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.