Sunday, 26 June 2016

Who founded the first James Bond club?

As I prepared my paper for the Spies on British Screens conference, which took place in Plymouth last weekend (more about that event soon), I reminded myself about what must have been one of earliest James Bond clubs to have been founded. What's more, I discovered that its founders were later to become eminent in the world of British politics. 

In my paper, I discussed some of the Bondian words and phrases, such as ‘Bond, James Bond’, ‘shaken, not stirred’, and 'Bond girls', that have become part of everyday lexicon, used and adapted in contexts away from the specific world of Bond. I traced their evolution and usage, and examined why these terms have become so successful; that is, long-lasting and widespread.

I've written about the origin of the word 'Bond girl' before on this blog, and so already knew that one of the earliest appearances of the term is in the Daily Express, published 1st February 1963. Curiously, the term didn't refer to James Bond's female companion in either Fleming's novels or the film of Dr No (the second Bond film, From Russia With Love, had yet to be released when the article was published), but was used as a shorthand term within a headline of an article.

In the article, 'Perfect Bond Girl', Express columnist William Hickey described how Oxford University student, Joanna Hare, had been voted Oxford University's nearest answer to the type of woman that James Bond meets by members of the university's newly formed James Bond club. William Hickey continued that members of the James Bond club were dedicated fans of the Bond novels and pledged to live up to the standards of living and behaviour of their literary hero.

Looking up the article to remind myself of the details, I was surprised to discover the identities of the club's founder members: Mark Lennox-Boyd, who would become a Conservative member of parliament, serving in Margaret Thatcher's, then John Major's governments, and Jonathan Aitken, who served in John Major's cabinet as Minister of State for Defence Procurement in 1992 and was later jailed for perjury following a scandal about a stay in the Paris Ritz. During his time in prison, he turned to Christianity, and has since become a Christian writer.

What of (possibly) the first Bond girl, Joanna Hare? She's the daughter of Conservative politician John Hare (1st Viscount Blakenham), who at the time that the article written was serving as Minister of Labour in Harold Macmillan's cabinet. In 1967, the Hon. Joanna Hare married Stephen Breyer, who is now an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

If you look up Jonathan Aitken and Mark Lennox-Boyd on Wikipedia, you won't find any mention of their Bond fandom and the setting up of the James Bond club. As Marc-Ange Draco from On Her Majesty's Secret Service might have said, Wikipedia's dossier on them is not entirely complete.

There is a footnote to this story. In the following day's Express, William Hickey reported that five undergraduates at Oxford University had formed a university section of SMERSH in response to the creation of the James Bond club. How serious this rival group was is uncertain, but the incident suggests that the university's James Bond fans were motivated in their activities by the books, rather than the first Bond film, Dr No, which had pitted Bond against SPECTRE (although SMERSH is mentioned in the film).

Monday, 20 June 2016

James Bond memes in the Accidental Secret Agent

Watch out, Young Bond. There's a rival in town. The name's Twigg, Kevin Twigg, the teenage hero of The Accidental Secret Agent, by Tom McLaughlin. The book, recently published by Oxford University Press, is a comic tale of schoolboy fantasy, reluctant spies, dastardly plots and villainous characters. And as expected, it is full of James Bond references.

The story introduces us to Kevin, a thirteen-year-old who craves excitement and has daydreams about being a spy. Kevin gets his chance when he meets a spy, who happens to looks exactly like him. The spy yearns for the quiet life, and the two swap places. Kevin is taken for the real spy when he enters the portals of MI7, and is tasked with rescuing top scientist Dr Brainiov, who MI7 suspected has been kidnapped by the sinister Mr Snelly.

The nods to James Bond come thick and fast. The cover uses the gunbarrel motif. A bottle of cola is shaken, not stirred, and Kevin has a 'licence to get all up in your face'. Kevin's ambition is to own the ultimate mobile phone, the MiPhone 25, which would make him feel like James Bond. He also reveals that he 'watched the latest James Bond film last night'.

Kevin's secret agent doppelgänger is called Jake Pond and has the code number 006 and a half. And Jake Pond's father, we're told, has three nipples, obviously recalling Scaramanga.

At MI7 headquarters, Kevin, posing as Jake Pond, witnesses spies at work, monitoring communications and receiving training in martial arts (the latter possibly being another allusion to the film of The Man With The Golden Gun). The M figure is called P, and the gadget master is called T.

Inevitably, Kevin is issued with gadgets – a tracking device, a TV watch and a mobile phone. (The running joke about the phone, incidentally, reminded me of something Young Bond author Steve Cole said during his talk at the Whitstable Literary Festival, that the most useful gadget a spy could have today is an ordinary mobile phone.)      

The book includes several plays on the 'Bond, James Bond' line, and during the course of his mission, Kevin gets to don a dinner suit when visiting a casino. And in the best traditions of Bond, there are Bond girls – the mysterious Alesha and the Kevin's reluctant sidekick, his sister Elle.

The Accidental Secret Agent is a fun read, with plenty in it for the Bond fan to enjoy. The book joins the growing list of children's books, some of which I described in an earlier post, that reference James Bond. Such books demonstrate how James Bond remains relevant across generations, and help to introduce some of the essential ideas or memes of Bond to younger readers.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The obituaries of Commander James Bond

Last week's Times featured the obituary of one Commander James Bond. Like many people called James Bond, the Australian naval officer frequently had to deal with jokes and bemused reactions when giving his name, but it seems he was happy to go along with them. Indeed, his name brought him invitations to film premières, offers of martinis shaken, not stirred, and requests for autographs.

Commander Bond's experience mirrors that of the original James Bond, the ornithologist whose name Ian Fleming borrowed for his fictional secret agent. In her book, How 007 Got His Name (Collins, 1966), Mary Wickham Bond, wife of James Bond, wrote how airport customs officials would playfully ask James Bond (the ornithologist) whether he was carrying any firearms, or would fast-track him through customs – the sort of 'red carpet' treatment the fictional Bond enjoys at the start of the novel of Live and Let Die.

Anyone called James Bond no doubt has similar stories (a topic explored in Mattt Bowyer's documentary, The Other Fellow). To what extent Commander Bond's experiences differed from those of other James Bonds because of his rank, which is as much part of the fictional spy's identity as his name, is an interesting question and worth exploring.

What also interests me about Commander Bond's obituary is that the headline is so familiar. It is, after all, the fourth time we've seen it in print and on the screen.

The fictional Bond's obituary in the book of You Only Live Twice (published, of course, in the Times) reads 'Commander James Bond', as it does in the films Tomorrow Never Dies and Skyfall. In the film of You Only Live Twice, the 'death' of James Bond is presented as a newspaper story, rather than an obituary, but in common with the obituary of the real Commander James Bond, the fictional Bond is wearing his naval uniform.

Friday, 3 June 2016

How would James Bond vote in the EU referendum?

An article in The Times this week reported on a YouGov survey, which polled 1,700 adults about how they thought fictional characters would vote in the upcoming EU referendum. The results suggested that the respondents projected their own voting intentions on the characters. Thus, in the case of James Bond, those in the leave camp imagined Bond would vote for the UK to leave the EU, while those in the remain camp thought that he'd vote to stay in.

So, with this unclear picture in mind, just how would James Bond vote? Well, it depends which Bond we're talking about. The literary Bond might well vote for the UK to leave. After all, he's deeply patriotic and is quick to defend the county against any criticism.

For instance, in You Only Live Twice (or is that EU Only Live Twice? as one reader of the Times article put it), Bond is stung by Tiger Tanaka's accusations that England has thrown away a great empire, that Suez was a pitiful bungle, that successive governments have handed control to the unions, and that England is generally declining in fortune. Bond counters, somewhat lamely, that England isn't doing too badly and that it still beats people in sports and wins Nobel prizes.

Bond hears a similar case in 'The Hildebrand Rarity', when boorish American Milton Krest tells Bond that England is a diminishing asset in the world, though he responds simply that he thinks Krest's view oversimplified and naïve.

Evidently, Bond considers that the UK (or, rather, England) still has what it takes to stand on its own. On the other hand, with his Scottish ancestry, proudly claimed in The Man with the Golden Gun, Bond might ally himself with majority opinion in Scotland, which appears to favour a remain vote.

The film Bond might lean towards a leave vote ('So does England', says Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me in response to the Log Cabin Girl telling him that she needs him). But then again, today's Bond is not so much a lone wolf, as part of team that increasingly depends on intelligence and cooperation from different agencies. Bond might view Brexit as a threat to those arrangements. No more Monsieur Aubergine. 

That said, spy chiefs appear to be sanguine about the impact of leaving the EU, given that the EU has been less important in intelligence matters than the 'Five Eyes' alliance of the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Former MI6 chief David Dearlove has suggested that the cost to Britain in the case of Brexit would be low, while former CIA director Michael Hayden has said that the EU was not 'a natural contributor to national security'. These are opinions that one can imagine Bond sharing. But, as the Guardian's Ewen MacAskill suggests, the need for cooperation and intelligence-sharing across the EU is only likely to increase. 

So, if you want to know how to vote, don't ask Bond. He's as confused as the rest of us.  

Sunday, 29 May 2016

A birthday to remember

Ian Fleming's birthday was celebrated in fine style yesterday with a walk, organised by Maxus Movie Walks and, around Fleming's haunts in the City of London, culminating with drinks opposite the site of his writing office in Mitre Court.

The group of eager Fleming and Bond fans assembled in the heart of the City on the steps of the Royal Exchange. After directing our attention to the Bank of England, which Bond visits in the novel Goldfinger to be briefed about the gold business, Jon Pettigrew of Maxus Movie Walks took us to the Reuters statue, near the site of the Reuters building, where Fleming worked between 1931 and 1932 and developed his journalistic – and writing – skills. We then headed into the side streets of the City, stopping outside, appropriately enough, the Jamaica Wine House. We don't know whether Fleming visited the place, but it's likely that he frequented many of the bars and restaurants in the City.
The Reuters monument
Our next principal stop was 10 Throgmorton Avenue, the location of merchant bankers Cull & Co, for whom Fleming worked between 1933 and 1935, and we learnt more of the fascinating history of the bank and Fleming's role there from Thomas Cull of, the great grandson of the bank's founder.
Outside Cull & Co
Goldfinger cropped up again when we stopped outside Goldsmiths' Hall. It was here Fleming researched aspects of the novel. We then moved on to Printing House Square, the former home of the Sunday Times, where Fleming worked in various roles from 1957 until his death in 1964. After that, the group arrived at Fleet Street, stopping briefly at St Bride's Church ('the journalists' cathedral'), opposite which stood the former headquarters of the Express newspaper, which famously published comic-strip adaptations and serialisations of the Bond novels.
View towards Printing House Square
Finally, the group headed into Mitre Court, where Ian Fleming himself was waiting for us. Actually, it was the actor Michael Chance, who, fresh from his one-man show, The Man with the Golden Pen, gave us a brilliant performance as Ian Fleming. The effect was just as compelling and not a little uncanny.
Michael Chance as Ian Fleming
There were more treats in store – a glass of Prosecco at the Apex Hotel Bar and the chance to meet Sophie Harley, designer of the jewellery that featured in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Glass in hand, we sang happy birthday to Ian (badly, in my case) before getting down to the serious business of talking Bond and Fleming with fellow aficionados over a few more drinks. (Yes, I did have a couple of gin martinis, alas both stirred, not shaken). I was enjoying myself so much, that before I knew it, it had gone 10pm, and it was time to catch my train home.

This was a superb evening. and Maxus Movie Walks did a fantastic job organising the event. Not only did I learn more of Fleming-related locations (we visited more than I've mentioned here), but I also learnt much more about the history of the City of London, about which Jon Pettigrew's knowledge was encyclopedic. I was thrilled, too, to meet Trevor Scobie, cover artist of three of John Gardner's Bond novels, and several members of the 'Bond community', whose books, websites and social media feeds are my regular haunts. Same again next year?

Friday, 20 May 2016

Some possible influences in Steve Cole's Heads You Die

(This post contains mild spoilers)

The latest Young Bond adventure, the second by Steve Cole, is now out. Heads You Die, set in 1934, takes the fourteen-year old James to Cuba, where his plans to relax after having a gruelling time of it in Hollywood are quickly scuppered.

After arriving in Havana with his school friend Hugo, James is met by Gerald Hardiman, a family friend. But things aren't quite what they seem, as James encounters pickpockets, a suspicious and tough girl called Jagua, and a man with a concrete fist, and learns that his friend is involved in a terrifying plot that threatens the world.

As usual when reading a Young Bond or continuation novel, there's fun to be had in spotting influences from Ian Fleming's novels and, indeed, the Bond films, or at least speculating on potential links. And Heads You Die appears to have its fair share.

Steve Cole has confirmed that he was inspired by the short story, 'The Hildebrand Rarity', whose influence is evident in the descriptions of James diving off the Cuban coast and character names of Valentine and Lana Barbey. More generally, diving and the sea feature often in the Bond books, and Steve Cole was keen to be the author to introduce James to it.

There are other nods to the Bond books. Take the villain's name. Scolopendra has a familiar ring to it, sounding rather like Scaramanga, Bond's adversary in The Man with the Golden Gun. It's also taken from the scientific name of the giant centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, a creature which shares Bond's bed in Dr No. In the film of Dr No, the centipede was replaced by a tarantula, presumably because the spider was thought more terrifying. In Heads You Die, James has another close encounter with a tarantula, which, as in the film, crawls up his arm.

At another point in the book, James thinks back to holidays at the seaside, recalling the feel of wet sand between the toes, collecting seashells, going rockpooling, and eating Cadbury's Flakes. The passage largely replicates the adult Bond's memories in the opening chapter of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Then there's a reference to A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies by the real James Bond. The young Bond comes across the book (or rather a typescript – the book wouldn't be published until 1936) in Jagua's room.

I thought a description of Scolopendra's lair, with its collection of exotic plants and wildlife not native to Cuba, somewhat reminiscent of Blofeld's 'Garden of Death' in You Only Live Twice, while Scolopendra's right-hand man, El Puño or the Fist, is a graduate of the Jaws' school of henchmen. 

We are introduced to some of James' essential character traits, with frequent reference to St George (it's an allusion that Fleming made, and the concept of Bond as a St George figure is a favourite point of discussion in academic or literary studies) and luck, about which Bond often muses in Fleming's novels. Steve Cole also gives James what may be his first taste of an avocado, although in a club sandwich, rather than served as a dessert (Bond's unusual means of eating the fruit in Casino Royale).

Heads You Die is an exciting read that is packed full of Bondian thrills. As usual, though, I do feel rather anxious for James. Given all he's been through over the years, it's a wonder he doesn't shut himself in his bedroom at his aunt's house at Pett Bottom and refuse ever to come out. Still, I'm looking forward to the next instalment - Strike Lightning, which is out in the autumn.

Heads You Die by Steve Cole is published by Penguin

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Ian Fleming at the Whitstable Literary Festival

Ian Fleming's Kentish connections were celebrated yesterday evening at the Whitstable Literary Festival, which presented talks by Young Bond author Steve Cole, Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett, and historian Matthew Parker. The audience was also privileged to see Fleming's step-daughter, Fionn Morgan, in conversation with Andrew Lycett.

The festival coincided with the publication of the latest Young Bond adventure, Heads You Die, and so fittingly Steve Cole was on hand to discuss the book and the ideas behind it, and reveal some of the secrets of the next book. During a very entertaining hour, Steve Cole talked about the nature of spying and gadgets, and reminded the audience that the most useful gadget a spy could have today is the mobile phone. He also spoke about his research into diving, which in the 1930s was still an experimental and dangerous hobby, and naturally features prominently in the book.

Steve Cole revealed that his previous book, Shoot to Kill, was set in Hollywood because the book was the sixth Young Bond adventure, just as Dr No was the sixth (adult) Bond novel. And as Dr No was the first Bond film, Young Bond would go to Hollywood. So much for my theory that the story was inspired by the 1930s' California of Raymond Chandler, whose work Fleming admired enormously.

More excitingly, Steve Cole let the audience into a secret: the title of the next Young Bond novel, to be published in the autumn, will be Strike Lightning. A projected image of the temporary cover showed the use of a lightning flash symbol within the title. The symbol recalled Nazi imagery, giving us a hint that in the adventure, Bond will be encountering Nazis, as the Young Bond timeline draws ever closer to the start of the Second World War. Steve Cole also revealed that the Tatra – the ill-fated Czechoslovakian car of the 1930s and favourite of German officers – would feature in the book.

Later in the evening, Andrew Lycett spoke about Ian Fleming's life, his contradictory personality, his family background, his love affairs, his relationship with Ann O'Neill, whom Fleming was to marry, and of course his creation of, and feelings towards, James Bond. We also heard about Fleming's connections with Kent. Noël Coward had cottages on the coast at St Margaret's Bay near Dover, which Ian and Ann rented to escape attention and gossip. Locations here would feature in Moonraker, and Fleming's journeys between London and the coast would be followed by Bond in Moonraker and Goldfinger. Ian and Ann subsequently had a house at Bekesbourne near Canterbury (a city which featured in Ian Fleming's children's book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and Ian was a frequent visitor to the Royal St George's Golf Club, which was immortalised in Goldfinger as Royal St Mark's.

Matthew Parker, author of Goldeneye: Where Bond was Born, spoke about Jamaica of the post-war years, the everything-goes attitude of the ex-pat and jet-set community, the deep divisions between the ruling white elite and the black population, the shocking racism, and the impact of independence in 1962. Matthew Parker also spoke about Fleming's love of nature, particularly birds and fish, and Fleming's affair with Blanche Blackwell.

The final event was an absolute treat: Andrew Lycett in conversation with Fionn Morgan, Ian Fleming's step-daughter. In a series of touching and crystal-clear recollections, Fionn spoke about her fondness for her step-father, Ian's melancholia, and about some of the many enjoyable times they spent together (they would, for example, often eat kippers and buttered brown bread together at Victoria station). Fionn fiercely defended Ian against the view that he had been a bad father to her step-brother, Caspar, and revealed that she had never read a Bond book (although she did attend a private showing of the film, Moonraker). Fionn also announced that she's working on a book charting the relationship between Ian and her mother, Ann, based on their letters. That will certainly be essential reading, and I cannot wait to see it.

Overall, the Fleming evening at the Whitstable Literary Festival was huge success, and left me (dare I say it) shaken and stirred. Now, where's my copy of Moonraker?