Saturday, 2 June 2012

James Bond's diamond jubilee

Across the length and breadth of the country, the UK is celebrating 60 years of Queen Elizabeth's reign with street parties, picnics and alcohol. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee reminds us of another significant event: James Bond was born in 1953, the year of Elizabeth's coronation, but was conceived in 1952, the year she acceded to the throne. Anthony Burgess called James Bond a new Elizabethan hero. How different was Bond's lifestyle from that of Fleming's readers?

We can get a sense of the difference from an interesting interactive guide on the BBC news website. Diamond Jubilee: You in '52 presents a series of lifestyle categories – work, music, fashion, food and housing – and invites us to select elements from a list under each category that best describe our current lives. In return, we see how different our lives may have been in the early 1950s. I did the test, and it was fun, but I thought it would be interesting to select the options that best fit James Bond's lifestyle in 1953.

Starting with fashion, I selected 'suit of office wear' out of smart casual, alternative, jeans and sportswear (I know Bond occasionally wears jeans, but a suit is more typical). 'A classic post-war suit could have been for you', the interactive guide told me. London gentlemen with means, it continued, adopted the neo-Edwardian look, with its single-breasted jacket, narrow trousers and velvet-collared overcoat. It doesn't quite match Bond's dark blue serge or worsted suit; there was no danger of Bond becoming a Teddy Boy.

What about music? I think Bond would select classical and opera – Bond is vaguely familiar with the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, and knows something of Wagner – though possibly easy listening is more his style, as he recognises ‘La Vie en Rose’ being played in the casino’s nightclub at Royale-les-Eaux. The BBC's interactive guide tells us that the hit parade of 1952 was dominated by the likes of Nat King Cole, classic Dixieland and bebop. This was more like Ian Fleming's kind of music; his 'desert island discs' included the Ink Spots and a jazz number.

For food, we're offered a choice of home-cooked British meals, foreign-inspired home-cooked meals, and takeaways. I've opted for a mixture of all three, as Bond ate English meals cooked by his housekeeper, May, and a range of foreign cuisine in hotel restaurants, which could count as takeaways. This must have seemed an unattainable luxury for most people in 1952, as continued rationing meant small portions of meat and lots of vegetables. Takeaways were limited to the occasional treat of fish and chips. That said, the interactive guide reveals that Mediterranean cooking was starting to become popular thanks to the books of Elizabeth David.

It was a little difficult to decide which category of work Bond fits into. In the end I chose 'Manager, administrator or professional in a senior role'. The interactive guide reminds us opportunities for senior or professional roles was limited in 1952, and most people would have been engaged in the manufacturing sector.

As for Bond's home, I've selected 'flat or maisonette', although being described as a newly-built flat in a tower block or a new maisonette, which replaced Victorian terraces and eased post-war housing shortages, this doesn't fit Bond's situation in a flat within a Regency house off the King's Road.

The picture one builds up of Bond, using the BBC's guide to early 1950s Britain, is a character removed from the everyday experiences of his readers. Bond's life is fantastic. He has the means to travel the world, dine on food rarely seen on Britons' dinner plates, and indulge in expensive material luxuries. No wonder Fleming's books were popular. As the saying goes, 'men want to be him, women want to be with him'. But given that Bond is still relatively young (mid 30s) in 1952/3, readers may have thought him a little old fashioned, at least in terms of his music and clothes. Ironically, though, it is these conservative tastes that have helped to give the novels a timeless quality.

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