Sunday, 19 July 2015

Bond Strikes Camp - again

James Bond parodies – I'm thinking here exclusively of the short stories in magazines and newspapers – tend to explore similar themes. There are those that imagine Bond as an ageing spy, such as Alan Coren's 'Doctor No Will See You Now', which appeared in Punch in 1978, or 'The Scarlet Letter', which was written by Adrian Turner and was included in his 1998 book about Goldfinger.

Then there are the parodies that put the Bond of the 1950s and '60s in the modern world, among them 'For You Mr Bond It's PC Galore', which was published in the Sunday Times in 2006, and 'Martini's Old Hat, Mr Bond. Fancy a Bacardi Breezer?', a piece by Martin Samuel that appeared in the Daily Mail in 2012.

One of the best known parodies is 'Bond Strikes Camp', by Cyril Connelly. In the story, which first appeared in the London Magazine in 1963, M persuades Bond to dress in drag in order to effect a honey trap, but actually takes the role of the target so that he can be picked up by Bond. Another parody in the same camp, as it were, is 'The Spy who Minced in from the Cold' by Stanley Reynolds, which was published in Punch in 1975. The piece took as its starting point an assertion by historian A J P Taylor that Britain's best agents were specially-recruited homosexuals, and consequently re-imagined Bond – and M – as gay.

 
A page from Punch, 30th July 1975
Disregarding its stereotypical attitudes, the parody shares with most other parodies a number of standard Bondian tropes or memes. There is, for example, Bond's exactness about drinks. “Bond always stipulated Perrier” in his Americanos, and that Bond felt that “a Negroni with Gordon's was the only way to serve it.” (Neither in fact exaggerates Bond's fastidiousness, as both are taken direct from the pages of Fleming.) The story similarly pokes fun at Bond's (and Fleming's) attention to food, as we read about crayfish tails with rice and a cream and dill sauce, a foot of garlic sausage, boeuf Stroganoff, saddle of roebuck with a smitane sauce, and a poisoned Weisswurst (the last used by Bond to kill a Smersh agent).

Reynolds' story also parodies Fleming's use of brand names and detailed descriptions of clothing. Bond wears “Tricker's boots; 9½ A,” and “Egyptian cotton shirts”, while CIA agent Fanny Devine (obviously a nod to Pussy Galore) wears “hot pants, pre-shrunk blue denim with fashionably ragged edges, £7.99 at better boutiques everywhere.”

Then there are allusions to Bondian locations. The line, “St Germain, on the N184 near the junction of the N307 to St Nom and the D98 which Bond always took to avoid the heavy traffic on the Paris-Nantes and Versailles autoroutes,” evokes the French settings of Casino Royale, Goldfinger and 'From a View to a Kill', as well as Fleming's intimate, almost obsessive, knowledge about routes, while the exciting Swiss location and events of On Her Majesty's Secret Service are referenced by Bond recalling “the Gloria Express bob-run.” (This last reference shows just how rapidly snowy landscapes had become closely associated with James Bond, even after a single snow-set novel and film.)

The story ends with M threatening to remove Bond's licence to kill if Bond shows up at the Liza Minnelli Look Alike Contest with the same sort of rhinestone choker that M's planning on wearing. Despite its outdated viewpoints and descriptions, Stanley Reynolds' pastiche treads what would become well-worn ground, but also demonstrates the author's familiarity with the Bond novels. It is perhaps a measure of the success of the Bond novels and films that, forty years on, parodies are still being written and sending up the same tropes.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

More ideas in the Bond books that originated with Thrilling Cities

In a recent post I wrote about an idea or meme that emerged in a James Bond novel, in this case the phrase 'quantum of solace', and reappeared in Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities (1963). The process was more common in reverse. This is evident particularly with the chapter in Thrilling Cities on Tokyo, a city which provided Fleming with a wealth of material that would subsequently be used in You Only Live Twice (1964). But there are other examples.

In his chapter on Geneva, written in 1960, Ian Fleming describes the fields around Noël Coward's chalet in the Swiss Alps as being thick with flowers (it being summer and the time, Fleming notes, of the Narcissus Festival, which celebrates the flowering of the narcissus). In passing, Fleming wonders when an alp becomes a berg. It was a question, slightly modified, that he later gave to Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963). “What is the difference between a piz, and an alp and a berg?” he asks Irma Bunt. Not much, it seems, a piz being a local name for a peak, but an alp and berg both being used to describe mountains.

Then, in West Berlin, Ian Fleming enjoys a schnapps with a beer chaser known as Molle und Korn, or a 'boiler-maker and his assistant'. James Bond has the same combination (described as Molle mit Korn) when he's in Berlin ahead of his rendezvous with 'Trigger' in 'The Living Daylights', first published in 1962.


Oyster crackers, enjoyed both by Fleming and Bond
The short story '007 in New York' was originally published in 1963, three years after Ian Fleming's report on his visit to New York appeared in The Sunday Times. In that piece, Fleming claimed that creamed oyster stew, served at Grand Central Station with crackers and a Miller High Life beer, was the only dish that had maintained its integrity in New York. James Bond expresses similar views in the short story, musing about the “best meal in New York – oyster stew with cream, crackers, and Miller High Life” at Grand Central.

Anyone interested in the origins of ideas and memes in the later Bond books would not have to look very far in Thrilling Cities before finding them. Some of the experiences Fleming had while visiting cities around the world he would give to Bond. After all, the thrilling and intriguing aspects of Fleming's visits were natural material for Bond. But the experiences Fleming had, which he recorded with his journalist's eye, also give the Bond books a sense of reportage and reality that still make the books so compelling to read.

References

Fleming, I, 1963 Thrilling Cities, Cape
Gilbert, J, 2012 Ian Fleming: The Bibliography, Queen Anne Press

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Blofeld's cat in the Bond films and beyond

There's a moment in Spooks: The Greater Good when MI5 agent Will Holloway, played by Kit Harington, enters the house of a suspected villain and is confronted by a white cat. Will quips that they've got their man, alluding to the white cat associated with James Bond's arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Since making its first appearance in From Russia With Love (1963), Blofeld's cat (we never find out its name) has become a well-established meme in popular culture, eliciting recognition even without the appearance of Blofeld or Bond, and providing useful shorthand in television or film dramas for villainy, usually of the grand, international kind.

The Blofeld of Ian Fleming's novels does not own a cat. Goldfinger does, but his is ginger (as befits a man obsessed by gold), not white. Blofeld's cat was, then, an invention of the screenwriters of From Russia With Love, principally Richard Maibaum (although there is something of an older tradition of cats associated with villains; as @craigarthur_nz reminded me, the criminal mastermind Dr Nikola, created by Victorian novelist Guy Boothby, had a black cat named Apollyon). Given that we do not see his face, Blofeld was presumably given a cat to make the shots of his lower body and lap more interesting for the viewer (and dignified for the actor, in this case Anthony Dawson), but in so doing the screenwriters also created a visual symbol of Blofeld and, by extension, (renewed) a symbol of nefarious activity.

 
Blofeld's cat in From Russia With Love
The cat itself is a traditional Persian, a long-haired breed that accompanies all subsequent screen appearances of Blofeld, including For Your Eyes Only (1981) and Never Say Never Again (1983). With the hint that Blofeld will return in Spectre (2015), there is a chance that the cat will return too (will a white cat herald the presence of Blofeld before Blofeld is himself revealed?). If the makers of the forthcoming Bond film rely on recent representations of Blofeld's cat, however, we could be seeing a different breed.

The meme of Blofeld's cat has been imitated almost from the moment that the cat first appeared in the Bond films. For example, in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon (1973), a film that copies many traits of the Bond films, crime lord Han is seen carrying a white cat, apparently also a traditional Persian. In Austin Powers (1997), Blofeld-like character Dr Evil has a traditional Persian cat at the start of the film.

A more recent allusion to Blofeld's cat is in the film Cats & Dogs (2001), which features as its villain a white cat called Mr Tinkles. The cat instantly recalls Blofeld's cat and identifies the character as villainous, but curiously the breed is a modern Persian, not a traditional Persian of the Bond films, the difference being that the modern Persian has a flatter face.



It is this modern Persian that appears to have been depicted in The World According to Blofeld's Cat: Unofficial Musings from the Volcano Lair (Tumbleweed, 2015), an amusing book in which Blofeld's Cat offers the sort of provocative opinions about subjects as diverse as selfies, call centres, public transport and musicals that many of us are probably thinking but dare not say!

Whether the next incarnation of the screen Blofeld's cat is the modern, or the traditional Persian remains to be seen, but thanks to the success of the early Bond films and regular appearance in later, non-Bond films, the cat is likely to remain an important symbol of on-screen villainy for some yet.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Ian Fleming's alternative Quantum of Solace

What does Quantum of Solace mean? In Ian Fleming's story of that name, written in 1958 and published in For Your Eyes Only in 1960, the Governor of the Bahamas tells James Bond that relationships can survive many things, infidelity, money problems, criminal activities, and so on, so long as there was some degree of basic humanity between partners. He calls this the Law of the Quantum of Solace. If the humanity of one partner towards the other has gone, then there is no Quantum of Solace, or amount of comfort, and the relationship cannot survive.

Fleming was pleased with his phrase, and it appeared again in Thrilling Cities (1963). This time, however, Quantum of Solace had a different meaning.

In the late 1950s, Britain's high-earners were feeling the squeeze from the government's tax burden. In fact, the level of tax had been falling after the Second World War, only rising again during the 1970s (the top rate hitting 83% in latter part of the decade). But still, the level of tax in the late 1950s, particularly the top rate, was regarded as punitive.


Playwright and Ian Fleming's friend, Noël Coward, was among those who left the country to become tax exiles. Coward took up residence in Switzerland in 1958 at Les Avants, and in 1963 was looking to make a formal arrangements with the Swiss government with regard to his tax liabilities. “It will mean my financial life will be far less complicated,” he wrote in his diary in November that year.

Ian Fleming sympathised with Noël Coward's plight. When Fleming explored Geneva in the summer of 1960 as part of his Thrilling Cities tour for the Sunday Times, he visited his friend, and in his subsequent piece on the city, complained about the UK's tax regime that was driving the great and the good out of England.

 
Cover of first edition of Thrilling Cities (1963)
In the piece, Fleming proposed that tax relief be given to those who, through their artistic and creative endeavours, and as judged by an independent tribunal, have contributed in a significant way to the pleasure of the nation's citizens. Potential recipients of this tax relief might include actors, writers, musicians, sports people, and even politicians. The measure would encourage creativity and keep creative ability in the country.

Fleming called this proposed amendment to the tax laws “the Quantum of Solace Clause,” being, presumably, the amount of comfort that British artists and creative people give to their fellow citizens.

It is curious that just four months after his story 'Quantum of Solace' was published in book form, Fleming would mention the phrase again, but with a new meaning and without reference to its original use. Possibly he felt that his fine-sounding phrase deserved wider application, and so wished to dissociate it to a certain extent from his short story. Or possibly the use of the phrase was a subtle means of giving the original story – and For Your Eyes Only – a bit of publicity.

In any case, his piece on Geneva was not the first time that Ian Fleming had alluded to the perceived unfairness of the tax system. In his piece, 'If I were Prime Minister,' published in the Spectator in October 1959, Fleming attributed tax-dodging, expense accounts, and other “fiscal chicanery” to taxation, and called for, among other things, a reduction in income tax. Fifty-six years on, as politicians and commentators wrestle with the issue of tax avoidance, Ian Fleming's views continue to resonate.

References


Clark, T and Dilnot, A, nd, Long term trends in British taxation and spending, Institute for Fiscal Studies Briefing Note No. 25
Fleming, I, 1963 Thrilling Cities, Cape
Gilbert, J, 2012 Ian Fleming: The Bibliography, Queen Anne Press
Payn, G and Morley, S, 1998 The Noel Coward Diaries, Phoenix Giant

Friday, 19 June 2015

Two references to James Bond heard this week on Radio 4

This week, while listening to BBC Radio 4, I heard two references to James Bond. Neither was in what might be described as the conventional context for Bond references, but they revealed something about the continued cultural relevance of James Bond and perceptions of the 'James Bond lifestyle'.

The first came up in an interview broadcast on 15th June on PM, Radio 4's early evening current affairs programme presented by Eddie Mair. The subject being discussed
(about 10-15 minutes into the programme) was radicalisation, in particular how Islamic State was proving to be so seductive to some people in the West. Eddie Mair was speaking to an expert on radicalisation (Daniel someone – I couldn't quite catch his name), and asked what was it that IS was promising young men.

The answer was that, in IS's slick recruitment films and propaganda, men were promised a wage, up to four wives, cars, a home, and that they'd be at the top of society in a warrior class, with everything taken care of.

“A sort of James Bond lifestyle. You don't have to work for it,” Eddie Mair commented, to which Daniel responded, perhaps dubiously, “A little bit, yes, you could say that.”

Coincidentally, James Bond was mentioned in another discussion about radicalisation driven by IS, this time on 16th June on Radio 4's flagship news programme, Today (about 15 minutes before the end of the programme). Presenter Sarah Montague spoke to Jordanian cartoonist and social activist Suleiman Bakhit, who works to counter Islamic extremism – and the sort of propaganda peddled by IS – with online superhero comics.

Suleiman Bakhit spoke about how kids growing up in the region didn't have access to the sort of fictional heroes that children enjoy in the West, such as Harry Potter and characters from Frozen, instead identifying figures such as Bin Laden as their heroes. Interestingly, though, once those children were given comics and stories featuring fictional heroes, they soon forgot about Bin Laden and others as they engaged in the stories and created games about the characters.

Suleiman Bakhit talked about one of his own projects, which he's launching in September. It's a series of comic books featuring as its hero Element Zero, a commander of a special forces unit fighting extremism. “An Arabic James Bond,” he said.

I wondered whether the name of his character was inspired by Bond's code number, but a broader point is that having fictional heroes (including, dare I say it, James Bond) is a positive thing. Stories featuring inspiring and exciting characters, whether novels, picture books or comic books, get children reading and channel their energies in creative and safe ways.

The discussion on the Today programme also reminded me about Ian Fleming's heroes. He had a few, with many of them being war heroes, such as Nelson, Winston Churchill, and his own father. There is, of course, no comparison between Fleming's noble heroes and the figures that children in parts of the Middle East purport to follow. But it struck me that the nature of hero worship in the West has changed considerably since Fleming's day. In regions that are largely conflict free, and have been so for decades, war heroes have been replaced by sports heroes, TV and film stars, and fictional characters. Where there is conflict, children and others look to the prominent figures and participants in those regions. The cultural environment is, as ever, an important factor in determining who our heroes are.

Returning to the interview on PM, Eddie Mair's comment highlights the importance of James Bond as a cultural touchstone. But it also suggested that what defines the 'James Bond lifestyle' is changing as James Bond memes – the traits that are associated with Bond – become generalised and separate to some extent from the films and books. No longer just casinos, dinner suits, and Aston Martins, the James Bond lifestyle is relative and could encompass any situation where there are perceived to be elements of luxury, adventure, danger, and glamour.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Going underground - the buildings inspired by James Bond

Hampshire's Daily Echo reported the other week on a curious James Bond-inspired building project. The Plaza Theatre in Romsey dates to the 1930s, and so when it was time to refurbish the toilets, one of the theatre members looked for a design that was in-keeping with the period. He turned for inspiration to the London Underground scenes in Skyfall, which were thought to show contemporaneous elements to the structures.

While I'm not certain that any of the disused platforms, tunnels and escalators of Charing Cross tube station, which were used for Skyfall, or parts of other stations, such as Temple, which were used mainly for exterior shots, in fact date to the 1930s, it is interesting that the Bond films serve as a resource for design and history. Another example of this can be seen in a rather grander building project.

In 2008, while in conversation with Christopher Frayling to coincide with the publication of Ken Adam Designs the Movies: James Bond and Beyond, Sir Ken Adam, responsible for some of the most iconic sets seen in the Bond films, mentioned that renowned architect Sir Norman Foster took inspiration for his design of Canary Wharf underground station from Ken Adam's sets for The Spy Who Loved Me.

Looking at the underground station, the source of the inspiration seems clear. The main hall of the station contains elements that resemble the docking bay of the Liparus, Stromberg's submarine-swallowing supertanker. The central columns, the domed roof, and the black side panels of the station all find some equivalence in the design of the tanker.



But it is possible that Sir Norman Foster turned to another classic Ken Adam set. As users of Canary Wharf tube station exit the station via the escalators, they can look up at the glass and metal roof overhead. If you think you've seen that roof somewhere before, then you're probably thinking of the grille in Dr No's ante-room. There is a distinct similarity.


Regardless of whether it was indeed based on Bond-film sets, Canary Wharf is perhaps the most Bondian of tube stations. We have seen James Bond exploring the London Underground in two films – Skyfall, of course, and Die Another Day, in which the fictional tube station, Vauxhall Cross, was created based on Aldwych station. Given that Canary Wharf is an active and very busy station, it seem unlikely that it would appear in a Bond film, but should James Bond ever visit it, he might think it looks strangely familiar.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Reflections in a double sake - James Bond's Tokyo

Following a recent visit to Tokyo, guest blogger Radley Biddulph considers what James Bond might think of the city today, some 50 years after Bond's visit in You Only Live Twice (1964).
For James Bond, Tokyo is outside his comfort zone. And it shows. Exhausted on his arrival at Haneda airport, greeting the country with a well-chosen swear word and with a guide whose basic advice is that the Japanese "do everything the wrong way round", his solution is to head to a Ginza bar.

Even when he finally meets Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, he insists on a tumbler for his sake (instead of the “ridiculous thimbles” he has been drinking from) and insults his host by his poor knowledge of porcelain. You can almost see the eyebrow he no doubt has permanently and ironically raised during his visit to Japan as his coping mechanism. Having recently visited Tokyo myself, I wondered what Bond would make of the country now.


A bottle of sake
Tokyo is far more accessible now than it was when Bond saw the city, Japanese food is a lot more familiar to us now and many international and well-known companies are based there. And yet, there are still things in Tokyo that may surprise … and suddenly you realise that Tokyo remains different in a number of ways.

For a start, Bond would surely have a comment or two to make on the bathrooms; the lid rises automatically when you enter the toilet, the seat is heated, and they come with a complete wash, dry and deodorizer functionality. You can just imagine an amused Bond spending some time reading the instruction manual on the wall trying out all the options, and making a mental note to mention it to Dikko when they meet in the bar later that evening.

While at the bar (probably not in Ginza, which is now more of a shopping district, but instead at the bars and nightclubs of Shinjuku), he may give sake another go. But it is falling in popularity and he may instead stick to Asahi beer. Or more probably, he’d go with shochu, which is stronger than sake and may be more to Bond’s liking. He may even drink the local whisky. And he'd enjoy it this time. Despite Bond doubting that Japanese whisky would make a good foundation for anything, it now competes on equal terms with the world’s best. 

Some things never change, and Bond would be familiar with old haunts such as Hotel Okura, still there although a little old-fashioned with a 1960s feel. But given Bond’s preference to eat at station restaurants, I think he would love Tokyo Station, which hosts an underground city of bars and restaurants, including the famous Ramen Street.  

Getting to Fukuoka on his mission to the Castle of Death, Bond would, I am sure, be in awe of the shinkansen bullet trains, getting to his destination in little more than six hours. 

Would Bond be out of his depth were he to visit Tokyo now? I hope not. I like to think he would be less dismissive, and ready to take things much more in his stride.