Friday, 13 July 2018

It's time for a station break

Time for a station break (Tomorrow Never Dies)
After almost eight years, I've decided to hang up my metaphorical Walter PPK (or should that be put away my golden typewriter?) and call it a day with James Bond memes. In that time, I've somehow managed to publish a blog post on an aspect of James Bond almost every week. It's been a lot of fun and I've discovered stories, facts, and connections that demonstrate, if nothing else, that the cultural impact of Ian Fleming's creation is profound and far-reaching. James Bond is alive and well. I've also enjoyed reading the comments (well, most of them), and am grateful for the opportunities that the blog has given me to connect with fellow Bond enthusiasts and make life-long friendships.

While this will be my last post on James Bond memes, I won't be leaving the world of James Bond. I'll continue to write occasionally about James Bond for other outlets (check out my article on Ian Fleming and golf in the latest MI6 Confidential) and post on Twitter (@bondmemes). I also have an idea for another Bond-related blog that might see the light of day.

Though I'm taking a 'station break', James Bond memes will stay on the air, and so all my articles will remain available to read. If you'd like to get in touch, look me up on the 'contact information page'. So, in the immortal words of James Bond in Thunderball, 'See you later, alligator.'

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

James Bond: licensed to sell cleaning products

Harpic UK has turned to James Bond to help sell one of its products, Harpic Fresh Power 6, a toilet cleaner and freshener.

Its current television advert shows a man who immediately evokes James Bond by wearing a bow tie and a white dinner jacket and raising his arm and hand as if holding a gun.

From the latest Harpic Fresh Power 6 advert
‘You know how to press a button,’ the narrator says as the man pushes a doorbell. ‘You know how to keep your toilet clean.’ A toilet is flushed, and we see the power of Harpic Fresh demonstrated. Apparently, the toilet block boasts a cleaning foam, it removes dirt, it’s anti-limescale, it creates shine and freshness, and is long-lasting. All good Bondian qualities, I’m sure you’ll agree.

We return to the man in the dinner jacket, who blows across the top of his finger, as if blowing the smoke away from a gun that’s just been fired (symbolising, I imagine, the killing of germs and the power of the product), and he raises a satisfied smile and eyebrow.

The advert is short and sweet, but several traits or memes closely associated with James Bond are evident in the advert: the dinner suit (white in this case, presumably to convey the idea of cleanliness and freshness), the pose with the gun seen on many classic Bond posters, and the raised eyebrow commonly attributed to Roger Moore’s portrayal of Bond.

It’s not the first time that Bond memes have been used to sell cleaning products, and Harpic Fresh joins a long line of other products, among them Lenor fabric softener and Cillit Bang dirt remover.

Why Bond is so attractive to the makers of cleaning products is a matter of debate. If the adverts are aimed at women, who might be perceived as the main users of the products, the creators of the adverts presumably hope that women will respond positively to an image of a strong, sophisticated manly figure like Bond. Or possibly the depiction of a Bond-like figure is a way of encouraging men to do more of the housework. Alternatively, the advert subverts the image of Bond by poking gentle fun at the character and placing him in unfamiliar situations.

But maybe we shouldn’t overanalyse the adverts. It could be that Bond is simply (and is still) a cool character and any manufacturer that attaches its products to him has the advantage among its competitors.

Whatever the case, I’m sure the Harpic Fresh advert won’t be the last cleaning product campaign to recruit James Bond.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Finding Bond in the Imperial War Museum's Secret War exhibition

During a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, I made a bee-line for the fascinating Secret War exhibition, where I saw some of the gadgets, weapons and other tricks of the trade of covert operations, and read of the exploits of SOE agents, special forces, and Cold War spies.

Even in an exhibition of real-life agents, James Bond is never far away. Visitors entering the exhibition are met by a display that includes a poster of Casino Royale (2006), which is accompanied by the words, 'It's easy to mistake spy fiction for reality'. Turning the corner takes visitors to a short film, in which the real begins to be separated from the fictional; the video is soundtracked by music from the Bond films, and various images from the films appear on screen.
At the entrance to the Secret War exhibition
The exhibition displays gadgets – many designed for use in the Second World War – that are echoed in the Bond films and to a much lesser extent in the books (although the name of Q Branch may well owe something to the 'Q gadgets’ created for SOE agents by Charles Fraser-Smith). Ordinary items such as fountain pens, clothes brushes, razors, shoes and so on were used to conceal maps, secret messages, compasses, invisible ink, wire, tools and much more, and can be seen in the display cases.

Some of the everyday objects used for secret work in WW2

There is information too on Second World War agents who become famous for their remarkable wartime stories, among them Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas and Fitzroy Maclean, both of whom have been claimed as inspirations for James Bond.

There was one other aspect that had a vague Bond link. During the Cold War, agents resident in the USSR and elsewhere and preparing to spy for Britain were provided with recognition guides to the weapons, equipment and other strategic features of those territories. One handbook, for example, is called 'A pictorial guide to bridge recognition'. I was especially interested in two other handbooks on display. Both, in brown covers and ring-bound, are decorated with a silhouette of a gun. 

Looking at image on the handbook intended for agents in the Middle East, I was naturally reminded of the gun symbol that was used on the posters of the early Bond films and adapted for the Pan paperbacks published in 1962 and 1963.
Spy manual (left) and 007 logo from 1963

It seems highly unlikely that Joseph Caroff of United Artists, who had the idea for superimposing an image of a gun on the number 007, had seen the agents' handbooks, access to which was highly restricted. However, given that the handbooks were produced from the mid-1950s and into the 70s, it's not entirely impossible that the compilers of the handbooks were inspired by the posters. 

Whatever the case, the coincidence of practically the same device being used in relation to fictional and real-life spies is very pleasing.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Reflections on Forever and a Day

This piece contains spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, do so now!

I’ve just finished reading the latest James Bond novel, Forever and a Day, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Author Anthony Horowitz knows his Bond and his own love for the character comes through on every page. Anthony Horowitz has given us an exciting, fast-paced thriller that conjures up the world of Fleming’s Bond in rich detail. Original material by Ian Fleming helps, and for this novel, Horowitz has incorporated a treatment of a story called 'Russian Roulette', set in the casino of Monte Carlo. Such is the skill of Horowitz that without reference to Fleming’s text, it is almost impossible to tell where Horowitz’s words stop and those of Fleming begin.

As was announced before publication, the novel is a prequel, taking us to events before Casino Royale. We find out how James Bond earned his licence to kill and was inducted into the double-0 section and learn about the origin of some of the traits for which he has become familiar. Bond’s principal mission is to investigate the death of his predecessor, from whom Bond has assumed the 007 code. Bond’s investigation takes him to the French Riviera and the criminal underbelly of Marseille. There he meets Jean-Paul Scipio, an enormous, corpulent gangster, the mysterious Madame Sixtine, an expert blackjack player with ambiguous loyalties, Reade Griffith, a CIA agent (not Felix Leiter), and a wealthy American businessman called Irwin Wolfe, who is used to getting what he wants.

The basis of the plot is heroin, and this is good solid Fleming territory. He did like his crime-based plots, and he had an involvement in the film The Poppy Is Also A Flower, which revolves around opium smuggling. 

The book is a page-turner. Perhaps in places it Is too rapid a read. Some of the tight spots in which Bond finds himself (the chapter 'The Acid Test' is a nail-biter) are resolved quickly. I would also have welcomed more Fleming-style digressions. 

Anthony Horowitz gives Bond fans several Easter eggs, and it is fun to spot these. And some of the cultural nods appear to go beyond Bond. In the chapter ‘Bad Medicine’, Sixtine bleeds Bond to remove the heroin from his blood. ‘All she wanted was the contents of one arm’; a reference, perhaps, to the classic Hancock’s Half Hour episode, ‘The Blood Donor’ (‘A pint? That’s very nearly an armful!’)? The villains’ plot itself could be viewed as one massive Easter egg. Wolfe explains:
‘What I am providing might be called the greatest loss-leader of all time. Although I have paid Scipio a fair market price for his product [heroin], I am going to pretty much give it away… I intend to create a nation [in this case the USA] of heroin-addicts, Mr Bond, a million future customers for Mr Scipio. ’
Reading this, it’s inevitable that those familiar with the films will think of Live and Let Die. The plot is more or less identical to Mr Big’s. Come to think of it, Forever and a Day has a literal Mr Big in the character of Scipio. 

There’s one aspect that bothers me. Throughout the book, James Bond is referred to as an assassin or is described in terms that equate to the role of an assassin. As I’ve argued before, I think this is a misreading of the character. Bond’s licence to kill doesn’t make him an assassin; it is a recognition that he has had to kill in cold blood in the course of his duties. A subtle difference, perhaps, but a difference nonetheless. Killing isn’t Bond’s primary role. In any case, we're told in Goldfinger that Bond doesn't like killing people, but when he has to do it, he does so out of duty and his sense of professionalism. Not quite the ideal candidate for the role of assassin. At M’s briefings, Bond isn’t given a photograph of a target and told to kill him or her. True, in the short story, ‘For Your Eyes Only’, M sends Bond effectively on a private mission to kill the killers of the Havelocks, friends of M. This is a difficult decision for M, and he doesn’t like making it, which underlines the rarity of such an order. It’s a little disturbing, then, returning to Forever and a Day, M appears to have few scruples when he sanctions a kill at the end of the book (the denouement is terrific, incidentally).

I won’t say much about how Bond discovers Morland cigarettes or martinis shaken, not stirred, but I’m not entirely convinced by the explanations, and would have preferred these to have already been established. After all, the debate about whether martinis should be shaken, not stirred is one that has been raging at least since 1948. It's more plausible that Bond would have been aware of the debate and formed an opinion of his own.

I love the descriptions of the food in the novel. Anthony Horowitz strikes the perfect balance. Readers expect Bond to consume copious amounts of eggs, among other things, but it can be overdone, pushing the descriptions into pastiche. Horowitz, however, has got it right. That said, I would question the unsalted butter, and where was the bouillabaisse, the regional speciality mentioned in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?

But I’m being pedantic. Forever and a Day is a wonderful Bond novel and, along with its predecessor, Trigger Mortis, the closest thing we have to a new Ian Fleming book. With three more Fleming treatments left, I really hope Anthony Horowitz is asked to pick up his fountain pen again and go for the hat-trick. Where else can Bond go? My suggestion, for what it’s worth, is to look at the allusions to adventures in the novels that have never been expanded – the missions between the missions. Or how about a war-time adventure? Anthony, over to you!

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Babchenko plot - a case of events imitating Bond film?

In dramatic style, the assassination of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was revealed to have been staged by the Ukrainian authorities (apparently with the involvement of the security services) when Mr Babchenko emerged live and well at a press conference the day after his death had been announced in the media. We heard that the plan was designed to foil a real attempt on his life by Russian agents.  

Reading about the events, I couldn’t help thinking about James Bond and wondering if life was imitating art. In the film of You Only Live Twice, the Secret Service pretends to kill Bond, whose ‘death’ is subsequently announced in the press, in order to trick his enemies into thinking that he’s dead. 

Then, in The Living Daylights, James Bond stages the fake death of KGB spy chief General Pushkin, shooting him with blanks in an auditorium. The plan is to make Brad Whitaker and General Koskov think Pushkin dead and allow Bond to get to the bottom of their plot. And, in apparently shooting him, Bond also saves Pushkin’s life, as Pushkin was about to be killed by henchman Necros.

As soon as I heard the news about Mr Babchenko, I tweeted a couple of images from The Living Daylights to make the connection between the events and Bond, and judging by the newspaper headlines the next day, the UK press also made the link. 

The story was front-page news in The Sun, which featured the headline, ‘You Only Live Twice’. The Daily Star used the same headline on its front-page, and in a short column beside the headline, described the events as ‘Bond-style’. There was a second Bond-inspired headline was inside the paper: ‘I think I’ll die another day’. The words ‘You only live twice’ appeared inside the Daily Mail. These Bond-related headlines and descriptions appealed to the BBC News website, which highlighted them in its daily newspaper roundup.

The Bond films are of course fantastic in more ways than one, but events like the fake assassination in Ukraine suggest that the plots aren’t necessarily so far-fetched (or else the films have inspired real-life intelligence agencies). The headlines demonstrate that Bond-film titles – memes that can used without reference to Bond – continue to inspire newspaper editors.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Bond at Bletchley Park - a report

Inside Hut 12 at Bletchley Park
I was lucky enough to have been at Bletchley Park yesterday to attend a special press view of the new exhibition of artwork inspired by the James Bond novels: 'Bond at Bletchley Park: Illustrations and Inspirations'. The exhibition, which also explores Ian Fleming's connection to the World War Two codebreaking centre, was opened by Anthony Horowitz, who spoke about his introduction to James Bond, his interest in the wartime work at Bletchley, and his latest Bond novel, Forever and a Day

Click here to read my report on the event on the James Bond Dossier website.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Does James Bond eat Jell-O? Historical menu collection provides food for thought

Can the James Bond novels be used as historical documents, a reliable source of information on people, places, and events? Almost certainly, given Ian Fleming’s journalistic background and his determination to get factual details right. Take the food represented in the novels as an example. I was recently alerted to the existence of ‘What’s on the Menu’, an online collection of historical menus, largely of American restaurants, hosted by the New York Public Library (NYPL). One can search by restaurant, meal or food type, and decade or year, and even download the entire dataset. Browsing through the vast collection, it’s clear that the meals Bond eats or considers during his American adventures accurately reflect what was served and consumed at the time.
Cover of 1958 menu from Voisin. Image: NYPL 'What's on the Menu' collection

For instance, in Diamonds are Forever (1956), we read that Bond has a meal of two vodka martinis, Oeufs Benedict and strawberries at Voisin’s in New York. One of the menus available in the NYPL collection is a lunchtime menu from Voisin’s (closed Mondays) dating to 1958. The menu doesn’t offer eggs Benedict as such, but it does list Oeuf Poch√© √† la Reine (priced at $2.50). Berries in season with cream (presumably including strawberries if available) are also listed and would have cost Bond $1.75. The menu doesn’t show drinks, but a martini from the Hotel Astor (where Bond stays in Diamonds are Forever) cost 90 cents. 

I’ve tended to think of Bond’s choice of camembert, which Bond orders on the train to Jacksonville in Live and Let Die (1954), as being somewhat incongruous. However, browsing through contemporary menus, it’s clear that the cheese was a standard option in American restaurants. Bond regards domestic camembert as ‘one of the most welcome surprises on American menus.’ It was a surprise to me too: from low-price diners to fancy restaurants, it seems that there aren’t many restaurants where it wasn’t available. 

Another curiosity for me is the fact that the only meals for which prices are given in the Bond books are chicken dinners. At Sugar Ray’s in New York in Live and Let Die, Bond notes that the special fried chicken dinner cost $3.75. In an eatery near his hotel in Saratoga Springs in Diamonds are Forever, Bond orders a chicken dinner for $2.80. Looking through the menus, the prices are pretty accurate, although Sugar Ray’s appears to be on the pricier side. Perhaps its special was something very special.  

For contemporary British readers, a chicken dinner would have conjured up images of roast chicken served with roast potatoes, stuffing and vegetables and smothered in gravy, and was what people could win at village fetes and association raffles. Something approaching an English-style roast dinner was of course available in America. A menu dated to 1958 from Chickland, a chicken restaurant based in Massachusetts, lists among its many items a ‘roast turkey dinner’, comprising turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy. But, as we know from Sugar Ray’s, a chicken dinner could also involve fried chicken. Chickland naturally also served several fried chicken specials, such as the ‘General Lee Special’, comprising southern fried chicken, French fired potatoes and, to follow, ice-cream and coffee, all for $2.50. The celebrated Knotts Berry Farm restaurant in California offered a fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, as well as a pudding and drink, for $2.25 in 1956 [menu not in the collection].
Cover of 1958 menu from Chickland restaurant. Image: NYPL 'What's on the Menu' collection

Interestingly, Bond declines another opportunity to have fried chicken. He rejects the chicken ‘French fried to a golden brown, served disjointed’, listed on the menu on the train to Jacksonville, as ‘eyewash’.

Puddings served with chicken dinners, incidentally, could include fruit pie, ice-cream, a hot biscuit or Jell-O. I wonder which one Bond had with his chicken dinner in Saratoga Springs. (My bet’s on ice-cream.)   

The NYPL’s ‘What’s on the Menu’ collection is a treasure trove of information on dining and food culture mainly in the US from the 19th century to the present day. For the Bond aficionado, the resource provides useful background and context to Bond’s American adventures. The collection isn’t comprehensive; so far, the collection does not include many restaurants and hotels that Bond frequents and even fewer menus from those establishments that date to the year of publication. However, there is more than enough information from contemporaneous menus to show that Bond’s food choices (probably based on Fleming’s own experiences) accurately reflect the cultural environment around him. Time to go back to the online resource for a second helping!