Tuesday 27 March 2018

James Bond and the Cresta Run

The skeleton event at the recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang represented a notable British success, with medal wins for Lizzy Yarnold, Laura Deas and Dom Parsons. In an article in The Times, Matt Dickinson considers the background to that success, reminding readers that the sport was invented by British winter sports enthusiasts (or, as Matt Dickinson puts it, madcap aristocrats). The Cresta Run, the famous ice track in St Moritz devoted to the skeleton, was built in 1884 by the St Moritz Tobogganing Club. The 1928 and 1948 Olympics saw medal successes in the skeleton on the Cresta for the British team before the event was removed from the Olympic programme.
The Cresta Run. Photo: Christophe95 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This history is reflected in the novel of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963). In chapter 11 ('Death for Breakfast'), while at Piz Gloria, Bond is woken by a scream of a SPECTRE agent, Bertil, who had been pushed down the bob-run in punishment for forcing himself on Sarah, one of the ‘patients’ of Blofeld’s clinic. 

Bond considers the scene of Bertil’s uncontrolled descent along the icy track. Bond had himself experienced something of the terror of the bob-run, having once tried the Cresta Run from ‘top’. Even helmeted and padded up, the run had been for Bond ‘sixty seconds of naked fear’.

Later, Bond sees for himself the scene of death at the Gloria Express bob-run. A map of the course points out the curves and the hazards, which Bond notes are labelled in English, among them Dead Man’s Leap, Whizz-Bang Straight, and Hell’s Delight, ‘in deference to the English traditions at the sport’. At the book’s thrilling climax, Bond would take a skeleton down the Gloria Express in pursuit of Blofeld. 

The references to the skeleton in the novel are minor, but they nevertheless fit with the development of the sport. They also place an element of Bond’s background in the context of the English ‘madcap aristocrats’ and adventurers, or perhaps ‘the British military’, which Matt Dickinson notes was largely responsible for keeping the sport going after it ceased to be an Olympic event.

Monday 19 March 2018

The return of SMERSH?

It’s well known that when Ian Fleming made SMERSH the arch-enemy of the British Secret Service in the James Bond books, beginning with Casino Royale in 1953, the Soviet Union’s counter-intelligence organisation had been disbanded for over ten years. As a literary device, though, the conceit was a good one, and it also proved attractive to EON, who alluded to the organisation in The Living Daylights (1987) in the form of a plot code-named Smiert Spionam (‘Death to spies’), the phrase that gave SMERSH its name and its motto.
Smiert Spionam - a scene from The Living Daylights (1987)

To most people, SMERSH exists firmly in the realms of fiction and is as real as SPECTRE, the criminal organisation that replaced it as Bond’s nemesis. However, recent events in Salisbury – the poisoning of the former Russian double agent, Colonel Sergei Skripal – has reminded journalists and commentators about SMERSH, its activities, and its connection with James Bond.

In an article for The Guardian, Jamie Doward, Marc Bennetts and Kevin Rawlinson write of the implicit threat that Skripal is likely to have faced since coming to Britain in 2010 after being released from prison in Russia as part of a major spy swap. “Many in the FSB [the successor to the KGB] are fond of quoting the motto of SMERSH, Stalin’s counter-intelligence unit: ‘Death to spies.’” 

Owen Matthews, writing in Newsweek, similarly writes about the sense of betrayal that Russian agents are likely to have felt: “As a convicted double agent, [Skripal] certainly betrayed the Russian secret world’s honour code of ‘death to spies’ – the actual name of the Soviet wartime counterintelligence service, SMERSH.” (I'm reminded of Gogol's words to Max Zorin in A View To A Kill: "No one ever leaves the KGB".)

Writing for The Conversation website about the history of state-sanctioned assassination, historian Dan Lomas places SMERSH as one of a number of Russian security agencies, from the Soviet Cheka to the current SVR, that have resorted to targeted killings, particularly those regarded as traitors.

In an article in the Daily Record, Torcuil Crichton writes of the message that the poisoning was designed to deliver – that “Britain is a dangerous place for enemies of the Russian state,” and reminds readers that ‘death to spies’ is the phrase associated with SMERSH.

The Bond connection is recalled by Eric S Margolis, writing a piece published in various media outlets, including Malaysia's Sun Daily and Germany's Contra magazine. He describes ‘Death to spies’ as the special unit formed to liquidate traitors and turncoats, adding that “readers of James Bond books will recognise SMERSH.” 

James Bond is also mentioned in an article on the Skripal case published in Paris Match. “The years pass, the style remains,” Pauline Lallement writes. “SMERSH, the sworn enemy of James Bond, can still be recognised.” The article concludes with the words, “Bons baisers de Russie”, the French title of From Russia, With Love. 

BenoĆ®t Rayski’s piece in the French-language news website, Atlantico, reinforces the Bond connection with a photo of Sean Connery as Bond (of Never Say Never Again vintage). He writes, “Forty years ago [sic] in a series of famous films, James Bond faced agents of SMERSH, the armed wing of Moscow. It was at the time of the cold war. Today we are witnessing a fairly successful remake. Out of necessity for a happy ending, 007 always won. But this time?"

The events in Salisbury has brought an organisation that has long been consigned to history and is largely known outside Russia through the Bond books back to global attention. In the note prefacing From Russia, With Love (1957), Ian Fleming wrote: “SMERSH, a contraction of Smiert Spionam – Death to Spies – exists and remains today the most secret department of the soviet government.” Perhaps Fleming’s words weren’t so far from the truth after all.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

The Lonely Skier - a proto-Bond novel?

In her introduction to the Vintage edition of the novel The Lonely Skier, former MI5 head Stella Rimington describes its author, Hammond Innes, as the first of the post-war generation of thriller writers - a group that includes Ian Fleming - whose writing was informed by their wartime experiences and who broke away from the strait-laced style of adventure set by Buchan and others. And indeed, while The Lonely Skier, published in 1947, is Ambler-esque in its plotting and intrigue, it has a more than a dash of the sort of thrills and spills that Ian Fleming would make his own.

In the book, Neil Blair, demobbed and unemployed, is asked by an acquaintance and former British military intelligence officer, Derek Engles, to travel to a mountain resort in the Dolomites in Italy under the guise of a screenwriter and report back with information about what he sees and the people he encounters. He finds himself high up on the snow-covered slopes sharing a ski lodge with a group of dubious individuals, among them a Nazi collaborator, a former prostitute, and a deserter from the British army. Eventually he learns that everyone is there for a single purpose: to find a cache of gold stolen and hidden at the end of the war by a German officer.

As a main character, Neil Blair is too much the everyman to be a true proto-Bond, and the cast-list generally wouldn’t be out of place in an Eric Ambler novel, but the book touches on themes that would later be explored by Fleming. The theft and recovery of gold at the end of the Second World War form the backdrop to the short story ‘Octopussy’, while skiing would be a major element of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Stella Rimington notes that Innes, like Fleming, was a journalist before becoming a novelist, and similarly wrote with first-hand knowledge and convincing detail. That is certainly true; The Lonely Skier includes plenty of information on the technicalities of skiing (Christiana turns and such like) and the mountain landscape. I would say, though, that there is much more detail in Fleming’s skiing adventure; one would probably learn more about skiing in the mid-20th century from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service than Innes’ novel.

Interestingly, The Lonely Skier is set around the ski resort of Cortina D’Ampezzo, and Tofana is mentioned. The location would be visited in the film of For Your Eyes Only, and I must admit that as I was reading the book, I had scenes of the film running through my mind. 

The Lonely Skier was itself filmed soon after publication. The film, released in 1948 as Snowbound, starred Dennis Price as Blair and Robert Newton as Engles, and featured Herbert Lom as the Nazi collaborator. Both the film and the novel are tense and exciting, and well worth checking out.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

James Bond becomes legal tender in new set of 10 pence coins

The Royal Mint launched a new set of 10 pence coins last week. The 26 designs – one for each letter of the A-Z of Great Britain – celebrate aspects of life that are ‘quintessentially British’, and James Bond is among them, representing the letter B.
B: Bond (photo: The Westminster Collection)
The coin, like the various postage stamp issues that feature Bond and Bond’s appearance in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, provides another indication of how deeply embedded Ian Fleming’s creation is in the cultural environment. 

The design itself takes its cue from the iconography of the film Bond, depicting the gun barrel and the 007 logo from the EON series. This is perhaps a little ironic, given that both elements were designed by Americans (and, of course, the films themselves would not have been possible without North American producers and finance). There’s a metaphor about modern Britain in there somewhere: Britain cannot go it alone? She is, in Tiger Tanaka’s words, a once great power? Or to be less cynical, Britain is global in its outlook and welcomes foreign investment, ideas and people? You decide. 

In any case, one could argue that James Bond of the cinema is more quintessentially international than British. Bond is distinctly un-British in behaviour and style (in sharp contrast to, say John Steed and Harry Hart), the threats are global, the cast multinational, and Bond barely spends any time in the country. That said, there's no mistaking where Bond’s loyalties lie (the Union flag parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me is, of course, iconic and character-defining), and recent films, particularly in Skyfall and Spectre, have had more of a domestic focus. 

Regardless of the pitfalls of defining what is quintessentially British, I’m rather thrilled that James Bond has been celebrated on the face of a coin. It’s testament to the character’s continued currency (if you excuse the pun) in popular culture, and is curiously appropriate, given Ian Fleming’s interest in coinage (as reflected, for example in Live and Let Die). Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before Ian Fleming himself appears on a £10 note.