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Deciphering Fleming: Uncorrected proofs

There's no better way of getting into the mind of Ian Fleming than by sitting down and studying an uncorrected proof

Prepare yourself.

It's quite possible that one of the most famous lines in Bond book history [It’s all right,’ he said in a clear voice as if explaining to a child. It’s quite alright. She’s having a rest…’] could have been totally spoiled if it wasn’t for the eagle eyes of one Jonathan Cape proof reader.


Take a look at how this immortal line – revealing the shattering death of Bond’s wife, Tracey – was very nearly published, just a few lines from the ending of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service:

Yep…it’s an extremely conspicuous typo [I,’s all right…] – one that would have completely distracted readers from one of the most significant and emotional endings to an Ian Fleming first edition ever written.


Thank heavens it was spotted before the first edition (proper) actually went into the printing press - and it ended up as it was supposed to - below:

Why proofs are so fascinating

It’s discovering little tidbits like this that is one of the joys of a particular niche in Ian Fleming collecting – collecting the rare uncorrected proofs.


I’m fairly confident that the observation I’ve just detailed above is something of a recorded first.


Even if owners of this rare proof have noticed the mistake privately [my guess is that they won’t have], I’m fairly certain this observation has never been talked about publicly until now. Feather in my cap, I think!


Besides throwing up revelations like the one above, these earliest-bound copies – which typically number no more than 500-600 of any of the books (and were printed in substantially smaller numbers for the very early books), proofs are fascinating to flick through. Not least is because they are literally the earliest examples we have of the Fleming books – not including the initial type-written pages by Fleming’s secretary that were initially sent to Jonathan Cape as the next Bond manuscript.


For those who like to study them (Ian Fleming or any other author), proof copies are important working documents, especially for understanding how the written narrative evolved and developed from when the writer first put their thoughts onto paper, to how the final published book eventually looked.


For some written works, there are often tremendous differences between the proofs and the final published work. For instance, in the facsimile of the extant manuscript of George Orwell’s 1984 (not quite a proof, but near enough), the finished book’s famous opening line ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ is revealed to have originally been written as ‘It was a cold day in early April, and a million radios were striking thirteen.' More than this though, besides the odd change of sentence, the original version of 1984 showed entire sections of text that were either cut, moved and appeared elsewhere, or were massively re-written for the final version, giving a fascinating insight into how the broad story and themes were constructed and ordered, but also how the minutia of particular phrases were changed, held back, or sometimes saved till much later.


As connoisseurs of Fleming will know themselves, even Casino Royale is noted for having its very own first sentence changed too.


It's thanks to there being a surviving proof copy of Casino Royale that we know the book’s opening line started with the far less-flowing: ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino combine together and hit the taste-buds with an acid shock at three in the morning...'

The finished book instead features the far classier opening we all know and love: 'The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning...'


The On Her Majesty’s Secret Service proof

I've chosen to look at the proof of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), not just because it’s a book currently has for sale (and so one is on hand to look at), but also because Fleming bibliographer Jon Gilbert himself notes that OHMSS is the proof that contains “more errors and required more amendments than any Fleming title.”


These were errors, he continued: “both in terms of careless composition and poor spelling, as well as larger changes in text or resetting of passages.”


In detailing some of the proof specifics, he lists a few of what he calls some of the “more significant” errors – although notably, the typo I started this blog about – the first time we hear about the death of Tracey ISN’T mentioned at all, suggesting not even Gilbert has noticed this one.


This makes it entirely likely there are many more errors still to be accounted for that are not discussed by Gilbert and remain hidden until found.


So, what we do see?


Like most Bond proofs many of differences between the proof copy and the final published book are – as Gilbert notes – mostly typos.


This is certainly the case with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – which is also notable for dummy page numbers and typographical/font/layout changes – such as in the front dedication (see below), and also corrections to chapter names (such as Chapter 9) - also below:

Above left - how the dedication appears on the proof. Right, how it actually appears in print:

Chapter 9 (top) - as it appears in print, vs the proof version of chapter 9 underneath it

Left: Dummy page numbers; below NAOO for NATO:

Typos - ie spelling mistakes – are numerous in the case of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Mistakes include the likes of Manet instead of Monet, Sabe Basilisk instead of Sable Basilisk and (as shown in the pic above), NATO is wrongly called 'NAOO' on p 64.


Place names are often a source of errors, and on p 203 of the proof of OHMSS, Zurich is incorrectly spelled.


Proving that this book was riddled with mistakes more than most, not even Bond himself is immune from being mis-spelled. On the OHMSS proof we see ‘Bon’s smiled’ – instead of ‘Bond’s smile’ as it was supposed to read (on p 161).


Anything more?

While these grammar/spelling errors might interest sub-editors, I admit, they're not exactly earth shattering differences.


However, providing slightly more illumination about the process of writing a book is when new decisions are taken about existing phrases.


My own analysis finds these sorts of changes are actually far less common, and even harder to spot than more obvious typos, but they do exist. Gilbert notes one – on p 215 of the proof, which reads “thoughts ran again through Bond’s head." By the time the book had been published had been changed to “Bond’s mind,” which I think most of us will agree reads better.


One change Gilbert hasn’t remarked on, but which I’ve spotted is on page 73, when Bond was at the College of Arms. In the published first edition, an apologetic Sable Basilisk is excusing the rather dotty Griffon Or – whom Bond has just met (and feels he has wasted his time with).


Basilisk describes Griffon as being a “Nice chap, but he’s a bit dedicated, if you know what I mean.” 


In the proof however, the sentence reads “Nice chap, but he’s a bit prolix, if you know what I mean.” ‘Prolix’ in this setting, meaning to be a bit tedious and lengthy. See below:

Above: As originally written - 'he's a bit prolix'

Above: As it appears in the final printed book - 'he's a bit dedicated'


It might only be a single word that’s been changed, but it seems clear from this (and the Gilbert spot), that even at the proof-book stage, there was still ‘a lot’ of effort being made to polish the text, make it tighter, and dispense with any wording that might seem clunky.


Prolix is a good, interesting-looking word, and if you know what it means, you could say that it seems entirely appropriate. But it’s also a bit unfamiliar too.


It’s not clear whether Fleming himself will have personally made this change, or if it was suggested by a proof-reader, editor or someone higher up in Cape (although see later for some more clues about this). But in his famous guide to writing a thriller, Ian Fleming himself asserted that an “unmannered prose style” was always necessary, and that “speed of the narrative,” is required. So maybe we are seeing this theory in action.


He later re-emphasised this by adding that the prose must be “simple and unmannered.”

Perhaps by taking out 'prolix' (and putting ‘dedicated’ in instead), is Fleming still saying much the same thing, but much more cleanly, and simply. As such, I think this change demonstrates a verve (even at this late stage in the book production process), to really fine-tune the book, take out any extraneous words that interrupt the flow, and generally keep the pace up.


There’s likely to be plenty more differences...


For a proof that’s often chided for being full of changes, one thing I will say, is that these are – in the main – typos.


Actual wording changes are, actually seem few and far between.


For the purposes of this blog, I looked at several sections in the proof – and honed in on elements that I suspected could be ripe for differences between the proof and the final printed book. But I was surprised to find how little there actually were. Passages, such as describing people’s features, their back-stories, specific information about their age, or place of origin, or where Fleming adds branded products – these were (I suspected) all ripe areas for elements to differ between the proof and final copy. But in the sections I checked – throughout the whole book – this was not the case. Bond’s love-making with Ruby (perhaps it was a bit too racy in the proof?) was also word-perfect to the actual first edition.


The more I think about it, the more I tend to think that this was actually a very complete book by the time it reached the proof-book stage. All of which makes late changes of the odd descriptive word even more fascinating – because clearly there was still an appetite to finesse the book even further, and not just check for literals or typos.


So are there likely to be more hitherto un-noticed differences between the proof and final published book? Undoubtedly.


It’s highly likely there are many more errors and changes that are still to be found, because to establish them all would require assiduously sitting down with the proof book next to the published book, and going through both of them, line by line. And let’s face it, few of us have that much time on our hands.


But being able to make an occasional comparison, perhaps of a chapter of two, is what makes owning a proof copy of a Bond book so satisfying.


Proof book owners can, quite literally, let their minds begin to wonder about Fleming’s modus operandi; about how or why a particular correction or alteration was made.


Why was it done? For what reason? What is the significance of a single changed word? Was it a changed at Fleming’s insistence, or someone else’s? These are all questions that come to mind when seeing changes, and wondering why they have come to be.


In ‘How to write a Thriller’ Fleming does mention how “a perceptive proof-reader” noticed how often Bond ate scrambled eggs in the submitted manuscript for Live and Let Die – prompting Fleming to “go through the book changing the menus.”


He also indicates that his manuscripts were keenly examined. He wrote: “They are a sharp-eyed bunch at Jonathan Cape and, apart from commenting on the book as a whole, they make detailed suggestions which I either embody or discard.”


So…some changes he liked; some he ignored.


But which ones? It is of, course, a mystery.


But if you are truly interested in the craft of writing a thriller, then a proof is your only window into the mind of Ian Fleming.

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