The Man Who Saved Britain

The Arts

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I’m currently on a sailing boat with friends from Washington and London, and somehow one evening we still ended up talking about James Bond. What is it with Bond?

It is hard to overestimate the effect 007 had on post-war readers and audiences. Here was the first English hero who didn’t own a sensible jumper; he didn’t need one because he was likely to be in Jamaica, a place that could only be vaguely imagined by a nation that had emerged from war broke and exhausted. Thinking of ‘Goldfinger’, I remember the gilded Shirley Eaton, Pussy Galore, Oddjob and the Fort Knox countdown (destined to be the first of many urgent bomb deadlines), but when fans speak of Sean Connery’s finest hour, they forget that 007 is first spotted with a stuffed seagull attached to his head, or that he talks flippantly about heroin-soaked bananas before the opening credits roll.

Bond was Fleming’s idealised male counterpart, a spy perfectly versed in the kind of elitist knowledge that now seems redundant. In ‘Moonraker’, Bond is described as cold, dangerous, alien and un-English, a saturnine man in his mid-thirties, someone who may have worked in Nairobi or Malaya, but definitely not the sort of chap one usually saw at the piquet tables of Pall Mall. But to post-war ration-book Englishmen for whom a roulette wheel represented exoticism and a cigarette case sophistication, he could hardly fail to become a hero.

How desirable his lifestyle must have seemed, getting on planes, ordering cocktails and quizzing waiters about menus at a time when half a grapefruit and a Babycham was the height of sophistication. In the books, his world was less exotic – the big chase in Goldfinger takes place in Herne Bay, after all. In the films he was always on the Riviera, aided by the compositions of John Barry and the designs of Ken Adam, whose dazzling steel ellipses seemingly quadrupled the size of every lair. The full extent of Barry’s haunting instrumentation is revealed on the soundtrack of Goldfinger, which is simultaneously brassy, lush and spare. Bond segued into the mood of The Avengers and The Prisoner, linking them in the national psyche so that John Steed could resort to making a joke about Cathy Gale being off on a secret mission at Fort Knox.

But that’s only part of the story. In ‘The Man Who Saved Britain’ Simon Winder came up with a great wheeze for a Bond tie-in book, although it no doubt mystified the kind of punters for whom 007 represents the acme of wish-fulfilment. He linked the rising popularity of Bond to the humiliation and disappointment of a nation gradually deprived of empire, international status and respect. The erosion of British power at the hands of inept politicians and military leaders allowed the louche snobbery of Ian Fleming’s character to gain a national grip. Fleming was perceived by his readers as a raddled avatar for the special agent, invariably photographed in dickie, DJ and cigarette-holder, posed to match his creation in much the same way that Noel Coward – another Jamaica dweller – had been shot supine in a silk dressing gown.

The books work best when they show Bond doing the things Fleming himself enjoyed; playing golf, diving, drinking in night-clubs, visiting the West Indies, fulminating on the problems of British youth, making snide cracks about the animalistic behaviour of foreigners. That they were so unquestioningly accepted by a largely working class readership is one of the mysteries that’s harder to unravel. Winder is especially good on the pitfalls of Fleming’s lurid writing style, as in Casino Royale, when Bond embraces a female traitor and slips ‘his hands down to her swelling buttocks’ which gives readers the impression that ‘her principal symptom of arousal is to inflate like a child’s paddling pool’.

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Bond has been with us longer than the second Elizabethan era, and has followed the British monarchy’s fate, sliding from distant, understated role model to something ersatz and ridiculous, so it comes as a shock to reread Fleming’s work now. The books feel as though they were produced in the nineteen thirties, with endless references to the protocol of clubs in St James’s that compelled the average reader to believe they were being allowed to share a secret world belonging to gentlemen of unimaginable class and distinction.

And this was the point, that Bond was an escape from the terrible soul-rotting embarrassment of being English, at a time when the ineptitude of our international policies was causing commercial and military strength to drain away, leaving us with feelings of collective shame and irrelevance. Fleming is blamed for the public’s misplaced belief that Britain’s espionage network did anything other than create traitors. Bond’s self-assurance was so impregnable that his women needed ludicrous identities and pumped-up sexuality to compete. It is a rule, of course, that no matter how old an icon becomes, he is usually allowed the embrace of a young woman, something that reached levels of horror in the late Roger Moore films.

Winder argues that the books would have quickly vanished had they not been translated into hypersaturated widescreen romps. His observations act as a welcome antidote to the decades-long farrago of adulation that has accompanied each appearance of the super-agent, and his demolition of our misplaced patriotism makes this a book to be avoided by Daily Express readers.

Winder is a relatively late arrival to the Bond phenomenon, so his reading of early public attitudes to 007 is not quite mine; the books cannot be removed from the context of other popular novels that captured the public imagination. In a time when fathers and sons shared reading material, the public was glad of a chance to switch from the heroics of Neville Shute and Eric Ambler to tales that did not rely on stiff upper lips. Fleming plundered the tropes of the future, a world of atomic secrets, covert operations and a nascent cold war, when the new superpowers might require an outsider to handle the problem of megalomaniac warmongers. Winder’s book is a love letter from a horrified fan, with a splenetic turn of phrase that’s read-aloud funny.

15 comments on “The Man Who Saved Britain”

  1. DC says:

    I recently read several of the Fleming bond books. Mainly I wanted to see how different they were from the films. To be honest I found them disappointing and a bit of a struggle.

    I managed to pick up a job lot of Matt Helm books and have been working my way through those. I find them much more engaging in a unchallenging but diverting sort of way. Not sure I’ll make it all the way through the dozen books I have.

    However, give me a Connery Bond film, some junk food and a sofa and I’ll happily slouch there veg-ing. Stay away from the Matt Helm films, though!

  2. Ken Mann says:

    In Mike Ripley’s book about British post-war thrillers (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) Bond is described as “not the sharpest throwing knife in the attache case.” I expert to emerge from it with a reading list.

  3. Steveb says:

    Kingsley Amis’s James Bond dossier is a contemporary non-hindsight influenced take on the books and I think it’s pretty accurate.
    From Russia with Love was allegedly one of President Kennedy’s favourite books. I think it and Dr No are both pretty good books.

  4. Steveb says:

    PS i read the books also as a kid, my father disapproved mightily! So it wasn’t a shared thing. GA Henty was more my father’s idea of correct boys’ reading! But not mine.
    I also loved Jack London, Rider Haggard (the lady who babysat me for my parents had worked for him as a maid when she was young), the early Saint books, etc etc

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    You have to remember how bloody awful Britain was in the 50’s and 60’s. No central heating or double glazing; people heating their homes with paraffin heaters (‘Boom, boom, boom, boom – Esso Blue’) that caused house fires and condensation. I remember waking up on winter mornings with ice INSIDE the windows. Gas ovens that looked like a dieselpunk sculpture while grannies had cast iron ranges. Hardly anyone had a TV. Its no wonder James Bond was exotic.
    Eric Ambler wrote far superior stories to Fleming, more based in the real murky world of European espionage. Fleming turned to the sunnier climes of the Americas and the orient – or at least the movies did.
    While the US tried to ride on the back of Bond (Matt Helm et al) the UK got Callan Harry Palmer.

    Fleming died before all the hype had begun but there were signs that he was already tired of his hero.
    The Saint predated Bond by 30 years and outlived him but nobody seems capable of doing anything with the character these days.

    Maybe it was all just a question of timing.

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    You have to remember how bloody awful Britain was in the 50’s and 60’s. No central heating or double glazing; people heating their homes with paraffin heaters (‘Boom, boom, boom, boom – Esso Blue’) that caused house fires and condensation. I remember waking up on winter mornings with ice INSIDE the windows. Gas ovens that looked like a dieselpunk sculpture while grannies had cast iron ranges. Hardly anyone had a TV. Its no wonder James Bond was exotic.
    Eric Ambler wrote far superior stories to Fleming, more based in the real murky world of European espionage. Fleming turned to the sunnier climes of the Americas and the orient – or at least the movies did.
    While the US tried to ride on the back of Bond (Matt Helm et al) the UK got Callan and Harry Palmer.

    Fleming died before all the hype had begun but there were signs that he was already tired of his hero.
    The Saint predated Bond by 30 years and outlived him but nobody seems capable of doing anything with the character these days.

    Maybe it was all just a question of timing.

  7. Vivienne says:

    I really must check when the films were made against my reading the Bond books. I remember being caught with one I was reading under the desk at school during a Divinity lesson. I think a lot of people aspired for something better and I certainly wanted to know the codes of behaviour of gentlemen’s clubs, even though I was female. I love Ambler now but then, early 60s, he seemed to belong to an earlier era as my Dad liked him.

  8. Ken Mann says:

    Peter – There is a pilot for a new Saint starring Adam Rayner as Simon Templar. Roger Moore and Ian Ogilvy both cameo. I’ve no idea what its like

  9. Jan says:

    That theme of the reader being admitted into a closed “clubbable men’s” world cropped up in some of your early work too Chris. I thought of you once or twice as the nose pressed up against the glass close but not quite close enough to a connected world you could see but not quite join. The novel where the guy chases through London after clues within a certain timeframe ends with the hero shifting up into a world of privilege It was a good story you were onto something there that was really interesting. A sort of detective story with a different slant the reader being included along with the hero in a slightly different way. Would be good if you could return to and improve upon that same theme. But I thought there was an element of wish fulfilment going on there. Same for us all I expect ….

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I’m really rethinking the whole concept of class. I used to think we didn’t really have classes, that the only difference was whether you had money or not. The more money you have the more privacy you can have, usually evidenced by a large house with plenty of yard around it and a sheltered entrance. People who have been raised in that environment begin to have assumptions of entitlement that definitely end with us and them attitudes. Boys are sent to St. Georges or Shawnigan Lake, not just for the education which appears to be very good, but also for the contacts to be made with other entitled people.
    People with money used to assume that it protected them from police or government investigation. That is no longer much the case and wealthy people seem to be trying to appear empathetic toward those in economic difficulties.
    Our prime minister, who is definitely in the wealth entitled class and inherited wealth at that, goes out of his way to appear as an ordinary citizen (he was a teacher, for goodness sake – in a private school) and to have an involvement with the citizenry.
    I was puzzled by the gated gardens and parks in London. We have lots of neighbourhood parks, although not as many as London, but the idea of restricting them to the immediate neighbours would never occur here and the very idea of fencing them is odd. I sometimes think that England invented the idea of fencing because there are fences around everything: churches and their graveyards, parks, homes both small and large, and all institutions. I continue to think while I read Wild Chamber.

  11. Jan says:

    Class is still a massive thing in Britain Helen don’t be convinced otherwise. Theres a wholly separate class of people born to a different sense of entitlement within the UK. Not always with massive wealth but with different idea of their place within society. Funny I was having a conversation with an x armed forces ambulance driver on the way back from Exeter this afternoon and we both had worked for “gentlemen” in our previous employment and both agreed that working for members of the upper classes was a very different experience than working for a more ordinary boss. Thing was we decided it was no bad thing working for a person born with a different idea of his place in the,world with a diffferent understanding of his own entitlement and obligations. We both actually preferred it! Now that may seem mad in a 21st century Britain but its still there this unshakable, unmoveable and at first largely unnoticeable class thing but it’s still with us. Maybe not in some businesses but in lots of areas of our national life , in the forces for example, class – specifically as a manifestation of old connected families -still really counts.

  12. Jan says:

    So the gated communities and restricted to moneyed locals garden squares of London which so puzzled you aren’t strictly a remnant of a bygone era Helen! In fact gated communities are a growing facet of modern day British developments. I could take you to villages in Somerset and Dorset with gated communities-not always the properties of ,2nd home owners by any means..

    We are a,strange little country H generous at one turn stupidly mean and petty at others. Look at the genuine grief the decision to leave the EEC caused. Not that this particular decision was fractured alongside traditional ideas of class or wealth. Or town and country folk it was a whole series of different splits.

    I watched Mr Trudeau (-son of Pierre Trudeau ? )explaining how his country embraced diversity and equality for all and he sounded great. Then I wondered if I was hearing the son of a prime minister with his dad’s job telling us how equal his nation was. Then I wondered how different Canada was from our nation.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Gated communities exist here, too, although not very many and generally just a small collection of homes or a couple of towers. I suppose fencing just the shared outdoor property is a little more open than fencing the whole works so a visitor has to declare themselves at a security gate. I think it’s calling it a park that sounds odd because a park seems by definition open to everyone, but that may be connotations rather than denotation.
    Yes, Justin is the ineffable Pierre Eliot’s son. He is, I think, a bit of an anomaly because when the Liberal party elected him as leader there were comments made about who does he think he is, just walking in and expecting to get the job with no real experience, but they elected him anyway. Part of their reasoning may well have been that the charisma the enveloped the father could well descend on the son and get them back into power (where the Liberals belong, you know). And lo! it was so, and the Liberals are back in after 10 years of Conservative government. There has been a backlash against the Canada 150 celebrations from the First Nations people who say that the celebrations should be for 15,000 years. (We’re only celebrating 150 years that the legal entity known first as the Dominion of Canada and now just as Canada has been in existence. That definition is thanks to a lawyer acquaintance) Everyone has been drawing attention to all the things we’ve done to those people and others ever since and really playing nice about land claims, drinking water and other problems that need correction. His speech was given with all that in mind, but our politicians do come from up and down the spectrum even though a few dollars in hand do oil the way up the ladder. We’ll soon see how much bottom he really has.

  14. Jan says:

    Thing that always gets me about Canada H is the sheer size of your country. When I couldn’t sleep with the bad teeth months ago I ended up watching a 4a.m. documentary about how a particular first nation homeland was suffering because the people had become addicted to a painkilling prescription drug that their particular physiology was very susceptible to. In the same way that many Japanese people are adversely affected by many western cold cure drugs. Well this first nation homeland was bigger than north Wales to us in this crowded little country that’s gob smacking. Just well… awesome would not be a bad term we have trouble getting our heads round that sort of space.

    I have been to Canada a couple of times near Toronto many years ago and from the Rockies through to Vancouver and Vancouver island a few years back. Thought it was great. The shopping centres and storage facilities built underground for when you got a bit of cold weather were eye openers. But the sheer scale and grandeur of the place. I tried to explain to Mr Fowler about the spiral rail tunnels but he accused me of taking on board too much gin + tonic as part of me trip.

    As you say Trudeau the younger will soon be tested to see what sort of leader he really is. In a sense Mr. Trump is a gift to him; as long as he’s half way reasonable and just he’s going to look pretty good to a world which feels both fear and distaste of his near neighbour.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, a friend was in Toronto some years ago and was asked by a clerk why the Rockies were always made to look so big, when they couldn’t possibly be. Yes, it’s huge (as Mr. T says). A friend wrote to his parents in London to say he had driven two hours, over a hundred miles, to get a haircut because there currently wasn’t a barber in Ashcroft. They couldn’t get their heads around that, either. He and Ken both had a beer before they started back.
    We should send Admin a diagram of the spiral tunnels, although that is difficult for the brain, too. I’ve stood at the lookout while Ken has explained to a tourist, who really had to see both ends of the train before he could take it in.
    If Mr. Trudeau (hmm, another Mr. T but different) can take a stance and stick to it people will follow him in spite of that very peculiar voice.

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