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Dad's Books

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Well, there they go!

They'd stood there, in those distinctive dust covers, gathering dust, for so many years in my mother's apartment, until she too passed away, in January this year.

I didn't like to look at them, for they remained a silent admonition to my twin brother and me. By rights they should have comprised a complete set of first editions, each one inscribed and signed by Ian Fleming to my father, Fleming's friend, employer, literary counselor. Except that my brother and I, finding them such racy reads as kids, had loaned them out to friends. Fleming had inscribed them to us, as well, hadn't he? "To C.D. And the smaller C.D.s," he'd written in Thunderball. "Not for the boys this time!" he'd warned in one particularly racy one -- The Spy Who Loved Me. Which made us all the more anxious to read it!

We got that one back, thank goodness -- for my father was furious when he saw the gaps in his collection. But to his chagrin Casino Royale and On Her Majesty's Secret Service we could not retrieve, and are still missing, without leave. To his dying day my father would place classified advertisements in the trade press, asking if anyone knew of their whereabouts.

And now they are all gone!

Yesterday they all went under the hammer, at Bloomsbury Book Auctions in London -- with bids flocking in from across the globe: New York, Moscow, Tokyo... They fetched a record price for the complete collection -- my father having wisely gotten Fleming to sign reprints of the missing two books, so he would have them all. For he loved Ian like a brother, though they were from different worlds. Ian from Eton, my father from Middlesbrough Grammar, a scholarship boy.

There's a picture of the two of them, standing in the back row of a group photo of senior employees at Kemsley Newspapers: Ian in his bow-tie, my father with the distinctive military moustache he'd grown in the war, to disguise his young age -- commanding an infantry battalion at D-Day at age 25.

They worked together at Kemsley Newspapers -- my father as editorial director, Fleming as foreign manager -- but they had very different attitudes to journalism. My father had risen in the British Army under the revolutionary aegis of General Montgomery, who was mad about training for battle, not muddling into disaster. The Kemsley Manual of [Good] Journalism was therefore my father's attempt to rationalize an inky trade, and make it modern by thoughtful planning and the choice of good reporters. He would make press history in Britain by introducing pull-out sections, the first color magazine, Insight investigations, serializations of great men's and women's memoirs. Fleming, by contrast, was a novelist manqué: and though my father kept his services to the end of Fleming's life as a contracted contributor to the Sunday Times, and a member of its weekly planning conference, he knew letterpress wasn't Fleming's first love.

They had both served in World War II -- Fleming in the backrooms of Naval Intelligence, my father at the "sharp end," as he liked to call it. Having survived that most destructive, cataclysmic time (my father was evacuated at Dunkirk and ended the war liberating Arnhem) they wanted to do something positive, that would last. Sensing Fleming's burgeoning need to write fiction, my father arranged for him to take a month off, each year, to go to his idyllic (if rudimentary) retreat at Goldeneye, Jamaica, and work on his Bond novels. The novels, following in the footsteps of Rider Haggard and Dorothy Sayers, were shunned by the British literary establishment, but began to take off with each annual sequel. And when the Canadian media mogul Roy Thomson bought Kemsley Newspapers for a song, my father encouraged Fleming to finally cut the umbilical cord, and reverse his professional connection with the Sunday Times: to become a writer first, a journalist second. "You are now at the peak of your powers and nothing can stop you," he cabled him.

Increasing fame followed, on Fleming's part -- and distinction on my father's, for Fleming persuaded Roy Thomson to dump the then-editor of the Sunday Times, H.V. Hodson, and appoint my father instead. With Fleming not only attending planning conferences but contributing occasional travel and other pieces, even a Bond story, the Sunday Times took off: soon reaching sales of a million and a quarter copies each weekend. There were constant battles -- especially over the introduction of the Sunday Times Colour Magazine early in 1962. "Strong nerves and calm have been required," my father wrote Fleming, "as each day has brought hundreds of letters from readers protesting about the introduction of the colour section itself, about the layout, about the quality of the paper and about the delivery charge."

My father had been in battle long enough in World War II not to be blown off course. Fleming peppered him with ideas for the color section -- "an extra-mural member of the Sunday Times Editorial Board" as Fleming put it in a letter to him, when requesting an annual "retainer" of £1,000 -- which my father paid until Fleming's death in 1964.

Death was always on the cards for Fleming, since the Sunday Times Board meeting in April, 1961, when Fleming found himself "in the middle of a rather major heart attack" -- thanking my father for "noticing my trouble so quickly and shepherding me away," to the London Clinic. "As I am not supposed to be writing I will ask my secretary to sign this and send it off. In the meantime thank you again for taking me firmly by the hand."

As Fleming's health deteriorated, there was something very touching about his concern about my father's well-being at the helm of the Sunday Times. He'd written to chide my father for working too hard -- "I am not in the least impressed by the fact that every drawer in your desk is stuffed with new plans. You were working yourself to a rag under K[emsley] and the work has now tripled." They thus watched over each other's domains and health with a sort of manly tenderness, spurring each other on, but anxious too, at the medical cost of so much creativity and determination, right up until the end. Fleming begged my father to forgive the fact of a dictated letter in June, 1964, "but I am still not running on all cylinders," he confessed. He was even more concerned about my father, however, who had had a nasty accident outdoors -- prompting Fleming to write: "I am sorry you have been playing the fool in the garden. You must know that all forms of gardening are tantamount to suicide for the normal sedentary male. For heavens' sake leave the whole business alone, it is an absolute death trap."

Death took Fleming two months later. My father had gone to France, to visit his old Normandy battlefields -- where in the summer of 1944 he lost more than 600 men in casualties. He was "standing on the quayside at Dieppe," he told me, "when I saw an English newspaper at a stall, with the headline: 'Ian Fleming Dies on Golf Course.'" This time my father wasn't with him. "He was dead by the time they got him to hospital; I did not have the chance to say goodbye."

More than 20 years had passed, my father was dictating his own memoirs to me. He teared up. "It was Ian's nudge, above all, which got Roy Thomson to put me in as editor of the Sunday Times. He had courage and he faced the trials of his life with manliness and humour. I miss him, as I do many others who gave colour and sinew to Fleet Street in the post-war years."

My father's own life came to an end shortly thereafter, and he never lived to see his book, Editor-in-Chief, published. How he and Ian Fleming would have chuckled over the irony of its fate: the book's publisher, Hamish Hamilton, successfully sued for libel, for the suggestion in the book that Lord Rothermere, the then-owner of the Daily Mail, was a snob! All further copies were ordered to be pulped!

And now Fleming's books have gone, with their beautiful dustcovers, and funny inscriptions. "This curate's egg for Easter 1955." "To C.D. My promotion manager!" "To C.D. my constant prop and stay." "To C.D. To read in between still lesser junk"...

What stories they tell! Not only of a secret agent by the name of James Bond, but of a unique friendship between war veterans, who made England proud. I hope their new owners will enjoy them as much as my brothers and I once did.

Just don't loan them. Not to anybody!

Nigel Hamilton is outgoing president of Biographers International Organization - BIO - which is holding its third annual conference on Saturday, May 19, 2012, at USC in Los Angeles. Sir Denis Hamilton's collection of sixteen Fleming novels and travel books fetched over £128,000 ($204,500) at Bloomsbury Book Auctions on May 15, 2012.