This thread will be devoted to sharing the adventure journalism of Ian Fleming--his various articles on treasure-hunting, tourism, and underwater adventures. All were written for the Sunday Times
, and have long been unavailable to the public, despite comprising some of Fleming's most notable writing outside of Bond. I will try to post an article each week.
This post will serve as an index of links to each article, for ease of access.
Article Listing (in order of original publication):
Frogmen Raise Riches of 250 B. C. From Sea Bed: Wrecked Greek Galley Yields Archaeological Treasures
(Underwater excavations with Jacques Cousteau in the bay of Marseilles, part one)
Diving through 22 Centuries: An Under-Water Report on Mediterranean Treasure
(Underwater excavations with Jacques Cousteau in the bay of Marseilles, part two)
“A World Crammed with Treasure”: Past and Present Under the Sea
(Fleming answers questions from readers about the underwater excavations with Jacques Cousteau)
Treasure Hunt at Creake Abbey
(Searching for buried treasure in England)
5 Explorers Near Goal 1,900 ft. Under Pyrenees
(Documenting the expedition to the Gouffre de la Pierre Saint Martin cave system)
Caves of Adventure: Explorers Find a New Wonder of the World
(Reporting the discovery of La Verna cave)
The Sixth Continent Under the Sea
(Report from the first Underwater Archaeology Conference)
Adventure in the Sun: I. The Remora’s Kiss
(A strange aquatic encounter in Jamaica)
Adventure in the Sun: II. Blue Mountain Solitaire
(An expedition to find the mysterious singing bird called the Solitaire)
Adventure in the Sun: III. To Flamingo Land
(A journey to the “hideous island” that inspired Crab Key)
More Adventures in the Sun: My Friend the Octopus
(The unusual relationship between man and “Pussy”)
More Adventures in the Sun: II. Treasures of the Sea
(A hunt for seashells in the Cayman Islands)
Treasure Hunt in Eden
(A voyage to the Seychelles, in search of pirate gold)
Treasure Hunt in Eden: II. Butterflies and Beachcombers
(Exploring the eccentric features—and people—of the Seychelles)
Treasure Hunt in Eden: III. Gold or No Gold?
(The long-awaited meeting with the elusive treasure hunter—and conclusion of the Seychelles adventure).
Ian Fleming on his Jamaican Villa
And for more of Fleming's journalism, this time on literary topics, see my earlier thread, "Ian Fleming on Crime and Spy Fiction (and non-fiction!)
Wrecked Greek Galley Yields Archaeological Treasures
From Ian Fleming, Special Representative of The Sunday Times
For the past nine months, almost unknown to the world, a remarkable “treasure hunt” has been raising great riches from the sea just off the eastern arm of the Bay of Marseilles. Here, lying in 130 feet of water against the flank of a tiny island, the Grand Congloué, are the well-preserved remains of a Greek trading galley that foundered 250 years before Christ. Every day the wreck is yielding archaeological treasures that, in the opinion of France’s leading archaeologist, are without precedent.
Commandant Jacques Cousteau, the French underwater explorer, verified the nature of the wreck last summer, and he touches on his discovery in his book The Silent World, now a best-seller in England and America. Since then, with the help of the French Navy and of many other authorities, he and his team of amateur and professional divers in aqua-lungs and frogmen’s suits have been working through the winter storms to raise every piece of the wreck and all its cargo.
So far he has brought ashore to the Musee Borély in Marseilles more than 1,500 amphoras (Greek vases or wine jars), many tons of pottery of all descriptions and objects in lead and iron and wood , the majority in a remarkable state of preservation. And the lower works of the galley have hardly been touched.
Last night, I went on board Commandant Cousteau’s research vessel, the 300 ton Calypso, a converted minesweeper, which berths every night in the Vieux Porte. On her deck, still slippery with the mud of the treasure island, there lay stacks of graceful three-foot amphoras, more than 200 of them. Some still had the corks in their slim necks and the seals intact and the red brown terracotta was only occasionally encrusted with the scribblings of coral insects. One of the archaeologists showed me a pile of saucers decorated in the centre with four palm fronds. They were light and beautiful to the touch, the black patina soft as silk.
Everything that has been brought up, by hand or by the powerful suction pump which has been rigged on the island, will be taken to the museum where an inventory is being compiled. Then the Calypso will leave again for the island, no larger than Piccadilly Circus, where Commandant Cousteau’s teams work cranes and the suction pump and dive in pairs until after a 15-minute stretch they are called by a rifle shot to the surface of the sea.
We had a glass of Martinique rum in the comfortable board room with Madame Cousteau, who often dives with her husband. Among members of the team are two television engineers whose cameras will shortly show those on the surface exactly what the divers are doing so that the archaeologists can direct their work.
“The galley was almost certainly overloaded,” said the Commandant. “We even think the crew may have been drunk. Most of the amphoras had contained wine and many seals looked as If they had been tampered with. She was a sailing galley about 100 feet long. We have discovered a lot about her, thanks to the initials S.E.S. on the lip of the amphoras and the mark of a trident or an anchor.
“S.E.S. was the sign of Marcus Sestus, a powerful commercial and political figure who came from the neighbourhood of Naples and settled on the island of Delos. He became a naturalised Greek and changed his name to Marcus Sestos in 240 B.C. He was an important figure in the economic penetration of the Eastern Mediterranean before the conquest of Greece by the Romans.
“The galley sailed from Greece in about 250 B.C. with wine from the Cyclades. It called at the island of Rhodes, took on a cargo of pottery and set sail for Marseilles where her freight would fetch high prices in money and slaves . She must have hugged the coast too closely and foundered on the Island when she was already within sight of harbour.”
“What more do you expect to find,” I asked, thinking vulgarly in terms of gold and silver and jewels and precious ornaments. But Cousteau is a scientist and it is his sincere disinterest in riches and self-advertisement that has won him the trust of every authority whom he has asked for help. He refused to be drawn. “We have not yet got down amidships,” he said, “and we have barely touched the hold. What we have raised has been mainly deck cargo.
“The deeper we search, the finer the quality. Each yard is a leaf off the artichoke of history. Everything we find is treasure. We have found wine. It tasted disgusting. The next lot we will keep for the scientists.
“Much of the hull will be raised. Her timber was protected by thin lead sheeting and by fathoms of mud and sand. We hope to reconstruct the galley and its cargo. Perhaps we shall sail it back to Greece. This is not the kind of treasure of which so many people ask. It is treasure for the mind.”
We walked to the rail and gazed at the neon-lighted frontage of restaurants and night clubs 50 yards away. I moved and my shoes rang against an unnoticed amphora. Despite the bright light and the strains of dance bands, the air seemed thronged with the phantoms of antiquity.
“In a few days, we will sail again,” said Cousteau. “Come with us and inspect for yourself a real treasure trove. You will be the first journalist to have visited the island.”
I thanked him and we said goodnight. As I walked away from the Calypso, I thought of this man who has so much of the quality of wonder in him and so little concern for the public glare.
Ian Fleming has arranged to take part in the diving operations at Grand Congloué and will report on his experiences next Sunday.
(Sunday Times, April 19, 1953)
From Ian Fleming, Special Representative of the Sunday Times
Last week Ian Fleming told the story of the great treasure hunt by Commandant Jacques Cousteau and his team of divers on the wreck of a Greek galley that sank in 250 B.C. off the Grand Congloué, a small island near Marseilles. Today, in an exclusive despatch, he describes a visit to the treasure island in the 300-ton research ship Calypso.
The mistral blew itself out during the night and we sailed at seven in the morning from the Vieux Port. Above the hullabaloo of the fishermen selling their miserable catch to the restaurant keepers (miserable in quality; the basis of bouillabaisse is scorpion fish and conger eel) there was a shout as three “week-end” divers from the submarine factory at Toulon jumped off the tram and ran for the Calypso just as we were casting off. “They're typical,” said Cousteau, as he took his ship out fast between the ranks of fishing smacks and pleasure craft that line this beautiful and ancient harbour. “They get no pay. It’s dangerous—we lost one of our best divers during the winter—and yet they give up their spare time to the wreck.
“Very few of my divers are paid hands. Those that are are permanent members of the crew, who dive and man the ship as well. Today we have the proprietor of a vineyard, a building contractor and a garage hand on board, and now these men from Toulon.”
Human Machine Tool
I spoke to one of them—a young man as thick as a chest of drawers, with the curly black hair and fine swarthy features of a Phoenician. He had lost all the fingers of one hand on the detonator of a German mine, yet he was so strong that everyone used him as a sort of human machine tool. When anything had to be bent, broken or unscrewed it was brought to him and, with a great intake of breath, his hands would grapple with the object until it obeyed.
“I like diving,” he said, in answer to my question, “because each dive is a new adventure. And we will go anywhere with the Commandant.” The truth, I believe, lay chiefly in the second reason. I have seldom seen such a devoted team, nor such iron discipline with so little display of authority. The only orders issued that day were from the bridge to the engine-room.
The golden Notre Dame de la Garde, 300 feet up in the sky, looked down on us from her eminence above the town as we came out of the harbour into a heavy swell from the north-west.
Below the Pharo light the dramatic statue of a dead seaman in the arms of an angel was no encouragement to a fair-weather spear-fisherman who intended to pioneer underwater journalism; and the ghost of the *Man In the Iron Mask* hanging round the torture chambers of the Chateau d’If, which we passed to starboard, led to thoughts of the possible fate of the “man in the aluminium aqualung.”
The Calypso rolled heavily in the beam sea, and it was a relief to reach the shelter of the first of the barren, uninhabited islands that tail gradually off to the tiny rock of the Grand Congloué.
Commandant Cousteau talked on the radio-telephone to the team on the treasure island. “Calypso speaking. Hallo, Port Calypso. Hallo, Port Calypso. Over.” And the cheerful voice on the island came back, “*Bonjour, Commandant. J’écoute*.” Questions were asked about the state of the sea off the island, and about the results of the previous day’s diving. A ring had come up in the suction pump. Great excitement on the bridge. Was it gold? No, copper, but certainly a finger ring.
The archaeologist was dubious, but elated. The galley probably carried a crew of about 16, he told me. “They must all have had their personal effects on board—perhaps even some presents for girl friends in Marseilles. But there are months of work ahead before we shall see the whole picture. For the time being we only know that she sank in about 250 B.C and that she carried a big cargo of wine and medium-priced pottery of all kinds. All the rest is speculation.
“In July we are going to invite the world’s leading archaeologists to a reunion at Marseilles. By then we hope to have most of the wreck on display in the museum, and they will be able to argue it all out for themselves. There will probably be bloodshed. It will be great fun.”
This cheerful young expert from the Musée Borely in Marseilles is the butt and the mascot of the whole ship’s company. They play endless Jokes on him. The favourite one is to smuggle some mysterious object down to the wreck and then to bring it up all covered with mud—a doorknob or the handle of a chamberpot—and watch his excitement and delight change to mock rage. And yet when there is a real find they hang on his lips and listen with awe as he tells how it fitted into the life of more than 2,000 years ago.
Suddenly the island was ahead of us, a white rock sparsely covered with sea-grass and flowers and inhabited only by lizards and sea birds, rising straight out of the waves. The house-flag, depleting Calypso, daughter of Atlas and queen of the bottom of the sea, on a green background, fluttered up above the yellow cabin that with the rest of the installation cost so much blood, sweat and tears before the winter set in. We could hear the roar of the suction pump, whose thick tube is suspended over the sunken galley from a boom that reaches out from the base of the rock.
On board the Calypso the powerful German compressors began to clatter as the air cylinders were filled to 300 lb. pressure for the divers, the first of whom was already climbing into his skin-tight foam-rubber suit. We had hardly tied up, a cricket pitch away from the rock, before he was over the side and the day's work had begun.
And so it went on all through the day, web-footed Martians stumping heavily to the ladder and disappearing, suddenly light and graceful, into the gunmetal depths. The reassuring fountain of bubbles that meant all was well 150 feet below, the chronometer ticking away their minutes, and the occasional rifle shot to the surface of the sea to recall some enthusiast who had overstayed his 15 minutes on the wreck.
A steady, well-devised , cautious routine that left no room for mistakes. And every half an hour the thrilling chatter of the winch bringing up the wide net container piled high with the treasures the divers had put into it.
Something Rich and Strange
Then we all hurled to the dripping muddy pile of gifts, like children unleashed on a Christmas tree, carrying anything strange or new in triumph to the archaeologist, sorting, cleaning , panting under the weight of the objects that under the sea the divers had lifted so easily, quickly clearing the container so that it could go down again to this wonderful bargain basement whose doors had been thrown open to us by Cousteau.
I cannot describe the romance and excitement of the scene better than to say that it contained at the same time elements from King Solomon’s Mines, Treasure Island, and The Swiss Family Robinson.
The sea had become glassy calm beneath a strong clear sun, swarms of fish played around the ship among the rich food rising from the disturbed sands of the wreck. The seagulls chattered and cawed among their nests in the cliffs, and Commandant Cousteau’s two sons, aged 12 and 14, played and swam and climbed, to remind us all that this whole affair of buried treasure really belonged to the children in all of us.
After lunch, and a good deal of argument, I was allowed to go down as far as my physical resistance would allow, so that I could see the reverse of the medal—the serious business of skin-diving in 25 fathoms. The Mediterranean looked extremely black and deep. I even wondered whether National Health Insurance covered this alien hazard, and when it came to spitting in my mask to clear it I found it difficult to summon the necessary saliva. I put on 30 lb. of equipment and went over the side, and looked down into limitless grey depths and tried to remember to breathe quietly through the aqualung. I swam slowly down and drifted with my arms round the broad tubes of the suction pump. It rattled and shook against me with the upward jet of stones and broken pottery. I looked up at the distant hull of the ship and at the idle screw. The surface of sea was a sheet of mercury illuminated in one spot, like a star sapphire, by the sun.
My fellow-diver came down past me in a wake of bubbles, and the yellow compressed-air cylinders on his back and his blue webbed feet-disappeared beneath me. As I let go of the tube and went slowly after him I wished I had done something like this before.
Full Fathom Five
About halfway down to the wreck my ears began to hurt, and I swam sideways to the line that reached down to the rope container. They continued to hurt. Cousteau had said they would and that I must wait until the pain stopped. I waited, and watched a swarm of sardine-size fish pass by on some common errand.
I went down a few more yards until I could see the distant figure of my fellow-diver flickering round a black area on the bottom—the deep excavation in the after-part of the galley. The pain would not relax and I made my way reluctantly up the cold grey corridor to the surface. “You would have burst your eardrums if you had gone deeper,” said Cousteau cheerfully as my equipment was stripped off me. “I knew the pain would stop you making a fool of yourself. It needs several dives to train the Eustachian tubes. Anyway, now you know what these men have been doing all through the winter. The sun doesn’t often shine for us like this.”
He went back to the post by the rail that he never left when one of his men was below.
On that day we brought home 64 three-foot amphoras, 20 of them in pristine condition, many black-finished saucers and plates, a fine wine jar for the table, much timber from the hull —pinewood planks, 18 inches broad by l 1/2 inches thick, pierced transversely with thin staves to mortise them into their neighbours—a three-foot heavy length of oak judged to have been part of the rudder-oar, a heavy lead running-ring thought to have been attached to the sail, and a handful of square-cut bronze and copper nails up to a foot in length.
A Medium Day
“A medium day,” said Cousteau, as he brought the Calypso quietly in among the life of the Vieux Port at ten o’clock that night. We dispersed exhausted to our beds, leaving this tireless man and his devoted crew to their final labours.
When I got back to my room I looked up a quotation which I had taken from The Aquarium, by Philip Gosse, the great naturalist who a hundred years ago was the first to teach our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers to poke about the rock pools and discover the secrets of the sea. This is what he wrote in 1854:
A paragraph went the rounds of the papers a month ago to the effect that an eminent French zoologist, in order to prosecute his studies on the marine animals of the Mediterranean had provided himself with a watertight dress, suitable spectacles and a breathing tube, so that he might walk on the bottom in a considerable depth of water. Whether a scheme so elaborate was really attempted I know not, but I should anticipate feeble results from it.
I poured some peroxide into my aching ears and took the lid off my typewriter.
(Sunday Times , April 26, 1953)
By Ian Fleming
(Last Sunday, in an exclusive despatch to The Sunday Times, Ian Fleming told of a visit to the little island of Grand Congloué, near Marseilles, where Commandant Jacques Cousteau and his team of divers are raising the wreck of a Greek galley that foundered in about 250 B.C. Ian Fleming is now back in London and here comments on some of the questions that have been put to him.)
“I am interested in the history of trade marks…” “We are manufacturers of corks…” “Did all this happen between the First and Second Punic wars?” “What did the wine taste like?”
“What are these lizards you talk about?” “Where can I buy an aqualung?” “I am spending my holiday near Marseilles. Can you…?”
If one is a specialist it must be tantalising to read a report in the newspapers which touches one’s subject , however lightly. “Why didn’t he bring back one of those lizards?” “At least he might know how much saffron goes into bouillabaisse.” “Surely he noticed the name of the people who make those German compressors.”
I warmly sympathise and I have answered all questions as well as my capacities have allowed. I would have to be too many different people at the same time to answer them any better. I now feel very sorry for Cousteau. When I said goodbye to him aboard the Calypso, he and Madame Cousteau were working on their correspondence. They have just reached September, 1952!
As further background to this exciting story (there must be thousands of little Everests being climbed every day that one never hears of) I can only add that this Greek galley must have sailed for Massilia (Marseilles) in about 250 B.C. to sell wine and household pottery for the private profit of a rich Greek merchant adventurer. Perhaps the ship was about as big as a Thames barge, but much higher in the water, and perhaps it had one large sail.
It hugged the Côte d’Azur and sailed only by day, at between two and three knots. At night the crew probably slept on board, and they certainly drank a lot of the wine that was carried in huge jars, or amphorae, on deck. They must have drunk it with straws or pipettes inserted into holes drilled in the shoulder of the jars below the neck. I examined such a hole and it could only have been made by man.
Then they hit this tiny island and the galley sank in the position you see above [graphic omitted]. There is no current here, so the mud and sand began to silt over the wreck and continued to do so through 2,200 years, protecting the upper cargo, and even more so the lower, which the divers have hardly reached, from erosion and the fingers of the sea. Except where it has been cleared by the suction pump, the mud is still about ten feet deep.
“How was the galley ever found again?” Fishermen from Marseilles kept on bringing up amphorae that had broken loose from the deck cargo, and one day Christianini, a Marseilles salvage diver, went down and found a long grey tumulus in the mud. Commander Cousteau came to hear about it and he and his divers cleared enough mud away to realise that a whole galley lay buried at the maximum depth at which skin divers could work.
Disinterested people, such as the Chamber of Commerce at Marseilles, put up funds, and Cousteau added all his private means, including his profits from his book, The Silent World, and his films and under-water photographs. Le Figaro and the National Geographic Magazine of America also came to his help, and operations started last August.
No one is making any profit out of this venture. Everything salvaged goes straight to the Musée Borely at Marseilles. And if fame were the spur the story would not have been kept almost secret for nine months.
Work will go on all through the summer and anyone who happens to be near Marseilles will find no difficulty in hiring a motor-boat to go to the island, though for safety’s sake they will not be allowed to approach very near. Since sightseers are inevitable I suggested to Cousteau that he should put a collecting box on a buoy near the island with the notice visitors to France know so well: “Pour l’entretien du chateau.”
As for the diving itself, there is little to add to my short account except to say that going over the side into deep water, and deep water only, without rocks or sand to give you bearings and keep you company, is a lonely and queer business. The visibility has that annoying degree of opaqueness you meet motoring at dusk. You can’t quite see and yet you would see still less with your lights on.
I was not quite sure how my body would react to the depth, and, if it did react, whether I would do the right thing or make a fool of myself. Naturally I was exasperated at not being able to walk on the wreck. At a depth or about 50 feet I could just see the diver at work on the bottom.
But this was the most advanced type of under-water experience, and every other grade is available to all of us, men, women and children. On holiday this summer, round the shores of England, it will be worth going to the local carpenter and getting him to putty a pane of glass into the bottom of a two-foot square box, about one foot deep, make the whole thing watertight and cut a couple of hand holes near the top of two sides. Then all that is necessary is to walk into the sea, within, your depth, and put the box on the surface of the sea and look through it.
There, waiting for you, is a new world, crammed with treasure and beauty and excitement. From that first moment to goggles and aqualungs and sunken galleys is just turning the pages of the most exciting book that has been given to us since we learnt to fly—the book of the sea. The first instalment will cost about half-a-crown.
Notes: Fleming had met Jacques Cousteau at a party given by the publisher Hamish Hamilton, and when Cousteau invited him to visit his underwater project, Fleming eagerly agreed, though this meant being out of the UK on Casino Royale’s publication date of April 13, 1953.
John Pearson writes that “Jacques Cousteau, that lean, vital, ex-gunnery officer of the French Navy, with his cool efficiency and panda-ringed eyes, had a very special appeal for Ian Fleming. Cousteau was his sort of hero…And like all Fleming’s real-life heroes Cousteau possessed several of those vital qualities which Fleming lacked but desired. He was a man of action devoted to a cause with a wholeheartedness which Fleming had never really succeeded in bringing to anything. He was an expert and something of a scholar. He was self-sufficient.”
Before Fleming left France, Cousteau presented him with a copy of The Silent World . Referring to their first meeting, Cousteau signed it, “En souvenir d’une soirée à Londres, où il y a beaucoup été question de poissons … et d’illusions menacées.” [“In memory of an evening in London, where there was much talk of fish … and threatening illusions.”]
Fleming wrote he was “aiming to become the journalist of the underwater world,” but this never quite happened, though he certainly wrote extensively about the underwater world in his fiction. Pearson speculates that “a fortnight on the Calypso probably gave him enough experience of the rough end of underwater exploration to last him a lifetime.”
He adds: “Fleming’s experience with the expedition, and particularly the underwater swimming, gave him a chance to add to the description of Bond’s underwater swim to Mr. Big’s ship, the Secatur, in the manuscript of Live and Let Die, which was awaiting his final corrections when he got back to Victoria Square. When he left the Calypso and Marseilles he and Anne drove along the coast road to the big aquarium at Monte Carlo, where he noted some of the final details for his description of the aquarium in the same novel, along with the names of the rare fish which Mr. Big’s organization used as a front for their gold smuggling.”
By Ian Fleming
The needle on the micro-ammeter was steady on zero. There were some rain-clouds in the sky, and through the fringes of them the July sun blazed down with extra heat. From somewhere came the drowsy swish of a scythe. Under the eaves of the neighbouring house the martins twittered softly round a broken nest. Twenty feet away, at the end of the black snake of cable, Corporal Hogg, R.E. slowly swung his locator in a wide arc over the disused herb-garden beneath which, four feet down, lay the tiled floor, untrodden for 400 years, of the Chapter House of the ancient Abbey of Creake.
Suddenly there was a flicker on the control-instrument which I was operating. Then a sharp dip, which went on through forty to sixty, then to hundred, the end of the scale. The Corporal would be seeing the same figures on the dial in front of him, on the frame of his locator. I turned the sensitivity-switch down to nine, then to eight, then to seven. Still the needle clung to the end of the scale.
“Six. Corporal.” I called. “Sixty on six.” The Corporal inched the long nose of his locator through a clump of rosemary. The needle swung back towards zero. He moved the locator back and at once the needle returned to sixty. He stopped. “ Here,” he said.
“There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure,” wrote Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In me that particular boy has never died.
Ever since, on May 3 last, The Sunday Times offered to investigate likely tales of buried treasure, I had been examining the letters that came in to the Editor. I had had helpful talks with the Royal School of Mines on methods of detecting different metals under the ground; Messrs. Siebe Gorman had advised on problems of underwater search and hazards of foul air (in wells, for instance); and the Special Branch of Scotland Yard had told me where people usually hide things.
But it was the Sappers whose perennially adventurous spirit was immediately stirred. Certainly they would help. They would be glad to test out some of their latest mine-detecting equipment on unknown metals in enclosed areas. So long as no cost fell on the public funds, and in exchange for a detailed report on the technical results, they would produce two expert men, with equipment, for a maximum of three days. “UBIQUE” is more than a motto for the Sappers.
The sites that had been suggested were narrowed down to three. Because of its spectral name we finally chose Creake Abbey, the ruins of a twelfth-century Augustine foundation a few fields away from Nelson’s birthplace at Burnham Thorpe, and adjoining the great Norfolk estate of Holkham. Rumours of buried treasure have hung round these ruins ever since the sixteenth century, but no attempt has been made to find the treasure since a rascally unfrocked priest named William Stapleton tried to raise the spirits of the monks and make them divulge their secret in 1528, about twenty years after the Abbey had been dissolved. It is recorded that after six weeks he “returned to London disconsolate.”
The present owners, Rear-Admiral H. G. Thursfield and Mrs. Thursfield, who live in the beautiful house that merges into the ruins, were extremely sceptical but extremely kind, and in due course we assembled on the lawn that now covers the Cloister Garth of the Abbey—myself , my assistant, Mr. Peter Kirk, who provided all the documentation on the site, Captain Hough, R.E., who had come to see that his men were in good hands, Corporal Hogg of the bomb-disposal force of the Royal Engineers, and Emil Schneider, one of the German ex-P .O.W.s who are volunteers in the same dangerous trade. (He at once became “Emil the Detector.”)
During the whole of that day we worked with the locator (ERA No. 1, Mark 2), and with the more familiar Polish mine-detector Mark IV A, the machine that looks rather like a vacuum-cleaner and screams in your ear when it detects any metal down to a depth of about two-feet-six. The ERA locates only ferrous metals, but is effective to a depth of about six feet. Thus the detector is good for walls and floors and the locator for tumuli and for deep earth over original foundations.
Our hopes were high but inchoate. We didn’t know if there was a treasure. We didn’t know what metal we were looking for and we didn’t know whereabouts in the Abbey ruins and their surroundings to look for it. We covered the supposed site of the Chapter House, of the Abbot’s Lodgings, of the Cloisters and the Cloister Garth, and we quartered the grass-grown floor of the Abbey itself. Every time we got a good fix we marked the spot with a bit of paper. And then we started to dig.
In two days we dug up about thirty nails of different sizes, one frying-pan, one mole trap, one oil-drum and about a hundredweight of miscellaneous scrap-iron—all judged to be artifacts of the early twentieth or, at best, late nineteenth century. The sweat poured from our brows and our muscles ached. Our jokes about twelfth-century sardine-tins ceased at an early stage and when we even failed to find the Admiral’s lost signet-ring in the chicken run (I mean Abbot’s Lodgings) we decided to call it a day.
But somehow we weren't as cast down as might be imagined. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that this had been in the nature of a “dummy run.” The machines had exceeded our expectations; we had documented ourselves most carefully on the site and the history of the period, we had conscientiously investigated every possible clue. We really had *hunted* the treasure.
And as for the treasure itself, we felt inclined to agree with Mark Twain that “It’s hid in mighty particular places, Huck—sometimes on islands, sometimes in rotten chests under the end of a limb of an old dead tree, just where the shadow falls at midnight; but mostly under the floor in ha’nted houses.” But certainly not, we decided, or probably not, or at any rate possibly not, at the Abbey of Creake in Norfolk.
Sorry to interject but which book was that exactly, @Birdleson? It sounds very interesting!
Could it be Ian Fleming Introduces Jamaica? I know that Fleming died before that book was published and I think he only wrote the introduction to it. I have it somewhere in my collection.
You're fine, @Birdleson! I actually once found and bought a copy of a similar book in the same series with someone introducing Scotland. I can't recall now if that author just did the introduction and others wrote the rest of the book.
I've read that Fleming was too ill to write the book at the time and got his friend the Jamaican journalist Morris Cargill to write the book instead. At least we got that introduction from Fleming if sadly nothing else.
Not enough going on in the literary arena, I guess! We should fix that.
Ah, I don't think I knew that although you may have mentioned it in your excellent earlier thread on Fleming's journalism. I suppose that recycling is something journalists do anyway. However, perhaps it is symptomatic of Fleming's illness and decline throughout 1964 that he lacked the energy to write something wholly original? It's hard to say without all of the facts of Fleming's biography at hand.
From Ian Fleming
Pierre St. Martin, Saturday.
The Pyrenees are riddled with caves. So are all those counties of France, Correze, Vienne, Dordogne and the rest, that lie between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Caves that first animals lived in, then men. Caves, like those of Lascaux, that were the private cathedrals or art galleries of man 20,000 years ago. In them, deep underground by the light of bonfires, they painted like Picasso, and then repainted and engraved in the rocks, still through the centuries like Picasso.
And other caves, like some that Norbert Casteret has found, where the animals went to die. Prehistoric cemeteries for bisons and stags and bears. And still other caves, in which today the shepherds of the Pyrenees preserve their meat through the summer. Caves used by bandits and by British soldiers and airmen escaping during the war. Caves like the great Cave of Pierre Saint Martin, which was first explored last year and which contains nothing of interest but millions of gallons of water, running at a speed of a metre a second, that may soon give electricity to an area of France as big as Kent.
I am writing this at the opening of this gigantic cave, 6,000 feet up among the lower peaks of the Pyrenees. The shaft goes down into the side of a mile-wide stony amphitheatre that might have been blasted by an atom bomb. It is a desolate place, grey and harsh, with only a few stunted pines to give shade. At the side of the shaft there is the winch covered by a tent and the telephone line to men who are down there now. Two members of the expedition are on watch.
For hours and even days nothing happens, and then the winch starts to whine and more than one hour later a man in a miner’s white steel helmet is helped out of the top of the shaft, taken out of his harness and' stripped of his dripping overalls.
The people who explore caves are called speleologists, but, in fact, they are adventurers pure and simple. They like going deep into the earth in the same way that Hillary likes climbing a mountain, or Thor Heyerdahl likes drifting across the Pacific on a raft.
This cave at Pierre Saint Martin was discovered in 1950 by a speleologist named Lepineux who saw a jackdaw fly out of a lagged hole in the rock. He knew that Jackdaws nest only where there is a long drop below. Lepineux climbed down the hole and enlarged it. He threw a stone down it and could not hear the fall.
Requiem for Loubens
In 1952 a team consisting of the greatest speleologists in France made the first exploration . One of them. Marcel Loubens, was killed when his harness broke on the great vertical shaft 1,000 feet deep, down which he was being lowered on a quarter-inch steel cable. This morning I attended a Requiem Mass held at the opening of the cave on the anniversary of his death.
Before Loubens was killed the team had mapped the series of caverns that are illustrated above. This year most of the same team is present. If there is a leader it is Norbert Casteret, who, I suppose, is the greatest speleologist in the world. He was born and still lives about 20 miles from here, and has spent his whole life exploring the caves of the Pyrenees.
He has discovered the oldest statuary in the world. He has been down the deepest abyss in France and has also altered the map of south-west Europe by discovering the true source of the River Garonne. His wonderful book Ten Years Under the Earth was “crowned” by the French Academy.
This year the French Government has taken a hand. The French Army carried out a parachute drop last week of all the provisions for the expedition. They dropped ten tons of heavy equipment against the side of the mountain. Nothing was damaged and everything is working perfectly.
Reservoir of Power
So far the team has penetrated nearly two miles along the slowly descending tunnel towards the Kakouetta Gorge. There are about 1 1/2 miles still to go before the hydro-electric engineers attached to the expedition learn where they can sink a shaft to bring the huge reservoir of hydro-electric power down into the valley with a sufficient drop behind it. Twelve hundred feet below me as I write, in a temperature of three degrees centigrade, there is the base camp, with tents, heating devices and special food.
Down there at this moment are five men, including Lepineux, who first discovered the cave and has now been down for three days. They have just broken contact with the telephone and will not be heard again for 24 hours, during which time they may have learned the final course of the underground river, and, incidentally, may have broken the world record for the lowest descent into a natural cave. The record now stands at 2,000 feet. They are estimated to be 100 feet above this at the moment.
And I sit here, watching the black mouth of the cave—and vaguely mistrusting it and the validity of the whole enterprise—and the thin life-line that winds on the winch; and one hopes that the living men will come out safely and leave their dead comrade, Marcel Loubens, where he is and would wish to be with the epitaph of Charles Cotton, the friend of Izaak Walton, who wrote:
O my beloved caves!
From dogstar’s heat
And all anxieties my safe retreat!
What safety, privacy, what true delight
In the artificial night
Your gloomy entrails make,
Have I taken, do I take.
As I came down the mountain this evening a speleologist of a rival group was carried past me on a stretcher. His skull was broken. I hope I shall be able to summon more enthusiasm for this sport before the expedition closes down next Thursday.
(Sunday Times, August 23, 1953)
Greatest Cavern with Waterfall and Underground River
From Ian Fleming
PIERRE SAINT MARTIN (Pyrenees).
The 1953 expedition into the great caves of Pierre Saint Martin is over, without accident and with results which, in the realm of speleology, are sensational.
Now that everyone is back in the valley and the mule trains are coming down the mountain with the heavy gear, there is not an individual connected with the expedition who is not profoundly relieved. Since I reported last week there has been a series of alarms.
A majestic thunderstorm hit the central Pyrenees, washed away a small village and killed six of the inhabitants. Lightning is attracted by caves, particularly a cave into which two thousand feet of cable descends. But it never struck.
Communications broke down several times. A member of one of the relief teams (not a Frenchman) had a mild attack of claustrophobia, and had to be brought to the surface. Finally, there was difficulty in bringing out the last man. The unweighted cable would not go down the shaft. Three men had to be lashed at intervals down the face of the shaft to help the end of the cable round the corners.
But now all is well, and here are the results given to me in an exclusive interview by the leaders of the expedition: Robert Levi, the organiser, Norbert Casteret, the chief explorer, and Lepineux, the great speleologist who discovered the cave.
The record for the deepest descent into a natural cave has been handsomely beaten at 728 metres. It was previously held by the Italian Capabranca with a 632 metres’ descent into the Preta cave—the 658 metres’ descent of Chevalier into the Chartreuse massif is held not to qualify, since several intermediate lateral exits were available (of course there is the old Everest trouble about which member of the expedition actually broke the record. “It was the team,” is the official and acceptable verdict).
Four more huge chambers were discovered, the last of them far greater even than the Marcel Loubens Cave. This colossal cave is judged by Casteret to be the greatest enclosed cavern so far discovered in the world. It is certainly the deepest. It has been christened the Verna Cave, after the Verna group of speleologists from Lyons (wrongly described as scouts) who have played a great part in the whole saga.
The Great Cave
In Casteret’s opinion, which will be widely respected, the Verna Cave is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world. It is domed. The walls and floor are straight and smooth, but the floor is encumbered here and there by uneasily balanced towers of stone blocks, each as big as a cottage, which soar up into the darkness. Through the floor runs the great black river, swift and deep and silent. The air is pure and damp, with a temperature of four degrees centigrade. The water temperature is three degrees centigrade and it runs at half a cubic metre per second.
One or two tiny coleoptera, described to me as “aphenops” were found, and a centipede, dead white and almost transparent. These were the only living organisms found in the course of the expedition.
Details, distances and dimensions are not yet available. Last year, apparently, many errors were made in the estimates, and these will have to be corrected before the official figures of the exploration to date can be made known, but it seems that about a mile and a half of fresh ground was covered, as the result of which much of the underground picture as portrayed in last Sunday’s map is changed. This map was adapted from the sketch—now out of date—in Tazieff’s Caves of Adventure (published by Hamish Hamilton).
In particular what was thought to be a long tunnel, extending in an easy slope from the Loubens Cave, turns out to be the new series of four chambers mentioned above, so that the whole underground picture looks like a string of seven different sized sausages joined together by varying lengths of tunnel which is about four times the circumference of the London Tube.
All the chambers and tunnels are encumbered by fallen rock that rendered progress most difficult and exhausting: “The whole affair was very dangerous,” Casteret told me. Before the last great cave there was a beautiful waterfall with a drop of 20 metres which had to be descended, and then the river ran on over pebbles and stones until, at the end of the last cave, it disappeared through broken rock in. the floor.
Thus hydro-electrically the expedition seems to have been a failure, and although this is denied by the explorers, I believe it to be the opinion of the experts. But a local group of speleologists from Pau are dynamiting a blow-hole further down the mountain, known as the “Trou du Vent,” which, it is thought, may lead towards a resurgence of the underground river. The wind comes howling up from the earth out of this hole, and there is a distant roar of great waters.
For the rest, the equipment worked perfectly and the health of the explorers was excellent, thanks to the heating of the tents at night by a new system described to me as “petrol-catalysis” which allows the men to breathe dry air. Sleep, appetite and digestion were normal. No stimulant drugs were used, and the food consumed was unusual only in its high sugar and fat content. The winch worked perfectly.
A full length 35 millimetre film with some sound was made by Hertot, the photographer of Commandant Cousteau, using acetylene torches and magnesium flares for lighting. The painful arguments about the disposal of the body of Marcel Loubens ended with the agreement of the family to allow his body to remain inside the mountain. It may not be buried or cremated. It must remain under its pile of boulders, perfectly preserved in this frigid air, surmounted by the disintegrating cross of phosphorescent paper that had long since ceased to shine and the epitaph cut into the rock face. “Ici Marcel Loubens a vecu les derniers jours de sa vie courageuse”—a perpetual warning to the explorers who go down the jagged shaft that rock is stronger than man.
Horror of the Depths
It was the oppression of this knowledge, the awareness of the puny bodies enclosed in the mammoth viscera of this mountain that awoke in most of us, as we sat comfortably above on the surface of the world in the bright light among the Alpine flowers, a deep loathing for this great cave. And it is only now, when all have been spared and when so much has been achieved, that we can grudgingly admit that this most hazardous expedition was justified. But while these men were down in the cruel bellv of the mountain—some of them not more than holiday pot-holers—there were desperate misgivings which spread throughout France, and I for one can testify that I had not witnessed such a nightmarish piece of human endeavour since the string-and-stickfast days at the beginning of the war.
But now it is over and these valiant and foolhardy men have been preserved. Casteret tells me he will certainly coma back next year, and so, I expect, will many of the others. Meanwhile the rocks will grind and shift in the mountains, and the winter snows will swell the great river underground. And in the awesome Verna Cavern there will be no one to care, least of all the questing sightless centipedes, that this gloomy antechamber of Hell has just been included among the natural wonders of the world.
I. The Remora’s Kiss (Sunday Times, April 1, 1956)
Ten years ago Ian Fleming built a small house in Jamaica and every year he spends his holiday there. This is the first of a series of articles describing some of the extraordinary things that befell him during his latest visit.
Before the morning breeze came to ruffle the mirror of the bay, I walked through the palm trees and down the slope of pale gold sand and slipped into the sea. The water was even warmer than the nine o’clock air and I swam slowly out towards the dark shadow that marked the deep shoal where there might be something more to see than the sting-rays or flounders that inhabit the open plains of sand.
I was naked except for a Pirelli mask and I was equipped with a simple underwater spear-gun. After ten years of underwater fishing round Jamaica I have long since given up shooting fish except for the pot, but this was an expedition to a remote beach and we would be glad of a langouste or a jack or snapper for dinner. And this was unknown terrain, with the protecting reef at least five miles out, and while I pretend not to mind barracuda or shark, even the underwater equivalent of a catapult allows one to forget about them.
The bay in which I was swimming is the most beautiful I have seen in the world. It is the classic back-drop of Stevenson and Stacpoole—a five-mile crescent of unbroken, soft, white-gold sand, fringed for all its dazzling length with leaning palm trees in whose shade an occasional canoe is drawn up between a thatched hut and a pile of discarded conch shells as tall as the hut itself. The great sweep of water is milky blue during the day and in the evening, when the sun—with its famous green flash—sets in your face, it runs through all the blues and greens in the spectrum.
The huge anchorage, sheltered even from the trades, was used by the pirates, and Nelson and Rodney used to anchor here and send parties ashore to hunt wild hogs. Walt Disney filmed part of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea here, paying the “cannibals” 25s. a day.
It is still the occasional haunt of the manatee or sea cow, those large and friendly mammals which are becoming rapidly extinct. They are supposed to be the origin of the mermaid. The female has two rudimentary breasts and occasionally rises out of the waves holding her young in her flippers, perhaps to teach it to breathe. (There are at present two in the London Zoo and the contemporary print entitled “Real and Ideal” reproduced here [omitted] was inspired by the first manatee shown in England in 1888.) One was caught in a fisherman’s nets in the bay in February and the inhabitants feasted on him for days, for as one of them said to me: “Them have all-meat—beef an’ mutton an’ pork.”
Only the most adventurous tourists know of this great secret beach and perhaps no more than five per cent. of Jamaicans have ever paid it a visit. For the time being it is one of the most beautiful hidden places in the world. One dreadful day this remote corner of Jamaica will be as famous a sunshine holiday resort as any in the world.
For the last ten years I have held a key to this paradise and the only white man I have ever met there is a bearded character straight out of Somerset Maugham called Dr. Drew.
Dr. Drew threw up his practice in Oxford forty years ago and somehow came half across the world to this secret place. He built himself a modest stone-and-plaster dwelling and beside it (believe me!) a fives court, which now has wild orchids growing out of the cracks in the cement. He is ninety-three and healthy and happy and if someone wants the bare bones of a mystery, there it is.
On this particular morning, not many days ago, the great crescent bay was empty except for one sailing dinghy belonging to an employee of a sugar company. The dinghy, moored in about three fathoms, cast its wavering shadow on the edge of the long shoal to which I was swimming.
The fishing canoes had left at first light and were now specks on the horizon round the distant reef and behind me along the five miles of sand there were only a few children playing and an occasional lonely figure taking the morning walk to the little rum-shop and store that, with Dr. Drew’s bungalow, is the centre of the bay’s life. Below me the endless plain of marcelled sand was quite empty and it was a relief to the eyes to come to the first half-buried rocks and grassy seaweed of the acre or so of shoal.
I swam slowly over the shoal looking down for signs of life or even for those symmetrical patterns in the sand that betray the camouflage of Atlantic flounders or buried conch and helmet shells. There was nothing.
I “felt” a barracuda (one really does “feel” them) and looked behind me to see a big one, perhaps ten pounds, lying motionless near the surface, watching me out of one golden tiger’s eye. Its stripes were not showing (there is a theory that when the stripes are vivid the barracuda is hungry or angry) and I swam towards it. As barracudas do, it kept ahead of me exactly to its ten yards, but, as I finally put my gun off safe and took aim, it opened its mouth with what might have been a yawn and swanned off into the grey mist.
The barracuda had led me towards the moored dinghy, and I was suddenly surprised to see, swimming fast towards me in the great, empty hall of the sea, a small grey and black fish with a diamond-shaped head. The fish swam very busily, with a motion rather like an eel or a snake, and almost before I could take it in it had come up and bumped softly into me. This was as extraordinary as if, walking across a field, a flying pigeon had bumped into one.
Even more surprising, the fish then proceeded to flutter round me, prodding me with its blunt nose and easily dodging my free arm as I tried to shoo it away. Under my arms, between my legs, down my back, I felt the slithery exploration while I trod water and tried to parry these familiarities. And then suddenly the fish clamped itself firmly to my stomach and I knew with a touch of queasy dismay that this was a remora, the parasite fish of the sharks.
Off my own reef in Jamaica I once saw a shark quite close with two remoras attached to it, and I had watched the host and its parasite guests for some time. The remora has a suction area on the back of its flattish head and it attaches itself to the shark’s stomach rather like a small fighter plane beneath a bomber. It travels with the shark and feeds on the scraps that fall from the shark’s jaws, as do the little yellow and black pilot fish that are the companions of many big fish.
The remoras I had seen off my reef did not stay in the same position on the shark, but again and again detached themselves and executed a graceful game of tag with each other round the huge fish, flattening themselves against him at different points, then flitting to another spot as he cruised majestically through my reef. It had been a beautiful and fascinating sight, but there was something rather different in the idea of this eighteen-inch-long, hard, snaky fish clamping itself to my own pale, defenceless, and, it seemed to me at that moment, diaphanous skin. I banged hard on the remora’s head and it let go, and after a few more attempts to get a hold, snaked away.
I felt relieved but rather churlish, and I had the esprit de l’escalier reflection that it would have been extremely smart to carry for ever the marks of a remora’s sucker on one’s stomach—so much more chic than the claw scars of a tiger or even the fang-marks of a fer-de-lance (which I was to see a few days later on the leg of a distinguished American naturalist). So, hoping that my remora had not gone home to a shark, I swam hurriedly after him and soon there was a long shadow on the sand and the chains of the two anchors and I came up with the sailing dinghy and all was clear to me.
Mistaken for a Shark
There, under the hull of the boat, were two remoras, flitting from spot to spot as I had once seen them do on the shark, waiting in vain for scraps to fall out of the wooden jaws of the boat. I have no idea how long they had been attached to this dummy host, but there is no doubt that, when one of them caught a distant glimpse or sound of me, he hurried off to inspect the alternative “shark.”
I am sorry now that I shot one and took it ashore to examine. They are harmless and extraordinary fish and afterwards it was easy to sentimentalise the encounter so that the remora became some charming bird that had flown into one’s pocket to live with one and eat the crumbs from one’s meals. But later the fishermen told me that I was lucky he had not taken a firm hold. The sucker is extremely powerful (as mysterious a mechanism as the charge in an electric eel that is strong enough to kill a horse, and as the phosphorus lures carried by some fish), draws blood immediately, and can be detached only by pressing the remora hard behind the eyes.
Even so, now that I am back in London and the sunburn is fading, how dashing to be able to display, in suitable company, that dreadful stigma of the tropic seas—the bloody kiss of the remora on one’s stomach!
Next week Ian Fleming will tell of his quest for the elusive Solitaire bird on the Blue Mountain in Jamaica.
Haha, I knew this would get a certain someone's attention! And next month yet another bird-themed adventure will appear, involving flamingos...
II—Blue Mountain Solitaire (Sunday Times, April 8, 1956)
Ten years ago Ian Fleming built a small house in Jamaica and every year he spends his holiday there. This is the second of a series of articles describing some of the out-of-the-way things that befell him during his latest visit. His first article last Sunday described an encounter with the Remora fish, which mistook him for its usual host, the shark.
“I received,” wrote Philip Gosse, the great naturalist, in 1847, “the following note from Mr. Hill in reference to an intention I then had of ascending that magnificent ridge called the Blue Mountains, whose summits are 8,000 feet high.
“ There are two living attractions in these mountains, a crested snake [since killed off by the mongoose—I.F.] and a sweetly mysterious singing bird called the Solitaire. This bird is a thrush and it is worth a journey to hear his wonderful song…As soon as the first indications of daylight are perceived, even while the mists hang over the forests, these minstrels are heard pouring forth their wild notes in a concert of many voices, sweet and lengthened like those of the harmonica or musical glasses. It is the sweetest, the most solemn, and most unearthly of all the woodland singing I have ever heard.”
Philip Gosse, who taught our great-grandparents all about birds and fish, was immortalised by his son Sir Edmund Gosse in that most bitter of all family memoirs Father and Son. Although his Birds of Jamaica is one of my handbooks, I abhor this bearded, mealy-mouthed old Victorian pedagogue. The sight of a beautiful bird sends him at once to the Scriptures and thence to reflections on “God’s handiwork” which positively drip with hypocrisy. Having thus squared himself with the Almighty and with the Victorian reader, he forthwith despatches his Negro killer, Sam, after the bird with a gun. God’s handiwork is promptly slaughtered and Gosse then treats us to a list of what he found in its entrails.
So it is in his chapter on the Solitaire from which I have quoted. Inevitably, “I sent in Sam with a gun, with orders to follow the sound. He crept silently to a spot whence he heard it proceed and saw two birds of this species which neither he nor I had seen before, chasing each other among the boughs. He shot one of them.” Later the other bird, no doubt the mate, flew out after Sam. “He fired at this also and it fell; but emitted the remarkable note at the moment of falling.”
The intestine, notes Gosse, was seven inches long.
I am neither an ornithologist, nor any other kind of naturalist but ever since I came to Jamaica I have been intrigued by the Solitaire, this rare and secretive bird with the unearthly song and beautiful name (which I stole for the heroine of one of my books), and I have always wanted to climb the Blue Mountain, the highest peak in the whole Caribbean and inhabited by the aristocracy of Jamaican “duppies,” or ghosts. But it seems a wearisome business to leave the soft enchantments of the tropic reef and the sun-baked sand of my pirates’ cove on the north shore, motor over to Kingston and then make the long, hard climb trip into the wintry forests of the great mountain.
But, in the first week of last month, four friends dragged me out of the luxe, calme et volupté of my beachcombing existence and, at three o’clock on a blazing afternoon, we had abandoned our car at the little hamlet of Mavis Bank in the foothills of the Blue Mountains and had taken to the mules.
It is a long trek to the little guest-house of Torregarda, 6,000 feet up at the base of the final peak, but the beauty of the ride is fabulous. This part of Jamaica is completely remote and as un-spoilt as the whole island must have been in the days of Tom Cringle’s Log and Lady Nugent’s Diary. It is enchanting to be greeted with “Good evening, young master” by the occasional Negress carrying her sack of coffee berries down the mountain to market (it is from this wild area that comes Blue Mountain coffee, considered by many to be the finest in the world, and every “wattle-an’- daub” hut has its acre of the pretty bush) and to be met everywhere along the path with those warm, wide smiles that “progress” is so rapidly wiping off the face of modern Jamaica.
To the right, the Yallers Valley stretches away in great soft undulating sweeps towards the distant haze of the sea, and this March the mangoes everywhere were flaming in purple and gold, their early flowering meaning in Jamaica a rainy year. All the way there was the chirrup of the Vervaine humming-bird, the second smallest in the world, and the only one, I believe, with a true song, and as the tropical vegetation gave way to almost Swiss meadows strewn with small mountain flowers there was a steady, continuous drone of bees.
We reached Torregarda at five, to be greeted by the unusual sight of hydrangeas and azaleas. Torregarda is a sensationally situated chalet in a setting of incomparable beauty and peace. The bedrooms are extremely comfortable, but the food is of the boiled mutton and lemon curd variety and water shortage reduces the viability of the bathroom and lavatory. Poets or lovers would give it five stars.
We went to bed early and were awakened at the grisly hour of 2 a.m., drank some coffee, climbed on to our mules in pitch darkness and started off again in single file behind a man with a lantern. To begin with this was all very romantic and beautiful—the wavering light of the lantern on ahead, the occasional clink of hooves on rock, and the vast concourse of stars above our heads—but soon the path grew narrower and more precipitous, it became colder, and a chill mist came down and hid everything but the rump of the mule in front and the occasional branch that whipped at one out of the darkness. And, like all mountain climbs, mile stretched upon mile and the summit walked slowly away from us as we advanced.
It began to rain, and then to pour, and all the gloomy prognostications of our sea-level friends were suddenly true. We were fools, they had said—the precipices, the discomfort, the rain, the cold, the aching behinds, “and even when you get to the top you’ll see nothing because it’s always in the clouds.” We had pooh-poohed these counsels. This was the lily-livered talk of thin-blooded plantocrats without an ounce of romance or adventure in their souls, who only knew the stinking Turkish bath of Kingston. But now, thinking of them lying comfortably sleeping under their single sheets down on the coast, or perhaps sitting sipping their last drink in the delicious (as it then seemed) tropic lug of a night-club, we had second thoughts.
At last, after a three-hour climb, there was a small stone hut in the fog and driving rain, and we got down bow-legged off our mules and staggered inside and started a fire whose smoke soon drove us out again into the bitter cold.
Coffee with whisky and a mess of bacon and fried bread did nothing to revive our spirits and when, at six o’clock, the mist paled and we knew it was dawn, we set off down the valley rather than catch pneumonia waiting for the fabulous view that we had promised ourselves—that view that, on May 3, 1494, had included the flagship of Columbus and his straggling fleet of caravels.
My companions disappeared into the mist with a barrage of oaths and bitter jokes. At least, I thought, as I started down after them on foot, I will save something from the wreck by seeing, or at least hearing, the Solitaire.
With the exercise, my spirits revived, and soon the rain stopped and the light improved sufficiently for me to take an interest in my ghostly surroundings. It was deadly quiet except for the water dripping from the Spanish moss which everywhere festooned the skeleton soapwoods, and the thick damp mist deadened the footfall.
At first it was like walking through the landscape of a Gothic fairy tale, and then there were banks of beautiful and exotic tree-ferns which transferred one into the pages of W. H. Hudson, somewhere deep in an Amazonian jungle. The mountainside along which the narrow path ran, with a smoking precipice on the left, was solid with orchids and parasite plants, alas not yet blooming, and with the tortured leaves of wild pineapples. And there were occasional bramble roses and wild strawberries and blackberries which were bitter to the taste. It seemed extraordinary to find this dank and exotic profusion only a few hours away from the mangrove swamps and the great, dry, sugar-cane, banana and coconut lands in the plains and on the coast. I regretted that my ignorance of botany would not allow me an orgy of Latin name-dropping when I got back to sea level, which at that moment seemed a thousand miles away.
The silence was complete and only occasionally broken by the chirrup of a tree-frog that didn’t know it was day, and I passed the time trying to invent a limerick beginning with the line “A sapient bird is the Solitaire,” but had got no further when I suddenly came through the clouds and out into the sunshine and saw the great panorama of a quarter of Jamaica below me and, across the mountains, the distant arm of Port Royal reaching into the sea beyond Kingston Harbour.
After a rest I moved on and came into a place of great beauty—a long glade over which the moss-hung trees joined to form a glistering tunnel through which the sun penetrated in solid bars of misty gold. The path ran between moss borders of brilliant dew-sparkling green, and on either side there was a dense mysterious tangle of tall tree-ferns and ghostly grey tree skeletons weighed down with orchids and Spanish moss, and other parasites. It was like some fabulous setting for “Les Sylphides”—the most intoxicating landscape I have ever seen.
And it was while standing in the middle of this hundred yards of silent dripping grove that I suddenly heard the sound of a breathtakingly melodious, long-drawn, melancholy and slowly dying policeman’s whistle. I can think of no other way of describing the song of the Solitaire, and since I learn that in Dominica the bird is known as the Siffle Montagne perhaps the simile will pass. It was calling to its mate, which answered from somewhere far away in the dripping woods, and I stood, and listened to the pair-for a quarter of an hour as they exchanged their poignant “Bonjour Tristesse.”
Then I went on my way down to Torregarda.
For those who are interested in a more expert description of the song, here is a further extract from Gosse’s chapter on the Solitaire in his “Birds of Jamaica”:
I never caught sight of the Solitaire and even the muleteers said they had rarely seen one. They described it, as does Gosse, as being more or less the size of a mocking-bird, but with upper parts of blue-grey, wings black with grey edges, tail black, with a touch of copper beneath, breast grey and hazel eyes.
But at least I heard the song of the Solitaire, and it is a song I dare say I will never forget.
Next Sunday Ian Fleming will describe a visit to the great flamingo colony on the remote Island of Inagua—the first scientific visit since 1916.
I approve of this simile.
Riding mules into the mist-covered mountains, not sure if you'd even see the view from the top. Hearing birds, even the one you're looking for, but not quite spotting them in a line of sight. Rain, cold. What a great time to relish. And still talked about to this day, @Revelator.
III—To Flamingo Land (Sunday Times, April 15, 1956)
By Ian Fleming
After the age of forty, time begins to be important, and one is inclined to say “Yes” to every experience. One should, of course, be taught to say “Yes” from childhood, but Wet Feet, Catching Cold, Getting a Temperature and Breaking Something add up to a traumatic “No” that is apt to become a permanent ball-and-chain.
ESSENTIAL YOU ACCOMPANY FIRST SCIENTIFIC VISIT SINCE 1916 TO FLAMINGO COLONY INAGUA MARCH FIFTEEN STOP PARTY CONSISTS ARTHUR VERNAY PRESIDENT BAHAMAS FLAMINGO PROTECTION SOCIETY COMMA ROBERT MURPHY OF AMERICAN NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM AND SELF STOP FAIL NOT BRYCE.
I had only one week of my Jamaica holiday left to me and I am not particularly interested in flamingos. I looked up Inagua on a map. It looked remote and exciting.
I cabled back “Yes” and flew up to Nassau on March 13 and spent two nights in a remarkable tropic folly and bird sanctuary called Xanadu which my friend Ivar Bryce has built in a remote corner of the island. There, in between the feverish life of Nassau and exploring the off-shore waters of Xanadu, I learnt about the Society for the Protection of the Flamingo in the Bahamas.
The flamingo, like so many other rare and beautiful species of birds, is disappearing from the Bahamas, its traditional habitat, as from other parts of the world. For example, in 1940 there were 10,000 on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. Today there are ten. People are beginning to worry about animal and bird species being wiped off the face of the globe, and Mr. Arthur Vernay, who lives in Nassau and is an explorer and naturalist of distinction, decided three years ago to do something about it. He formed the society, enlisted world-wide support, and set to work to save the flamingo.
At dawn on March 15, crushed together in a tiny CESNA plane, we flew the 400 miles down the beautiful necklace of the Bahama Group to Inagua, where there is the largest flamingo colony in the world. The object of the expedition was to make an approximate count of the colony and to see that the society's protective measures were working well on the eve of the mating season.
Inagua is the most southerly of the Bahama Islands and it lies about 100 miles north of the famous Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. It is a hideous island and nobody in his senses ever goes near the place. It is known only for its flamingos and its salt industry and, apart from its bird-life, its only redeeming feature is the charming Ericson family, originally from Boston, who work the salt and are the royalty of the island. Inagua is a British possession, but if the Ericsons don't want you there the island' will give you no welcome. They employ the entire population of 1,000 souls and the last thing they want is the coming of tourists or of any other “civilizing” influence. I don’t think they need worry.
We stayed the night with this admirable and splendidly feudal family in Mathew Town, a scatter of more-or-less solid shacks with a fine lighthouse. a hard hot wind that makes any form of garden impossible (the few plants are protected by great ugly sheets of tin), one communal store and a mound of salt awaiting shipment. We learned a great deal about salt. We were also told that it was lucky we hadn’t arrived a few weeks later in the mosquito season.
The mosquitoes on the salt pans are so thick that they literally choke you. The wild donkeys that infest the island are killed by them Their bites are nothing. They smother by their numbers. As our hosts talked. I could sense the millions of larvae stirring hungrily in the mangrove, swamps and on the salt pans. Even in the comfortable house, there was the whiff of tropical marsh gas brought by the hot maddening wind. Islands in the Sun? There are many kinds of them.
We left before dawn on a lorry with the two Bahamian bird wardens. Bryce and I sat with Dr. Robert Murphy in garden chairs placed on the platform of-the truck—a fine way to ride and see the country. We drove through the acres of salt pans, great ghastly expanses of brine, white and crusty at the edges, drying in the hot wind that is vital to the industry, to the edge of Lake Windsor, the hundred square miles of brackish water that covers the centre of the island.
Only the light and the sky redeem this dreadful lake. Dreadful? Well, its base is marl mud, very fine in texture and the colour of a corpse. The lake is only two to three feet deep for the whole of its area, and the bottom is pockmarked every few feet with sharp limestone coral excrescences. The shores and cays are thick with mangroves, straggly and leggy, from which came the rotten-egg smell of the marsh gas in which we lived for two days. And yet it was also wonderful. The great mirrored expanse of water through which we were pushed for ten miles in flat-bottomed boats, the mirages, the silence, the sense of being on Mars. And then the birds.
Flamingos? Every horizon was shocking pink with them, hundreds of them, thousands of them, reflected double in the blue-green glass of the lake, talking away and going about their business in huge congregations that literally owned this world across which we were moving like waterboatmen across a pond.
As we got closer to a group, the necks would start craning, and the chuckling, honking talk would redouble as if gangsters were spied approaching a great fashionable garden party. At first there would be a slow and stately walking away, an aloof withdrawal, and then one nerve would break and with great hurrying strides a single bird would scamper a dozen leggy steps to gain momentum and the great red wings would open and suddenly he was up with the long red legs tucked under his tail. And then, one by one, the others would follow, until at last all were in the air and making, with stately wing-beat, for the lea of a mangrove cay farther up the lake.
Fabulous birds, seven feet across the wings, perhaps six from orange beak to claw tip, and, under the wings, a great dash of black primary feathers. Not handsome, except in their flame-red colour and the grace of their flight, and their heads remind one of bottle-openers, but bizarre in their strange beauty, like great red and black bombers, purposeful and awe-inspiring.
New horizons opened up, all quivering with pink. The excitement of my expert companions was great. It was clear that the protective measures carried out by the society—the appointment of the wardens, the strict policing of the lake against pilferers of eggs and young (flamingo tongues are considered a great delicacy) and the regulations against low-flying aircraft had, within little more than two years, been dramatically successful, and in this time one of the major spectacles in the world of birds had been created. Dr. Robert Murphy, who had been alternately gazing through binoculars and writing busily in his notebook ever since we had sighted our first banana quit in Mathew Town, organised an industrious “count” which rapidly climbed into the thousands, and there was much informed talk about mating dances and the colour-cycle, which is from pure white through grey to pink and then red flame.
I felt left out and racked my brains for an ornithological gambit, however modest. I could only think to ask if this flamingo, which is the American flamingo, or Phoenicopterus Ruber, was the largest red bird in the world. I spent some time clothing this juvenile question, in the appropriate mumbojumbology. Finally: “Would you say, Doctor, that the overall dimensions of' the Phoenicopterus are the largest of any rubrous bird?” “Yes,” said Dr. Murphy briefly, and I felt like the triangle player in an orchestra who has managed to hit his triangle at the right place in the score.
In fact Dr. Murphy, who has just-retired as chairman of the Department of Birds in the American Museum of Natural History, although he is one of the greatest ornithologists who has ever lived, is entirely human, a splendid and most entertaining companion and the only man I have met who could make scrambled eggs with a basis of Nestlés condensed milk (sweetened). He also has the supreme distinction (which I mentioned in an earlier article) of bearing the fang-marks of a fer-de-lance on his ankle.
It took us three hours to reach Long Cay, where our tent was pitched and where we had breakfast. Then we went on again, now under a blazing sun, towards the ever-retreating horizon, behind which we hoped to find the first nesting-colony of the flamingos. But we were a week or so early. The birds had not yet started to build those extraordinary townships of foot-high mud volcanoes in whose crater they lay one large amateurish white egg. So the boats were pushed on again, deep into the mangrove swamps, where a myriad other sea birds were already nesting and where the tumult and the stench were at times almost overwhelming.
Here were great colonies of the Louisiana Heron, the Black-necked Stilt, flocks of which skimmed round us with astonishing beauty and precision, American and Reddish Egrets and other exotic birds, and here, on wading through a marsh that bubbled with gas, we came upon a combination of bird colours that outdid even the spectacular flamingos.
First there was an unexpected swarm of our familiar Double-crested Cormorants, perching in ranks of black witness among the low trees; then, above and around them, the noise of our arrival had exploded hundreds of Roseate Spoon-bills and white Egrets into the sky. The combination of black and white and pale pink against the vivid green of the mangroves and the deep blue sky gave an impression of some extraordinary daylight firework display in which the rockets always went on bursting.
As I stood up to my knees in the mud and gazed with awe on the great wheeling galaxies of black and white and pink, my companions were more scientifically engaged photographing the nests full of eggs and young with which each mangrove bush was laden, and I am glad to say that not only this extraordinary place but also the whole expedition has been recorded by Dr. Murphy upon countless rolls of colour film.
Towards evening, and after many other bird species had been identified, we trekked back to our tent on the Cay and at once stripped off our clothes and lay down in the lake to relieve our sunburn and get rid of some of the mud. It was then clear why Lake Windsor on Inagua will always be one of the great bird preserves of the world, for the shallow waters are almost solid with food. No sooner had we lain down than countless tiny fish no longer than a thumb-nail came to nibble us and we found that the silt beneath our bodies was largely composed of minute shells and fingernail clams—ideal fare for the curiously shaped beak of the flamingo with its reversed scooping motion.
The rest of our expedition was more or less an extension of what I have already described. The final estimate of the flamingo colony of Inagua was 15,000, and, if this year’s hurricanes miss the island, the nesting season, which will now be under way, will perhaps add another 5,000. A film of the colony will shortly be made by. Mr. Robert P. Allen (the Audubon Society associate who, more or less single-handed, saved the Whooping Crane from extinction) and the public will then be able to see for themselves that the labours of Mr. Arthur Vernay and his society have added considerably to the beauty of the world.
As a postscript to these notes on Inagua I should mention that an exceptionally interesting man died on the island last year. He was a very aged fisherman and, two or three times each year, for many years past , he would slip quietly into the Commissioner’s office, which also serves as a rudimentary bank for the Inaguans. Without saying anything, he would place upon the Commissioner’s table a neat pile of Spanish doubloons of the sixteenth century. After receiving pound notes in exchange for his gold, he would leave as discreetly as he had come.
Now the old fisherman has died, and his secret has died with him. but it seems clear that, in or around Inagua, there is something else beside salt and flamingos.
This is the last of Ian Fleming's three articles about the out-of-the-way things which befell film on his latest visit to Jamaica. The previous articles appeared on April 1 and 8.
Golden, really. Thanks, @Revelator.
And the rest of us too!
None accompanied the article, but there's no doubt photos were taken by Dr. Murphy and the other scientists. And I'm sure Bryce (a wealthy man who could afford the best cameras) and Fleming must have taken photos too. Just where they are is the mystery--I would love to rummage through Fleming's photographs!
Yes absolutely! There’s a book there, I’d love to do some archival and publication work for Fleming estate. we’ve all seen the publicity stills of Fleming but pretty limited beyond that.
Death Comes as the End, as Agatha Christie put it.