History geeks and avid travellers, gather round! It's not often I come across a non-fiction read that mixes two things I absolutely love quite so strikingly as Ian's Fleming's 1959 book Thrilling Cities. A true tale of global travel, each chapter/city was initially published as a set of weekly essays for British paper The Sunday Times who sent Fleming on a round-the-world journey (some people have it tough) to explore fourteen of the world's most exciting cities.
For those of you that don't recognise Fleming's name (I didn't), he is the creator of one of pop culture's most popular characters; a certain suited spy that likes his martinis shaken, not stirred. Unlike the Bond books however, everything here is true, yet divulged in such a way only capable of a true thriller writer. Working on limited time, Fleming abandoned the typical tourist spots in favour of underground haunts, spending his days mingling with celebrities, gangsters and geishas. From the hills of Hong Kong to the casinos of Vegas and so very far beyond, every moment is beautifully different than the last, and all of it is a journey I was delighted to follow him on.
For me, this book is such a great read because it mixes two things I love so much, but in an unintended way; travel and history. The book builds its very narrative through the musings of a globetrotting, ever curious writer, and as such there are so many moments I relate to as a fellow wanderlust-filled, experience-seeking traveller, always in search new culture at its most authentic. Despite the vast differences in my background, occupation, time, age and gender from those of Fleming, there is such a sense of familiarity and fondness in reading what is essentially a tale of travel, an eager exploring of the world. In his words,
"Travel broadens the mind, and it is broad minds we need in a world that is so very much
broader than the posters of travel agents suggest."
Truer words have never been spoken, and yet, reading this story, (which is now more than 55 years old) there were several moments at which I practically gaped at the words on the page, shocked by how narrow-minded they came across. This story, as is true of any story in the whole world, is a product of its time. Fleming makes reference to the recent "Little Rock affair"(A.K.A a massive turning point in the American Civil Rights Movement) as one of the factors which has created a deep feeling of unrest and public guilt in New York City, as well as economic power increasingly being granted to women - god forbid!
I do not begrudge the author these views, I merely marvel at the telling of them in such a nonchalant manner, a manner impossible to now muster or even imagine given the time and events - indeed whole global movements - that have since passed. This story is amazing to read for two reasons; its insightful tales of back-alley travel by someone privileged enough to do it all in one go, and for the unintentional snapshot it grants us of a moment in time. Fleming's writing lets us peer through a window to a world now long gone, and it's a pretty cool thing to see. Despite sometimes struggling to engage with the slightly pompous style-of-writing we can expect from an upper class English gentleman born over a century ago, I really loved this book, and I highly recommend it to any of you who have a penchant for history and travel.
Penchant..?! I think his writing style may have rubbed of on me....