Sunday 19 December 2010

Christmas with Bond

How does James Bond celebrate Christmas? Ian Fleming’s novels contain few clues. Just one adventure – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – has events coinciding with the festive period. According to John Griswold’s chronological analysis of the novels, the events of The Man With the Golden Gun cover the period from November 1963 to February 1964, but there is a break in the narrative during December and most of January, and therefore no mention is made of Christmas.

The references in OHMSS suggest that Bond, when not engaged in a mission, has a fairly traditional Christmas Day. He berates his secretary, Mary Goodnight, for working, rather than spending the day stirring the plum pudding and going to church (Chapter 20). But while Bond is aware of these concepts as elements of the Christmas celebrations, Goodnight’s response – that the pudding is prepared months earlier and that it was the wrong time for church – highlights the possibility that Bond does not get too involved with the organisation of the festivities or does not habitually attend the Christmas services.

Bond has his Christmas meal at M’s house on the edge of Windsor Forest. M’s housekeeper, Mrs Hammond, serves turkey (presumably with seasonal vegetables), followed by plum pudding. M thinks the Christmas meal traditions to be ‘damned sentimental rubbish’ and almost has an apoplexy at the sight of crackers on the table. Bond’s view on the menu, and the crackers, is not recorded. In terms of drinks, Bond has a glass of Marsala and most of a bottle of bad Algerian wine, neither of which impressed him.

That is as far as the evidence from the novels takes us. However, as Ian Fleming gave so many of his own traits to Bond, it is reasonable to assume that the sort of celebrations Fleming had were also shared by Bond. The letters of Ann Fleming provide some information. Christmases were often spent at Shane’s Castle, Lord O’Neill’s home in Dublin. One year there, the Flemings and other guests played Scrabble, bridge and table-tennis. In another letter, we learn of the Stilton, tangerines and smoked salmon that the house guests ate. Ian Fleming’s drink of choice was vodka. Alternatively, Christmas was spent on the ski-slopes. Staying at St Moritz into the January, the Flemings saw in the new year at a table covered with crackers and paper hats.

So, for the perfect Bondian Christmas, take to the slopes, eat a traditional Christmas meal, washed down with vodka, and play Scrabble. Happy Christmas!

Amory, M (ed.), 1985 The letters of Ann Fleming, Collins Harvill, London

Griswold, J, 2006. Ian Fleming’s James Bond: annotations and chronologies for Ian Fleming’s Bond stories, Author House, Milton Keynes

Monday 13 December 2010

No sensayuma: humour in the James Bond books

As Tee-Hee points out, James Bond of Ian Fleming's novels has no sense of humour. But we do not have to take Mr Big's giggling henchman's word for it. The fact is confirmed by many commentators and people connected with the world of James Bond. For instance, Ben Macintyre (2008, 204) regarded the book Bond 'almost entirely devoid of humour...unlike his film counterpart'.
Roger Moore delivered some of the funniest lines in the film series
Indeed, the humour present in the films is considered to be a significant innovation in terms of the Bond character, and has been credited variously to Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkely Mather, the screenwriters of Dr No (1962) or Terence Young, the film's director. What's more, the screen Bond in turn influenced Fleming, who altered his Bond to something that more closely resembled Sean Connery's portrayal.

Admittedly, in Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, the humour is somewhat lacking, but in subsequent novels, the jokes are very much in evidence. Bond's humour, like his martini, is typically very dry. Facing Tee-Hee, Bond follows his aphorism, 'Those who deserve to die, die the death they deserve', with, 'Write that down. It's an original thought' (Live and Let Die, chapter 8). In Moonraker (chapter 25), when his secretary, Loelia Ponsonby, asks him how much of an emergency before she calls him for duty, Bond says, 'Any invitation to a quiet game of bridge'. And Bond tells Nash, who has him powerless at the point of a pistol, 'I'd like to know what it's all about. I can spare you half an hour' (From Russia, With Love, chapter 26).

Sometimes, the dry humour becomes wry and ironic with restrained mockery. When another of Mr Big's henchman shoves the muzzle of a gun into Bond's stomach, Bond tells him, 'You oughtn't to miss at that range' (Live and Let Die, chapter 6). In The Man with the Golden Gun (chapter 6), Scaramanga tells Bond that some people who hadn't heard of him are dead. Bond replies, 'A lot of people who haven't heard of me are dead'.

Of course, Bond is British, and what could be more British than saucy postcard humour? Tiffany Case flirtatiously tells Bond (Diamonds are Forever, chapter 9), 'If you don't like my peaches, why do you shake my tree', to which Bond replies, 'I haven't started to shake it yet. You won't let me get my arms round the trunk'. Cue a Sidney James cackle. And the exchange between Tatiana Romanova and Bond in his hotel room (From Russia, With Love, chapter 10), was virtually transferred verbatim to the film version: Tatiana – 'You must put something on. It upsets me'. Bond – 'You upset me just as much'. And later: Tatiana – 'I think my mouth is too big'. Bond – 'It's just the right size. For me, anyway'.

While it is true that Bond's witty quip after he dispatches a villain does seem to have been introduced in the films – in the novels, there are no groaners like, 'He was on his way to a funeral', or 'I think he got the point' (after being harpooned) – no one can claim that Bond lacks humour. But many do, and that is one false meme that has become very successful, being transmitted even by those very familiar with the novels.

Bond may have acquired a Scottish background after Connery first appeared as Bond (although this is hardly surprising, given Fleming's own Scottish roots), but there is no evidence that Bond gained a (different) sense of humour after 1962. Bond is his wittiest in You Only Live Twice, but none of his one-liners are delivered after Bond exercises his licence to kill.

Sunday 5 December 2010

The man who wouldn't be Bond

There is a lot of confusion about which actors were considered for the role of James Bond in Dr No (1962), even among those closest to the casting process. In his autobiography, When the snow melts (1999, Boxtree), Cubby Broccoli writes that James Fox was put forward for the Bond role, but declined 'because of strong religious scruples'. Correspondence with James Fox suggests that this was not the case.

I wrote to James Fox in 2006 and asked him about his brush with James Bond. His reply indicated that he had had no involvement with the film's producers in 1961 (casting took place between June and August that year). In fact, James Fox first met Broccoli in 1981, not 1961. This followed a period of a break in acting and (by Fox's own admission) 'terrible films'. Broccoli 'gave me a large Jack Daniels', James Fox recalls.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Bond meets his match - every time.

The release of a James Bond film is traditionally accompanied by huge press interest, promotion of featured products, magazine and TV specials, and the leading actress’ claim that her character is different from the Bond girls that preceded her – this time, she’s Bond’s equal.

With Quantum of Solace (2008) in the cinemas, Olga Kurylenko said of her character, Camille, ‘She very strong and independent, but at the same time vulnerable’. Eva Green thought that, in Casino Royale (2006), Vesper Lynd was ‘an equal match’ to Bond. Die Another Day’s (2002) Jinx, played by Halle Berry, was ‘very intelligent, she was Bond’s equal’. Denise Richards thought Dr Christmas Jones in The World is not Enough (1999) ‘very smart’ who ‘plays well off of (sic) Bond’. For Michelle Yeoh, starring in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), it was important that ‘Wai Lin was as intelligent as Bond’, and not ‘another of his side-kick floozies’. Izabella Scorupco’s Natalya Simonova in Goldeneye (1995) was ‘so intelligent’ and ‘without her Bond is not going to be able to accomplish his mission’.

Many claimed that the strong, intelligent woman appeared in the earlier films, too. Honor Blackman relished her role as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964). The academic Camille Paglia viewed the character as ‘one of the most commanding, authoritative women in popular culture of the time’. It was especially the physical aspects of the role that, like Cathy Gale, Blackman’s character in The Avengers, meant that she ‘fought like a man, fought better than a man’. Diana Rigg, playing Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), thought her character ‘much more dimensional than most of the other women who’ve ever been in the Bond pictures’. Lois Chiles regarded Holly Goodhead in Moonraker (1979) as being ‘capable of doing everything that Bond could do’. Octopussy, played by Maud Adams in 1983, was billed as Bond’s equal: ‘We’re two of a kind’, Octopussy tells Bond. In interviews, Adams stressed her character’s role as an adventurer, smuggler and businesswoman.

The implication of the emphasis that the principal actresses give to the intelligence, emotional and physical strength and resourcefulness of their characters is that the Bond girls before them were regarded as having none of those qualities. The previous-Bond-girls-were-bimbos meme has been very successful. It is widespread, being reproduced by the press and commentators wherever the films show. It is cyclical, being propagated with the release of each film and, because it carries the weight of the entire series, has greater survival value than the memes (the criticisms, reviews and quotations) accompanying each individual film, which generally last only the long as the film plays in the cinemas. And, without the need to refer to specific cases, the meme replicates faithfully.

But the meme also adapts well to the changing cultural or memetic environment. The notion of what constitutes equality between men and women now is different from that during the 1960s. The sexual revolution of the Sixties paved the way for improved opportunities for women in the Seventies. In the Eighties, concerns about HIV/AIDS influenced the way sexual relationships were depicted, and the Nineties onwards have brought, at least in most Western countries, full(er) equality in pay, opportunities, pensions, and law. The Bond girl character has reflected those changes, but yet the ‘the-previous-Bond-girls-were-bimbos’ meme survives.

Monday 22 November 2010

Was James Bond religious?

Recent years have brought a number of books and articles on Bond’s religious beliefs and the morality of his adventures. These include Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass by Benjamin Pratt and the paper, ‘Christian culture, morality and James Bond’ by Frank Smith. The authors tend to be religious themselves and seek to give Bond a Christian mission. A fair reading of Fleming’s novels, however, reveals no obvious religious belief.

What little evidence religious writers present to advance their case is at best ambiguous and at worst subject to biased interpretation. One passage central to the argument for a religious Bond is his discussion with RenĂ© Mathis in Casino Royale on the nature of good and evil. Bond says, ‘Now in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes...and we call them God and the Devil’ (Chapter 20). Benjamin Pratt refers to the passage, but describes God and the Devil as personifications of real presences, rather than what Fleming may have been implying – human inventions.

Then there is Bond’s feelings of revulsion after a rich meal with Mr Du Pont in Goldfinger, which Bond attributes to the ‘puritan’ in him (Chapter 2). The use of the word puritan is interesting, and Pratt cites its as evidence of Bond’s Calvinist beliefs. It could, of course, be nothing more than a figure of speech, coming to mean, more generally, someone who is strict in morals and looks upon kinds of pleasure as sinful. Given that Bond ‘takes ridiculous pleasure’ in his food and drink (Casino Royale, Chapter 8), the use of the word hardly identifies Bond as a fire-and-brimstone bible-thumper.

Ian Fleming suggested that Bond was a latter-day St George, slaying the dragon and rescuing the maiden. But to extrapolate from this, as some have done, that Fleming intended his novels to be modern parables for the Christian reader, is wishful thinking.

Fleming’s church attendance is not recorded in the various bibliographies or his correspondence to his wife Ann, suggesting that religion did not play a significant in his life, if at all. He admitted in a letter to a Reverend Leslie Paxton that he was ‘some kind of sub-species of a Christian’ (if Fleming is professing religious belief, then this is a strangely mealy-mouthed expression of it), but this follows Paxton’s sermon against James Bond. Fleming was curious about what had been said, and the admission could be little more than a friendly gesture. Much is made of Fleming’s Calvinist grandfather, Robert, but this alone is not enough to give Fleming – and Bond – a religious identity. If Fleming occasionally alludes to religious words and concepts, then their use is a product of his cultural environment and the ideas – the memes – he inherited from his parents and social network. Naturally, Bond gained a similar background.

That's not to say that Bond is not moral (his musings in Casino Royale show otherwise), but morals are not evidence for religious belief. If Bond is a Christian, then he is a cultural Christian. He may look forward to the carols in the church at Christmas, or hobnob with the vicar at a summer fĂȘte, but he’d only be reaching for his bible when he wants to retrieve the gun hidden in it.

Sunday 14 November 2010

The men who would be Bond - Ian Fleming's choice?

Ian Fleming’s Bond was ‘hard, ruthless, sardonic, fatalistic’; in short, ‘a bit of a bastard’. The producers of the Bond films felt that Fleming’s Bond was too much the English Gentleman. Cubby Broccoli found much to admire in Fleming’s work – the ‘virile, resourceful hero, exotic locations’, and the sophisticated sex – but Bond, for him, still a lacked a certain hardness. This view was not altogether unreasonable. After all, Fleming’s Bond does not slap women, unlike Marlowe, but feels protective towards them; he thinks about marrying Vesper Lynd, Gala Brand and Tiffany Case, and succeeds with Tracy di Vicenzo. So, Broccoli sought to give Bond ‘a coarser shading’ and more masculinity that downplayed the kinder, paternalistic aspects of the character.

Stories linking names with Fleming’s preferred choice, Richard Burton and James Mason, for instance, are largely apocryphal. Fleming’s own preferences for the actor to play Bond would appear to confirm the producers’ view that Fleming’s Bond was not tough enough. Fleming supposedly favoured David Niven or Roger Moore for the role. Niven in particular was well-known for playing upper-class, suave, charmers, and his post-war output up until 1961 had consisted largely of romantic comedies or melodramas. As Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Niven strayed into the world of the globe-trotting adventurer, but this was a rare excursion out of his usual sophisticated urban territory.

We must be careful, however, not to read too much into Fleming’s preference. Fleming was, after all, a friend of Niven’s, and his suggestion can be taken in the spirit of amiable duty. It did not necessarily reflect how he thought Bond should be played. It was in this sense of friendship that Fleming suggested Noel Coward for the role of Dr No, and gave starring roles alongside James Bond to many of his acquaintances in his novels. Indeed, David Niven appeared in the novel, You Only Live Twice, though as a cormorant belonging to Kissy Suzuki, one of the fisher folk of the Ama tribe. These were minor in-jokes that gave a knowing thrill to Fleming’s social circle. But these references demonstrate a generosity that would have put Niven at the forefront of Fleming’s mind for the role of James Bond.

Ian Fleming had other names in mind. According to his friend, Sir John Morgan, he admired Edward Underdown, a character actor usually seen in supporting roles. Underdown was born in 1908 and first appeared on the stage in 1932. Curiously, Fleming dismissed the possibility of Trevor Howard as Bond on the ground of age. This was despite Howard being Underdown’s senior by five years.

Underdown usually took roles in a range of melodramas, thrillers or wartime pieces. Fleming might have seen him as Inspector Johnson investing a murky London murder in Street of Shadows (1953), or as Harry Chelm in the African-set adventure, Beat the Devil (1953), also starring Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps fresher in Fleming’s mind was The Camp on Blood Island (1958), a tense drama following the fortunes of prisoners of war – including Underdown as Dawes – at the hands of a sadistic Japanese camp commander. Or there was Information Received (1961), a crime drama.

Despite his appearances in a range of exciting films, Underdown was regarded as a rather dull leading actor: worthy, but lacking the sex-appeal that Broccoli and Saltzman sought. Indeed, his subsequent casting in Thunderball (1965) as Air Vice Marshal only serves to demonstrate his fate to play secondary authority figures.

Sunday 7 November 2010


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James Bond's library

If we want to live the James Bond lifestyle, then we could go skiing, drive Bentleys, consume foie gras, drink champagne, and wrestle a giant squid. Or we could read the books on Bond's bookshelf.

Kingsley Amis (writing as Bill Tanner) thought that Bond's bookcase was sparse. Bond was not a great reader. This assessment seems a little harsh. Why should Fleming include a catalogue of Bond's bookcase in the novels? And we surely do not expect Bond's adventures to involve trips to the library or descriptions of Bond getting through a couple of chapters each night before lights out. If Ian Fleming wrote a novel about Bond resting between missions, then we might have seen a different side of Bond – reclining in the armchair, feet resting on the pouffe, engrossed in the latest blockbuster.

But from the few references we do gain from the novels, we know that Bond did have a varied library. Bond liked a good thriller. He read Eric Ambler's The Mask of Demetrios on the plane to Turkey, and turned to the hard-boiled detective stories of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlow and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Bond read key sporting manuals – Ben Hogan’s Modern Fundamentals of Golf, Tony Armour’s How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time, and Scarne on Cards. Politics are covered by JFK’s Profiles in Courage and Allen Dulles’ The Craft of Intelligence. For travel, Bond reads, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree (although this was on M’s recommendation). Bond’s copy of The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature may have provided Bond with spiritual comfort, but really it was simply a place to hide his gun.

Inevitably, James Bond’s choice in books mirrors that of Fleming’s. Some of the titles were undoubtedly shared, and it is a fair assumption that Fleming had read all the books he gave to Bond. He had certainly read The Traveller’s Tree. Fleming quoted extensively from it in Live and Let Die and, in a footnote, regarded it as one of the great travel books. We know that Fleming had read Philip Marlowe’s adventures, because Fleming admitted that the style of Raymond Chandler’s thrillers influenced his own.

Fleming also had a copy of The Craft of Intelligence; Allen Dulles sent him a draft. By referring to Profiles in Courage, Fleming was able to return the compliment that Kennedy gave Fleming when the president put From Russia with Love at number nine in the list of his ten favourite books. Fleming was a keen golfer (obvious from the battle of golf between Bond and Goldfinger) and we would expect Fleming to be up on the latest manuals.

It may seem asinine to say that Ian Fleming was well acquainted with the books that Bond reads, but there is an important point. If Fleming used books to create character, then the character was Fleming himself

Sunday 31 October 2010

The curse of the Bond girl - fact or fiction?

For actresses, James Bond films should a carry health warning: ‘Starring in a Bond film may cause your career to go down as well as up.’ There is a persistent view, most recently expressed in a paper by Claire Hines,* that being a ‘Bond girl’ is damaging to careers. Despite the usually high-profile and successful appearance in a Bond film, the actress rarely seems to achieve anything comparable subsequently, and is becomes confined to the television treadmill or pops up from time to time in low-budget sub-Bond thrillers. But is this really the case, or is the Bond girl curse an idea – a meme – that is replicated with little connection to the evidence?

We can test the validity of this successful meme, transmitted in books and cyberspace, with the help of the
Internet Movie Database (IMDb). First, we must establish the relative merits of the Bond girls’ post-Bond films – and their pre-Bond films to better trace career trajectories – and compare the values against Bond films. Box-office receipts is a useful measure, but the data are unavailable for older and obscure films. The alternative is the IMDb rating, which gives for each film an average of website users’ scores out of ten. The average score for Dr No, for example, is 7.3.

For convenience, I have limited my dataset to up to five films before or after Bond, giving me a potential series of 11 films for each actress. Of course, each film usually has a number of Bond girls – Roald Dahl famously stuck to a three-girl formula – but for my purposes, the Bond girl in all cases is the main ally of Bond, the girl who is in Bond’s arms at the end of the film (yes, I know Olga Kurylenko was not in Bond’s arms at the end of Quantum of Solace, but she did survive the film, which comes to the same thing).

Let us examine the main trends. In chart 1, we see the mean score for each film (-5 being the fifth film before Bond, 0 the Bond film, and 5 the fifth post-Bond film). On average, Bond films have the highest scores, enjoying a mean of 6.84. Films before and after Bond films rarely achieve comparable scores and consequently their means are lower, largely scoring between 5 and 6 out of 10. Is there a curse of the Bond girl? The answer must be no, because the level of film success that Bond girls enjoyed after their Bond roles was generally no different from the level of success they had before Bond.

Chart 2 shows the difference between the overall mean for each actress and her Bond film rating in Bond film order. For many actresses, the difference is relatively large, highlighting the fact that the sort of success the actresses enjoyed in Bond films was rather exceptional. Lois Chiles, Michelle Yeoh, and Halle Berry, however, featured in non-Bond films which were on average as successful as Bond or in fact more successful. (To be fair on all actresses, some of their pre-Bond films were so obscure or otherwise little seen and were not rated on IMDb. This unfortunately lowered their averages. We should note too that celebrated stage careers, for instance that of Diana Rigg, are not reflected in the scoring.)

What can we conclude from this analysis? Looking again at chart 2, we see that in chronological terms the gap between non-Bond and Bond success becomes smaller with time, suggesting that the Bond producers were increasingly prone as the series progressed to select actresses who had been in films as well regarded as Bond films. Possibly the factor of beauty became less important through time, while acting ability became more important. We can now see the ‘Bond girl curse’ as a successful, but false, meme, which has been propagated well to become deeply embedded within popular culture. In reality, the pattern fits a phenomenon known as ‘regression to the mean’. In his book, Bad Science, Ben Goldacre, explains the phenomenon with the example of a cold. Colds tend to have a cyclical pattern. People feel fine most of the time, get colds, feel terrible, then improve. Some people do seek remedies, though, usually when they’re feeling at their worst, and credit their improvement to the remedy, rather than the fact that the cold would in any case disappear naturally. This is regression to the mean. The mean in terms of Bond girls is mediocre or poor film success. Bond films represent a blip – the once in a while cold – that punctuates that trajectory.

*Hines, C, 010 ‘For his eyes only? Men’s magazines and the curse of the Bond girl’, in James Bond in world and popular culture: The films are not enough (eds R G Weiner, B L Whitfield and J Becker), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, 167-175

Sunday 24 October 2010

James Bond PI: The American origins of 007. Third and final part.

Of course, Fleming had other influences, taken most notably from his wartime experiences. He recalled how, during the war, he controlled No. 30 Assault Unit, comprising a rough bunch of ‘courageous, amoral, wayward’ Royal Marines. Fleming’s intention was clear: not so much to draw James Bond as an American hero, though the parallels are close, but to disassociate Bond from the ‘stage Englishman’, returning virtues to the character that were gained in the war, but rapidly lost with the onset of peace and the dismantling of Empire. The solution was to combine the confident swagger of the American detective with the resolve and resourcefulness of the British Commando. With this in mind, the clues become obvious.

Beyond his anti-aristocratic name and un-gentlemanly way of killing, Bond is an arch-consumer, deliberately selecting and remaining loyal to brand-names – Hoffritz razors, Palmolive toiletries, Ronson cigarette lighter, among others – in defiance of post-war ration-book austerity. Instead of tea and beer, the most English of beverages, Bond drinks strong coffee and hard liquor. In an American bar, Fleming describes Bond paying for the check, not the bill. And, as if to reinforce his credentials, Bond reads the latest Raymond Chandler.

Another crucial element in reorientating the English hero was the locations. Just one novel – Moonraker ­– is set extensively in England. Of the remainder, five of Bond’s adventures are set to lesser or greater extents in the United States. Fleming was at pains to get the Americanisms right, especially the dialogue, and had an assistant librarian at Yale to check his text. The result is an authenticity that, if a little ridiculous in a modern light, nevertheless takes the reader far away from the milieu of the English gentleman-adventurer produced by the likes of Buchan. Fleming’s efforts brought their reward. Though sales were slow to begin – Casino Royale initially failed to find a US publisher, and both this novel and Moonraker were later retitled for the first paperback editions – his books became enormously popular in America. He was surprised at this, but admitted that Bond ‘must seem very American in so many ways – his likes, his dislikes, and his rather full sex life’.

This must have been deeply satisfying for Fleming, a patriotic Englishman determined to keep Britain at the top table with the US. At last there was a tough British hero stripped of stereotypical English traits who could compete on equal terms with Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or Mickey Spillane. Fleming gained the admiration, famously, of Jack Kennedy and, more significantly for him, of Raymond Chandler. In a review of Diamonds Are Forever, Chandler wrote, ‘the scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other [English] writer who has accomplished this’. Chandler had deduced Fleming’s aim of writing an American-style thriller, recognising that, unlike other British crime stories, Fleming’s had a ‘hard, clean style’, devoid of waffle. Chandler, though, had his reservations. He noticed that Fleming wrote ‘of brutal things, as though he liked them’, but advised that ‘the best hard-boiled writers never try to be tough, they allow toughness to happen when it seems inevitable for its time, place and conditions’, pleading for Fleming not to ‘become a stunt writer, or he will end up no better than the rest of us’.

Saturday 16 October 2010

James Bond PI: The American Origins of James Bond. Part 2.

Bond’s adventures were immediately familiar to Fleming’s readers, though perhaps not from British literature. The first paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep reads, ‘I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them’. Later on, Marlowe orders two black coffees, ‘strong and made this year’. As in the Bond books, there is an attention to detail and exactitudes – the facts that ground the character in reality; and like Bond, Marlowe knows what he wants. Then there is the violence, which sparsely punctuates the narrative, but is distinctly Bondian in tone when it occurs:

‘Perhaps it would have been nice to allow him another shot or two, just like a gentleman of the old school. But his gun was still up and I couldn’t wait any longer. Not long enough to be a gentleman of the old school. I shot him four times, the Colt straining against my ribs. The gun jumped out of his hand as if it had been kicked.

Compare this with a passage from the pages of Fleming:

‘Bond’s right flashed out and the face of the Rolex disintegrated against the man’s jaw. The body slid sluggishly off its chair on to the carpet and lay still, its legs untidy, as if in sleep.’

That Fleming’s spare description and journalistic prose resembles Chandler is unsurprising. Fleming certainly admitted the influence of Chandler and other ‘superb masters of the modern thriller’, including Dashiell Hammett, creator of the brutal Sam Spade. Both were from the ‘hard-boiled’ school of writing, which Joseph T Shaw described as hard and brittle, with authentic characterisation and action and a very fast tempo. Chandler in particular was noted for raising the genre from pulp-fiction to literature by writing ‘genuine drama…in a very vivid and pungent style’. The results were generally met with approval; a review of The Big Sleep published in The New Statesman admired the ‘full strength blends of sadism, eroticism and alcoholism’ (a description remarkably similar to Paul Johnson’s rather more pejoratively-meant epithet, ironically also published in The New Statesman).

Both Chandler and Fleming placed an emphasis on toughness and the speed of the narrative. Chandler accepted the need for constant action: ‘If you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand’. Fleming agreed to the same demands: ‘The pace of the narrative gets me round tricky corners. You take the reader along so fast…that he isn’t thrown by…incongruities’.

Sunday 10 October 2010

James Bond PI: the American origins of 007. Part 1

The admixture in Ian Fleming’s novels of exotic consumption, available women and violence was famously dismissed by Paul Johnson in 1958 as ‘sex, sadism and snobbery’; Johnson saw Fleming instilling in Bond the characteristics of a schoolboy bully, a frustrated adolescent and suburban snob. Johnson admitted that these three ingredients were expertly crafted, but this was at the expense of plot and structure, which were ‘incoherent’ and ‘haphazard’. Fleming was, in Johnson’s view, a typically English writer whose writing was somewhat unhealthy and a product of his own Establishment background; Bond, a ex-Royal Naval commander and regular visitor to Blades, a London club, and exclusive French casinos, was no more than a fantastic, and rather nasty, projection of Fleming himself.

The problem that the critics faced was that they were comparing Bond with other English literary heroes, and found that Bond did not fit the mould. The differences between Bond and the standard clubman do-gooder were difficult to reconcile, and the solution for the critic was to dismiss Bond as the horrible little brother of Bulldog Drummond and the stories themselves as offering no more than fleeting escapism. This was to miss the point of Fleming’s creation; any comparison of Bulldog Drummond and Bond would have revealed that the two characters were cut from very different cloths.

It has been pointed out that Ian Fleming read Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond adventures as a child and was enormously fond of them; the exploits of the daring army captain fresh from the Great War and those of others, such as Rudolf Rassendyll from The Prisoner of Zenda, provided the young Fleming with a release from the unpleasantness of life at Durnford School, which he attended from 1917 at around the age of nine. While some aspects of those stories – the sense of adventure, moral purpose, and not a little wartime spirit – may have found their way into Fleming’s novels, there was no direct transference of their form or characters. Put simply, Bond was no Drummond. In the first of his adventures, Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond, bored and restless at the end of the First World War, seeks adventure, possibly of a criminal nature. He accepts the plea of a pretty young woman to extricate her from marriage to an overbearing bully of a man and finds himself against master-criminal Carl Peterson and foiling a plot that threatens the very existence of England. Drummond tackles the villains with a cheerful recklessness armed occasionally with a gun, but mainly just his fists, and is helped by his ex-army batman James Denny, and a network of officer-friends, who leap into action like a over-enthusiastic pack of bounding labradors.

For Fleming, the lantern-jawed, stoical Bulldog Drummond types came from an imaginary past that lacked credibility and resonance: ‘I felt these types could no longer exist in literature’. Drummond is a thrill-seeker who pursues danger for its own sake; relying on his own resources and presumably substantial funds. His actions are framed by an unwritten gentlemanly code, and he tackles Peterson and his evil machine with the sportsman’s determination to play fair. This is an important point: the motif of a game or sport runs throughout the first novel. Drummond admired ‘a good sport’, and relishes the serious game. ‘The game has begun’, he remarks to his sidekick Denny, and, to keep them from danger, he tells his friends ahead of the final showdown with Peterson that there’s no call on them to remain in the game. He is even a member of the Junior Sports Club, where most of his friends reside.

Fleming rejects this utterly. Fantastical, certainly, but his novels are grounded in a reality that Sapper’s lacks. In Casino Royale, perhaps with his childhood reading in mind, Fleming has Bond recall that in school it was easy ‘to pick out one’s heroes and villains’, but in the real world the divisions were blurred. Killing was a necessary part of his job, but it could be messy and unpleasant where gentlemanly rules did not apply. Prompted by the words of Le Chiffre to reflect on the nature of his job, Bond considers whether is playing ‘Red Indians’. He does not like this thought – he takes no comfort from a description that recalls Drummond’s sporting metaphors – and by the end of his adventure, he has awakened to the dirty consequences of cold war espionage – evasion, killing, and betrayal. The end of Casino Royale marks a transition for Bond from wartime thrill-seeker to cold war killer, and in detailing this, Fleming severs any romantic connections Bond’s job might have had with Drummond-style escapades.