Long before there was the global franchise — now in its 54th year — and before James Bond became a product to be presented and reinvented over and over again, there were the novels by Ian Fleming.
I found Dr No in the secondhand book trough at the end of our road, and read it in a couple of days on the train journey to school. It was sufficiently engrossing and captivating to lead me to a few more Bond books, which I read with equal enjoyment.
Then my interest waned, to be sparked now and again when writers such as Antony Horowitz and Sebastian Faulks picked up Ian Fleming’s baton, and by the media excitement generated by the emergence of a new actor for the role.
The exploits of Fleming’s hero were unlikely fodder for a sensibility more tuned to gritty British New Wave, but the novels, probably more than the films, provided surprisingly engaging insights into worlds and ways of life which would become more familiar, but at the time were exotic and intriguing.
Spooks and MI5
We knew about double agents such as Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. The Profumo affair drew attention to the presence of Russian spies in England, not just through news channels but through satirical programmes such as That Was The Week That Was.
James Bond gave a racy insight into Cold War machinations, a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the corridors of power.
The boss M, with his ‘frosty, damnably clear grey eyes’, running the secret service from a desk in a building in Regents Park. His all-powerful private secretary Miss Moneypenny. The codes used by the Secret Service: ‘I went up town to see our chief customer last night. Three of his best men went sick when I was there.’ Hey, we can all manage that!
And on one occasion when Bond gives a pseudonym, he keeps his own initials and says he’s John Bryce. Oh, James, don’t you know what a giveaway that is? Well, we didn’t, not then, but everyone’s a surveillance expert now.
The enemies of state with their terse acronyms SMERSH and SPECTRE, and the dangerous, larger than life megalomaniacs Sir Hugo Drax, Le Chiffre, Mr Big, Dr No, Goldfinger are bold, colourful characters, the focal point of action and thrills.
But more interesting, in a different way, is the background presence of M. His quirks and oddities, such as his dislike of men with beards and of people who he thought were overdressed, make him seem authentic.
It’s that downbeat vibe, that sense of strings being pulled and alliances formed and broken in ordinary rooms and buildings, of world events being controlled by men in suits in clubs and offices and coffee bars which was to provide a more lasting interest and lead me to Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer and John le Carre’s spies, moles and traitors. More cynical and dour in tone, these later works present an organisation far from glamorous, one which represented the doubts and ambiguities which characterise the world of espionage.
People, places and things
The early James Bond books are a treasure trove of the kind of information which is at our fingertips now, but which in those days was part of a tantalisingly elusive world. Some of the nuggets:
- Harlem in the 1950s
- The Lindy Hop
- Cab Calloway
- Patrick Leigh Fermor
- Saratoga Springs
- Horse racing
- How to play Baccarat
- How to fix a Blackjack game
- Orson Welles and the all-black production of Macbeth
- Hep cats smoking reefers
- Henry Morgan’s Jamaican exploits
- The likelihood of crime on the Queen Elizabeth liner
- The Silver Meteor Train speeding through Florida’s forests and swamps
- The Orient Express
- PG Wodehouse
- Sinn Fein
- Istanbul, Trieste, Venice, Fort Knox
- A private house near Guildford used for interrogation (probably fictional, alas)
Many of the landscapes which Bond inhabits are lush, particularly the descriptions of Jamaica with its crescent-shaped bays, the miles of white sand sloping easily into the breakers, the green sea of sugar-cane and bananas, the dark glinting breadfruit.
Ian Fleming of course lived on Jamaica, in a villa he named Goldeneye, and which in 1976 Bob Marley was interested in buying. The attempted assassination of Bob Marley in that year is the focal point of Marlon James’ vast 2005 Man Booker prize-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.
James’ book explores the violence and corruption and gang warfare in post-colonial Jamaica, a world far removed from Fleming’s and yet at the same time, oddly linked.
We know that life in post-war Britain became an age of affluence, and that a population tired of austerity and rationing eagerly embraced the new spirit of consumerism.
For many of us, though, it was pretty low-key. There wasn’t a great deal of choice, and there certainly wasn’t the self-conscious awareness and promotion of brands and lifestyle which fuels today’s consumer society.
So James Bond’s breakfast preferences were an early awakening to an aspirational lifestyle. The specially sourced brown egg, boiled for three and a half minutes and served in the dark blue egg cup with a gold ring round the top. Two thick slices of wholewheat toast. A large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter. Tiptree ‘Little Scarlet’ strawberry jam, Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian heather honey from Fortnum’s.
And two large cups of black coffee bought from a specialist in New Oxford Street and brewed in a Chemex coffee maker. Instagram that.
How different from our own breakfast tables, and strangely, how much more potent than the dry Martinis and classy cars more frequently associated with the Bond brand.
For this young reader, usually fatally keen to adopt unsuitable role models, the Bond women were strangely unengaging, apart from evoking a desire for a more interesting name such as Tiffany or Solitaire.
They didn’t hold a candle to special agent Emma Peel from The Avengers, played by Diana Rigg, who had the lot. She took on all-comers with her expertise in martial arts and fencing. She was witty, charming, cool and unflappable, a whizz at science, and rocked a wardrobe whose influence still lingers. And that hair…
Now she would have been more than a match for James Bond.
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