Controversially, in his BBC 2 series tracing the development of key character types in English fiction, Sebastian Faulks’ placed James Bond in the category of snob, rather than hero. Bond’s heroic (or even anti-heroic) qualities, it seems, were of less interest to Faulks than Bond’s consumerism and awareness of brand-name products. In Faulks’ view, this makes Bond a snob because such materialism is driven by a desire to gain status through the recognition and admiration of others. This snobbery is different from the kind that leads to disdain and rejection of people regarded as socially inferior, and Bond is instead what Faulks terms a ‘connoisseur snob’. The charge is not a new one – Paul Johnson got there first in 1958, accusing Bond of having the ‘snob-cravings of a suburban adult’ – but is it true?
It is undeniable that Ian Fleming’s novels feature many brand-name products and that Bond is loyal to them. Faulks reminds us of a few – sea-island cotton shirts, Morland Special cigarettes, a supercharged Bentley – and to those we can add a Ronson lighter, Pinaud’s Elixir shampoo, a Chemex coffee maker, Tiptree’s Little Scarlet strawberry jam, to name but a few.
Some of these, like the cigarettes, were Fleming’s own brands of choice, which he simply gave to Bond, since the products were already familiar. Others Fleming chose for Bond to add a measure of reality in an otherwise fantastic world. As Fleming remarked, the use of products made the adventures seem more valid and truthful. Readers not only read about Bond, they could be him by using the same shampoo or consuming the same jam. If a few items were out of the ordinary reader’s reach (the Bentley notably), well that merely reflected the cultural environment in which Fleming lived.
We should be careful, however, not to exaggerate Bond’s dependency on branded goods, which remain in the background of his adventures, or confuse the literary Bond with the cinematic Bond, who is much more particular about the correct products. A staple of the films, the demonstration of arcane knowledge (‘I prefer the '53 myself’ (as opposed to a Dom Perignon '55)), never appears in the books. And the literary Bond recognises snobbery when he sees it – snobbery is, after all, the ‘hairy heel of Achilles’ that traps Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963).
In any case, an alternative interpretation can be offered: Bond is discerning. Products vary in quality. Bond has tried other brands but did not like them. He eats Little Scarlet jam because it is the tastiest, and he uses a Ronson lighter because it is the most reliable. Once the selection has been made, the trial-and-error process has been completed, and the use of the product is maintained by force of habit.
Is Bond a snob? Probably to no greater extent than most of us are. We have all settled on particular products and throw brand names about with no more meaning than to indicate a generic product. Bond is, as Fleming intended, one of us.