Saturday 22 December 2012

Eggnog on Christmas Eve

At this time of year, my thoughts naturally turn to the story of a remarkable man who redeemed a troubled soul, conquered evil, and saved the world. I refer, of course, to James Bond and his Yuletide adventure in the Swiss Alps. As we approach Christmas, what better way to end our celebration of 50 years of the James Bond films than to watch On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

As for that perfect Christmas accompaniment, the answer's in the film. “Eggnog on Christmas Eve. Just like home”, says 'English girl' (played by Joanna Lumley) as the 'Angels of Death' enter the festive spirit with a few drinks before opening their deadly gifts from the Count, otherwise known as Blofeld. So, to complete our Bondian Christmas, and to provide a suitable period flavour, I've adapted an eggnog recipe from 500 Recipes for Cocktails and Mixed Drinks (Hamlyn, 1964) by Felix Brenner, which is broadly contemporary with the 1969 film.

The recipe is for two servings:

1 egg
1 tablespoon icing sugar
90 ml milk
45 ml whisky
45 ml dark rum
90 ml double cream
½ tablespoon brandy

Separate the egg. Put the sugar and yolk into a bowl and whisk together. Stir half the milk into the mixture, add the whisky, mix, then stir in the rum. In another bowl, whisk the egg white until stiff peaks are formed. Add the rest of the milk, cream and brandy to the eggnog mixture, then carefully fold in the white until the mixture is frothy. Spoon the eggnog into glasses and grate a little nutmeg over the top. Serve and enjoy.

For more ideas of drinks to have while watching a Bond film, I recommend David Leigh's Complete Guide to the Drinks of James Bond. Have a wonderfully Bondian Christmas, and here's to an exciting 2013, the 60th anniversary of the literary James Bond.

Monday 17 December 2012

James Bond's SOE origins

There have been many claims to the true inspiration for James Bond. Largely seeing action in the Second World War, these have included 30 Assault Unit's Robert Harling, commando Patrick Dalzel-Job, and Colonel D T 'Bill' Hudson, a Secret Operations Executive (SOE) agent, who inspired Ian Fleming, according to Hudson's 1995 obituary in the Times, because he was 'tall and handsome, enjoyed an active social life and charmed the women of many nations', a description which could equally have applied to Fleming!

The latest hat, or rather hats, to be thrown into the ring, are those of some of the commandos who served in SOE. In his book, Ian Fleming and SOE's Operation Postmaster (2012, Pen and Sword) Brian Lett puts forward a number of individuals who took part in a daring mission to hijack two Axis ships harboured in Fernando Po, a Spanish island off the coast of West Africa. But for Brian Lett, SOE inspired more than Fleming's literary hero; it formed the basis for the secret service for which Bond worked, provided that service with its chief, and gave Bond his gadgets, among other claims. In short, the Bond books were Fleming's heavily disguised tribute to SOE. This post isn't the place to discuss all the claims in detail, but it is worth reviewing some of Lett's more plausible, as well as his less convincing, assertions.

Lett makes the reasonable suggestion that Fleming looked to SOE when locating the headquarters of the secret service. Fleming described Bond's office as 'a gloomy building overlooking Regent's Park'. The Secret Intelligence Service has never been based in that part of London, and so Fleming's location seems puzzling. However, when we consider that the headquarters of SOE was at 64 Baker Street, a stone's throw from Regent's Park, then Fleming's description could be regarded as a deliberate mistake. After all,  until 1994, SIS/MI6 didn't officially exist (whereas SOE had been disbanded in 1946), and Fleming had to be careful about what information he divulged.

A similar argument could be made for Fleming naming Bond's chief as M, rather than C, the head of SIS. Presumably Fleming wasn't permitted to acknowledge the head of SIS as C, and so may have taken M, the code name of SOE's head of operations and training, as a plausible alternative. Ignoring other possibilities – M may have been a nod to Somerset Maugham's fictional spy chief R, a reference to Fleming's mother, or simply a representation of the character's name, Sir Miles Messervy, following MI5 chief Maxwell Knight's habit of signing documents 'M' and Fleming's similar use of the letter 'F'  – Lett further suggests that the character of M was based on the first M of SOE, Major General Sir Colin Gubbins. While Fleming was certainly acquainted with Colin Gubbins and was aware of his role in SOE, Fleming's own chief, Admiral John Godfrey, still seems a more likely model for M.

Station codes were another aspect of SOE that Fleming may have adopted. In the Bond novels, codes such as A for Austria or Australia, C for Canada or the Caribbean and S for the Soviet Union appear to have been Fleming's invention, as conventionally SIS applied a two-digit number to identify countries (Germany was 12, for example). However, as Brian Lett points out, Fleming's codes more closely resemble SOE country codes; F Section identified non-Gaullist France, X Section was Germany, T Section was Belgium and Luxembourg, and N Section was the Netherlands.

West Africa, the location of Operation Postmaster, was identified as section W, and the code was also used for the codes of individual agents. Commandos were given code names beginning W0 (thus, Captain Gus March-Phillipps, the operation leader, as W01, and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Geoffrey Appleyard was W02). For other, non-commando agents, the zero was dropped; for example, Major Dismore, based in SOE's Lagos office, was W39. Lett suggests that the W0 code, identified agents as 'licensed to kill', and inspired Fleming to create his own zero-based agent codes. It doesn't take much imagination, Lett argues, to turn W07 into 007. I am less convinced by this suggestion. Lett makes much of Postmaster's agents having a 'licence to kill', but in reality, didn't all commandos and other military personnel by definition have such licence? They were fighting a war, after all. In any case, there is no strong ground for doubting Ian Fleming's own explanation that the double-0 prefix was used on the Admiralty's top-secret signals during the Second World War, and he simply lifted this for his books.

As for the identity of the real James Bond, Brian Lett has no doubt that the individual is to be found among the commandos of Operation Postmaster, in particular agents Gus March-Phillips, Geoffrey Appleyard, Graham Hayes and Anders Lassen. Again, as Fleming was certainly aware of the operation and possibly of the men that took part in it, the idea cannot be dismissed entirely. But Fleming ran his own band of commandos, 30 Assault Unit, which doubtless too was filled with very brave and heroic men. It is unlikely that we'd be able to identify a single individual, or even a small group of individuals, as the 'real James Bond'. That is not to deny that Bond had commando origins; as Fleming acknowledged, Bond was 'a compound of secret agent and commando types' he had met during the war. And, of course, Fleming himself is part of that magical compound.

Brian Lett's book is a well-written and exciting page-turner about a daring coastal operation that succeeded against the odds. The story of the brave and resourceful individuals who took part in it deserves to be told. Fleming had his own small role in that operation, and the book is a must-read for Fleming aficionados for that reason. Fleming's SOE connection gives rise to potential links between Bond and SOE, but while some of these are intriguing and even plausible, others are very speculative and in need of further evidence. The search for Bond's origins (if indeed we need to search for them) continues.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Ian Fleming: the Bibliography - a review

Now I know how James Bond felt in the film of For Your Eyes Only when he was kicked off the rock below St Cyril's after almost reaching the summit. All these years I have been diligently collecting Fleming and Bond related books and other printed material, thinking that my collection was pretty comprehensive. But after reading Jon Gilbert's excellent book, Ian Fleming: the Bibliography (2012, Queen Anne Press), I realise I still have a mountain to climb before the collection is anywhere near complete.

As Gilbert reveals, for any Bond aficionado wishing to explore the stories and influences behind the author and character, there is much more to read than the novels and books about the James Bond phenomenon. The Bibliography is an essential place to start, not only for an exhaustive catalogue of Fleming's writing in all its forms, but also as a source of information for the background and inspirations for Bond's adventures.

The majority of the Bibliography is taken up with a detailed examination of all editions of every one of Fleming's Bond novels and other major works. Each section begins with an account of the background to the novel in question, the research carried out by Fleming, and the key influences. We also learn about textual differences between the original manuscript, the subsequent typescript, the uncorrected proof, and the first and later editions. Then there are the curious typos and factual errors, the alternative titles, the variant bindings (I was disappointed to learn that some of my precious first editions were not quite as first as I thought), the paperback editions and reprints, reviews and advertising.

The remaining parts of the book deal largely with Fleming's other writing, principally his journalism and contributions to books by other authors. Such material is well worth exploring, since it reveals much about his wide-ranging interests which found their way to lesser or greater extents into the Bond novels. Fleming wrote a number of introductions and forewords to books about the Bondian subjects of international crime, gambling, and spying, and there was more Bondian material in his journalism. His articles for magazines and newspapers encompassed matters as diverse as underwater treasure hunting, crime (again), golf, guns, casinos, travel, cars, Russia and the Cold War and scrambled eggs.

Of particular interest to me was a reference to an article by Fleming under the title, 'Bang-Bang, Kiss-Kiss'. The piece, published in 1950, described the New York literary scene, and included profiles on, among others, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. It serves as a reminder of how important American crime writers were to Fleming, especially Chandler, who Fleming later befriended and about whom would write further tributes. It is clear when comparing Philip Marlowe with Bond that Fleming adopted aspects of Chandler's style and pace in his writing. The article also gives us perhaps the earliest use by Fleming of the phrase, Bang-Bang, Kiss-Kiss, which, in a variant form, would later become synonymous with the cinematic James Bond.

A section in the Bibliography on Ian Fleming's source books as important as the section on his journalism. We know, of course, about the book, Birds of the West Indies, which provided Fleming's hero with a name, and the books referenced in the Bond novels, such as How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time, and Nature Cure Explained, which Fleming had himself read and admired. But there are other books that Fleming had read or were almost certainly known to him, which contained ideas that appear to have filtered down into the Bond novels. These include Phyllis Bottome's Wind in his Fists, which is set in Austria and features villainous aristocrat and possible proto-Blofeld, Count Graf Schlick, and Sax Rohmer's The Island of Fu Manchu, a Second World War spy adventure featuring the archetypal criminal mastermind and undoubted inspiration of Dr No.

The Bibliography represents the culmination of Jon Gilbert's Fleming scholarship and expertise as a book dealer specialising in Fleming and Bond. The care and meticulousness that has gone into the volume is outstanding. The volume, some 700 pages long, is an incredible achievement and (as much as I dislike high prices for books, preventing wider access and dissemination) justifies its price tag. With a nod to Ian Fleming's intention when he began to write Casino Royale, it is the Fleming reference work to end all Fleming reference works.

Sunday 2 December 2012

How many people have seen a James Bond film?

It is estimated that half the world's population has seen a Bond film. The statement has been repeated so many times, most recently by Roger Moore in his book, Bond on Bond, it must be true. But it nevertheless raises three important questions. What is the origin of this statistic, how was it calculated, and does it have any validity now?

Unfortunately, finding answers to these questions is practically impossible, since no author repeating the statistic has provided any sort of reference or basis for its calculation. But we can at least try to pinpoint its earliest use by working our way back through the literature.

In 2012, the statement has appeared in print at least twice. Roger Moore wrote that 'It has been suggested that over half the world's population has seen at least one of the films', while Nigel Cawthorne, author of A Brief Guide to James Bond, wrote, 'It is estimated that half the population of the world has seen at least one Bond movie'. The statements are very similar, though Roger Moore's statement, with its qualification of 'over half' suggests a higher figure.

The statement is, of course, older than 2012. In 2008, the journalist Ben Macintyre wrote in his book, For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, 'Today, more than half the world's population has seen at least one Bond film'. In the same year, Sinclair MacKay wrote in The Man with the Golden Touch, 'It is estimated that half the population of planet Earth has seen a Bond film'. Six years earlier, in the book, Bond Films (2002), Jim Smith and Stephen Lavington wrote, 'It has been estimated that more than half the population of Earth have [sic] seen at least one James Bond film'.

But we can go further back. Academic and notable Bond scholar James Chapman wrote in his 1999 book, Licence to Thrill: a cultural history of the Bond films, that 'it has variously been estimated that between a quarter and a half of the world's population has seen a Bond film'. Chapman qualified the statement by adding 'either in the cinema or on television or video'. Chapman's wider range (and qualification) gives the statistic a greater margin of error, which no doubt increases the confidence attached to it, but it is a shame that it is one of the few statements in the book not supported by a footnote or reference.

The statement is older still. Sally Hibbin's The Official James Bond Movie Book, published in 1987, includes the statement, 'It is estimated that over half the world's population has seen a Bond movie'. I can't be certain that this is one of the earliest uses of the statement (notably Stephen Jay Rubin does not use it in his 1981 book, The James Bond Films), but it is reasonable to suggest that it had its origin around this time. The year was an important one for Bond fans. It saw the release of The Living Daylights, and marked a milestone in Bond film history, being 25 years since the release of Dr No (1962). At a time of celebration and reflection, the statistic was appropriately awe-inspiring – and unchallengeable.

That said, the basis for the statement might be a little older. Peter Haining's James Bond: a Celebration was also published in 1987. It didn't include the statement in question, but it did provide some figures: 'It is now estimated that James Bond has provided escape and enjoyment for... one-and-a-half billion cinemagoers'. The figure (excluding television and video viewers) seems plausible enough, but in fact it was already four years old. In his 1983 book, James Bond, Belmondo & Cie, Italian journalist Mario Cortesi wrote that since 1962 nearly 1.5 billion people have seen James Bond's adventures in the cinema.

I don't know whether this figure is the basis for the statement that half the world's population has seen a Bond film, but given that in 1983 the world's population was about 4.7 billion, and was some five billion in 1987, it is does not seem a huge stretch to round up 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion in 1987 by adding television and video viewings. In any case, it is clear that when Roger Moore wrote that over half the world's population has seen a Bond film, the statement was already 25 years old. In that time, the world's population has increased to seven billion. Even with the qualification of 'over half', the statistic is surely due for an update. However, to calculate a more accurate figure would be enormously complicated and dependent on so many variables and assumptions, and needless to say, I won't be attempting it here!

As a meme, though, the statement has proved to be very successful. It is long-lasting, it has been replicated many times, and has survived virtually unchanged. It has been successful even without supporting data, and indeed, has probably thrived because of the absence of data.