The Man Who Saved Britain
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’.
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.