Some Books: Ian Fleming’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’


This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually but not always from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
Back in the days when I had first been allowed to cross into the Adult Library, I read all the James Bond books, give or take the odd short story here or there. I don’t remember much about them now. I presume I enjoyed them, then, but more importantly, I read James Bond because he was one of the keys to adulthood, almost as much as smoking, and probably just as bad for your health.
I never touched the first of these: I had already learned to dislike the atmosphere in a household in which both parents smoked but more importantly a father dying of cancer when I was in my early teens was an impenetrable barrier to starting that.
Down the years, the James Bond book that I remembered most was the odd-one-out, the penultimate novel, the experiment that nobody liked and that Fleming came to hate, demanding it neither be reprinted nor appear in paperback in his lifetime. This was The Spy Who Loved Me. I’ve just re-read it, curious to see what I think of it a lifetime later.
I didn’t remember all that much about it from long ago, but I did remember enjoying the book, and being intrigued by it as an experiment. The Spy Who Loved Me is about, and is ‘written’ by Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian woman in her mid-twenties, escaping from a couple of failed love affairs in London, to which she was sent to Finishing School. Vivienne winds up looking after the Dreamy Pines Motel in the Adirondacks which is closing down, but it’s a scam in which she is to be killed as cover for an insurance claim, but not before she’s treated sadistically by the two hired thugs.
Fortunately for Vivienne, a stranger stops at the Motel, refusing to accept that it is closed. This is Bond, travelling between missions. He recognises the situation, intervenes to rescue Vivienne and dispose of the thugs, fucks her to a peak of ecstacy and goes on his way, leaving her behind.
That’s the story. It’s not necessarily much of a story, but I enjoyed the unusual angle of it. I thought it daring to write a series book in which the main character is a minor figure, passing through, seen from a purely external viewpoint by an unconnected stranger. Off the top of my head, the only other book I can think of which uses a similar technique is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, in which the newly-introduced Callums show us the Walkers and the Blacketts from outside, not necessarily to their credit.
Does the book hold up in any way? It is broken into three unequal sections, Me, Them and Him. The first section sets up Vivienne’s situation, left alone at the Motel with a storm raging, before back-tracking over her life’s history in London. This is Fleming writing as Vivienne and it doesn’t quite work.
The autobiography is, in thriller terms, complete filler. It occupies roughly half the book and the amount of action in it is minimal. There’s an opening chapter to set-up the situation and implant the notion that something fishy is going on, followed by chapters of Viv’s life-story, with the emphasis first upon her being out-of-step because she’s French-Canadian at an English Finishing School, and secondly upon her sex-life.
This comes in two phases. The first is Derek, a public school boy in a summer between finishing school and going up to Oxford. He and Viv meet at a party, they wind up snogging (or might it have still been spooning back then?), with Viv allowing him to put his hand on her breast because every time she moves it away, he puts it back, so clearly she’s in the wrong.
This leads to an end of summer cinema visit where he persuades her to let him fuck her in a private cinema box, only for them to be interrupted by the manager with a torch whilst Viv is on her back with his skirt round her waist, showing her pussy (hey, it’s Fleming who’s insisting on these details, not me), and they’re thrown out in no uncertain and public terms, but it’s alright because they nip down to a nearby riverbank where everyone does it, Derek sticks it in, Viv’s no longer a virgin, and he promptly disappears into the sunset, never to be seen again, as if we hadn’t all but Viv seen that coming from Quebec.
Two years later, working a job at which she is very competent and is earning good money, Viv ends up counselling her boss, the German Klaus about his plans for marriage and a happy sexual life, only to wind up his mistress when his fiancee marries someone else. This time it’s good, satisfying sex with Teutonic efficiency, but no love, until Viv makes the mistake of getting pregnant.
For this, she gets two things from Klaus: a Swiss abortion, and a month’s wages in lieu of notice. So Viv buys a scooter, returns to Canada and sets off on a pre-Easy Rider tour, until she winds up at the Dreamy Pines, just as someone’s knocking at the door.
There is a point to setting out these brief details of Viv’s life, and I’ll return to it.
The second phase, just three chapters, is the two new arrivals, Sol ‘Horror’ Horowitz and ‘Sluggsy’ Moran. They’re supposed to be insurance adjustors for the owner, before the Motel closes down tomorrow, except it’s going to close down in a fire caused by the hopeless receptionist. After, that is, she has been thoroughly beaten, and comprehensively raped by Sluggsy.
The beating she gets from Horror: vicious, professional, brutal, expert enough not to leave a mark, especially after Viv has caused problems, first by resisting then trying to escape. She winds up stripped naked in the shower, preserving that essential association between sadism and sex that is the mark of a James Bond novel, but as yet unraped. But not for long.
Ah, I just mentioned James Bond, and this is a James Bond book, is it not? Phase two ends with the front door buzzer going, and guess who it is? Viv signals him to come in, desperate for help and unaware she couldn’t have done better. She alerts him to what’s going on far too easily for complete plausibility, Fleming relying on Horror and Sluggsy’s ultimate confidence that they have guns and know better how to use them.
In turn, Bond briefly explains why he’s here: he’s been out west preventing a Russian defector from being killed but failing to capture SPECTRE’s chief assassin alive for questioning, so he’s taking a few days breather driving east to his debrief. He’s here because his car has blown a tyre.
There’s no reason to be more than perfunctory about the action from here. Fleming spins it out by having Bond make mistake after mistake but in the end the expected occurs. Horror and Sluggsy are shot and killed, Bond fucks Vivianne roughly half the night and is gone in the morning, sending the authorities to clean up, look after Viv and, in the case of Police Captain Stonor, an unofficial piece of very good advice, father-daughter style, not to fall in love with someone like Bond.
Of course that’s wasted breath. Viv already has, even as she knows he doesn’t, won’t and can’t love her back, that she’s already accepted she will never see him again, but she’s going to wilfully reject the idea of someone else telling her to do that, because Bond is so magnetic a man that’s she’s never going to forget, and will always love The Spy Who Loved Her.
As I’ve already said, The Spy Who Loved Me is a very thin book as far as a thriller is concerned, and it’s subject, the saving of one woman’s life is a very low-key matter for Bond. I’ve read it in a 1967 paperback, full of newspaper blurbs that praise the book, and the character of Vivienne, in extravagant terms. Yet Fleming issued instructions to supress the book during his lifetime.
Overall, The Spy Who Loved Me reminds me very much of the late Dennis Wheatley novel, The Strange Story of Linda Lee. That too is a first person novel, purporting to be in the voice of a woman considerably younger than an author who is arrogantly Conservative, writing someone of an age that they were completely out of touch with.
The idea that Fleming can successfully represent the thoughts and opinions of a twenty-five year old woman is implausible, and I put the significance of her being French-Canadian, with no national characteristics of either blood, to be an attempt to account for any incapacity to make her realistic.
The sex side is ludicrous, but not more so than when Viv gets to drop them for James. Of course he gives her her first orgasm – you don’t think a bloody Jerry is going to be allowed to do that? And given that Fleming is evidently hot for sadism, we should try to avoid being shocked when Viv proclaims that “All women love semi-rape” (at least he put the ‘semi’ in there). He takes her brutally, what is it, five hours maximum after she’s been worked over by Horror. That’s bullshit, and should be called out as such.
But the thing about this book, and what’s the real reason Fleming wanted it suppressed, is that it’s too transparent. Fleming isn’t putting on the voice of Vivienne Michel, he is playing at being her because he wants the experience of being fucked by James Bond. That’s who the spy is supposed to love, not some unworthy tart.
Though it’s not part of the brief for this series, I’m in the unique position of having another version of this novel to compare. This is the Jim Lawrence/Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak adaptation serialised in the Daily Express between December 1967 and October 1968.
The strip version removes the experimentalism of the novel, making Bond himself the focus of the story throughout. Vivienne’s viewpoint disappears and she doesn’t even enter the story until midway through.
Lawrence constructs a new sequence for the first half of the story. It’s essentially the brief account Bond gives Vivienne in the book to explain, adapted to a story of SPECTRE blackmailing a pilot into giving details of a new radar-invisible jetplane (a ‘stealth-bomber’ two decades early), instead of merely protecting a defector. The action part of this account is followed very faithfully in the new context.
Bond then sets off cross-country in his car and the story switches to Vivienne at the Dreamy Pines motel. From hereon, Lawrence follows the novel very faithfully, whilst eliminating Vivienne’s internal monologue.
Of course there are changes. Horror’s sadistic beating of Vivienne takes place between two strips and when she’s dumped in the shower to be revived, the thugs observe the moralities by leaving her her (completely intact) frilly bra and knickers instead of stripping her naked. After they’re both killed, the sex with Bond is implied rather than depicted (and the words ‘semi-rape’ appear nowhere in the strip).
Lastly, Lawrence cuts the coda commendably short, removing Vivienne’s emotional turmoil and intercutting Bond for one last frame, as the two drive in opposite directions.
It’s a very skilful adaptation, and a much more commercial approach than Fleming himself took. It uses a surprisingly large amount of the book, and by focussing on that, it turns it into a conventional James Bond adventure. I think I prefer that.
Fleming’s idea for The Spy who Loved Me is an interesting experiment, and I’d enjoy seeing other authors tackle it in their series, but ultimately his failings as a writer and a man make it a noble, but a failed experiment. I shalln’t retain his version of the story.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 182


182

The last appearance, published on Saturday 13 March 1977. Back at the office, Suzi is grumpy at Debbie and Maisie getting back late from lunch. Debbie’s initially dismissive, just a temporary mood, but then the phone rings. It’s the invisible John, Suzi’s never-seen husband, and they’re having an argument which Suzi is clearly winning by ordering him to do what he wanted to do in the first place that she didn’t want him to do. It’s the intrusive size of the balloon and the shape of the lettering that carries the gag, and Debbie’s despairing ‘Oh God, aggro all afternoon’ is just a tail-piece.

On Monday 15th March, Spare Ribs had vanished, to be replaced by tEmPS, by Dickens alone. The difference between the two was shocking, less in the art but in the writing. This was the same man! The same writer. And in the space of two days he had gone from some form of the sublime, light through it may have been, to the incomprehensibly unfunny – about the same subject.

Only 182 strips, but still a little gem, carefully polished and glinting in every facet.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 181


img024

Still in the park, as Debbie strikes back, itemising all the opportunities for romance that she and Maisie have passed up. These details go into the massive word balloon in the centre of the strip: I said that Dickens used Roberts’ ability to define things with such elegant style to take a wordy approach at times and this is a prime example. Maisie’s response is to shout ‘Big Deal!’, which is only fair as Debbie is reaching for it here – especially with the tramps (this may be an in-joke: Spare Ribs usually appeared directly under Iain ‘Fiddy’ Reid’s daily strip Tramps about -if you couldn’t guess – two tramps). But I see this as Debbie being slightly more self-aware than usual, knowing that she’s admitting it was a waste of time but sticking up for herself. One flaw: Maisie’s head position in the first image is uncharacteristically awkward, and only the perspective keeps her from being taller than Debbie, which she certainly is not!

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 180


180

We’re in the park now and Maisie’s still a bit frustrated at having her lunch hour taken up by one of Debbie’s pursuits that will get her exactly nowhere – then there’s the first eligible male they meet! Not the best strip of this sequence, but note Roberts’ art in this, especially in the middle image where he conjures up the sense of the park with minimal line-work. My personal favourite part of this strip is Maisie’s expression in the first image.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 179


179

Enter Maisie. Debbie’s still harping on about her romantic magazines but the only response she gets from the down-to-earth Maisie is ‘Sounds a bit sloppy to me’. Maisie’s got her eyes on the practicalties, like where they’re going for lunch, which is the cue for Debbie, still absorbed in her story of love beginning with a meeting in the Park, to suggest – where else? – the Park. Again, Roberts kills it in the last image: Debbie is already leaning away, shyly aware of the response her less-than-innocent remark will get, whilst Maisie’s slightly condescending but amused ‘Silly Devil’ is accompanied by an ambiguous swat to the head: is it an exasperated smack or a patronising pat-down of a silly child? Note too Maisie’s preference for a grey top, to distinguish her from Debbie and Suzi.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 178


178

A continuation of yesterday’s gag, still playing on the theme of the age-based disparity between Debbie and Suzi’s interests, and returning to the occasional hint that, a few years ago, the pre-marriage Suzi was a lot like Debbie. It’s a superb example of Roberts’ non-panel approach, as the images flow into each other, concentrating solely upon the two girls. Again, look at the expressiveness of the faces: even without the blush lines, Suzi knows she’s been caught out, whilst Debbie’s smile combines glee and superiority without any trace of malice.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 177


173

A simple gag today, a gentle play on the difference in age (and marital status) between Suzi and Debbie. The two-step nature of the gag allows Roberts to insert a wealth of detail in the left hand image. Note that, even in their winter coats, Suzi and Debbie are distinguished by the same black/white contrast. This also works to distract attention away from the slouching guy at panel left, giving an admiring glance to Suzi: her black coat lands the eye in mid-image, progressing naturally rightwards from there and leaving him to smirk almost unnoticed. Beautiful staging.

‘Spare Ribs’ strip 176


After two long and wordy posts about the Frank Dickens and Don Roberts newspaper strip, Spare Ribs, you would probably like to see an example of the strip. So, here we are.

img018

This strip was published on Saturday 27 February 1977, and features Debbie and Suzi. It’s Debbie who answers the pone, taking a call meant for Suzi, but opting to keep the (male) caller on the line since he likes her voice. Neither the dialogue, nor the situation, are funny in their own right, though the reader of the strip to date is well aware that Debbie is looking for Mr Right and treats any expresson of interest in her charms as potentially The Moment.

What makes this strip is Roberts’ art, and in particular his staging of Suzi’s progressively frustrated reaction. It’s a perfect progression, from the concentrating-on-my-typing unconcern, to the sidelong glance, the half-lowered eye, and culminating in the unveiled threat that has Debbie protectively shielding the phone. Roberts’ deftness of expression, with minimal linework, is a joy to watch.

A la Recherche du ‘Spare Ribs’ Perdu – Part 2


What, then, is Spare Ribs, and why should it not be left in the obscurity that Fate has clearly designated for it?
To repeat: Spare Ribs appeared in the Daily Express from 9 August 1976 to 6 March 1977, a total of 182 strips, written by Frank Dickens and drawn by Don Roberts.
Dickens was already a cartoon strip veteran, albeit as a writer/artist, whilst Roberts had not previously drawn a daily strip. Dickens’ art was primitive: little rounded figures with button eyes and no human dimension, whilst Roberts employed a more realistic style, bringing an elegance to the strip that, paradoxically, seemed to free Dickens to a much more wordy style, building on the differing characters of the girls who appeared in the strip.
There were four characters. The main one was Debbie, an eighteen year old typist working for Mr Rickett in an administration department of Bentridge’s Department Store, in London.
Debbie, who turned nineteen during the strip’s run, was a frustrated romantic. Sharing a flat with two or three other girls of similar age and aspiration, Debbie was looking for a man, and marriage. Already frustrated in her ambition to be a schoolgirl bride, Debbie was not just waiting for Mr Right, but actively out to explore every opportunity to be found by him (sweeping off of feet essential). Despite being a perfectly attractive blonde eighteen year old, Debbie wasn’t getting anywhere. Even when she was going out with Neville long enough for him to introduce her to his mates, his mates were a double-edged sword.
Suzi, with whom she shared an office, was beyond all that. Suzi was three to four years older than Debbie, and married to John. Suzi occasionally had a bit of a lofty attitude towards Debbie’s antics, but it seems she was a bit like Debbie before meeting her future husband. Not that that entirely slowed her down: Suzi was frequently propositioned by the Ginger Haired Man from Downstairs, over things like Dirty Weekends, or other disgusting suggestions that took Suzi’s breath away – usually because she was running to keep up and hear what’s being suggested.
Maisie was introduced four weeks into the strip’s run, initially anonymously (neither Debbie nor Suzi were named at first). She was another secretary friend of Debbie, a slighter girl, drawn a head shorter than the two principals. This made her look even younger, but it was soon clear that she was actually aged somewhere between Debbie and Suzi. Maisie was the most balanced of the girls: not (quite) cynical, but wholly unromantic. Initially, she was changing boyfriends almost daily, but she soon settled into a relationship with Guy, a biker, whose attention was not always focussed exclusively on Maisie, but then lifts to and from work on the bike do save an awful amount in bus fares.
And the last of the gang was Kelly, a black girl who worked with Maisie. Kelly, I’m sorry to say, was not much more than a token, though not in any racial sense. She was basically a foil to Maisie, and only two strips in the entire run dealt directly with her experiences.
The humour is gentle and friendly. It’s primarily divided between Debbie’s naïve chasing of any prospect of romance, and the everyday experience of life in an office forty years ago, rife with the kind of generalised sexual harassment that would not be tolerated for a minute today, but which is accepted in the strip as a commonplace occupational hazard.
The girls recognise that they are powerless against the male establishment, and adapt accordingly, ranking the best known horrors with appropriate nicknames. The archetypal version of this, which I’d ‘remembered’ all those years, featured Kelly being fanned with a handkerchief, as a result of being forced to share a lift with Fletcher the Letcher, Roper the Groper, ‘Weirdo’ Watkins and ‘Eyeballs’ Smith!
It’s a lovely recollection, but it’s also a fiction. The actual strip featured Debbie leaving the lift unscathed, with the four men having behaved like perfect gentlemen – all of them waiting for someone else to make the first move. But Roper the Groper wasn’t there, it was actually Randy Andy. And Roper was a misremembrance, Dickens’ off-stage being Pope the Grope.
These figures never appeared in the strip, with the except of Fletcher the Letcher, at the Office Xmas Party. They were fantastic figures who were left to the audience’s imagination. Indeed, very few people outside of Debbie, Suzi, Maisie and Kelly appeared onscreen, and those few mainly as background figures, or foils for jokes. No, this was an all-girl strip, and all the better for it.
As I’ve already said, Dickens was already a veteran when he started Spare Ribs, but as far as I’ve been able to determine, this was his first, and only, collaboration. Primarily, he was a blunt, gag-a-day creator, with a primitive cartoon style: short, rounded figures with face-splitting grins and dialogue kept brief and clipped by necessity, as Dickens’ lettering was big and crude.
Collaborating with Don Roberts, who had never previously drawn a daily cartoon, freed Dickens up to employ a much more verbal humour. Roberts was a marvellously fluid, elegant cartoonist, whose style was much more detailed, and much more human in aspect, without bordering on realism. He eschewed panel borders, moving from image to image with backgrounds that were usually minimal, establishing context, but which, when required, could become beautifully detailed.
In keeping with the fashions of the time (1976/7), Roberts’ girls were slim and blonde, and given to midi-length skirts and clumpy platform-soled shoes. Each girl had a distinctive look, with hair-styles involving individual, complex fly-away strands (Kelly wore her hair in an afro). They were stylised, with small, high, round breasts, after drawn as circles in tight tops, but below the waist they flared out, knee-length skirts drawn almost as triangles, with skinny calves below.
Originally, the strip having started at the height of the drought summer, Debbie wore sleeveless tops and bell-bottomed pants, but as autumn settled in, she too went into skirts. For contrast, Debbie usually wore mainly white tops, Suzi black blouses, and Maisie a long-sleeved, high-necked grey top: Kelly was her own contrast.
Roberts’s skill at manipulating space, and his neat, pristine lettering, freed up Dickens to a much more verbal style. The girls could have conversations, even monologues of surprising length, without the strip getting cramped: one January 1977 strip actually extended to eight word balloons as Debbie and Suzi explored some of the instructions the former was following on the road to becoming a career woman. Roberts was adept at framing such conversations, and at providing the relatively rarer moments of visual comedy that kept Spare Ribs from getting samey.
The real strength of the combination lies in the fact that even the most verbal of strips can’t simply be extracted and related in prose and have the same effect. Dickens wasn’t writing gags, he was exploring a comedy that arose from personality and circumstance, that depended upon the careful staging Roberts provided.
This shone through even the negative, white on black, that I read, but it’s amazing by how much Roberts’ art improves by seeing it in its proper form: in the strip of Saturday 5 March 1977, a week before the end, the joke is typically gentle: Debbie answers a phone call meant for Suzi, the unheard caller compliments her voice, Debbie accepts the compliments, gives some details about herself… but in the background, Suzi is reacting to each stage: typing, turning her head quizzically, rising with claw-like hands as Debbie protectively cradles the receiver away from her, apologising that Suzi isn’t in the office at the moment…
See, it doesn’t work in print, does it? The dialogue isn’t even funny in itself, but the strip is funny because you can see the two girls, and because Roberts is so deft with their emotions, and because it is Suzi’s responses – executed with such minimalist expressiveness – that bring forth the giggle-in-the-sleeve for the researcher in the Library.
The subtlety of those expressions is lost in the negative strips of the microfilm.
Originally, Dickens wrote the strip as gag-a-day, with no continuity between strips, but by the end of September he was starting to develop two-stage gags that would run over two strips. Kelly alerts Debbie to the fact that someone has written ‘I love Debbie’ on the wall in the lift. Debbie races to read it, only to discover that it’s written practically at the bottom of the wall (she muses, hopefully,  that he could still be dark and handsome). The next day, she identifies the writer out of 327 men plus a spotty little post-boy: no prizes for the correct answer.
But in the run-up to Xmas, and in particular the Office Xmas Party, Dickens started to extend his story-lines to a week at a time, most weeks, though that would not keep him from dropping one-off gags into the mix.
In the New Year, Debbie went through several enthusiasms. There was the week she kept a Diary. Then, at her new flatmate’s suggestion she started training herself to become a top business executive (‘Behind every career woman there’s a flatmate who wants a room to herself…’ mused Suzi to Maisie) before becoming enthused about her summer holiday in Torremolinos.
This was not without its complications: ‘There are 23 more pay days to my holiday but I need 29!’. The ever-practical Maisie sits down with a calculator and provides Debbie with a budget that, if strictly followed, will exactly cover her air fare and hotel bill. What about my spending money? Debbie enquires: Spending money? Maisie replies, incredulously: With boys there?
These little themes, as they always do to any humour strip, added an additional degree of realism, the sense that the girls had lives that progressed, instead of little, disjointed incidents.
Having spent the time thus far in praising Spare Ribs, it’s time to acknowledge what many will see as its flaws.
You’ll notice that throughout this piece I’ve called the characters “girls.” Yet they had all left school, all were working, all led independent lives, and one of them was a married woman. They were women, not girls, and I wouldn’t think to use that term nowadays.
But in 1976/77, few people would have thought it offensive to call Debbie, Suzi, Maisie and Kelly “girls”. Spare Ribs was a reflection of the times, and this was a strip about secretaries, not about people doing serious jobs, or working towards a career. Suzi was married, but working, Debbie actively looking for a husband, Maisie and Kelly just filling in time before their eventual, inevitable marriages.
It was a strip about working girls and their pre-occupations. Debbie’s constant, anxious search. Maisie’s rarely-ruffled independence in her steady relationship with biker Guy. Even one of Kelly’s few solo moments was about her impatience over waiting for her current boyfriend.
And the constant atmosphere of sexual harassment, which the girls plainly disliked and sought to avoid – except when it was not there and they were left puzzled as to why they weren’t getting the usual attention.
Nor did the girls have any working ambitions, unless the one in which Kelly sadly mused that filing was poor training for a girl who only wanted to be a topless go-go dancer was meant to be taken seriously. Towards the end of the strip’s life, Debbie’s pursuit of becoming a top business executive lasted only until she was distracted by hearing someone say she’d got perfect child-bearing hips,
And another short series, about her considering a wide range of possible jobs, was only a set-up for shooting down outlandish notions based on little actions.
And surely the title itself had to be a provocation, given the anti-feminist nature of the strip?
All of these criticisms are true and valid, yet in a way irrelevant. Spare Ribs was not anti-feminist in any focussed sense, but rather a very conventional portrait of the times, especially as they would be viewed by Daily Express readers.
Nor did it mock, at any time. Its humour was never cruel or demeaning. Dickens and Roberts liked their little troupe of ladies. They showed them fairly, with gentle exaggeration of their traits, to amuse the audience, but never to ridicule the girls.
The area in which I think Spare Ribs was at its most potentially offensive was in the duo’s treatment of Kelly. I hadn’t realised, until I re-read the strip, just how little she’d featured, and almost entirely as a foil, mainly to Maisie. That she was black was a piece of visible diversity that was reflective of the mix in secretarial circles. But she was no more than a token in the strip.
And I’m dubious about that ‘ topless go-go dancer’ strip. The term itself was already somewhat archaic in late 1976, but it’s significance is that comes from Kelly, the black girl. It would have been unthinkable from Debbie, Suzi or Maisie.
It’s hard not to suspect that a white fourth girl would have been brought more into the interplay, given more of a personality (Kelly certainly couldn’t have been given less of one).
But still my instinct is to defend Dickens and Roberts from anything except the most casual of chauvinism or racism. The girls were heroes, knowing their place in the system, yet comfortable enough not to totally fit where they sat…
There was no warning of the strip’s demise. No attempt to prepare the reader for its imminent disappearance, no attempt to provide even the most febrile of conclusions. It was just a typical last week, illustrative of Dickens’ approach in linking the daily strips. On Monday, Debbie and Suzi call into W. H. Smiths before going home. Debbie asks her elder colleague if she’s ever aware of the difference in their ages: not in work, Suzi replies, but after… as the two grab a pile of magazines each: Woman, Woman’s Own, Woman’s Realm, House & Garden for the married Suzi, Hot Lips, True Romances, Her Scarlet Past and Hidden Passions for Debbie.
On Tuesday, Debbie gleefully teases a red-faced Suzi, who she’s caught secretly dipping into Her Scarlet Past, and the next day she’s enthusing to Maisie over a story about a young secretary who goes to the Park at lunch and is swept off her feet by Mr Right. Maisie is typically dismissive but, spotting that it’s 12.30, asks where they’re going for lunch: the Park? suggests Debbie.
On Thursday, Maisie has clearly indulged Debbie but is also busy ridiculing her ambitions: after all, the only bloke in sight is a middle-aged, fag-smoking Parkie. Debbie retaliates the next day by pointing out Maisie’s lack of imagination about the possible romantic encounters they could have had (Maisie’s response to Debbie’s straw-clutching: Big Deal!).
And the pair return to the office to a grumpy Suzi complaining that they’re late. Debbie’s not bothered: the mood will soon pass. Except that the phone rings, it’s obviously John, Suzi’s husband, and they’ve clearly had an argument. Go to your flaming Darts match! Suzi yells, as Debbie raises a hand to her forehead and sighs, ‘Oh God, aggro all afternoon’.
And that was it. On Monday, Spare Ribs‘s place on the cartoon page was occupied by tEmPS, a strip written and drawn by Dickens, about a young woman starting her first day with Trendi-Temps. It was crude, it was primitive, and worse, it was completely unfunny. Debbie and Suzi, Maisie and Kelly were gone, without warning or explanation, never to return
So what happened? Did the Express decide that Spare Ribs had to go? Did the Cartoon Editor change and the new one didn’t get it? Did Dickens get bored with only writing the strip, or frustrated at not having total control? Did Roberts decide that the strain of drawing a daily strip was too much for him, or that the payment he received didn’t warrant the effort? Did the pair have a blazing row and decide they couldn’t work together any more?
I have absolutely no idea. That Dickens continued to appear in the Express, starting the following week, with his new strip suggests a planned switchover, and it’s clear that whatever problems may have been perceived by the paper, they weren’t with Dickens. But the absence of any conclusion, any pay-off, suggests an abrupt decision.
(Not necessarily so: When Robert Maxwell decided he wanted radical changes to the Daily Mirror cartoon pages, Jack Dunkley ended The Larks with promotion and a move to the country but Bill Tidy, angry at the short notice given, refused to compromise and continued The Fosdyke Saga as if it would be running on the day, week, month after its last appearance.)
Nobody complained. Or, if they did, the Express didn’t acknowledge it publicly. I would have registered my feelings if, at 21, with my professional exams sat less than six weeks earlier, and limbo before me, I had thought to do so, or known how to do so. I had once written to Eagle, when I was much younger, asking for them to bring back the prose series, Horizon Unlimited, and received a polite letter effectively saying no, so perhaps I recognised it was a waste of time (at least Eagle had replied).
Doubtless I wasn’t the only one to miss Spare Ribs, or perhaps I was. It will be interesting to see if there is any response to these posts from other fans who wanted to see it last far longer.
But despite my affection for the series, and my renewed enjoyment of it, four decades onwards, the truth is that it was just an unsuccessful daily cartoon strip, that made little impact and wasn’t mourned. I think it deserved better, but I was in a decided, perhaps extremely tiny minority.
Still, I’m glad that my temporary lapse of memory prompted me into going out and re-reading the entire strip. And I’m delighted to have made the re-acquaintance of those four secretaries: dizzy and determined Debbie, solid and stable Suzi, the down-to-earth and pragmatic Maisie, and poor sweet under-developed Kelly. Still fun to listen to after all those years.

A la Recherche du ‘Spare Ribs’ Perdu – Part 1


A long, long time ago, I can still remember…
This begins with not remembering, not remembering something I used to know, that I’d held in mind for four decades and which, I suddenly found, had slipped out of my mind.
But this is the Internet Age. Whatever you want to know, whatever you need to remember, just go on-line: the information is out there, somewhere.
Except that it wasn’t. What I wanted to know, what I wanted to be reminded of, was something sufficiently obscure that, as yet, no enthusiast with access to the Web had yet seen to post details. Even though a person very famous in his field was involved, directly, no accounts of his career, of his achievements, made more than the most fleeting of mentions of this topic.
But that’s the thing about the Internet: all the information is there because someone with enough passion and eagerness has chosen to upload it. Part of this story is that someone turning out to be me.

Given my general left-soft-liberal political leanings, I imagine that you’d be surprised to learn that I practically grew up on the Daily Express. My parents had the Sunday Express delivered each weekend, and my grandparents in Droylsden (where we went for Saturday dinner, week-in, week-out) took the Daily. Not that I actually read the paper, as such in those days. Once I became interested in football, and cricket, I’d start to read the Sports pages. But in the Sixties, when I was a kid, the Express interested me only for its cartoon strips.
Not Rupert the Bear, unless perhaps when I was very young, too young to remember. And certainly not the interminable Gambols by Barry Appleby, which ran on the back page in a solus.  But in the Sixties, the Express had a cartoon page that was the envy of Fleet Street, featuring Gun Law by Harry Bishop, the strip version of the TV Western, Gunsmoke, Sydney Jordan’s classic Jeff Hawke at its peak, as written by Willie Patterson, and James Bond, adapted by Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak. What a line-up! There wasn’t a paper in the UK that coud better that combination!
So each week at Droylsden, I would gather together a week’s papers and catch up on the stories in each of these three strips.
This line-up ran throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, and was only broken when Jeff Hawke ceased in 1974. It was the beginning of the end of the great daily adventure strips, and both Gun Law and James Bond would themselves be cancelled, in quick succession, in late 1976. By Xmas of that year, the Express’s cartoon section would consist entirely of humour strips. The first strip to make this breakthrough was Spare Ribs.

Spare Ribs was a gentle, office based daily humour strip, set in a London Department Store and centring upon the daily life of four young secretaries. It was written by Frank Dickens, who was already famous for his Bristow office-based strip in the London Evening Standard, which has since gone on to be the longest running UK strip produced by a single creator, and was drawn by Don Roberts.
I don’t remember much about the strip from the days it was running. I liked it, and enough to have decided that I would like to have kept it, clipping it out each week. But I’d decided that too late for the first few weeks, and as I couldn’t have a complete selection, I decided to wait, and buy the strip when it was complied in book form.
That intention demonstrates not only a serious liking for the strip, but an optimism that not so much bordered on naiveté as shared an Open Border Pact with it. This was the mid-Seventies, and the number of British newspaper strips being collected could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Daily Mail‘s Fred Bassett, The Perishers from the Daily Mirror and the terminally unfunny Gambols appeared regularly. But if the Express had never thought, in all those years, to capitalise upon its big three adventure strips, what likelihood was there that Spare Ribs would be thus honoured when it had run for long enough?
Sadly, that never became an issue: one weekend at Droylsden, I collated the papers and was shocked to find that, without warning or explanation, Spare Ribs was gone. In its place was tEMpS, a humour strip on a similar basis, but this time written and drawn by Dickens, and frankly it was awful. All the wit of Spare Ribs, all the elegance of Roberts’ drawings, the easy, written humour were sacrificed to accommodate Dickens’ primitive cartoons of short, round, wholly unrealistic figures, with very little room for dialogue.
Thankfully, the previous week’s papers had not yet been thrown out, and I was able to clip and keep the last week of continuity. A pitifully small representation, but all I was ever going to see of a strip I’d really enjoyed, and that deserved a far longer run than it received: not even a full year.

I kept those half dozen strips, taking them out at intervals to read through that last, representative week. I still have them, somewhere, but that’s where this story begins. Spare Ribs was, as I said, about four young women, secretaries all, and I remembered their names and characteristics long after the strip had faded into oblivion. Until, a few months ago, I realised that I had not looked at that handful of clippings in several years, that whilst I certainly wouldn’t have thrown them out, I had no idea where to find them, even in my pokey little flat and, worse of all, I couldn’t remember the names of the two principal girls of the strip.
So I turned to the Internet, and Google. A search against Spare Ribs produced nothing in relation to the strip, not even when paired with Dickens and/or Roberts’ names. Dickens is obviously famous, and has an official site as well as other sites referring to his work, but Spare Ribs is not even mentioned on any of these. A search against Roberts turned up a short biography of him attached to the sale of some original art, which mentions his collaboration with Dickens on Spare Ribs as if it were well-known. But nothing and no-one, as I pointed out above, could give me any information about the series, and it certainly couldn’t fill that gap in my head as to the names of the two principals. There were four girls: the two ‘junior’ stars were Maisie and Kelly, but who were the other girls?

If you can’t find it on the Internet, you have to go back to more basic forms of searching. In the past, researching background elements for novels set in past years, I had spent time at Manchester’s Central Reference Library, poring over microfilm copies of old newspapers. Central Ref had been closed for refurbishment for years, but now it was newly unveiled. Spare Ribs had run in the Daily Express: how else to find out about it than to go and read the Daily Express?
This was not as simple as it sounded. The old Central Ref had metal cabinets all round the Reference Library: if you could find a free microfilm viewer, the microfilms were there to be unspooled and read. Now, though, it was necessary to book in advance, by at least one full working day, and specify what you wanted to read so that it could be brought in from off-site in readiness. The second problem was that I didn’t know exactly when the strip had run. Less than a year, certainly, and from one year into another, of that I was confident, but of which two years I was far from sure. In the old Central Ref, it would have been simplicity itself to grab single reels from enough Decembers until I tracked the series down, and then back-calculate to find an approximate start date, based on the strip numbering. Instead, I had to ask for the December microfilms for four years – 1974 to 1977 inclusive – in the hope of finding which one was relevant.
I knew it couldn’t have been as late as 1978, when I was living in Nottingham and not regularly spending Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, and I doubted it would be as early as 1974, but included that year because it would have been frustrating to have to make a second visit just to date the series if my memory was that far out. However, I found the strip at my third attempt, in December 1976, giving me a running time of 1976/7.
What then? I could use the strip numbering to make a rough calculation as to when Spare Ribs had started, though getting to grips with the strip from its beginning would have to be a matter for my next visit. I hadn’t thought much further than the dating exercise but the afternoon was young yet, so why not take the opportunity to read the strip for the first time in nearly forty years. And answer the most important question of them all. Would I still find it funny?

Consider the circumstances. When Spare Ribs had originally run, I was twenty, turning twenty-one, at Law College cramming for my Solicitors’ Part II Final Exams, unaware that I was about to start almost a full year of unemployment as I struggled to get the necessary Articles of Clerkship that would enable me to qualify. I’d spent three years at University, but whilst living at home, depriving myself of the social benefits of the process. I was young and naive and I liked my entertainment light and simple.
And here I was, looking at the back-end of my fifties from a closer range than I felt comfortable, after a series of reverses that had thrown my life off the course of many years. I was many times more cynical than my young self had been, prey to depression, my tastes jaded by over-exposure to things light and simple.
Other than those half dozen clipped strips, I had not looked at Spare Ribs in all that time. I was only too aware that memory might be lending a golden glow that made the cartoon something more than it had been, that the humour might have evaporated along with my naïve young self, that it might well be too much a product of its times to be funny in these later days. Was I expecting too much? Would this be nothing but a deflating experience?
Actually, no. Debbie (Debbie! Of course!) was interested in the new Xmas temp but unable to tell if he was tall, dark and handsome, given that he was dressed in a Santa Claus suit and beard. Her colleague (no, she wasn’t named in any of the five weeks continuity I had available, but her name was Suzi) was gently mocking of Debbie’s eagerness/desperation towards her non-existent relationships, and I was smiling, and giggling again (or as much as one can giggle when in a serious Research Room at a serious Library).
It had held up. I was going to enjoy these re-readings.

It was odd to come in in the middle, but I dutifully compiled notes about the strips I had before me, taking me up to New Year’s Eve 1976. From there, I back-calculated to establish the start of the strip. Unfortunately, I calculated wrong, working on a basis on five strips a week when there were actually six (Monday to Saturday). At least it meant I have a good look at what lead in to Spare Ribs‘ debut, with as little warning or explanation as its eventual demise.
Two further sessions enabled me to catch up to the December strips, and thereafter I proceeded in batches of a month at a time, intending to keep the process going as long as possible. This worked well until the very end of my fifth session: I was examining the reels for 7 February to 6 March 1977 and was enjoying myself until the very last strip of this batch, Saturday 5 March, stopped me in my tracks.
I recognised it instantly. Each image, each line. It was the beginning of that final week, those clipped strips that are still somewhere here. I don’t know which was worse: that the end had come so soon, or that I would still need to make another trip for a single week of papers.

I enjoyed re-discovering Spare Ribs after all that time, but the research was a time-consuming process, especially when fitting it around my shifts. Visit Central Ref alone means the best part of two hours travel by bus and tram, and though the Library itself has been impressively refurbished, they’re still relying on the old microfilm viewers. These are perfectly usable, but the controls that are supposed to scroll the reels up and down don’t work properly, making it easier – and faster – to wind things by hand. Especially when you get a reel that’s been wound on wrong way round, so the papers are ordered backwards.
As for the microfilms, these are designed to be comprehensive records of each publication, meaning that there are multiple versions for each date: first, second, third and later editions, the variations in the Scottish Daily Express and the Irish: multiple pages to wade through, and quite often the cartoon page appears two or three times over before you can move on to the next day’s edition.
Worst of all, these microfilms have been shot as negatives: I have read the entire run of Spare Ribs in white on black, twisting my eyeballs to try to see Don Roberts’ graceful, indeed elegant art as it was meant to be seen, without ever really succeeding.

And then I found them. It was an accident, in both senses of the word: in tidying a bookcase, I knocked a stack of Doonesbury strips to the floor, and had to re-collect and re-order these. And then I realised: that was where I’d stored my precious handful of Spare Ribs strips. And sure enough, I found them. In black and white, not white and black, and all the better for it, for I can see more clearly how skillful Roberts was with expressions, using minimal lines and the angle of a head to turn cartoon figures into living beings.
Had I been thinking more clearly, would I have gone into such research if I had been able to satisfy my curiosity over Debbie and Suzi’s names? Probably not. But the oversight proved to be to my advantage, in taking me back to the whole strip and reminding me of the fun it represented.
Stand by to share in that knowledge, if you are curious.