Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ian Fleming and his lump of ambergris

The first reports of the finding of a valuable lump of ambergris on a beach in Wales earlier this week by a man who was walking his dog appeared in Welsh newspapers:

Ever fancied spending thousands of pounds on a big, yellow and black piece of vomit? Well here’s your chance as an auction house is offering exactly that for sale later this month. Now confirmed as whale vomit – or ambergris – it was found by a dog walker on an Anglesey beach.

The material is used in the perfume industry, making it very valuable, which is why auctioneer Chris Surfleet has slapped an estimate of £5,000-£7,000 on the lump weighing just over a kilogram and measuring little more than eight inches long.

A 6lb lump of ambergris found on a Lancashire beach sold for £100,000 to a buyer from the perfume industry.

The idea that a substance secreted and cast off by whales is very valuable and can occasionally be found washed up on beaches by anyone who happens to walk past is widely appealing to the imagination. The story was picked up by many other papers and even appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Seeing the headlines reminded me of something I read about Ian Fleming many years ago. This anecdote can be found in The Story of Ian Fleming by John Pearson:

“…Fleming told of how he found his first treasure - he was a compulsive treasurer-hunter all his life - at the age of nine… One afternoon he found in a cave a lump of ambergris ‘as big as a child’s football’. He knew it was ambergris from the adventure books he had been reading – it was a real treasure: ‘Now I would be rich and be able to live on Cadbury’s milk chocolate flakes and I would not have to go back to my private school or indeed do any more work at all. I had found the short cut out of all my childish woes.’ He carried it back…but the ambergris began to melt and soon he was a dreadful sight. ‘What did I care? There would be no scoldings or punishments ever again.’ … It was then that one of the waiters explained that the ambergris was really a lump of very rancid butter from a supply ship that had been torpedoed off the coast.”

Some people are blinded by wishful thinking. Some people habitually mistake bad things for good, horrible people for decent ones and dead ends or paths to destruction for great opportunities. When their imaginations run away with them in this way, the result is often crushing disappointment.

In addition to the fool’s gold and inverted values aspects, this story shows how some naïve people have very unrealistic ideas about what achieving great riches – or some other goal - will do for them. “If only I had x, everything would come right and all my troubles would be over for ever.”

I found two more amusing anecdotes about Ian Fleming, anecdotes in which his plans for success backfired, in an article in the Saturday Evening Post:

One night in 1941, a member of British Naval Intelligence stops by the Estoril Casino in neutral Portugal. He is Lieutenant Ian Fleming, stopping over in Lisbon, on his way to secret talks in Washington. But tonight, he’s in his civilian clothes and trying his luck at the baccarat tables. He notices two players at another table, and recognizes them as Nazi Intelligence agents. 

Fleming, a gambler with a high opinion of his skills, has a sudden inspiration:

He decided to play them and take them for all of their secret funds.

Instead of taking the Nazis, however, the Nazis took him, and Fleming sheepishly had to ask his chief for more travel money...

On one memorable occasion when he and an assistant were required to question a capture U-boat commander to find out which routes the U-boats were taking through the British minefields in the Kattegat, Fleming had a flamboyant idea. Instead of grilling the commander in a grim prison office, why not soften him up by bringing him to London and questioning him over good food and fine wine?
The German and his first lieutenant, of unmistakably Teutonic bearing, were escorted to Scott’s Restaurant in Piccadilly in civilian clothes. Fleming and his aide were in uniform. Everyone spoke German throughout. Fleming ordered a bottle of Rhine wine and another and another. While the Englishmen were getting progressively drunker, the Germans stayed rigorously sober revealing nothing. In the end Fleming gave it up and blearily took a taxi back to the Admiralty.