Monday 28 October 2013

The rise and fall of Bondmanship

Reading the latest MI6 Confidential, which is excellent as ever, I was intrigued by the reprinting of a 1963 article on 'Bondmanship: the latest rage', which charted the rise of James Bond fan-clubs in 1962 and 1963. The James Bond phenomenon has been responsible for coining (or perpetuating) a number of words and phrases – Bond girl, Bond villain, kiss-kiss-bang-bang, among them – which have entered cultural consciousness and have to lesser or larger extents endured. Bondmanship (at least, in relation to James Bond) is one of those words which have proved less successful. But what is Bondmanship, and why is the word little used today?

In the MI6 Confidential article, Bondmanship is explicitly linked to James Bond fan-clubs. Unlike Bond fan clubs today, whose function is usually to publish newsletters and magazines, keep members up to date on Bond news, and offer forums for discussion of all things Bondian, some of the earliest James Bond clubs brought together people who wished to experience something of the James Bond lifestyle (or at least their version of it), whether that was gambling at exclusive casinos, mixing vodka martinis, drinking the best wines, or seducing elegant ladies (the MI6 Confidential article suggests that these clubs tended to have all male memberships). This was in essence Bondmanship.

The rise of James Bond clubs was so phenomenal, that the Daily Express published an article in February 1963 about the University of Oxford's own James Bond club. Members (presumably male) had identified one Joanna Hare, an undergraduate and daughter of a government minister, as the university's answer to the sort of woman that James Bond meets. And William Plomer, Ian Fleming's literary editor, mentioned the “admirers [who] have formed James Bond clubs” in his address at Ian Fleming's memorial service in September 1964.

But this definition of Bondmanship, emerging from the activities of James Bond clubs, is not the only one. An article in the US newspaper, the Daily Times, dated July 1963 has the headline, “Real 'Bondmanship': Film Makes The Brave Braver as James Bond Rides Top Herd.” For the author, Erskine Johnson, Bondmanship is what differentiates Sean Connery's James Bond, as portrayed in Dr No and From Russia With Love, from other film heroes. Thus, Bondmanship is sweeping “beautiful ladies off their feet” while outwitting “the bad men”, being “braver than Errol Flynn”, or, in the context of “James Bond vs. Russia”, turning "the borsht [sic] into bitter tea.”

By mid 1963, then, the meaning of Bondmanship, still a new word, had begun to diverge, possibly precisely because it was a new word. No one meaning was yet firmly embedded in cultural space, and the word, spreading without any associations except James Bond in a broad sense, was sufficiently adaptable to gain several meanings.

Ultimately, however, Bondmanship was a meme with a short life. It seems to have fallen out of use after the decline of 'Bondomania', which also halted the rise of James Bond clubs, and may even have been little heard by 1965. It is notable that Kingsley Amis' The Book of Bond (1965), which is devoted to what would be recognised as Bondmanship, uses the phrase '007ship'. And in The Bond Affair (1965), edited by Oreste Del Buono and Umberto Eco, there is a description of 'the Bond style'. Today we tend to talk about experiencing the James Bond lifestyle, rather than practising Bondmanship.

It is uncertain why Bondmanship as a phrase didn't catch on, but it seems that Bondmanship didn't achieve a sufficient level of cultural penetration to give it longevity. After all, the word cannot be passed on from one person to another if no one's using it.

Sunday 20 October 2013

What's in store for Young Bond 2?

As announced by Ian Fleming Publications, the adventures of Young Bond will be continued by children's author Steve Cole and pick up where Charlie Higson's first series left off, with James Bond expelled from Eton College and about to resume his education at Fettes in Edinburgh. We know something of Bond's life at Fettes from his obituary in You Only Live Twice, and in an interview for the regional UK newspaper The Bucks Herald, Steve Cole revealed that Bond will be aged 14 or 15, and that the stories will be set in the 1930s and describe Bond's encounters with the Secret Service and his uncle, a spy. But can we glean any further information about what to expect in the new series from Ian Fleming's own experiences and Steve Cole's work?

Bond's obituary (written by M) records that the atmosphere of Fettes was Calvinistic. Quite what this means in practice is unclear, but given the starting point of Calvinist teaching that humanity is totally depraved, and that no amount of good will redeem one in the eyes of God, the college's masters would probably have regarded all their charges as innately sinful, and presumably discipline would be strictly enforced to ensure that pupils' behaviour was acceptable (M hints at this when he describes standards as rigorous). In this oppressive atmosphere, the young Bond may become rebellious – if he was to be a sinner, he might as well have a proper bash at it and sin in style – just as Ian Fleming rebelled at Eton. Andrew Lycett records that Ian Fleming racked up a series of misdemeanours and was birched for them, and that after befriending Ivar Bryce (who would become a lifelong friend), he'd play truant and chase girls. Possibly young Bond's behaviour will mirror Fleming's to some extent.

According to the obituary, Bond was inclined to be solitary. This individualistic nature is reflected in the sports at which Bond excelled: athletics, boxing, and Judo. Like his creator (Fleming also excelled at athletics, winning a long-jump competition and a hurdles title at Eton, and achieving the very rare feat of becoming champion athlete or victor ludorum two years in a row), Bond is likely to eschew team sports and be happiest away from the classroom competing on the track or in the ring.

The information in the obituary that Bond set up a Judo club, the first for a British public school, is especially interesting. This reveals that Bond has a good knowledge of martial arts, and we should expect him to use it in the course of his adventures. But it also demonstrates natural authority, commitment, determination, and the ability to plan and think innovatively, possibly in the face of opposition (qualities that Fleming showed during his time in Naval Intelligence during the war).

So much for Bond's school life. Do Steve Cole's published books give any clue about the nature of his adventures? The author is probably best known for his Astrosaurs, Cows in Action and Slime Squad series. These are written for younger children, but his books for teenagers are just as acclaimed. One of his series for older children features a protagonist who has something of a Bondian quality about him. In the Tripwire series, teenager Felix Smith, avenging the death of his father at the hands of terrorists, is recruited into a secret service, Minos Chapter, and becomes a bomb-disposal expert. Each adventure pits Felix against a diabolical organisation with an evil plan, and sees him race against time to solve the clues and find and defuse the bomb set for devastation. Possibly the young Bond will also find himself racing against time to beat that ticking clock. Tripwire was co-written by bomb-disposal expert, Chris Hunter, demonstrating a desire for accuracy that would have pleased Ian Fleming, and we may expect the new Young Bond series include its fair share of technical and authentic details.

Z. Rex is another series for older children. In this, thinking, talking mutant dinosaurs are brought to life and threaten the world. Fourteen-year-old Adam Adler befriends one (Zed) and together they battle beasts – and the beasts' masters – intent on wreaking havoc. While the Young Bond series is likely to have little in common with Z. Rex, the use and abuse of science (an aspect of course touched upon in Fleming's Moonraker and On Her Majesty's Secret Service) might be a theme common to both. Steve Cole's The Wereling series, which is about a family of werewolves, seems much further removed from the type of adventures we can expect young Bond to have, although I wouldn't be surprised to see aspects of the occult creeping in from time to time (and indeed given Fleming's apparent interest in the subject, expressed for example in Live and Let Die, this too would not necessarily be un-Bondian).

As Steve Cole says in interview, the main source for Bond's teenage years is the obituary in You Only Live Twice. But taking a memetic perspective – acknowledging that authors writing about James Bond tend to look to Ian Fleming's experiences to fill gaps in Bond's, and suggesting that authors' interests and background are likely to influence their writing – we can put forward a few ideas about what we can expect in the forthcoming Young Bond series. I for one can't wait to read it!

Lycett, A, 1995, Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, Turner

Sunday 13 October 2013

Newspaper reviews of Solo: some observations

After I finished reading William Boyd's Solo, I caught up with some of the newspaper reviews of the book, which I had been avoiding. The reviews were the usual mixed bag – some were positive towards Solo, others negative, some I enjoyed, and felt offended (as a Bond fan) by others – but as I read them, I noted a few points of interest that made me think about the relationship between the film and book Bonds.

Let's start with basics confusions between Fleming's Bond and the Bond of the cinema. To my knowledge, the worst culprit was Robert Crampton, who wrote a review for The Times. The headline of his piece, “Neither shaken nor stirred”, summed up his opinion of the book, but perhaps he would have been better disposed to the book had he not expected it to be a novelisation of a Bond film. Crampton bemoaned the absence of 'sexual banter' between Bond and Moneypenny, and thought Bond's falling in love with 'one of his conquests' (doesn't Bond want to marry his companion at the end of practically every adventure?) and his feelings of ambiguity towards his mission (you mean, as expressed in Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice?) were a sop to modern values. In fairness, Crampton hasn't been the only one to complain that the villain, Kobus Breed, is more of a henchman than a Bond villain, but hollowed-out volcanoes, death rays and minions in pyjamas, the sort of things which Crampton would have liked to have seen, are hardly a staple of Fleming's novels. And Crampton also spoke of the 'regulation two shags', which also owes more to the films than the books.

But Robert Crampton hasn't been the only reviewer confuse the books and the films. Sarah Warwick's review of Solo in The Northern Echo mentions that Q is “present and predictable” (but not in Fleming, of course), and Jon Stock, writing in The Telegraph, lists Bond's meeting with Q as one of the standard Bondian tropes that would “satisfy Bond aficionados”. (Mind you, it has to be said that Boyd's Quentin Dale of Q Branch – and for that matter, John Gardner's Ann Reilly – would probably not have existed had there not been a Q character in the films.)

Something else I noticed was that if Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche, the last continuation novel before Boyd's effort, was mentioned at all in the reviews of Solo, it was usually mentioned in neutral or negative terms. This is surprising, because a trawl through the reviews of Carte Blanche in the main UK newspapers reminded me that Deaver's novel was generally received positively, more so, it seems, than Solo has been. But I wonder whether this reflects uncertainty about what reviewers (and perhaps other readers) expect from a continuation novel. Should it be modern-set and updated like the films, or a period piece to follow on from Fleming's last novel? The consensus appears to change with each new continuation novel. Deaver's novel was widely lauded on publication, then dismissed as an oddity after the publication of Solo. But then reviewers of Solo have criticised Bond as a character out of place and out of date, who should be resurrected no more. Continuation authors can't win. As David Leigh says, the authors have a thankless task.

One other observation concerned the use of images to accompany the reviews. Most reviews of Solo that I read were illustrated by an image of the cover, or were not illustrated at all. Where images of Bond actors were used, however, these were either of Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. I thought newspapers missed a trick by not using images of George Lazenby, whose tenure as Bond dates to the same period in which Solo is set, but evidently there was a trend for selecting images of the first and current Bond actors. The reasons are obvious enough. Connery's Bond – or at least certain traits or memes associated with him – is so firmly embedded in popular culture that he has become a fixed point of reference. Daniel Craig's Bond also has cultural prominence, but the absence of previous Bond actors suggests that this will decline; any review of a continuation novel published during the tenure of Craig's successor is likely to feature images of that actor along with those of Connery.

The reviews of Solo have been entertaining, and occasionally annoying (just like the book itself, perhaps), but they have revealed that the literary Bond cannot be completely isolated from the cinematic Bond, and with the use of film series memes in the continuation novels themselves, the Bond of those novels has to some extent become a hybrid of the two Bondian traditions or species. The reviews have also suggested that Sean Connery's Bond continues to loom very large in the popular perception of the character.

Friday 4 October 2013

A review of William Boyd's Solo

Ian Fleming said that the recipe for a bestseller was to “get the reader to turn over the page”. Early book sales notwithstanding, on this basis, William Boyd's own James Bond novel, Solo, has succeeded. It is a fast-paced adventure, by turns exciting, surprising, reassuring, and sobering, that at times takes Bond, and the reader well out of their comfort zones.

The story begins at the Dorchester hotel in London. Bond is in reflective mood as he celebrates his 45th birthday alone and recalls a dream which explores his wartime service (an ingenious nod to Bond's creator). Later returning to the office, M briefs him on the civil war in the fictional West African country of Zanzarim, sending Bond there with the vague mission to end the conflict. In Zanzarim, Bond meets his contact, the beautiful Blessing, and encounters the horribly disfigured and very dangerous mercenary, Kobus Breed. Events ultimately lead him to Washington on a solo mission of revenge. There he meets with an old friend as he pursues his unauthorised mission and attempts to make sense of events.

James Bond is his familiar self, and Boyd has peppered the books with the usual Bondian traits and foibles. Bond consumes scrambled eggs, wears shoes without laces, refuses offers of tea, smokes incessantly, and is always in reach of a drink. To be honest, the 'Bondisms' become a little distracting, as the narrative pauses yet again to describe Bond's latest meal or the clothes he wears. Certainly, Fleming indulged in such descriptions, but Bond's traits emerged gradually over the course of twelve novels. Not even Fleming described every meal of Bond's in detail. It is a trap that is evidently all too easy for continuation novelists to fall into, but a degree of restraint is important, and makes the difference between classic Bond and pastiche.

Still, this is of minor concern, as William Boyd impresses in other areas, in particular his convincing descriptions of Zanzarim. Boyd's knowledge and affection for West Africa is evident, and his portrait of the fictional landscape will have readers almost reaching for the atlas. The late 1960s is also effectively evoked with references to the moon landing, the Vietnam war, mini skirts and cinema releases. And with Solo being his fourth espionage novel, Boyd knows his spy lore. Readers might recognise Bond's rule that “if it looks like a coincidence then it probably isn't” from Boyd's earlier work (Restless, if memory serves).

We can trace some tropes or memes further back. Boyd lifts the idea that one vomits after being struck on the head from Fleming ('Risico'), who in turn borrowed it from Raymond Chandler. And despite Boyd's assurance, given at the recent Boyd on Bond event at the Southbank Centre, that Solo contained no traces of the cinematic Bond, inevitably elements of the film series have crept in – a quip or two that could have been uttered by Sean Connery's Bond (or even Roger Moore's), Bond's relationship with Moneypenny, and a Q-like character, for example.

Solo is shaped by all the essential Bondian ingredients, and still allows Boyd to assert his own voice. But even with the exotic African location, the familiar faces, and Bond doing what he does best, my thoughts kept returning to Bond's role in the Second World War. Boyd's writing here is at its most Fleming-esque, and I wanted to read more. Is there scope for a full-length wartime-set Bond adventure? I really hope so. Indeed, any author tackling it might find it a more rewarding proposition than penning a straight continuation novel, being less constrained by the habits and peculiarities of the older, weary 007. The adventures of Young(er) Bond? I'd definitely read those.