Well played, James Bond
his is the centenary year for Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, British Agent 007, irresistible to women with names like Vesper Lynd, Domino Vitali, Kissy Suzuki, Mary Goodnight, Tiffany Case, Solitaire and Tatiana Romanova. For the baddies of the world, who in his day were mostly commies or crazy men like Dr No who planned to dominate the world through terror and blackmail, Bond was the nemesis. And despite his great partiality for hard liquour – scotch, vodka and martinis – shaken not stirred – and up to 70 specially blended cigarettes a day, Bond got the better of all he confronted, though in the process he often took some heavy punishment, the most painful being what the Russian spy Le Chiffre inflicted on him in Casino Royale , which practically knocked off his whatdoyoucallit.
In celebration of Fleming’s life and unique achievement, all 14 of his books have been reissued in paperback and nowhere else is there more absorbing reading to be experienced than in following James Bond as he brings death and destruction to the enemies of the British empire (or what was left of it) and the West. Fleming published his first book in 1953, when he was in his forties, the book being Casino Royale . Then one after the other came his thrillers, delighting the world and making James Bond and the man who first played him on the screen, Sean Connery, household names around the world, including the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain countries of Eastern Europe, though surely in smuggled editions.
Bond is a wish fulfillment. He is what most of us would like to be, but aren’t. He has no wife to nag him, no children whom he has to walk to school and no unpaid bills. He is answerable only to M, the head of MI6, and as M’s secretary, Miss Moneypenny, is in love with Bond (a love that remains unrequited), that gives him an additional advantage. After all, it is a given that having the boss’s secretary on your side guarantees you remaining in his good books, even after a botched operation. Bond lives in style when in London, his bachelor pad being off King’s Road, which was the area to be in. He does not have to suffer travel by bus and tube. He has his supercharged Bentley to take him places. He gets sent to the world’s most exotic spots to dispatch one baddy after another, and he always gets the girl.
Bond’s ethics are essentially English public school. He believes in queen and country and he is not exactly fond of foreigners. All the villains he deals with are from other countries and races: Asians, Russians and Eastern Europeans. Fleming’s books were written at a time when the Cold War was at its coldest. It was a world in which McCarthy could happen. It was a world in which the Rosenbergs could be executed for spying for Russia. That world may have vanished with the fall of communism, but as one watches the new Russia gain in wealth, power and influence, it seems only a matter of time before the return of the Bond world. But would there be another Ian Fleming to spin yarns about it? Not likely, for such storytellers are not born every day.
A great deal has been written this year, principally in Britain, about Fleming and the world he created. The Imperial War Museum has mounted an exhibition, featuring an array of material, most of it on public display for the first time. The exhibition explores the early life of Ian Fleming, his wartime career and work as a journalist and travel writer and how, as an author, he drew upon his own experiences to create James Bond. According to the actress Joanna Lumley, who played one of the Bond girls, Fleming was “a complicated personality: a ladies’ man with an amusing sardonic face, impeccable connections and lazy elegance. He had an upper-class drawl and was as fit as a flea, which is always very attractive. He was capable of great sweetness, which you see in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which he wrote for his son Caspar. But the more I learnt about him, the more I found him to be a solitary man. His pastimes and pleasures were solitary: golf, cards, cars, writing … the things he loved most were lonely; and there is also a loneliness to James Bond, which is part of his allure.”
Roger Moore, who played Bond from 1973 to 1985, writes that he was an aficionado of James Bond – both the books and the films. “I have a vested interest in the character. I feel protective towards him. When I hear people say: ‘Oh, why don’t they call it a day and kill him off?’ I feel compelled to speak out, like a custodial father. It’s true that, like Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Fleming once toyed with killing off Bond. But his readers protested and he listened. They wouldn’t allow James Bond to die then, and I don’t believe we should any time soon either.” Moore concedes that Sean Connery was the first and probably the best Bond as he originated and defined the cinematic interpretation of the character. Bond, Moore adds, has survived not only Connery’s departure, but five other actors too, and he’s thrived. What’s more, he’s now more popular than ever, hardly breathing the last gasp of a dying man.
Michael Hewitt, in his tribute to Bond, wonders if Bond could afford his extravagant lifestyle today, earning in 1955 a modern-day equivalent of 43,000 pounds. In his first book, Bond was in his thirties, which would make him 90 plus today, a bit past it, wouldn’t you say! Hewitt notes that Bond’s eating habits are hardly guaranteed to make him the picture of health, since he “kicks off each day with an artery-hardening cooked breakfast, courtesy of his housekeeper, May. When travelling, he insists on his own-recipe scrambled eggs. The short story 007 in New York says this includes half a pack of butter and double cream. Otherwise, Bond subsists on ‘grilled soles, oeufs cocotte and cold roast beef with potato salad.’ He loathes fresh fruit and vegetables.” He also has a drinking problem, down as he does half a bottle of spirits a day when off duty. He smokes special Balkan and Turkish mixture cigarettes at the rate of 60 or 70 a day. An MI6 spokesman is supposed to have said, “Obviously, we can’t comment on exactly who we do employ, but I can say that the character described in the books would probably find great difficulty getting a job with us as a cleaner, let alone a field agent.”
The nameless MI6 spokesman is lucky that James Bond did not hear that, otherwise he would have met the same end the baddies do at 007’s hands.