In 1959 the author Ian Fleming was dispatched by The Sunday Times to write a series of travel essays entitled Thrilling Cities, later compiled as a travelogue of two volumes by the same name. It is a personal favourite- held in reverence for the sheer quality of writing.
Each Thrilling City article is the raw extract of a metropolis Fleming’s readers were unlikely to visit. Hong Kong, Macau, Tokyo, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva, Naples and Monte Carlo are all covered.
Written on the cusp of the jet age, the father of the world’s most famous secret agent indulges his readers in the visceral pleasures of traveling at the sharp end of the plane, before leading them into the parts of town they would have gladly avoided. Fleming, by his nature, simply ends up there. It is first and foremost a sensory deep dive into all that would have been alien to the 1950’s Sunday Times reader, written with a war correspondent’s eye for human detail.
To travel with Fleming is to find yourself seated more than comfortably in the envelopment of a private club’s chair, only to be tipped backwards out of it; landing punch drunk amidst deeply unsavoury characters in a Macau gambling den. In each incarnation, Fleming takes us to the beating heart of cities we have painted a stereotype of, letting us sample them as a man that imbibes the world’s raw pleasures ferociously and without regret. It is everything travel writing should be.
On a flight between Tokyo and Honolulu, his propeller plane catches fire. Fleming treats the interruption philosophically. There’s a palpable sense of the possibility of the situation he has ended up in. Making an emergency landing, he capitalises on the unexpected as only a great correspondent can, painting the incident as an entertaining part of the ebb and flow of international travel. He the doyen of the extraordinary life he lead. I wish he’d written more on it.
Thrilling Cities, Ian Fleming