Friday 23 December 2016

Moonraker's Christmas gift idea

If you're after a last-minute Christmas gift idea, then your thoughts may have turned to the film of Moonraker. Among the gadgets Q supplies James Bond is a dart gun worn around the wrist. Equipped with ten darts – five amour-piercing, five cyanide-tipped – the device comes in handy when Bond needs to cut the power of a rotating centrifuge trainer and help Drax take a giant step back for mankind. 'Very novel, Q', Bond says. 'Must get them in the stores for Christmas'.

Did Q succeed in getting them in the stores for Christmas? Sadly, no. The Imperial Toys Corporation produced a James Bond dart gun in 1984 (click here for details), but the darts are fired from a standard pistol-type gun, rather than one worn round the wrist. And in any case, the toy, long out of production, is hard to come by.

Replicas of the film's dart gun are built from time to time and become available to buy at specialist stores or auction sites, but a trawl of such places suggests that if you're looking for a replica of the prop, then you're out of luck. Replica dart guns were being sold on eBay for £140 in 2015, but these no longer appear to be available. Vectis Auctions, which specialises in collectible toys, were selling a reproduction of the prop in 2013, but no other examples have been offered since.

I admit I haven't looked at the websites of arms manufacturers, but it's possible that a wrist-mounted dart gun is in development and on the way to becoming science fact.

So, it seems that Q didn't follow Bond's advice. Oh well, there's always next year. In the meantime, have a wonderful Bondian Christmas.

Sunday 18 December 2016

Organisation heads talk about the pros and cons of association with James Bond

A view of Vauxhall Cross, SIS headquarters
Mention MI6 and Aston Martin to anyone, and chances are they'll immediately think of James Bond. The car manufacturer has been associated with Bond for over 50 years, starting in practical terms at least with Goldfinger, released in 1964 (the 1959 novel also features as Aston Martin). In contrast, MI6 has never claimed an official association with Ian Fleming's creation (although, interestingly, Peter Lamont reveals in his autobiography, The Man with the Golden Eye, that he gained access to MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross in preparation to film the building for GoldenEye and subsequent films). However, any media article about the organisation, or statements made by its head or former officers, inevitably allude to the fictional super-spy, and the organisation is no doubt permanently inundated with applications from wannabe Bonds.

These relationships with James Bond were raised recently by the head of MI6 (or more properly SIS) and Aston Martin's director of global marketing in statements that were in some ways rather similar. While both acknowledged the benefits their association with James Bond has brought, they also alluded to negative aspects.

In a speech to journalists at Vauxhall Cross earlier this month, the chief of SIS (known as 'C') Alex Younger described how James Bond helped create a powerful brand for SIS that gave the organisation, or at least its name, worldwide recognition. Younger also admitted that SIS requires a deep grasp of gadgets and employs a real-life Q.

But, he continued, James Bond also creates a false picture of the type of people who work for the organisation. There is no single characteristic that defines an SIS officer, whether that be an Oxbridge graduate or an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and James Bond types who are reckless, immoral, or prone to law-breaking need not apply.

Dan Balmer, director of global marketing at Aston Martin, also considered both the positive and negative aspects of an association with James Bond. He told Marketing Week last month that while the company remains open to the opportunities that an association with Bond brings, it relied too much on James Bond in the past. Its marketing, for instance, has tended to focus around the release of new Bond films, the result being that between films people stop talking about the cars and sales suffer.

Balmer spoke about how Aston Martin was planning to move beyond its perceived British and male core market (his comments about Bond hint at the fact that Bond naturally helps reinforce this perception), announcing that its marketing will now be designed to appeal to international audiences and female drivers.

In making their statements, both Alex Younger and Dan Balmer acknowledge the role, whether welcome or not, that James Bond plays in promoting their organisations and maintaining brand awareness. In memetic terms, the Bond films, to which Younger and Balmer alluded, are a highly successful vehicle for spreading ideas or memes about Aston Martin and SIS (even if inaccurate). However, the association between the organisations and Bond is so strong that the films aren't necessary to spread and reinforce those memes. The press and other media also do the job, but the association is so firmly fixed in people's minds, who wittingly or unwittingly pass it on to others, that it is practically self-replicating.

This means that, unfortunately for Alex Younger and Dan Balmer, it'll take a very long time – and the disappearance of Bond from the cultural environment – to change popular perceptions. Aston Martin and SIS will remain synonymous with Bond for a while longer yet.

Sunday 11 December 2016

Did Phyllis Bottome invent James Bond? The case against

The Lifeline, first edition
Ian Fleming's first adventure story was 'A Poor Man Escapes', which was written in 1927 while studying under Ernan Forbes Dennis and the novelist Phyllis Bottome at their 'finishing school' at the Tannerhof in Austria. There is no doubt that Phyllis Bottome encouraged the young Fleming to write the story, and it is quite possible that her influence extended to Fleming's later writing too. Just how influential she had been was the subject of a Radio 4 documentary. Critical, according to some, who argued that Bottome's 1946 novel, The Lifeline, was a James Bond novel in all but name.

The case that Ian Fleming had substantially based James Bond on the main character and events of Bottome's novel was championed by espionage writer Nigel West. He has form in the matter, having made the case in his 2009 book, Historical Dictionary of Ian Fleming's World of Espionage. West was supported by critic and publisher Simon Winder, who's own book on James Bond, The Man who Saved Britain (2006), far from being a celebration of Fleming's creation, was an exercise in subtle denigration and damning with faint praise.

Casting a more cautious eye on the matter were Pam Hirsch, who wrote a biography of Phyllis Bottome called The Constant Liberal, and John Pearson, the biographer of both Ian Fleming and James Bond. 

So what were the principal arguments? The case for the prosecution, as it were, focused on two key points. The first was that the protagonist of The Lifeline, Mark Chalmers, is near-identical to James Bond. Describe Chalmers' appearance (slim, six-feet tall), attitudes (particularly towards women), philosophy, and pastimes (skiing, climbing) without mentioning his name, and anyone listening would think you were describing James Bond.

The second point concerned the events at the end of Bottome's novel. Chalmers, who has been on a secret mission in Austria gathering Nazi secrets for British intelligence on the eve of the Second World War, is captured by the Gestapo, given a severe beating, saved in the nick of time, recuperates in a hospital (actually a mental asylum where Chalmers has been resident as part of his cover), falls in love with a fellow agent (Ida Eichhorn) who has been caring for him and whom he initially disliked, and has a bedside discussion about his purpose and the nature of good and evil with a local contact (Father Martin).

Compare that to the end of Casino Royale, in which Bond is captured by a SMERSH agent, given a severe beating, saved in the nick of time, recuperates in a hospital, falls in love with a fellow agent (Vesper Lynd) who has been caring for him and whom he initially disliked, and has a bedside discussion about his purpose and the nature of good and evil with a local contact (René Mathis).

Of the two arguments, the second is strongest, yet even that only suggests that Fleming was inspired by one specific element of Bottome's book (apparently Bottome sent Fleming all her books, and it is highly likely that he had read The Lifeline before writing Casino Royale). Claiming that Bottome had invented James Bond and that, as was hinted at in the programme, a case of plagiarism could be made against Fleming, is rather more of a leap, and to me is without foundation.  

Other points raised by Nigel West are minor and easily dismissed. The spy chief in The Lifeline is called B; Ian Fleming called his M. And Somerset Maugham's spy chief is R and the real one is C. Isn't it more plausible that the naming of M simply follows a convention well established in spy fiction (and reality), rather than the style of a single book? West also suggests that, like Mark Chalmers, Bond can climb like a mountain goat. In the films maybe, but evidence for this in the books, certainly Casino Royale, is lacking.

One obvious difficulty, apart from the fact that Ian Fleming first had the idea for 'the spy story to end all spy stories' during the war and before The Lifeline was published, is that The Lifeline and Casino Royale simply do not compare stylistically. Having read The Lifeline, I can confirm that it reads more like a John Buchan novel than a Fleming novel. It contains long philosophical passages and monologues, and has none of the pace and spare prose of Casino Royale. If Ian Fleming used The Lifeline as a model, then he failed miserably to follow it.

Another problem is that the events depicted in Casino Royale, except those at the end, do not mirror the events of The Lifeline whatsoever. In fact, James Bond would not feature in an Alpine-set adventure until On Her Majesty's Secret Service, published 10 years after Casino Royale. And Fleming's only story set in Austria, 'Octopussy', has Bond in a peripheral role – in Jamaica.

True, the character of Mark Chalmers is similar to Bond, but then again, so too is Ian Fleming; there is no dispute that Fleming gave Bond many of his own traits. It is worth pointing out as well (not mentioned in the documentary) that Ian Fleming acknowledged that the events of Casino Royale were based on his own experiences in the casino of Estoril in Portugal. Nigel West makes the supplementary case that Mark Chalmers was based on Ian Fleming, but this has the whiff of a circular argument. James Bond was inspired by Mark Chalmers who was inspired by Ian Fleming who provided the inspiration for James Bond. Why have a middle man at all? It seems to me that there is little need to invoke Mark Chalmers as the catalyst for James Bond when Ian Fleming's own life accounts for many of the details.

Something else that the programme didn't mention was that Ian Fleming was a literary magpie. He read widely, was in awe of certain writers (among them Raymond Chandler and Somerset Maugham), wrote fulsome reviews and bought copies of his favourite books for all his friends. Inevitably, aspects of the books he enjoyed crept into his own work. Indeed, this blog is about the things that inspired Fleming, and identifies the ideas or memes that the Bond novels share with the works of one novelist or another. Most recently, for example, I pointed out similarities between John Buchan's novel, The Three Hostages, and Moonraker, and I have made the case that the Bond novels are a British form of American hard-boiled thriller. This doesn't mean, however, that John Buchan or Raymond Chandler invented James Bond.

James Bond could not have been created unless The Lifeline and other books like it had not existed, just as the work of John le Carré and Len Deighton – the antitheses of Bond – could not have existed without Bond. Culture is created by taking or passing on, building on, and transforming ideas that already exist in the cultural environment. It lives or dies by being replicated (in the case of Bond books by being read and reprinted), exploiting a cultural niche (no one wrote quite the sort of books that Fleming wrote and the public was ready for it), and adapting to changing conditions (being made into Bond films).

So, did Phyllis Bottome invent James Bond? Not in my view, although I accept that Fleming recreated the ending of The Lifeline in Casino Royale. On balance, I'm with Pam Hirsch when she says that Bottome invented Ian Fleming as a writer. Still, I enjoyed the programme, and the fact that such a debate is the subject of a BBC documentary is testament to the continued success and cultural relevance of Ian Fleming's creation.

Sunday 4 December 2016

On location: James Bond in Paris

A weekend trip to Paris gave me the opportunity to check out some of the places associated with James Bond. The city features prominently in the film A View To A Kill (1985), but it also has a role in the short story on which the film is very vaguely based, 'From a View to a Kill' (1960). (The title and Paris location are about the only things in common between the story and the film.)

Working backwards through the events of the film, the first stop on my Bond itinerary was the Pont Alexandre III that spans the River Seine. James Bond jumps from this bridge on to a boat in pursuit of May Day, who has herself just landed on the vessel after parachuting from the Eiffel Tower. A boat very much like the one Bond encounters was passing underneath the bridge as I looked over the side, and though I wasn't tempted to emulate Bond, I did consider the practicalities of Bond's jump. Not as easy as it looks, I decided.

The Pont Alexandre III in A View To A Kill (top) and now
I then continued towards Quai Branly and walked down to the quayside. Having 'borrowed' a taxi, Bond speeds along the quayside and crashes through a barrier, which slices off the car's roof. Bond would find it more difficult to repeat the stunt today, as the barrier has gone and been replaced by a large metal gate. (The original barrier was present until fairly recently, up to at least 2008, according to Martijn Mulder and Dirk Kloosterboer in their essential book, On the Tracks of 007.)

Bond approaching a barrier on Quai Branly (top). The site today (bottom)
I stayed on the quayside and continued to the foot of the Pont d'Iéna. There's a flight of steps here that leads back up to street level. James Bond descends these steps rather unconventionally – in the stolen taxi.

The steps at Pont d'Iena in A View To A Kill (top) and today
At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by the magnificent sight of the Eiffel Tower. Bond's Parisian adventure starts here, as he chases after May Day, who has just killed Bond's contact, Monsieur Aubergine, and then makes a quick descent on the roof of the lift when May Day jumps off the top of the tower. Long queues prevented me from going up to the top, but even on the second floor, the view was fantastic, and I got a great sense of the excitement of the scene.

View of Quai Branly from the Eiffel Tower (some of which is replicated in the film's Paris poster)
The following day, I sought locations connected to the literary Bond. In the short story of 'From a View to a Kill', we learn that Paris has a significant place in James Bond's life – the city is where he lost his virginity. Bond has been a frequent visitor to the city ever since. Typically, he stays in the Terminus Nord hotel next to the Gare du Nord (he has a particular preference for station hotels). The hotel is still there, of course, and is now part of the Accor chain.

Terminus Nord, Bond's favourite Parisian hotel
When we first see Bond in the story, he's at Fouquet's, a famous bar and restaurant on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. He's ordered an Americano (you can't drink seriously in French cafés, he reflects) and is thinking about how Paris had changed since the war (for the worse, in his view). I found the restaurant – by George V Metro station – but it was a little too early for an Americano.

Fouquet's, Paris
Bond doesn't have much time for retrospection, though. Before too long, a car pulls up and Mary Ann Russell, a fellow Secret Service agent working for Station F, gets out, finds Bond, and tells him that he's wanted at the office (being a creature of habit, Bond is rather easy to find – probably not ideal for a secret agent). According to the story, the headquarters of the French station is nearby on Avenue Gabriel. Unfortunately, I didn't visit the street myself, but there's always next time.

For the James Bond fan on the look-out for Bond-related locations, Paris has a lot to offer. Not only can you visit some of the places seen on the screen and mentioned in the pages of Bond's adventures, but you can also experience something of the James Bond lifestyle by staying in the hotel Bond stays in or eating or drinking in Bond's favourite restaurants. Just don't go borrowing any taxis.