campbell, Van der Post and Plomer all fleeing the country. Campbell wrote to a wealthy friend in Cape Town and borrowed the money to make good his escape to London. Plomer got on a boat with a Japanese man Van der Post had befriended in Durban and sailed to Tokyo. He spent almost three years in Japan before returning to England overland – via Korea, China, Russia, Germany and Belgium.

In England, he was at once accepted into the literary Bloomsbury group – due to his friendship with Roy Campbell and Virginia Woolf’s admiration of Turbott Wolfe. He became a literary editor at Faber and Faber and was later chief reader and literary advisor at Jonathan Cape. It was in this latter role that Plomer made the discovery that impacts our world to this day – he read a spy novel by a former naval intelligence officer, Ian Fleming. Plomer, being Plomer, recommended it for publication and Casino Royale – the first James Bond novel – was published by Jonathan Cape in 1953.

Despite Fleming’s despair at the quality of his own work – he famously said: “If one has a grain of intelligence, it is difficult to go on being serious about a character like James Bond” – Plomer encouraged him to continue writing. However, by the time Fleming started Diamonds Are Forever, the fourth Bond novel, he’d had enough and resolved to kill Bond and end the series. By this time living permanently in Jamaica, Fleming did not need the money and the sales at that point were not going to pay for the upkeep of his Goldeneye estate.

Plomer, having failed to persuade Fleming not to kill Bond, decided that he could at least try one last time to launch Bond in the US. Raymond Chandler, the king of the gumshoe detective novel, had lost his wife a year or so earlier and descended into alcoholism. Chandler had been passed around the US, from one literary “friend” to another, but his drinking was out of control and no one wanted to help any more – he was “written out”, they said, “suicidal and dangerous”. Plomer, being Plomer, saw an opportunity and offered Chandler a stay at Goldeneye.

The rest is history. Chandler and Fleming – both heavy drinkers at the best of times – became close friends and on Chandler’s advice Bond survived Diamonds Are Forever. Chandler supplied a tribute for the front cover and such was his profile that Diamonds Are Forever sold over two million copies in the US. Five years later the first Bond film, Dr No, was released. Goldfinger, Fleming’s follow-up to Dr No, was dedicated to Polokwane’s own William Plomer.

Ian Fleming’s Bond books, edited by William Plomer, have now sold over 100 million copies worldwide.


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