Deighton classified

 

© Harper Collins

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a James Bond buff.  Because of this, I’d wanted for a long time to get my hands on a copy of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy novel The Ipcress File – my interest in it being that it’s often touted as the anti-Bond.

 

Whereas 007 is a posh ex-public schoolboy with oodles of money and charm at his disposal, Harry Palmer, spy hero of The Ipcress File, is an unprivileged and ordinary-seeming bloke with only his working-class wits to help him negotiate the hazardous, occasionally dangerous world of espionage.  Whereas Bond swans around in glamorous international locations enjoying the finest in cuisine, liquor and cars, Palmer trudges the lugubrious streets of London peering at the rain and the pigeons through an oversized pair of glasses.  Whereas Bond wins ladies’ hearts with his unflappable insouciance, Palmer gets dumped on by his superiors for his insolence, which to them signifies that he’s a troublesome oik who doesn’t know his place.

 

That, at least, was the impression I always had of Deighton’s character thanks to seeing the 1965 film version of The Ipcress File, which featured in its lead role that impeccably deadpan man of the people Michael Caine.  (At least, he was a man of the people until the 1970s, when he started moaning about his tax bill.)  It was a surprise, then, to finally open the original novel a few weeks ago and discover that it wasn’t what the film version had led me to believe.  It wasn’t quite as different from the Bond novels as I’d expected.

 

I should qualify that by saying I’m talking in terms of characterisation, not in terms of plot.  For unlike the straightforward, action-adventure plot dynamics of the average Bond novel, the narrative of The Ipcress File is a twisty, at times head-scratching thing that produces plenty of surprises about who’s working for and spying on whom.

 

Anyway, firstly, forget about Harry Palmer.  The hero of Deighton’s novel goes through its 250-odd pages without ever revealing his name.  Early on, somebody calls him ‘Harry’, but he immediately muses: “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever has been.”  All we have is an anonymous narrator recounting events with a laconic turn of phrase whilst giving few clues about his personality and background.  In other words, the main character in The Ipcress File is a cypher, an empty space into which readers can project their own personalities and so imagine themselves at the centre of the intrigue.

 

A cypher was pretty much what James Bond was too – not so much a properly-rounded character as a device for drawing in the reader.  His creator Ian Fleming was careful not to give him too much individuality.  This policy extended from his bland name (famously borrowed from the ornithologist who wrote the book Birds of the West Indies) to his lack of a life-history – it was only in You Only Live Twice (1964), the last novel published in Fleming’s lifetime, that we learn much about him and even then it turns out that Bond was orphaned at an early age, i.e. denied anything as character-forming as a family background.

 

Being a blank canvas isn’t the only thing that Deighton’s protagonist has in common with Bond.  Both their jobs involve some globe-trotting.  Now this came as a shock to me after seeing the film The Ipcress File, which determinedly confines its action to the British capital.  However, the book sees him pursue a kidnapped scientist to Lebanon – resulting in a deadly blunder that the film has happening in a London car-park – and later being posted to a Pacific atoll that the American military have commandeered in order to observe and measure the explosion of a neutron bomb.  The Pacific episode, set in a remote and inhospitable fragment of the tropics that the Americans have converted into a base containing “two athletic fields, two movie theatres, a chapel, a clothing store, beach clubs for officers and enlisted men, a library, hobby shops, vast quarters for the Commanding General, a maintenance hangar, personnel landing pier, mess hall, dispensary, a PX, post office, a wonderful modern laundry and a power plant”, is at times so odd and surreal it doesn’t so much resemble a spy story as something by J.G. Ballard.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

And like Bond, the hero of the literary Ipcress File has refined taste buds.  We variously see him tucking into ‘Russian tea and apple strudel’, ‘Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice and cooked with celery)’, ‘totem poles of lamb, aubergine, onion and green pepper’, ‘iced Israeli melon’ and ‘fine lobster salad and carefully-made mayonnaise’.  Even his sandwiches seem classy by 1962 standards, consisting of ‘cream cheese with pineapple, and ham with mango chutney… with rye bread’.  Admittedly, this appears too in the film, which has a scene where Caine’s Harry Palmer bumps into a superior in a shop and is chided for paying “ten pence more for a fancy French label” of button mushrooms.  The disdainful superior adds: “You’re quite a gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?”

 

However, where Deighton’s hero and Fleming’s hero part ways is in their relationships with their employers.  Whereas Bond seems at ease in the secret service, Deighton’s character lacks the wealthy and privileged background that most of his colleagues and superiors have.  And he isn’t impressed by what that background has produced.  He begins the novel working for Military Intelligence under a man called Ross, “a regular officer, that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.”  Ross, we hear, has given him plenty of ‘toffee-nosed dressing downs’ and at one point he rambles at inordinate length about his huge and lavish garden.  “Ross,” the perplexed narrator breaks in, “Mrs Laing and Dorothy Perkins are roses, aren’t they?”

 

Early in The Ipcress File, though, he’s transferred from Ross’s unit to a civilian intelligence department of the Home Office called the WOOC(P).  Not that he’s much happier with the person in charge there, a character called Dalby who’s “an elegant languid public-school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.”  When Dalby asks him if he “can handle a tricky little special assignment,” he retorts, “If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.”

 

Having to work with people from moneyed backgrounds presents him with another problem.  His superiors don’t seem to appreciate the fact that he needs a steady income and regular payment of expenses to survive.  When he switches from Ross’s outfit to Dalby’s, he wonders how long he “would have to make the remnants of this month’s pay last before the new scale began.”  Later, he complains that he’s “still two months behind with pay and three with allowances” and that “a claim for £35 in overseas special pay” was “overdue by ten and a half months.”

 

This also surfaces in the film, with Ross and Dalby (played by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green) depicted as a pair of condescending bowler-hatted toffs who view Palmer as an irritant with ideas above his station.  But the unflattering commentary about Britain’s class system is diluted slightly by the addition of a military theme.  Ross and Dalby are both of upright army-officer stock while Palmer, we hear, had an inglorious time in uniform.  (I assume that as an ordinary soldier he was caught up in illegal black-market activities in Germany, though I could be wrong.)  Anyway, he’s spent time in a military prison and might be thrown into one again if he gets on the wrong side of his employers.

 

Thus, Palmer’s insolence isn’t just the result of a general social resentment – it comes too from a particular resentment against an institution, the army, that’s blighted his past and could potentially blight his future.  Meanwhile, the film plays down his financial frustrations and shows him protesting instead against the needless bureaucracy of his work.  Dalby, for instance, insists on a lengthy report being written after every excursion he makes ‘into the field’.

 

Incidentally, James Bond gets the best of both worlds.  He’s well-bred enough to know his way around a flashy casino or exclusive golf club, and is choosy about what he eats, drinks and drives, but he knows how to avoid coming across as an arse when mingling with ordinary working folk.  Note how easily he gets into conversation with a pub landlord in Moonraker (1955), say, or with Tiffy, the bargirl at the bordello in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965).  As Henry Chancellor puts it, he’s a ‘snob about things’ but not ‘about people’.

 

To sum up then, I found the hero of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File rather more Bondian than I’d anticipated.  But what distinguishes him from Ian Fleming’s master-spy is class.  One has an ample supply of it.  For the other, it’s the bane of his bloody life.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

Great unappreciated films: Licence to Kill

 

© Eon Productions

 

Few events depress me more than when a film critic like the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw or Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who knows nothing about James Bond and whose general opinions I don’t think much of either, decides it’s time to pen a feature ranking the Bond films from ‘best’ to ‘worst’.  That invariably means that the 1989 movie Licence to Kill with Timothy Dalton playing Bond ends up near the bottom, held off the ‘worst’ spot only by 1985’s A View to a Kill.  (For the record, I think the worst movie is 1979’s Moonraker, followed closely by 1982’s Octopussy and 2002’s Die Another Day.)  Bradshaw, Travers or whoever the know-nothing critic is will invariably damn Licence to Kill with such adjectives as ‘humourless’, ‘dour’, ‘violent’ and ‘misjudged’.

 

This was the film where Timothy Dalton and the Bond production team decided it was time to shake up the tried-and-tested formula of fantasy plots, over-the-top villains and unlikely action set-pieces by trying something more authentic.  In fact, Licence to Kill is a trailblazer for the Bond films of the 21st century, when the series was rebooted into a darker, grittier (and critically acclaimed) form with Daniel Craig.  But it rarely gets any credit for that.

 

Well, today, the thirtieth anniversary of when Licence to Kill was released in cinemas, it’s time for Blood and Porridge to stand up and be counted.  I think Licence to Kill is a great Bond movie.  When it appeared, I believed it was the best instalment in the series since the 1960s and I still regard it as being among the best half-dozen in the series’ 57-year history.  That its critical reputation is tarnished is down to bad luck.  It was unlucky in the reaction it got from fickle film critics who’d spent the previous two decades complaining that the Bond movies, during the tenure of Roger Moore, had become ‘too silly’ and had lost the ‘serious’ tone of the Ian Fleming books on which they were based.  But the moment that Licence to Kill appeared, they wailed that it was ‘too serious’ and lamented the loss of the glorious silliness of good old Roger Moore.

 

Licence to Kill was unlucky too because, although it made a respectable profit outside the USA, the American takings were the lowest ever for a Bond movie.  Despite what many think, this wasn’t a reflection of its quality, but the result of it being released at an inopportune time when cinemas were already crowded with Lethal Weapon 2, Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (a film that coincidentally was choc-a-bloc with Bond alumni like John Rhys-Davies, Alison Doody, Julian Glover and the original 007 himself Sean Connery).

 

And it was unlucky to be the last movie before the great Bond hiatus of 1989 to 1995, during which no new Bond films were made due to a legal dispute between Danjaq, the franchise’s holding company, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists.  This gave people the false impression that Licence to Kill, and Timothy Dalton, had crocked the series for half-a-dozen years.

 

When I saw Licence to Kill 30 years ago, what impressed me first was that it had a plot.  Not a jungle-like mesh of subplots and tangents created because producer Cubby Broccoli and his writers wanted to fit in action and special-effects set-pieces involving Viennese gondolas that turn into speedboats, and Amazonian speedboats that turn into hang-gliders, and crashing cable cars, and Bond falling out of a plane without a parachute, and laser-gun shootouts in outer space, but a plot that moves smoothly from A to B and to C.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Licence to Kill begins with Bond being best man at the wedding of his CIA buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison, who’d already played Leiter in 1974’s Live and Let Die).  Leiter’s big day proves even more eventful than expected because he has to interrupt his nuptials to seize Latin American drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  Sanchez has suddenly turned up on American soil in pursuit of his errant mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and her boyfriend – whose heart Sanchez cuts out before Leiter and the Feds clamp the cuffs on him.

 

Felix gets married as planned, but things take a dark turn indeed when Sanchez escapes from captivity, with the aid of crooked DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill).  Like the monster on Victor and Elizabeth Frankenstein’s wedding night, he and his henchmen turn up at the Leiters’ home to get revenge.  Leiter’s new wife Della (Priscilla Barnes) is murdered – Sanchez’s number-one scumbag minion Dario, played by a very young Benicio Del Toro, crows at Leiter, “Don’t worry, we gave her a nice honeymoo-oon!”  Leiter is dunked in a shark tank in a marine research centre in Key West, which is one of the fronts for Sanchez’s US drugs-smuggling operation.  Later, Bond discovers Della’s dead body and Leiter’s just-about-alive one (minus a couple of limbs) and vows his own revenge.

 

He picks up the trail in Key West, first investigating the marine research centre and then Sanchez’s yacht / research vessel the Wavekrest – by this time Sanchez himself has returned to his home turf, which is a fictitious Latin American country called Isthmus.  Bond tangles violently with Dario and Sanchez’s sleazy American lieutenant Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe) and, gratifyingly, he drops Killifer and his suitcase of blood money into the shark tank where Leiter was maimed.  (“You earned it!  You keep it!”)  Along the way, he finds an unexpected ally in the form of Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), an airplane pilot who’s been working for Leiter in some mysterious capacity.  And he incurs the wrath of his boss M (Robert Brown), who thinks he’s getting involved in matters that don’t concern him (“We’re not a country club, 007!”) and revokes his licence to kill.  This was why the film had provisionally been titled Licence Revoked until, the story goes, research in the USA suggested that many Americans didn’t know what the word ‘revoked’ meant.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Now a rogue agent, Bond steals a fortune in drugs money from the Wavekrest and uses it to fund a trip to Isthmus for him and Bouvier.  There, he tries to assassinate Sanchez but fails and, in the process, unwittingly exposes a secret operation being run against Sanchez by narcotics officers from Hong Kong.  This leaves Sanchez with the impression that the Hong Kong officers were the ones trying to assassinate him and Bond, by exposing them, is actually on his side.  An unlikely bromance ensues and Sanchez, enamoured with Bond, tries to recruit him into his organisation.

 

Aware that Sanchez is obsessed with loyalty, Bond starts planting doubts in Sanchez’s mind about the fidelity of his many henchmen who, in addition to those already mentioned, include his head of security Heller (Don Stroud) and his whizz-kid accountant Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke).  Time, though, is running short for Bond because the two members of Sanchez’s organisation who know his true identity are returning to Isthmus: Krest, on board the Wavekrest, and Dario, who’s coming by way of El Salvador, where he’s managed to procure some stinger missiles.  Sanchez intends to use these to shoot down American aircraft in revenge for his recent incarceration.

 

What follows involves much mayhem and gruesome death – death by being doused in gasoline and set alight, death by being blown apart in a decompression chamber, death by being impaled on forklift blades, death by being fed into a cocaine-grinding machine – a lot of it inflicted by a now-paranoid Sanchez on the people who work for him.  Yes, Licence to Kill seems a million miles removed from the Roger Moore Bonds, where the most gruesome things were the innuendo-laden jokes cracked while Moore got intimate with ladies about half his age.  (“He’s attempting re-entry!” someone remarks as Moore gets it on with Lois Chiles on board an earthbound space shuttle in Moonraker.)  But while the brutality here may shock someone accustomed to the escapist fantasises of the 1970s and 1980s Bond movies, I loved it.

 

This was the sort of Bond imagined by Ian Fleming, most of whose books I’d read before I saw any of the films.  Not, of course, that Fleming ever wrote about 1980s Latin American drug dealers – his gangsters were of the James Cagney variety, with names like ‘Jack Spang’, ‘Sluggsy Morant’, ‘Sol Horowitz’, ‘Sam Binion’ and ‘Louie Paradise’.  But Dalton nails it as the screen Bond who was closest to the character described by Fleming.  Smooth and confident on the surface, but subtly troubled underneath, he does some bad stuff in the line of duty and hates having to do it.  Though even more, he hates the evil deeds, like the atrocities perpetrated against Leiter, that necessitate him having to do it.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Not that the film is as dark as many have made out.  It has some amusing lines and likeable performances.  One thing that brings a smile to the face is the entry into the plot, halfway through, of Bond’s secret-service armourer Q, played by the venerable Desmond Llewellyn.  Q takes some leave and nips over to Isthmus to help Bond and Bouvier out, bringing with him a cache of his famous gadgets.  (“Everything for a man on holiday.  Explosive alarm clock…  Guaranteed never to wake up anyone who uses it.  Dentonite toothpaste…  To be used sparingly.  The latest in plastic explosive!”)  After the Moore films, where Q’s main function was to be the butt of Bond’s jokes, it’s nice to see him with an expanded role and enjoying a different dynamic with Bond.  In Licence to Kill, the two men actually respect, like and care about each other.

 

Llewellyn, though, is just one player in a generally delightful cast.  A 1980s / 1990s action-movie character actor, and nowadays a Sinatra-esque crooner, Robert Davi is excellent as Sanchez.  He tempers sufficient quantities of rottenness with some unexpected integrity – for instance, he insists on honouring the deal he’s made with Killifer, even though his sidekicks urge him to take the easier option of whacking the guy.  Similarly distinguished character actors play the other villains: Zerbe, Stroud, McGill and, of course, Del Toro.  Plus you get some familiar and welcome faces  in smaller roles, including Frank McRae from 48 Hrs (1982) and The Last Action Hero (1993) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa from the Mortal Combat franchise.

 

Also deserving praise is Carey Lowell.  Just as Davi is the great overlooked Bond villain, Lowell is the great overlooked Bond girl.  From the very beginning, when she shuts up the odious Dario by shoving a pump-action shotgun into his crotch, her Pam Bouvier character means business.  Her gutsiness is immensely refreshing after so many Bond actresses in the 1970s and 1980s were given roles that were wooden (Carole Bouquet), insipid (Jane Seymour) or just plain dumb (Jill St John, Britt Ekland, Tanya Roberts).  It’s good too that she doesn’t merely follow Bond but has her own separate agenda – retrieving the stinger missiles before Sanchez does serious damage with them, a scheme for which she’s enlisted the help of the duplicitous Heller.

 

© Eon Productions

 

What else do I like about Licence to Kill?  I like its references to Ian Fleming’s fiction – Milton Krest, the Wavekrest and Sanchez’s fondness for whipping Lupe with a stingray’s tail come from the 1960 short story The Hildebrand Rarity, while Leiter’s encounter with the shark is lifted from the 1954 novel Live and Let Die.  I like how the secondary Bond girl, Talisa Soto’s Lupe, survives the film – in many films the secondary Bond girl, from Lana Wood’s Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds are Forever (1971) to Berenice Marlohe’s Severine in Skyfall (2012), ends up as a sacrificial lamb, killed to show how beastly the villains are.  And I like the theme song by Gladys Knight.  While it’s not in the premiere division of Bond themes, it has a stateliness that’s welcome after the filmmakers’ previous flirtations with pop groups and pop songs, i.e. Aha’s The Living Daylights (1987), a song that I hated at the time but quite like now, and Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill (1985), a song that I hated at the time and hate even more now.

 

And I like how the film is a spiritual sequel to perhaps the best-ever Bond movie, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which ends with Bond getting married and then seeing his new wife Tracy murdered by his nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  This is referenced in Licence to Kill by a moment when Bond becomes melancholic during Leiter’s wedding – “He was married once,” Leiter tells Della, “but that was a long time ago.”  (When I saw the film in 1989 in a cinema in Aberdeen, someone in the row behind me declared: “Aye, an’ he looked like George Lazenby at the time!”)  This suggests that later in the film Bond isn’t just avenging Leiter and Della, but Tracy too.

 

And faults?  Well, Licence to Kill suffers from a couple of character inconsistencies.  For a man who’s recently lost  wife and limbs, David Hedison’s Leiter seems unfathomably cheerful when he reappears at the end – maybe it’s the drugs they were feeding him at the hospital.   Meanwhile, Carey Lowell’s Bouvier is ill-served by a scene where she encounters Lupe, finds out that she’s spent the night with Bond and reacts like a sulky, jealous schoolgirl.  (“Bullshit!” she exclaims when Q diplomatically suggests that Bond only did it for the sake of the mission.)  She’s entitled to be upset, but being upset like this is out-of-character for her.

 

Licence to Kill, alas, marked Timothy Dalton’s last appearance as Bond.  When the franchise finally got going again with 1995’s Goldeneye, it was with the cuddlier Pierce Brosnan in the role.  (I like Brosnan, but always found his attempts to combine the physicality of Sean Connery with the smoothness of Roger Moore a little unconvincing.)  As I’ve said, Dalton strikes me as the actor who came closest to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had envisioned him and, for me, there’s no higher accolade.  He’s the connoisseur’s Bond.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The importance of being Ernst

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(c) Eon Productions
(c) Eon Productions

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Details of the forthcoming 25th official James Bond movie were announced via a media rollout on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook on April 25th, 2019.  This came after a series of delays, script rewrites and changes of director that, depending on your point of view, is a sign that the long-running James Bond franchise is in trouble or is just part-and-parcel of the cumbersome business of getting a Bond epic to the screen.  Anyway, two important questions remain unanswered.  Firstly, what is the new Bond movie actually going to be called?  And secondly, will Bond’s archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who made his long-awaited comeback in the previous instalment Spectre (2015), return for this new one? 

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It’s been reported that Christoph Waltz, who played Blofeld in Spectre, won’t be in the new film.  However, previous films and the Ian Fleming books that inspired them have depicted Blofeld as someone with a penchant for radically altering his appearance.  So it’s still possible that he’ll be back in Bond 25, played by a different actor – perhaps Rami Malik, who’s been unveiled as the film’s main ‘villain’.

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Ernst Stavro Blofeld, super-intelligent and super-nasty leader of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion organisation (SPECTRE for short), is a paradoxical figure.  On one hand, in popular consciousness, he’s as much a part of Bond tradition as Q’s gadgets, shaken-not-stirred dry martinis and the Aston Martin DB5.  Mention of him conjures up images of a sinister foreigner sporting a shaven head, wearing a white Mao-suit, stroking a white cat and feeding minions to piranha fish when they fail to carry out his orders.  It’s no surprise that when Mike Myers lovingly spoofed the Bond movies with his Austen Powers ones (1997-2002), he made sure he spoofed Blofeld too with the character of the bald-headed, Mao-suit-wearing, cat-stroking, piranha-feeding Dr Evil.

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But on the other hand, Blofeld isn’t really in the Bond books and movies that much.  He appears in only three of Ian Fleming’s 14 Bond novels and short-story collections, and in one of those, 1961’s Thunderball, Bond and Blofeld never meet – Bond spends the novel tangling with Blofeld’s lieutenant, Emilio Largo.  Meanwhile, Blofeld is featured in seven of the 24 Bond movies made over the past six decades by Eon Productions, but makes only fleeting appearances in three of them.  And three of the four films where Blofeld is a substantial character were made during the first decade of the franchise.  Before Waltz stepped into Blofeld’s shoes in Spectre, we’d hardly seen anything of the old rogue since 1971’s Diamonds are Forever

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(Still, in terms of presence in popular mythology versus lack-of-presence in the original source material, Blofeld has nothing on Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty, who doesn’t figure in 58 of the 60 Holmes stories.  He only properly appears in one story and lurks offstage in one other.)

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Thunderball, the novel in which Blofeld made his debut, was really a collaborative effort.  It was written by Fleming but based on a script he’d put together with Irish writer-director Kevin McClory and British playwright and screenwriter Jack Whittingham for a Bond film in the late 1950s.  The film came to nothing and Fleming’s publication of the novel a few years later resulted in legal action from McClory and Whittingham.  Although who came up with which ideas in Thunderball has been a matter of dispute, I’m inclined to believe Blofeld was the product of Fleming’s imagination rather than McClory or Whittingham’s.  For one thing, Fleming had attended Eton in the company of one Thomas Blofeld and he probably borrowed his old schoolmate’s surname for the character.  (This real Blofeld was the father of the famous cricket commentator Henry Blofeld.)  

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Meanwhile, Blofeld’s Wikipedia entry suggests that Fleming took inspiration for his personality from the infamous Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff.  After escapades in his youth as a confidence man, bigamist, possible arsonist, dodgy goods exporter and general manipulator and social climber, Zaharoff came to specialise in selling weaponry – weaponry that sometimes didn’t work, as with the Nordenfelt 1 submarine that he flogged off to Greece, Turkey and Russia.  Zaharoff also had no qualms about supplying arms to countries that were fighting on either side of a conflict, which is a very Blofeld-ish thing to do.

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(c) Jonathan Cape

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Over the course of three novels – Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964) – Blofeld is quite a shapeshifter.  In Thunderball, he’s a whale of a man, some 20 stones in weight.  In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s slimmed down to 12 stones, wears green-tinted contact lenses and, disconcertingly, has a syphilitic gumma on his nose.  And in You Only Live Twice, he’s bulked out again, though with muscle rather than fat.  His mouth flashes a gold-capped tooth and his nose has been fixed. 

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More interesting, though, is how Fleming charts Blofeld’s mental development (or degeneration).  The Blofeld of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has succumbed to that most bourgeois of diseases, snobbery, and is pestering the College of Arms in London to acknowledge him as a reigning aristocrat, the Comte Balthazar de Bleuville.   (A genealogy expert tells Bond how respectable people lose all dignity when they’re angling for a title or a coat of arms: “they dwindle and dwindle in front of you… until they’re no more than homunculi.”)  By You Only Live Twice, Blofeld’s state-of-mind has gone from snobbery to insanity.  He lives in a castle on the Japanese island of Kyushu and has installed a bizarre ‘garden of death’, teeming with deadly flora and fauna and riddled with sulphurous fumaroles, which has become a popular visiting spot for people wanting to commit suicide.  To be fair, by this point Bond isn’t much saner than Blofeld, due to Blofeld having murdered his wife Tracy at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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(c) Eon Productions

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The films, in tune with the escapist mood of the 1960s, were happy to use Blofeld and SPECTRE as their fantasy baddies from the start – unlike the earliest novels, which were set in the Cold War and had the Russians providing the villainy.  Blofeld makes his first appearance in 1963’s From Russia with Love.  “Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one!” he decrees of Bond.  However, he has only a minor role and remains hidden within a large chair, and we only see his hands stroking the glossy white fur of a Persian cat.  (The white cat was a detail added by the filmmakers, although in Fleming’s books Auric Goldfinger did own a ginger cat – a rather unfortunate one, for he ends up being given as dinner to Goldfinger’s sidekick, Oddjob.)  Blofeld was played physically by the Scottish actor Anthony Dawson, while his mellifluous voice was supplied by the Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann.  Two years later, Dawson and Pohlmann reteamed to play Blofeld bodily and vocally in the film version of Thunderball, but again it was a minor, away-from-the-action role. 

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It wasn’t until the 1967 movie You Only Live Twice – which confusingly preceded the movie version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968), even though they appeared the other way around as books – that we get to see Blofeld’s face for the first time, as does Bond.  And he’s played by the sublimely sinister Donald Pleasence with all the classic Blofeld accoutrements (bald head, Mao-suit, cat, piranhas).  Interestingly, though, as soon as the filmmakers had created the definite Blofeld template with the goblin-like Pleasence, they immediately chose not to continue with that version of the character.  For when Blofeld reappears in 1968 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s played very differently by the celebrated Greek-American actor Telly Savalas.

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(c) Eon Productions

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Savalas’s Blofeld is physical, macho and, when we see him flirting with heroine Diana Rigg, brutishly charming.  To be honest, he’s a shade too physical and macho for the role and you can’t help feeling he’d have made a better henchman than the Big Villain.  But Savalas is certainly believable when doing the strenuous outdoors things required by the script, such as leading a ski-group in pursuit of Bond and wrestling with him during a breakneck bobsleigh ride.  Much as I like Donald Pleasance, I couldn’t imagine the creepy, pop-eyed English character actor hurtling down a mountainside on a bobsleigh.

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Incidentally, when Bond and Blofeld meet up in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the script glaringly contradicts the continuity established by its predecessor.  Despite coming face-to-face at the climax of You Only Live Twice, in the new film Blofeld doesn’t recognise Bond at all.  (Admittedly, Bond does look different all of a sudden because producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Salzman had just replaced Sean Connery with George Lazenby, but let’s not go into that.) 

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Like its literary equivalent, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ends with Blofeld murdering Bond’s wife Tracey.  As Blofeld also features in the next Bond movie, 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, you’d expect it to be a tough and intense affair.  But Diamonds are Forever is nothing of the sort.  Sean Connery (enticed back into 007’s shoes by a 1.25-million-pound paycheque after George Lazenby jumped ship) is given five minutes at the beginning to look vengeful and that’s it.  Then the film becomes the epitome of cinematic Bond laziness, its plot meandering nonsensically from one action set-piece to another, its visuals packed with easy-on-the-eye spectacle and lavishness.  No doubt this was because the melancholic On Her Majesty’s Secret Service hadn’t been a big success and producers Broccoli and Saltzman wanted to play it safe and return to a formula that audiences were comfortable with. 

*

Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever is played acerbically and amusingly by English character actor Charles Gray.  While he’s wreaking havoc with a deadly laser gun mounted on a satellite, he sneers: “The satellite is now over Kansas.   Well, if we destroy Kansas, the world may not hear about it for years.”  Indeed, Gray and the bemused, past-caring Connery make quite the double act.  “What do you intend to do with those diamonds?” demands Bond at one point.  Blofeld retorts, “An excellent question, and one which will be hanging on the lips of the world quite soon.  If I were to break the news to anyone, it would be to you first, Mr Bond.  You know that.”

*

(c) Eon Productions

*

Diamonds are Forever was the last Bond film for a long time in which Blofeld (and SPECTRE) are prominent.  This was due to ongoing legal issues with Kevin McClory, which stemmed from the controversy over the novel and original film script of Thunderball.  However, a villain who’s obviously Blofeld – though he isn’t named for the aforementioned legal reasons – does turn up at the beginning of the fifth Bond movie starring Roger Moore, For Your Eyes Only (1981).  He’s bald, has a white cat, is now in a wheelchair and neck-brace and, returning to the policy of From Russia with Love and Thunderball, he’s physically played by one actor, John Hollis, and voiced by another, Robert Rietti.  In the film’s pre-credits sequence, Blofeld traps Bond above London in a remote-controlled helicopter.  Alas, what begins as an exciting action set-piece descends into typical Moore-era silliness when Bond gains manual control of the helicopter, and somehow scoops Blofeld and his wheelchair up on one of the helicopter’s landing skids, and drops him into a factory chimney. 

*

Having won the right to remake Thunderball, Kevin McClory did so in 1983.  His production company brought out Never Say Never Again, a rogue Bond film unconnected with the Eon series – although it did have Sean Connery, no doubt keen to thumb his nose at his former employers, reprising the role of Bond.  Since McClory had the rights to Blofeld too, it was inevitable that Bond’s old nemesis should feature in the plot. This time he’s played by the mighty Swedish actor Max von Sydow but, like in the original Thunderball, he doesn’t have much to do.  Now I admire von Sydow, but all I remember about him in this film is my surprise at seeing Blofeld with a beard and in a grey business suit.  And from the way von Sydow clutches the little fellow to his chest, this Blofeld really loves his white cat.

*

(c) Taliafilm / Warner Bros.

*

In 2013 the legal row was finally settled with Kevin McClory’s estate and Eon Productions were free to use Blofeld and SPECTRE again – and they did in their very next film, the emphatically titled Spectre.  In the role of the 21st century Blofeld is Christoph Waltz, who plays him as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike most Blofelds of old, he sports a full head of hair and commits crimes against fashion as well as against humanity by wearing his loafers without socks.  But he still has the cat. 

*

The new Blofeld also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser, and we learn eventually that he’s connected to Bond through his father, Hannes Oberhauser, who brought up the young James Bond after his parents were killed in a climbing accident.  This backstory involving Blofeld and Bond brought hoots of derision from many movie critics, though I didn’t have much of a problem with it – the adoptive father-figure of Hannes Oberhauser existed in Ian Fleming’s original, literary Bond-universe and Bond talked about him in the short story Octopussy, published in 1966.  It’s just unfortunate that the third Austen Powers film, Goldmember (2002), has a similar revelation linking Powers and Dr Evil.

*

And so the million-dollar question now is, with Waltz seemingly departed, will Rami Malik be playing yet another incarnation of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Bond 25?  And if so, what will the latest Blofeld be like?  One thing I’m fairly sure about, though.  If Blofeld is returning, I reckon the theatrical agent of a certain fluffy, white Persian will be getting a telephone call very soon.     

*

(c) Eon Productions

*

My name is Amis, Kingsley Amis

 

© Vintage Classics

 

There’s been much talk in recent years about the obsolescence of James Bond.  The thinking goes that as a privileged, white, stuck-up, sexist macho-man rooted in the early decades of the Cold War, Bond has become an embarrassing anachronism in our politically correct, socially aware era today.  Here’s Laurie Penny’s contribution to the debate, for instance, in the New Statesman.

 

Well, forgive me for being sceptical about this line of thought.  For one thing, with the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit dominating political discourse just now, our times are clearly less enlightened than many would like to think.  Which means there are probably millions of unreconstructed souls out there who don’t give two hoots about political correctness and still clutch old snobby, sexist 007 to their bosoms.  For better or for worse, I don’t think Bond is going to disappear off the popular radar for a while yet.

 

Also, modern-day Bond-bashers overlook the fact that the Bond franchise – the movies, anyway – has had fun for a long time already with the idea of its hero being outmoded and anachronistic.  In 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Edward Fox’s M tells Sean Connery’s Bond: “It’s no secret that I hold your methods in much less regard than my illustrious predecessor did.”  Thereafter, he lectures Bond on healthy eating and avoiding free radicals: “They’re toxins that destroy the body and the brain, caused by eating too much red meat and white bread.  Too many dry martinis!”  In 1995’s Goldeneye, another M, Judi Dench, takes Pierce Brosnan’s Bond to task for being ‘a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War…’  And in 2015’s Spectre, Daniel Craig’s Bond is faced with a new, tech-obsessed superior called C (Andrew Scott), who vows to ‘bring British intelligence out of the dark ages, into the light’, where ‘an agent in the field’ can’t ‘last long against all those drones and satellites.’

 

But however fashionable or unfashionable Bond is these days, nobody can deny that well-regarded authors are still keen to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming and have a go at writing new James Bond novels: for example, Sebastian Foulkes (with 2008’s Devil May Care), Jeffery Deaver (with 2011’s Carte Blanche), William Boyd (with 2013’s Solo) and Anthony Horowitz (with 2015’s Trigger Mortis).  And it’s been announced that Horowitz will be unveiling a second Bond novel, Forever and a Day, later this year.

 

Long before Foulkes, Deaver, Boyd and Horowitz got in on the act, though, another writer attempted to construct a novel around Ian Fleming’s legendary creation.  In 1968, just four years after Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis wrote a Bond adventure called Colonel Sun and published it under the pseudonym Robert Markham.  By then, of course, Amis was a big noise in British letters thanks to works like 1954’s Lucky Jim and 1960’s Take a Girl Like You.  I should say that my 2015 Vintage Classics edition of Colonel Sun makes no mention of Robert Markham on its front cover and advertises it unapologetically as a Kingsley Amis novel.

 

© The Times

 

A few weeks ago, I finally found the time to read Amis’s take on Bond and I thought I’d offer my thoughts on it.  If you haven’t yet read Colonel Sun but intend to, beware – there are spoilers ahead.

 

Set a little while after the events of Fleming’s Bond swansong, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) (which Amis is rumoured to have polished up when Fleming died before he could revise it himself), Colonel Sun begins with an audacious attempt by some unidentified villains to kidnap both Bond and M.  They’re only half-successful – M is abducted and whisked out of England, but Bond manages to elude his would-be kidnappers and is then tasked with tracking down his boss.  He soon homes in on an island in the Aegean Sea.  There, M is being held by a Chinese officer, ‘Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the Special Activities Committee, People’s Liberation Army’.

 

The dastardly Colonel has hatched a dastardly plan.  The Soviet Union is hosting a secret international conference in the area and Sun plans to destroy it and the delegates in a mortar attack, the blame for which will then be pinned on Britain – Sun intends to make it look like one of the last mortars blew up accidentally, before firing, and leave Bond and M’s dead, but still identifiable, bodies in the wreckage.  Thus, China will benefit from the discrediting not only of the USSR for sloppy security, but also of the UK for warmongering.

 

To rescue M and thwart Sun’s scheme, Bond joins forces with a woman called Ariadne Alexandrou, a Greek communist who’s been working for the Soviets; and a Greek World War II veteran called Niko Litsas who, after fighting Nazis, fought communists during the 1946-49 Greek Civil War.  (Amis discreetly skates over Britain’s sorry role in this episode of Greek history.  In 1944 the British government decided to back the anti-communist faction in Greece against the left-leaning one, even though the former faction contained many former Nazi sympathisers and collaborators and the latter contained many partisans who’d fought for the Allies.)  Despite their ideological differences, the trio bond – ouch! – and are soon prowling the Aegean Sea in a vessel called The Altair whilst figuring a way of taking the fight to Sun and his many henchmen.

 

Amis’s plot is a generic one and a few things don’t make sense.  For example, why does Sun want to plant the elderly and normally deskbound M at the scene of the crime?  (This is the literary M we’re talking about, not the feistier and more empowered cinematic version played by the likes of Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes.)  Wouldn’t it look more believable if the body of another, physically-able British agent was found there next to Bond’s?  It’s hard to see this as anything more than a perfunctory excuse for the novel’s main gimmick, the kidnapping of M.

 

© Bantam Books

 

But Colonel Sun is still good entertainment and it feels more credible as a Bond novel than the other non-Fleming Bonds, like Solo and Trigger Mortis, that I’ve read.  For one thing, unlike the rather bland villains in the Boyd and Horowitz novels, Colonel Sun makes a memorable baddie.

 

Yes, he belongs to a long tradition of Oriental supervillains found in pulpy colonial adventure fiction – the Fu Manchu books being the most famous, and notorious, examples.  He’s not even the first bad guy in the Bond canon to follow this dubious blueprint, an honour that belongs to the titular character of Fleming’s Dr No (1957).  But Sun is splendidly eccentric.  He’s irritatingly polite and addresses friends and foes alike by their first names.  He also sees himself as an Anglophile: “Sun did not share his colleagues’ often-expressed contempt… for everything British.  He was fond of many aspects of their culture and considered it regrettable in some ways that that culture had such a short time left.”

 

Then there’s his troubling penchant for torture.  Near the novel’s end and just before he lays into Bond with an array of kitchen utensils (‘knives, skewers, broom-straws’), he explains: “True sadism has nothing whatever to do with sex.  The intimacy I was referring to is moral and spiritual, the union of two souls in a rather mystical way.”  Later still, he surprises us when he confesses to Bond that “I didn’t feel like a god when I was torturing you back there.  I felt sick and guilty and ashamed.”

 

Admittedly, I could have done without the linguistic quirk that Amis bestows on his villain.  Thanks to his ‘quick ear and passionate desire to learn’ English and a ‘total ignorance of the British dialect pattern’, he’s ended up with a bizarre accent combining the ‘tones of Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle, Cardiff and several sorts of London…’  As a result, every time that Colonel Sun opens his mouth in the book, I imagine him sounding like Liam Gallagher, Billy Connolly, Ringo Starr, George Best, Jimmy Nail, Charlotte Church and Bob Hoskins fed through a mixing desk.

 

Colonel Sun also feels like a proper Bond novel because Kingsley Amis’s authorial voice doesn’t sound that different from Ian Fleming’s.  Putting it more crudely, it feels closer to the originals than the modern pastiches do because Amis was as much of a curmudgeonly snob as Fleming was.  By the 1960s, Bond’s rarefied world of Bentleys, dinner jackets and private members’ clubs were on their way out; and Amis bellyaches about it as you’d imagine Fleming would.  When Bond drives through some English farmland, he writes: “Places like this would last longest as memorials of what England had once been.  As if to contradict this idea, there appeared ahead of him a B.E.A. Trident newly taken off from London Airport, full of tourists bearing their fish-and-chip culture to the Spanish resorts, to Portugal’s lovely Algarve province, and now… as far as Morocco.”  Also activating Amis’s Licence to Grump is the prospect of the great unwashed discovering the Greek islands.  Describing a waterfront, he observes: “At the near end were whitewashed cottages with blue or tan shutters and doors, then a grocery, a ship’s supplier, harbour offices, a tavérna with a faded green awning.  No neon, no cars, no souvenir shops.  Not yet.”

 

© Eon Productions

 

Still, some aspects of Colonel Sun are surprisingly liberal, considering that Amis was well-known for his cranky right-wing politics.  Ariadne, the book’s heroine, is resourceful and able to look after herself and Bond comes across as less of a sexist boor than one might have expected.  Meanwhile, some of the Soviet characters are depicted sympathetically: for example, Gordienko, Moscow’s man in Athens who believes Bond’s warnings that something fishy is afoot and will have bad consequences for both their countries; and Yermolov, the pragmatic, vodka-loving dignitary who at the end expresses the USSR’s gratitude to Bond for foiling Sun’s plan.  Indeed, Yermolov feels like a prototype for the craggy but avuncular General Gogol, the KGB head played by Walter Gottel who appeared in every Bond movie from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) to The Living Daylights (1987).  In Colonel Sun, Yermolov even offers Bond the Order of the Red Banner; just as Gogol awards Roger Moore (‘Comrade Bond’) the Order of Lenin at the end of 1985’s A View to a Kill.

 

But before we assume that old Kingsley has gone all hippy-dippy and peace-and-love, we should bear in mind that the Soviets are the good guys here only comparatively – because the bad guys are the Chinese.  The novel even postulates that the West and the Soviet Union are on the brink of working together because of the increasing threat posed by China.  (Richard Nixon’s jaunt to China in 1972 must have knocked that fanciful notion on the head.)  Happily, by the time of the 1997 Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, which has Pierce Brosnan joining forces with Michelle Yeoh to take on evil media mogul Jonathan Pryce (basically playing Rupert Murdoch), the Bond-verse had decided that the Chinese could be good guys too.

 

Talking of which, while Colonel Sun has never been filmed, it’s interesting to see how a few of its ideas have turned up in the Bond movies.  The kidnapping of M was a key plot element in 1999’s Tomorrow Never Dies, while a villain called Colonel Tan-Sun Moon features in 2002’s Die Another Day.  And if Colonel Sun’s musings during the book’s climactic torture scene sound familiar – “Torture is easy, on a superficial level.  A man can watch himself being disembowelled and derive great horror from the experience, but it’s still going on at a distance…  a man lives inside his head.  That’s where the seed of his soul is…  So James, I’m going to penetrate to where you are.  To the inside of your head….” – it’s because they were used as dialogue in 2015’s Spectre, for the scene where Christoph Waltz violates Daniel Craig’s skull using a torture device that looks like a dentist’s drill attached to a robotic tentacle.

 

In Spectre, Waltz’s character is revealed as being none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Having James Bond’s great arch-enemy nick his best lines?  I’m sure Colonel Sun would have been flattered.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The spy who tried something different

 

© Vintage Books

 

First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is the ninth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and holds several records in the Bond literary canon.  It clocks in at 198 pages, which makes it the shortest Bond book.  It was also the last book to appear in a world that knew Bond as a literary and not a cinematic character, because its publication came just six months before the release of Dr No, the first Bond movie produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  And it was the worst-received of the books.  The Daily Telegraph reacted to it with a despairing “Oh Dear Oh Dear Oh Dear!”, the Listener dismissed it as ‘unremittingly’ and ‘grindingly boring’ and the Observer demanded, “why can’t this cunning author write up a bit instead of down?”

 

As soon as the critics stuck in their knives, Fleming himself disowned the book.  He asked his publisher not to print a paperback edition of it, a request that they honoured until two years after his death.  He also stipulated that any movie version of The Spy Who Loved Me could never use the book’s plot, only its title.  (I’m sure that 15 years later when Cubby Broccoli got around to filming The Spy Who Loved Me, he must have been distraught about this.  “You mean,” lamented the cigar-puffing mogul, “I can’t just follow what happens in the book?  I have to put other stuff in my movie instead?  Like cars that travel underwater?  Giant oil-tankers that swallow nuclear submarines?  Indestructible henchmen with steel teeth?  Roger Moore with quizzical eyebrows?  No!  NO!”)

 

A few weeks ago, I finally read the original much-maligned The Spy Who Loved Me.  My initial reaction was Ian Fleming at least deserved credit for attempting something different.  Fans of his previous eight books were surely surprised when they started reading it in 1962 and discovered they were hearing a first-person narrative voice rather than Fleming’s usual, authoritative, third-person one.  “I was running away,” it begins.  “I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from the drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, though I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race.  In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”

 

The first-person voice is that of Viv Michel, a young French-Canadian woman who’s been left in charge of a closed-for-the-winter motel called The Dreamy Pines Motor Court in the mountains of northern New York State.  After a first chapter where Viv doesn’t cope well with a thunderstorm raging above the motel’s empty cabins, playground, swimming pool and golf range – she stupidly pulls an electrical switch at the same moment that a bolt of lightning lets rip, and the resultant electrical shock knocks her unconscious – she spends the next eighty pages explaining how she’s ended up in this situation.

 

She describes her early life in Canada; being sent to a finishing school in England where she “was made to suffer agonies” for her accent, for her table manners “which were considered uncouth”, for her “total lack of savoir-faire and, in general, for being a Canadian”; and finding work in London while suffering the afore-mentioned “sequence of untidy, unattractive love affairs”.  After the last affair results in her having an abortion in Switzerland, she returns to North America and resolves to search for some adventure and self-discovery and shake off the memories of the men who’ve used and abused her.  So she purchases a Vespa 150cc Gran Sport and sets off on a road trip.  It’s on the road that she comes across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, where she gets offered employment; first as an end-of-season receptionist and then, when it closes for the winter, as a caretaker minding the premises until its owner, one Mr Sanguinetti, arrives to take possession of the keys.

 

Viv’s position at the Dreamy Pines feels a little like that of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and things soon go as badly for her as they did for the ill-fated Jack.  Two hoodlums with the nicknames Sluggsy and Horror show up at the motel in the middle of the night and take her prisoner.  It transpires that Sanguinetti is a gangster and the pair are henchmen tasked with burning the place to the ground as part of an insurance scam.  Viv, the only witness, looks likely to be torched along with the motel.

 

It’s here that we encounter the single detail of the book that makes it into the 1977 film ‘adaptation’ with Roger Moore.  Looking at Horror’s face, she notices “a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth,” indicating that “they had been cheaply capped with steel.”  Sound familiar?

 

© Eon Productions

 

By now we’re more than halfway into the book.  Back in 1962 at this point, readers must have been panicking: where the hell is Bond?  Well, he appears at The Dreamy Pines later that same night – Viv’s first impression of him is that he’s “good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way” with a scar that “showed whitely down his left cheek” – and he explains that his car has suffered a flat tyre on the road nearby and he’d like to get a room.  He soon wises up to the situation and joins forces with Viv.  The next seventy pages play more like a Mickey Spillane novel than a Fleming / Bond one, with considerable running, hiding and shooting before Sanguinetti’s scheme is thwarted and Sluggsy and Horror end up dead at the bottom of the local lake.  Then Viv and Bond indulge in some love-making and then, as abruptly and enigmatically as he arrived, Bond slips off again.  In the final pages, Viv muses: “He was just a man who had turned up at the right time and then gone on his way.”

 

Though The Spy Who Loved Me wins kudos for bravely departing from the usual Bond formula, there are moments when seemingly Fleming remembers it’s still a Bond novel and is forced to compromise, with awkward results.   He wants Viv to be more believable than the average Bond girl, which is why we see her depicted as a working Londoner.  But on the other hand, as a Bond girl, she can’t be too ordinary so she also gets a French-Canadian back-story to make her appear more exotic – the overall effect of which feels contrived.  Also, while Fleming wants her to be feisty and independent, he needs her to have a vulnerable side too – to be a credible damsel-in-distress, for whom Bond rides to the rescue as a knight in shining armour.  That may explain the opening chapter where she panics during the storm and, quite honestly, comes across as something of a dolt.

 

And to make up for Bond’s late entrance into the plot, Fleming feels he has bring his readers up to speed on what Bond’s been doing in the meantime; so we get the telling of a previous Bond adventure.  In a twelve-page chapter entitled Bedtime Story, Bond explains to Viv in great detail why he was on the road that night – he was driving south after an operation in Toronto wherein he and the Canadian Mounties prevented the assassination of a Russian defector by both the KGB and SPECTRE.  By now, Bond and Viv know the extreme danger posed by Sluggsy and Horror, so you’d think they’d have other things to concentrate on besides telling stories.

 

One thing I found surprisingly impressive about The Spy Who Loved Me is Viv’s account of her love-life in London.  It’s as far removed as possible from the fantasy romance / sex scenes associated with the Bond novels.  Just out of school, she gets involved with a youth called Derek Mallaby, whose posh, confident veneer hides, temporarily, the fact that (a) he’s desperate for sex and (b) he’s clueless about how to have sex.  What follows is a painful tale set in the England of “drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia” that existed before the 1960s started to swing and the permissive era arrived.  The only privacy Viv and Derek can find for making love is in a small balcony-box at a cinema, “a meagre-looking place, showing two westerns, a cartoon and so-called ‘News’ that consisted of what the Queen had been doing a month ago.”  Their attempted lovemaking, on the floor with Derek on top “in a dreadful clumsy embrace”, is anything but sensual and it ends abruptly when a furious cinema manager bursts in on them: “Filthy little brats…!  I’ve a damned good mind to call the police.  Indecent exposure.  Disturbing the peace.”

 

Barely articulate about what they’re trying to do, relying on strained expressions like ‘doing it’ and ‘being a sport’, and not even knowing what a condom is called and having to describe it to a shop assistant as “one of those things for not having babies”, Viv and Derek are products of a repressed, joyless, monochrome Britain that the Bond novels, with their exotic glamour and glitzy hedonism, were supposed to give readers of the era an escape from.  No wonder The Spy Who Loved Me pissed so many of those readers off.

 

Once Viv and Derek have properly ‘done it’ a few times, Derek predictably proves to be a cad and dumps her.  She then gets into a second relationship with a German man called Kurt, which culminates in her getting pregnant, having an abortion and being dumped a second time.  (Kurt “had inherited strong views about mixed blood… and when he married, it would be into the Teutonic strain.”  Fleming’s well-known dislike of the Germans is on full display here.)

 

This part of the book is so interesting because it suggests Fleming, a writer not noted for his empathy with women, is trying to think outside his normal male-chauvinist box for once and identify with a female character having a hard time in a world populated with predatory, shitty men.

 

Alas, all this is rendered null and void later when Bond, hardly un-predatory and un-shitty himself, turns up and Viv promptly goes doe-eyed and weak-kneed at the sight of him; implying that Viv’s problem wasn’t men, it was just the absence of a fully-fledged alpha male like Bond to satisfy / tame her.

 

And, late on, Fleming truly sabotages his cause when Viv comes out with this jaw-dropping assertion: “All women love semi-rape.  They love to be taken.”  These ten words have rightly earned Fleming and The Spy Who Loved Me much opprobrium over the years – for example, here – and they undo whatever good work he did with his depiction of Viv earlier in the book.

 

In the end, I have no reason to disagree with the many people who label The Spy Who Loves Me the weakest of the Bond novels.  The contradiction at its heart, that it’s a Bond story and yet it wants to be something different from a Bond story, makes it uneven and inconsistent.  And it’s all over the place in its sexual politics – and, at worst, those politics are unspeakable.  But as I’ve said, it deserves a little respect trying to do something out-of-the-ordinary, and thanks to Fleming’s always-amenable prose it’s an easy-enough read.  And, in parts, hints of a better book glimmer through.

 

© Penguin Books

 

RIP, Sir Roger

 

© Eon Productions

 

I feel slightly hypocritical to be paying tribute to Sir Roger Moore, the movie star and the third and longest-serving of the cinema’s James Bonds, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

 

As a serious Bond aficionado, especially regarding the original novels written by Ian Fleming, I was generally not impressed by the Bond movies Sir Roger made between 1974 and 1985, nor by the easy-going way that he inhabited the role.  And during the five years this blog has been in existence I was frequently unkind to him, making cruel puns about ‘Roger Mortis’ and the Bond movies getting ‘Rogered’ in the 1970s and 1980s, and dismissing his acting ability with ungentlemanly comparisons to planks and floorboards and blocks of wood.  Once, I even sniped that the makers of Guardians of the Galaxy (2015) should have hired him to play Groot the sentient alien tree rather than Vin Diesel.

 

However, two years ago, in a fit of remorse at my un-Rogerly ways, I posted a piece detailing all the admirable things about the venerable actor.  I mentioned how his third Bond movie, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, was actually really good.  I pointed out that he was surprisingly effective as a rich, smug businessman going to pieces while a mysterious, malign and unseen doppelganger invades and takes over his life in the creepy psychological horror film The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970).  I also enthused about his 1971-72 TV series The Persuaders.  To be honest, the show itself wasn’t much cop but the theme music, composed by John Barry, made for the best TV theme tune ever.

 

And I highlighted the amount of humanitarian work he’d done as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, since 1991.  And he didn’t just express good will towards humans – he’d “also been involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome processes used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.”

 

© The Independent

 

One thing mentioned in Sir Roger’s obituaries that I hadn’t known about was his loathing of fox hunting.  Despite the languidly aristocratic air he had both as Bond and as his real-life self, he slammed the brutal upper-class pastime with the declaration: “Sport hunting is a sickness, a perversion and a danger and should be recognised as such.  People who get their amusement from hunting and killing a defenceless animal can only be suffering from a mental disorder.  In a world with boundless opportunities for amusement, it’s detestable that anyone would choose to get their kicks from killing others who ask for nothing from life but the chance to remain alive.”

 

To be honest, if I hadn’t been obsessed with the Bond books and hadn’t formed some strong opinions about how Bond should be portrayed on screen, and if I’d come across Moore’s Bond movies at a younger age – I didn’t see any of them until I was a sullen teen of 14 or 15 years old – I probably would have really enjoyed them: all that funny, silly but exciting stuff with Jaws, Nick-Nack and Sheriff Pepper, all those laser-gun battles in outer space and gondoliers that turn into speedboats and alligators that can be used as stepping stones when you’re making your escape from Mr Big’s henchmen.  (Indeed, Daniel Craig did something similar with Komodo dragons in 2012’s Skyfall.)  As it turned out, millions of other filmgoers, less severe in their tastes than I was, really did enjoy them – and as I’ve admitted elsewhere on this blog, the Bond franchise was fantastically lucrative when Sir Roger played its title character.

 

I often wondered why the Bond producers cast Roger Moore in the first place.  But recently I read a book called James Bond: The Man and his World by Henry Chancellor, which observes that Moore was first suggested for the role by the Supreme Being in the Bond-verse, Ian Fleming himself.  According to Chancellor, in the early 1960s when the first of the Bond movies was on the drawing board – and before co-producer Harry Saltzman got his way and cast Sean Connery in the role – Fleming “initially suggested his friend David Niven.  When it was pointed out that Niven was too old he suggested the young Roger Moore, who was starring as The Saint on television.”  Ironically, both of Fleming’s suggestions would eventually get to play Bond, for Niven turned up as 007 in the ‘rogue’ 1967 production of Casino Royale, a swinging-sixties would-be comedy so dire and unfunny that it makes even the worst of Roger Moore’s Bond films look like masterpieces.

 

Spectres at the feast

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

At last I’ve managed to catch Spectre, the latest James Bond movie, on a big screen and in English.  (I’ve spent the last few weeks in a Francophone country and it took me a while to track down an English-language showing of it at a cinema.  Nothing against the French language, by the way – but somehow the line, “Je m’appelle Bond, James Bond…  Autorisé à tuer…” doesn’t do it for me.  Especially not when you try saying it in a Sean Connery accent.)

 

So here, belatedly, are my thoughts about the film.  Be warned.  If you haven’t already seen Spectre, brace yourself for a load of spoilers.

 

Since 2006’s Casino Royale, the Bond movies have been quietly rebooting themselves.  Casino Royale (appropriately based on the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, which was published way back in 1953) saw Daniel Craig debut as James Bond and began with his ‘blooding’ as a double-O agent – he kills a man for the first time ever and acquires his licence-to-kill status.  At a stroke, this relaunches Bond’s whole timeline and dumps the back-story of the previous 20 movies with Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.

 

It wasn’t until two films later, 2012’s Skyfall, that the rebooted series got around to introducing a new Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and finally a new M (Ralph Fiennes) – previously, Craig’s version of Bond had taken orders from Judi Dench, who’d played M since 1995’s Goldeneye and constituted the series’ only link with the old days.  Thus, Spectre has Craig start the film with something he’d lacked in his previous three outings – a team comprised of all the stalwart supporting characters from the old Bond movies, though played by new actors.

 

It’s seems apt, then, that of Craig’s films so far, Spectre is the one that feels most like the preceding Bond movies.  It has scenes, characters and plot-elements that echo various things in the 1962-2002 cycle of films.  Actually, I found this slightly disconcerting because I’d got used to the Craig era’s way of doing things – ignoring traditional Bond continuity whilst showing a dour, gritty seriousness that was the antithesis of how, say, Roger Moore sashayed his way through proceedings in the late 1970s and early 1980s armed with nothing more than a nudge, a wink, a quip and a raised eyebrow.

 

But this isn’t a major criticism of Spectre.  I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Skyfall; but I liked it better than the overrated, but still good, Casino Royale and the underrated, but still not very good, Quantum of Solace (2008).

 

So, what are those echoes of previous movies in Spectre – the spectres at the feast, so to speak?  Here are a few that I noticed.

 

Spectre begins, in fact, with a nod to a film that has nothing to do with James Bond.  The pre-credits sequence has Bond stalk a villain through the streets of Mexico City whist thousands of revellers celebrate the Day of the Dead; and then there’s a huge explosion.  Up until the moment of the explosion, director Sam Mendes films everything in a wonderfully-fluid single take.  This mirrors the opening minutes of Orson Welles’ 1958 film-noir masterpiece Touch of Evil, which is also shot in a single take and features Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh weaving through the streets of a Mexican town – until a similar explosion intervenes.  Actually, the single-take effect in Spectre was acquired with the help of some computer trickery.  Poor old Orson Welles, no doubt, had to achieve the same effect in his movie with nothing but hard work, ingenuity and willpower.

 

https://ca.movies.yahoo.com/post/132951174676/how-that-amazing-opening-spectre-scene-isnt-all

 

Immediately afterwards, because of the blast, the building Craig is standing on collapses and he plunges into a maelstrom of falling masonry, furniture and dust – before landing, almost comically, on a sofa.  This stunt, and Craig’s look of mingled disgruntlement and bemusement, recalls a scene in Diamonds are Forever (1970) where Sean Connery gains entry to a penthouse by climbing through a window, only to drop and land, arse first, on the seat of a toilet.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Actually, a later moment when Craig ejects from the seat of his Aston Martin DB10, parachutes down onto a nearby street and, not missing a beat, strolls briskly and smartly away is also reminiscent of Connery – for instance, the famous scene at the beginning of Goldfinger (1964) when he strips off his frogman’s outfit and reveals himself to be wearing a tuxedo underneath.  Like Connery, Craig is able to carry off such scenes, which are inherently ridiculous, with an elegant and insolent swagger.

 

But meanwhile, the pre-credits sequence still isn’t over.  It leads up to a scene where Bond finds himself in the cockpit of an out-of-control helicopter while it crazily climbs and swoops above a city square.  This echoes the opening sequence of 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, which has Roger Moore trapped in the back of a pilot-less helicopter that’s being flown by remote control, very recklessly, by a mysterious and malevolent bald man wearing a neck-brace, sitting in a wheelchair and nursing a white cat.  The bald man is clearly Bond’s old nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld.  However, because the Bond filmmakers had at that time lost the right to use Blofeld, thanks to a legal battle with producer Kevin McClory, they coyly refrained from stating who he was – the character is unnamed and uncredited and is referred to in For Your Eyes Only’s promotional literature as simply the ‘bald villain in a wheelchair’.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

More on Blofeld in a little while…

 

It transpires that Bond has been on a final mission for his old boss, Judi Dench’s M – although she died at the end of Skyfall, she’d left some posthumous orders in a recording – and for a time, as the plot grows murkier, it seems that Spectre is more interested in examining the back story of the last three Daniel Craig films.  It becomes apparent that Quantum, the secret criminal organisation featured in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is really just a subsidiary of a bigger, more secret and more criminal organisation, while Quantum’s boss, Mr White (Jesper Christiensen) – whom Bond captured at the end of Casino Royale but then let escape in Quantum of Solace – is only a branch manager for someone even bigger and badder than he is.  This amounts to a retcon of events in the earlier Craig movies and it feels a tad clumsy.  Also, I found the scene where Bond tracks down Mr White again a bit confusing because I’d forgotten who Mr White was.  (Well, I hadn’t seen him since 2008.)

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

After a final and admittedly-chilling encounter with Mr White, Bond goes in search of White’s innocent daughter, Madelaine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who unwittingly holds a clue to the identity of the puppet-master behind Quantum.  Swann works as a doctor at a secluded luxury clinic on an Alpine mountaintop and as Craig approaches it from the air, I found myself thinking: “Hello, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!”  For this Alpine mountaintop clinic is very reminiscent of Blofeld’s headquarters in that 1968 Bond movie with George Lazenby.

 

While he’s at the clinic, Bond is unexpectedly joined by Ben Wishaw’s Q, who gives him a hand when Madelaine is abducted by some villains led by David Bautista’s Mr Hinx.  Silent, surly and vicious, Hinx comes across like a combination of Harold Sakata’s Oddjob in Goldfinger and Richard Kiel’s Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  This is the first time that Q has worked properly ‘in the field’ since 1989’s Licence to Kill when, played by the charming and avuncular Desmond Llewelyn, he nipped off to Isthmus City in South America to help Timothy Dalton battle the brutal drugs baron Franz Sanchez.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Bond gets the necessary information from Madelaine and travels with her to Morocco.  And it’s here that we get the next Bond trope – a Big Fight on a Train.  This is against Mr Hinx again and it’s a more brutal affair than the fights-on-trains seen in Live and Let Die (1974) (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Tee-Hee with the help of some handy wire-clippers) or The Spy Who Loved Me (in which Roger Moore defeated the hulking henchman Jaws with the help of a handy table-lamp).  Indeed, it evokes the savage brawl-to-the-death that occurred between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love (1963).  And in the midst of the action, Daniel Craig manages to land on Mr Hinx a very satisfying, Dalton-esque head-butt.

 

Eventually, Bond and Madelaine find their way to a secret base in the desert that’s run by the dastardly Spectre organisation – for Spectre, which featured so prominently in the 1960s Bond movies, is back.  Although unlike the old Spectre, which was an acronym for ‘Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’, this organisation seems to be called Spectre because, well, it’s a snazzy-sounding name.  And in charge of it is – yes! – Ernst Stavros Blofeld.

 

(The reason why Spectre and Blofeld have returned now is because MGM and Kevin McClory’s estate finally settled the afore-mentioned legal row in 2013.)

 

The new Blofeld is played by Christoph Waltz as a charismatic but psychotic Euro-scumbag.  Unlike Blofelds of old, such as Donald Pleasence and Telly Savalas, he sports a full head of hair and he likes to wear his loafers without socks – the cad.  At least he still has a white cat.  Actually, Waltz’s character also goes by another name, Franz Oberhauser; and we discover that he and Bond have a history.  For it was Oberhauser’s father, Hannes Oberhauser, who took care of the young James Bond after his parents died in a climbing accident.  The young Franz believed that Bond displaced him in his father’s affections and has borne a grudge ever since.  For that reason, when he first comes face to face with Bond in Spectre, he taunts him with a disconcerting cry of “Cuckoo!”  He regards Bond as a cuckoo who invaded his family’s nest.

 

Many movie critics reacted with derision to this plot revelation – how corny!  Bond and Blofeld are long-lost brothers!  (Well, long-lost adoptive brothers.)  But I didn’t have much of a problem with it because Hannes Oberhauser did exist in the original, literary Bond universe created by Ian Fleming.  In the short story Octopussy, published in 1966, Bond says of Oberhauser: “He was a wonderful man.  He was something of a father to me at a time when I needed one.”  So the possibility that Oberhauser might have an embittered son who later turned to villainy didn’t seem such a stretch.  Mind you, it’s unfortunate that this revelation is similar to the revelation at the end of Goldmember (2002), the third Austin Powers movie, about Austin Powers and Dr Evil being long-lost brothers sired by Michael Caine.

 

Bond and Madelaine escape from and destroy Blofeld’s desert base – and I think it’s one of the film’s shortcomings that the place seems to blow up so fast.  Bond explodes a modest bomb in Blofeld’s torture chamber and then shoots a few bullets into a pipe, and about two minutes later the entire installation has vanished in a giant fireball.  He might be fiendishly clever, but Blofeld has clearly shown an unwise disregard for Health and Safety regulations.  This section of the film contains some wonderful touches, though.  I love the idea that the base has been constructed within a crater caused by a meteorite collision and, indeed, Blofeld keeps the remains of the meteorite on display.  Also, Blofeld has a nifty torture device – a sort of dentist’s chair from hell – that he uses on Bond.  I’m sure that Ian Fleming, whose fondness for a spot of S and M is well-documented, would have approved.

 

But the film isn’t yet over – because it turns out that Spectre is the evil silent partner in an Edward Snowden-esque global intelligence / security initiative called Nine Eyes, for which the British government has unwittingly signed up.  When Nine Eyes goes online, Spectre will have access to a raft of countries’ intelligence data and will be able to manipulate their intelligence agencies.  Masterminding Nine Eyes in Britain is the slimy and treacherous civil servant Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), who’s been waging a turf war against M.  Bond, meanwhile, is so contemptuous of Denbigh that he’s nicknamed him ‘C’.  For a while, I thought this was going to be the first Bond movie where the ‘C’ word is uttered, but alas, it wasn’t.

 

Back in London, Bond hooks up with M, Q, Moneypenny and Bill Tanner – Tanner being M16’s Chief of Staff and a character from Fleming’s novels who was played by Michael Goodlife in the 1970s, James Villiers in the 1980s and Michael Kitchen in the 1990s and is played in the 21st century by the dependable Rory Kinnear – and they launch a night-time operation to stop Denbigh and thwart the launch of Nine Eyes.  In another nod to Fleming’s books, the safe-house where they meet is called ‘Hildebrand Rarities and Antiques’ – The Hildebrand Rarity is the name of one of Fleming’s short stories in the collection For Your Eyes Only (1960).

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

M has a showdown with Denbigh – played robustly by Ralph Fiennes, this M makes a perfectly capable action hero himself – and Q performs the required computerised jiggery-pokery to hack into Nine Eyes and stop it functioning.  And in a surprise twist that will surprise no one, Blofeld pops up again to have a final crack at Bond.  (He hasn’t survived the explosion at his Moroccan base unscathed and he now has a facial scar as ghastly as that sported by Donald Pleasence in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.)  And there’s a nocturnal speedboat chase along the River Thames that, while exciting, is a wee bit too close to the River-Thames speedboat chase that graced the beginning of Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond outing, The World is Not Enough (1999).

 

Spectre isn’t the best James Bond movie.  It isn’t even the best Daniel Craig James Bond movie.  But I found it reassuringly solid and, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d probably give it 008.  I just hope that the series now doesn’t shift any further to the style of the old movies.  With Spectre it seems to have found an appealing balance between the knowingness of the 20th-century Bonds and the no-nonsense tone of the 21st-century ones – and I think that’s good enough.

 

But for the next Bond movie, could we please get a decent theme song?  The few minutes where Sam Smith caterwauls Writing’s on the Wall over the opening credits almost turned my stomach and easily constituted the worst part of the film.  Thank God that Spectre’s last scene plays out to the brassy, booming strains of Monty Norman’s original James Bond Theme – a tune that half-a-century on is still capable of raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Bond bows out: The Man with the Golden Gun

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

The Man with the Golden Gun was one of the first of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels that I read.  It almost put me off reading any more of them.  It was definitely not what I’d expected.

 

There were two reasons why the book bewildered me.  Firstly, I was ten years old and around the same time the 1975 movie version of The Man with the Golden Gun was showing in cinemas.  I’d seen clips of it on TV, which had Jolly Roger Moore battling hordes of karate-kicking, karate-chopping martial-arts trainees at a Far Eastern dōjō.  In the mid-1970s, popular culture was martial-arts-daft and so to me these looked like the most exciting movie-scenes ever.  So I was perplexed when I started reading The Man with the Golden Gun-the-novel and discovered that there wasn’t a single martial-arts fighter in sight.

 

It wasn’t even set in the Far East.  Most of the book’s action took place in Jamaica, which was Fleming’s main stomping ground in real life – he’d established Goldeneye, his house and estate, on Jamaica’s north coast.  (Later, briefly, Goldeneye belonged to Bob Marley and it’s now an upmarket hotel with an adjacent ‘James Bond Beach’.)  Fleming was obviously fond of using Jamaica as a setting, for he sent Bond there in the novels Live and Let Die and Dr No and the short story Octopussy as well.

 

More importantly, The Man with the Golden Gun was entirely the wrong book for a newcomer to Bond to start reading.  Fleming completed the first draft of it a few months before his death in 1964 and the manuscript was subject to posthumous revision by Fleming’s copy-editor William Plomer before it saw publication in 1965.  (I’ve heard claims that Kingsley Amis had input into the editing process too, although the book’s Wikipedia entry denies this.)  And as the last Bond novel, it carries a lot of back story.  By this point Bond had been married and seen his wife murdered (in 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and had tracked down and executed the murderer, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (in 1964’s You Only Live Twice); but at the end of the latter book he’d also gone missing.  In reality, he’d been stricken with amnesia, but he was believed killed in action by his London-based boss M, who went as far as to pen an obituary for him in The Times.

 

When The Man with the Golden Gun begins, Bond has not only been fed through the wringer but he’s also – since You Only Live Twice – been captured and brainwashed by the Soviets and sent on a mission to London to assassinate M.  So not only is this a weary and jaded Bond, but also (in the early chapters, at least) a robotic and murderous one.  It’s a long way indeed from the cosy, jovial world depicted in the 1975 film version, where, for example, Roger Moore quips, “Who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?” and M retorts, “Jealous husbands!  Outraged chefs!  Humiliated tailors!  The list is endless!”

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

However, a little while ago, I found a copy of The Man with the Golden Gun in a second-hand bookshop and thought that I’d give it another go.  How would it seem to me now, a good – my God, I’m old! – 39 years after I last read it?

 

So the book begins with a brainwashed Bond returning to London and trying to kill M: “A storm of memories whirled through his consciousness like badly cut film on a projector that had gone crazy.  Bond closed his eyes to the storm.  He must concentrate on what he had to say, and do, and on nothing else.”  M, however, realising “that death had walked into the room and was standing beside him,” thwarts the attempt on his life by activating a shutter of ‘Armour-plate glass’ that crashes down from his office-ceiling and shields him from his would-be assassin.  Then, with Bond in custody and receiving de-programming treatment, M has to decide what to do with the set of damaged goods that is 007.

 

He opts to send Bond on a suicide mission of his own.  This is to locate and kill one Francisco ‘Pistols’ Scaramanga, a hitman known as the Man with the Golden Gun on account of “his main weapon which is a gold-plated, long-barrelled, single-action Colt .45.”  Linked to Fidel Castro and the KGB, Scaramanga has lately assassinated half-a-dozen British secret-servicemen in the Caribbean and M is desperate to put him out of action.

 

A restored but still-fragile Bond arrives in Jamaica and finally encounters Scaramanga in the lobby of a local ‘bordello’.  He manages to convince the assassin that he’s a private security man called Mark Hazard and, conveniently, Scaramanga hires him to oversee security during an upcoming weekend when he’ll be meeting some business associates at his new investment, a luxurious (but still-under-construction) hotel.  It turns out that this weekend conference is really an assemblage of American gangsters, plus one KGB operative, who are planning various criminal operations in the region that’ll both line their pockets and boost the standing of Fidel Castro.

 

Bond learns what’s going on with the help of his old CIA friend Felix Leiter, who’s managed to secure an undercover position in Scaramanga’s hotel too; and of his former secretary, Mary Goodnight, who’s working now in British Intelligence’s Jamaican station (and who, inevitably, ends up as Bond’s love interest in the book).  At the same time, however, Scaramanga and his guests cotton on to Bond’s true identity.

 

In the novel’s climax, Scaramanga treats his weekend visitors to a ride on a local light railway line and then a hunting and fishing trip.  Bond is forced to accompany them, aware that later in the day he’s likely to be the main quarry being shot at.  But Leiter comes to his rescue – he stows away in the train and once it’s moving a gun-battle breaks out on board.  (An added complication is that, according to Scaramanga, Mary Goodnight has been captured and tied to the railway tracks ahead.)  Bond and Leiter crash the train and Scaramanga is the only survivor among the villains.  Injured, he flees into the bush and Bond pursues him.  The pair meet up for a final showdown in “a small clearing of dried, cracked black mud” that’s infested with snakes and land-crabs.

 

As my synopsis makes clear, the plot of The Man with the Golden Gun is as simple and one-track as the little Jamaican railway line on which its climax takes place.  What’s more disappointing, however, is the lack of detail and colour with which Fleming customarily embroidered his plots – making their fantastical goings-on seem a little more grounded and believable.  Fleming tended to insert more detail when he was working on later drafts of his books but in this case he didn’t live long enough to produce a later draft.  The Man with the Golden Gun feels rather drab as a result.

 

At the same time, when it comes to describing what Scaramanga and his friends are up to, the book is muddled.  Fleming seems unable to decide on one nefarious operation for them to work on, so he has them engaged in a mishmash of things.  They’re conspiring to destroy cane-fields in Trinidad and Jamaica in order to boost the Cuban sugar industry; to use arson attacks to wreck the Jamaican bauxite industry; and to destabilise Jamaican society by bribing local politicians to grant a licence for a ruinous new casino franchise.  (“There’ll be incidents.  Coloured people’ll be turned away from the doors for one reason or another.  Then the opposition party’ll get hold of that and raise hell about colour bars and so on.  With all the money flying about, the unions’ll push wages through the roof.  It can all add up to a fine stink.  The atmosphere’s too damn peaceful around here.”)  And for good measure, they intend to flood the US coast with narcotics too.

 

Meanwhile, credibility departs when Felix Leiter turns up as a supposed accountant working at Scaramanga’s hotel.  Scaramanga has just hired the most legendary agent in the British Secret Service, which suggests that he badly needs to overhaul his vetting procedures.  But to have also recruited one of the top bods in the CIA suggests that it’s not just his vetting that’s non-existent – his brain’s missing too.  This is particularly so as Leiter has ‘a bright steel hook’ instead of a right hand, thanks to a savaging he received from a shark in an earlier book.  Sporting an appendage like that, Leiter must be the most identifiable CIA agent in the northern hemisphere.

 

But The Man with the Golden Gun’s biggest let-down is its lack of characterisation.  Mary Goodnight is perfunctorily drawn.  She’s a feisty but obviously well-bred young English gal and, well, that’s it.  Britt Ekland was criticised for portraying Goodnight as an archetypal dumb blonde in the 1975 film version.  But to be fair to Britt, if she’d looked in the book for inspiration about how to play her character, she wouldn’t have found any.

 

Equally poor is the characterisation of Scaramanga.  Although the film adaptation of The Man with the Golden Gun is regarded as one of the worst Bond movies, critics agree that its single redeeming feature is Christopher Lee’s performance as the villain.  Lee invests Scaramanga with suave and sardonic menace.  He’s charming and sophisticated but these traits are tempered by his obvious lethalness and intimidating physicality.  (You only have to look at the stills of Bond and Scaramanga together to see how the six-foot-four-inch Lee looms over Roger Moore.)

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

So it’s a shock in the book when Scaramanga first opens his mouth and comes across like a macho / braggart lowlife in a Martin Scorsese film: “I sometimes make ’em dance.  Then I shoot their feet off.”  Talking in crass gangster-isms, the literary Scaramanga is a simple thug.  He’s no smarter or more cultured than the pack of Mafiosi – the amusingly-named Sam Binion, Leroy Gengerella, Ruby Rotkopf, Hal Garfinkel and Louie Paradise – who later turn up at his hotel.  In a normal Bond novel he might make a serviceable henchman.  But the big villain?  No way.

 

And yet, paradoxically, it’s Scaramanga who inspires Fleming’s best writing in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Two-dimensional he may be, but he at least gets an intriguing backstory.  He started off as a sharpshooter in his father’s circus and his first victim was a policeman – whom he shot dead after the policeman killed his favourite circus animal, an elephant that’d gone berserk and trampled circus-goers in a rampage.  This backstory was impressive enough for the scriptwriters to use it in the film version and they have Lee relate it to Moore when they first come face to face.

 

The initial encounter between Bond and Scaramanga in the book is memorable too.  On a hot Jamaican evening, the two square up in the reception area of a dilapidated brothel called Number 3½ Love Lane and Scaramanga treats Bond to a sudden and shocking display of his shooting prowess – he blasts two tame ‘kling-kling’ birds (Jamaican grackles) a moment after they take panicked flight from a nearby counter-top.  “The explosions from the Colt .45 were deafening.  The two birds disintegrated against the violet back-drop of the dusk, the scraps of feathers and pink flesh blasting out of the yellow light of the café and into the limbo of the deserted street like shrapnel.”  And Bond and Scaramanga enjoy a good final encounter too.  At Bond’s mercy, Scaramanga pleads for a minute’s stay of execution so that he can say his prayers.  Bond is unable to refuse – Watch out, James!  It’s a trick! – and the scene acquires a strange, almost Graham-Greene-like intensity.

 

Elsewhere, it’s fun to spot signs that the then-nascent Bond movie series was influencing Fleming – Dr No had been filmed in 1962 and From Russia with Love in 1963.  There’s a movie-like emphasis on gadgetry – notably the glass shutter that saves M from the brainwashed Bond – and Fleming slips in a reference to Honeychile Rider, the heroine of Dr No whom Ursula Andress had immortalised in the film version two years earlier.  We get a hint too that Fleming was impressed by the actor playing Bond onscreen at the time, the truculent working-class, Edinburgh-born, Scottish-nationalist, former-milkman Sean Connery.  He ends the book with Bond, recuperating after his showdown with Scaramanga, receiving the offer of a knighthood for his services to the Realm.  Bond not only turns down the offer, but sends back a surprisingly anti-establishment message via a cypher machine: I AM A SCOTTISH PEASANT AND WILL ALWAYS FEEL AT HOME BEING A SCOTTISH PEASANT…

 

It has to be said that when Sean Connery was offered a knighthood in 2000, he showed none of Bond’s reluctance.  He said ‘yes’ to the thing immediately.

 

I have no arguments with the many critics who’ve dismissed The Man with the Golden Gun as the runt of the litter among Fleming’s Bond novels – though its lowly status was inevitable considering Fleming’s state of health at the time of writing and the fact that he died before he could polish it up.  Still, I didn’t find the novel boring.  I kept turning its pages until the end.

 

And what a bitter-sweet end it is.  Fleming leaves Bond in the arms of Mary Goodnight but he indicates that it won’t be long before Bond is back in his old, wandering and philandering ways: “he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any other woman, was not enough for him.  It would be like taking ‘a room with a view’.  For James Bond, the view would always pall.”  So it looks like Bond will soon be saying ‘good night’ to poor Mary Goodnight.  But alas, it’s good night too for Bond himself in his most fascinating incarnation — the literary original, created by Ian Fleming.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Bond in miniature: Octopussy and The Living Daylights

 

(c) Vintage Books

 

When, as a boy, I read most of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, the one I was least enamoured with was For Your Eyes Only.  Actually, FYEO wasn’t a novel but a collection of short stories featuring Bond.  In one of them, Quantum of Solace – which had nothing to do with the 22nd official Bond movie, made with Daniel Craig in 2008 – all 007 did was sit and act as a listener while somebody else narrated a story about a different set of characters.

 

The problem, I felt, was that Bond was too big for the confines of a short story.  For me at the age of 11, a good Bond story needed a super-villain with a suitably imposing HQ, and a nefarious scheme involving espionage, criminality and / or terrorism, and a love interest, and a number of action set-pieces in which said super-villain tried, unsuccessfully, to bump Bond off.  And of course, with Ian Fleming as writer, there’d also be a wealth of background detail culled from Fleming’s experiences as a globetrotting journalist, naval intelligence officer and bon viveur and from his research – research was something he was scrupulous about.  Obviously, cramming all these things into a short story was not viable.  And the truncated slices of Bondery that appeared in FYEO seemed to me, well, a bit weird.

 

I recently read a comment made by esteemed poet Philip Larkin about Bond’s suitability for a short-fiction format: “I am not surprised that Fleming preferred to write novels.  James Bond, unlike Sherlock Holmes, does not fit snugly into the short story length: there is something grandiose and intercontinental about his adventures that require elbow room and such examples of the form as we have tend to be eccentric and muted.”  I’m delighted to see a personage like Larkin backing up my thoughts on the subject – great minds think alike and all that.

 

Larkin, however, wasn’t talking about FYEO but about Fleming’s other collection of James Bond short stories, Octopussy and The Living Daylights, which was published in 1966, two years after Fleming’s death.  This book constitutes Bond’s final appearance in print, as penned by his creator.  It originally consisted of just the two stories mentioned in the title, although subsequent editions beefed it up with the addition of two more, The Property of a Lady and 007 in New York.  Nonetheless, it remains a slim volume.  Even with four stories, it comes to a mere 123 pages.

 

Since then, of course, Octopussy and The Living Daylights have lent their titles to Bond movies, in 1982 and 1987 respectively.  A film has yet to be made called The Property of a Lady and to be honest I think Adele or even Shirley Bassey would have difficulty wrapping her vocal chords around the title in a Bond-movie theme song.  (“The proper-TEE… of a la-DEE…!”  No, I can’t imagine it.)  Obviously, 007 in New York wouldn’t cut it as a movie title at all.  Mind you, there was a TV movie made in 1976 called Sherlock Holmes in New York starring, God help us, Roger Moore as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing detective, so anything is possible.

 

Octopussy and The Living Daylights was one of the few Fleming-Bond books I hadn’t read in my boyhood, so when I encountered a copy of it in a bookstore recently I thought I’d give it a shot.  How would I get on with it?  Three-and-a-half decades after I’d read FYEO, would I find the short-story James Bond any more palatable?

 

The opening story, Octopussy, is the longest one in the collection but Bond is only a secondary character in it.  Rather, the story concerns a Major Dexter Smythe, described acidly by Fleming as “the remains of a once brave and resourceful officer and of a handsome man…”  Now “he was fifty-four, slightly bald and his belly sagged in the Jantzen trunks.  And he had had two coronary thromboses…  But, in his well-chosen clothes, his varicose veins out of sight and his stomach flattened by a discreet support belt behind an immaculate cummerbund, he was still a fine figure of a man at a cocktail party or dinner on the North Shore, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbours why, in defiance of the two ounces of whisky and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night.”

 

The North Shore mentioned in that excerpt is the north coast of Jamaica.  During the post-war years Smythe and his wife, now deceased, established themselves there after escaping from hard-pressed, austerity-era Britain: “They were a popular couple and Major Smythe’s war record earned them the entrée to Government House society, after which their life was one endless round of parties, with tennis for Mary and golf (with the Henry Cotton irons!) for Major Smythe.  In the evenings there was bridge for her and the high poker game for him.  Yes, it was paradise all right, while, in their homeland, people munched their spam, fiddled in the black market, cursed the government and suffered the worst winter weather for thirty years.”

 

Yet this easy, comfortable and enviable life in Jamaica didn’t fall into Smythe’s lap.  Gradually, Fleming enlightens us on how Smythe was able to afford it.  In a back story that has echoes of B. Traven’s 1927 novel and John Huston’s 1948 movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we learn that in the Austrian Alps at the end of World War II, he stumbled across something immensely valuable that he hoarded for himself.  To do this, however, he had to commit murder.  Octopussy describes what happens when Smythe’s ‘ancient sin’ finally catches up with him.  The bearer of the bad news – that the authorities have found out what he did back in the war and intend to arrest him – is a ‘tall man’ in a ‘dark-blue tropical suit’ with ‘watchful, serious blue-grey eyes’.  It’s Bond – though Bond isn’t just carrying out a professional errand.  Eventually we discover that he has a personal stake in bringing Smythe to justice.

 

Once you accept that the story is about Smythe rather than Bond, it proceeds very agreeably.  The plump and comical Smythe, who paddles about the reef in front of his villa and rather pathetically talks to the fish that swim there – plus a unfriendly, tentacled mollusc whom he’s christened ‘Octopussy’ – gradually loses our sympathy as Fleming peels back the layers and we discover the cruel, and unnecessary, deed he committed to enrich himself decades earlier.  Bond is hardly a paradigm of virtue but, equipped with a conscience and a rough-and-ready code of ethics, he’s the antithesis of what’s represented by Smythe.  The scene where the flaccid and weak-willed Smythe confesses his crime to Bond is admirably low-key, but Fleming infuses it with a cold, sadistic tension.

 

The Property of a Lady, on the other hand, is a conventional Bond adventure in miniature.  It has 007 turn the auctioning at Sotheby’s of an artwork designed by Carl Faberge – according to the catalogue, “(a) sphere carved from an extraordinarily large piece of Siberian emerald matrix weighing approximately one thousand three hundred carats” – into a trap to catch the KGB’s director of operations in London.  Also involved is a female Russian double-agent working in the British Secret Service, whom the service is aware of and uses to feed fake information back to Moscow.  To be honest, the plot didn’t make sense to me – I didn’t see how Bond, by snaring London’s top KGB man at Sotheby’s, could avoid alerting Moscow to the fact that British intelligence had cottoned onto the double agent’s existence and were using her for their own ends.

 

Still, the story is readable and the scenes set in Sotheby’s allow Fleming to show off his knowledge – acquired through research or through personal experience – of the world’s most famous broker in fine art.  When Bond expresses surprise that the auctioneer doesn’t bang his gavel three times and declare, “Going, going, gone,” an expert informs him, “You may still find that operating in the Shires or in Ireland, but it hasn’t been the fashion at London sales rooms since I’ve been attending them.”

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Elements from both Octopussy-the-short-story and The Property of a Lady turn up in Octopussy-the-1982-film, which starred Roger Moore.  In the film, the title character is not an octopus but a beautiful and mysterious woman played by Maud Adams, whose father, it transpires, once received a visit from Bond similar to the visit that Major Smythe received in the original story.  (The revelation that Bond knew her father serves, uncomfortably, to underline the 17-year age-difference between Moore and Adams, especially during the inevitable scene where they go to bed together.  By 1982 Moore was getting a bit long in the tooth and really shouldn’t have been doing love scenes.)  The film also has a proper octopus in it, an unfriendly one, and there’s some business too about a Faberge artwork being auctioned off at Sotheby’s.

 

However, if you’ve seen Octopussy-the-movie and don’t remember these things, it’s hardly surprising, because scriptwriters Michael G. Wilson, Richard Maibaum and George McDonald Fraser managed to bung everything into it bar the proverbial kitchen sink.  It has a plot involving the explosion of a nuclear warhead in West Germany, and a circus, and an exiled Afghan prince, and feuding Russian generals, and a sidekick called Vijay played by the real-life Indian tennis star Vijay Amritraj, and a Sikh henchman armed with a blunderbuss, and knife-throwing identical twins, and the latest piece of cutting-edge hi-tech equipment developed by Q, which is a hot-air balloon.  It sees Roger Moore disguised as a circus clown, disguised as a gorilla, disguised as a crocodile and pretending to be Tarzan, complete with a Tarzan-esque yodel.  Much of it takes place in a version of India that combines Indiana Jones with Carry On up the Kyber.  (“Sounds familiar!” quips Moore when he hears a snake charmer play a snatch of Monty Berman’s James Bond Theme on his flute.)  Actually, Octopussy is a terrible film.  It truly belongs in the 007 Pit of Shit alongside 1979’s Moonraker and 2002’s Die Another Day.

 

The third story in the book, The Living Daylights, sees Bond assigned a mission in Berlin.  He has to kill a Soviet sniper whom the KGB have lined up to shoot a defecting scientist while he flees from the east to the west of the city – the story is set shortly before the creation of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.  Bond has a crisis of conscience when he discovers that the enemy sniper is a woman, an attractive blonde whom he’s seen posing as a member of an orchestra that’s performing on the Communist-Bloc side of town.  This story is incorporated, more or less intact, into the early part of the 1987 movie The Living Daylights, which was the first one to star Timothy Dalton as Bond.  In the film, however, the action is moved to Bratislava, the defector is a KGB officer and his defection is planned to take place during an orchestral performance in a concert hall.

 

Although the rest of the plot of The Living Daylights-the-film is rather convoluted and unsatisfactory, and there are a few daft moments left over from the previous movies in the series (such as one where Dalton and Maryam D’Abo ride down a mountainside using a cello as a sleigh), at the time it seemed to me a breath of fresh air.  It was an attempt at a slightly more sensible Bond film and it had an actor in the lead role trying to depict Bond as the moody, occasionally conscience-stricken character that Fleming had originally written.  (In fact, when he took on the role, Dalton made a point of reading Fleming’s books.)

 

(c) Eon Productions 

 

Alas, Dalton received a rough ride from the critics.  After spending years deriding the Roger Moore-era Bond movies for their campness and silliness, as soon as Dalton appeared those same critics discovered they’d been unconscious Moore-fans all along.  They started moaning about the films becoming too ‘humourless’ and started pining for the good old days when jolly Roger would fight off a giant henchman with steel teeth on top of a cable car with a shaken-not-stirred Vodka Martini and a raised eyebrow, or would escape from the villains in a gondola that cunningly transformed into a nuclear-powered submarine…  Gah!  It just wasn’t fair.

 

The final story, 007 in New York, is a trifle – Bond is sent to the Big Apple to warn a former Secret Service member that the man she’s cohabiting with is actually a Soviet agent, though he spends most of the story’s eight pages planning the shopping, eating, drinking, clubbing and wenching that he’s going to do while he’s there.  This allows Fleming to show off his knowledge of the city – Bond decides to visit “Hoffritz on Madison Avenue for one of their heavy, toothed Gillette-type razors, so much better than Gillette’s own product, Tripler’s for some of those French golf socks made by Izod, Scribner’s because it was the last great bookshop in New York and because there was a salesman there with a good nose for thrillers, and then to Abercrombie’s to look over the new gadgets…  And then what about the best meal in New York – oyster stew with cream, crackers and Miller High Life at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central?  No, he didn’t want to sit up at a bar…  Yes.  That was it!  The Edwardian Room at the Plaza.  A corner table.”

 

Fleming was known to have a predilection for sado-masochism, so it’s telling that 007 in New York also sees Bond considering a visit to a bar he’s heard about that “was the rendezvous for sadists and masochists of both sexes.  The uniform was black leather jackets and leather gloves.  If you were a sadist, you wore the gloves under the left shoulder strap.  For the masochists it was the right.”  Bond has an old flame in New York whom he intends to meet up with and enjoy some nightlife with, including the S-&-M-themed nightlife, and it’s here that a tiny sliver of 007 in New York makes it into the movies too.  The old flame’s name is Solange, which is the name of the character played by Caterina Murino in Casino Royale, which saw Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond, in 2006.

 

The story also had an influence on Solo, the Bond novel recently written by William Boyd.  While Solo includes ‘James Bond’s recipe for salad dressing’, 007 in New York treats us to a recipe for ‘scrambled eggs James Bond’.  I should say, though, that I have my own special recipe for making scrambled eggs and I think it’s way better than Bond’s one.

 

007 in New York is tied up with a gentle, though unexpected, twist that’s worthy of Somerset Maugham – a writer whom Fleming was a big admirer of.  And that, unfortunately, is it.  Fleming had passed away prior to this collection’s publication and no further Bond material appeared under his name.  Thus, Octopussy and The Living Daylights marked the end of James Bond as a literary phenomenon…  For all of two years, until 1968, when Kingsley Amis published Colonel Sun.

 

Boyd and Bond: book review / Solo, by William Boyd

 

(c) Jonathan Cape

 

Before I begin this review of Solo, the new James Bond novel written – with the blessing of Ian Fleming’s estate – by William Boyd, I should say that I like Boyd.  Alright, I haven’t actually read any of his other books, but I’m familiar with some of his screen-work and I’ve read some of his journalism.  He comes across as a decent and sensible type, the sort of bloke whom you’d be happy to sit down and drink a pint with.  This is more than can be said for a few of his contemporaries, who come across as the sort of smug, self-satisfied gits you’d probably find yourself punching before you got halfway through that pint.  I won’t mention any names but I’m sure you know who I mean.  (Okay, I will mention names: Salman Rushdie, A.N. Wilson and Martin bloody Amis.)

 

Also, I feel a slight kinship with Boyd, as both of us have connections with the fine Scottish Borders town of Peebles.  According to an introduction he once wrote for an edition of Alasdair Gray’s landmark novel Lanark, Boyd worked in his youth as a kitchen-porter in the Tontine Hotel on Peebles High Street.  When he travelled to his workplace from his parents’ house, which was three miles along the road from Peebles, he would sometimes get a lift from Stephanie Wolfe-Murray, who would soon set up the now-legendary Scottish publishing house Canongate Books (responsible for publishing Lanark in 1981).

 

Like Boyd, I spent time in Peebles’ hotel trade too.  In my mid-teens I worked as a dishwasher, assistant gardener and general dogsbody at the Venlaw Castle Hotel, which overlooks Peebles on the side of Venlaw Hill.  I used to cycle to work and my journey would take me through a neighbourhood called Dalatho Crescent – which in those days was regarded as The Bronx of Peebles.  (It feels more respectable these days, though maybe that’s only because I’m bigger now.)  Some of the kids who mooched around Dalatho Crescent took a dislike to me, for some reason, and would yell abuse every day as I cycled past.  So while William Boyd got to travel to his job at the Tontine Hotel in the company of the founder of the most important publisher in modern Scottish literature, I travelled to my job at the Venlaw Castle Hotel with street urchins yelling after me, “F**k off, ye f**kin’ wanker, ye!”  I guess that’s where Boyd’s fortunes and my fortunes diverged.

 

I also consider Boyd an excellent choice to write a James Bond novel, as he and Ian Fleming’s super-spy have a few things in common.  There’s the shared Scottish background for a start – according to Fleming’s later books, Bond’s father was Scottish (although his mother was Swiss).  That might be why in Solo, at one point, Boyd describes Bond convalescing at a special military installation south of Edinburgh, which I suspect is actually Glencorse Barracks near Penicuik.  Boyd also has him dining in an oyster restaurant just off Edinburgh’s Princes Street, which is surely the Café Royal.

 

And Boyd, like Bond, spent time being ‘anglicised’ at a posh private school in Scotland.  Boyd attended Gordonstoun in the Scottish Highlands – an experience that inspired him to write the 1983 TV film Good and Bad at Games, an indictment of the bullying that goes on in British boarding schools – while Bond was sent to Fettes Academy in Edinburgh.  Little mention was made of Fettes in Fleming’s original novels, but in Solo Bond is reminded of his alma mater when he accidentally bumps into a former schoolmate – an event that, it must be said, he isn’t thrilled about.

 

Incidentally, during his screenwriting career, Boyd has also worked with three of the actors who’ve played Bond in the ultra-profitable movie franchise that’s been with us since the early 1960s: Pierce Brosnan in 1990’s Mister Johnson, Daniel Craig in 1999’s The Trench and gruff old Sean Connery himself in the 1994 adaptation of his novel A Good Man in Africa.

 

But having said all that, I now must admit that I was a little disappointed in Solo.  Boyd has evidently put a lot of care into the book, but ultimately I couldn’t escape the feeling that what I was reading was just a clever facsimile of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel.  Clever, yes; but a facsimile nonetheless.

 

I’ll start, though, with what Boyd gets right.  He sticks to the timeframe that Fleming established for Bond’s life in the original books, meaning that Bond was born in 1924 and saw military service during World War II – indeed, among Solo’s more effective moments are those where Bond reminisces about his first experience of killing, which happened when, serving as a lieutenant in 1944, he stumbled across a trio of German soldiers in the grounds of a Normandy chateau.  Solo is set at the end of the 1960s, just after the first moon landing, which puts Bond in his mid-forties.  (Actually, at the beginning of Fleming’s early-1950s novel Moonraker, it’s mentioned that 45 is the age at which Bond can expect to retire from MI6, but in Solo thoughts of retirement never enter his head.  We can only assume that he’s already navigated his mid-life crisis and found a second wind.)  M, who in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1963 was commenting darkly about ‘the beatnik problem’, seems surprisingly unperturbed by the hippy movement and the Summer of Love.

 

Keeping true to the spirit of Fleming, Boyd makes Bond very particular about what he eats, drinks, wears and drives.  On page 7 he orders a breakfast of ‘four eggs, scrambled, and half a dozen rashers of unsmoked back bacon, well done, on the side’, while eleven pages later he’s test-driving a four-wheel-drive Jensen FF, the smell of whose leather upholstery ‘worked on him like an aphrodisiac.’  Later, Boyd even gives us 007’s personal formula for making a perfect salad dressing – a recipe I shall certainly file away, alongside Keith Richards’ recipe for bangers and mash.

 

I also like the fact that Bond’s main love interest in this novel, Bryce Fitzjohn, is an actress whose screen name is Astrid Ostergard and whose speciality is gothic horror movies with titles like Vampiria, Queen of Darkness.  The company that employs her, we learn, is called Amerdon Studios – which is obviously a fictional version of the real-life Hammer Films, whose horror movies were at the height of their popularity in the late 1960s.  It’s a nice touch, especially considering how the cinematic overlap between Bond girls and Hammer starlets has been a large one – off the top of my head, I can think of Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman, Martine Beswick, Joanna Lumley, Julie Ege, Jenny Hanley, Anoushka Hempel, Valerie Leon and Caroline Munro, who’ve been both.

 

Alas, Solo lacks fizz in other departments.  The initial setting for the action is a war-torn African republic called Zanzarim, whose government is trying to bring to heel a breakaway (and oil-rich) province called Dahum in its south.  This is promising enough and Boyd – who was born in Ghana – shows a convincing eye for detail.  It feels like a cop-out, though, that he has to use an imaginary African country as his setting, rather than use a real one.  Worse, later on, Boyd relocates the action to Washington DC, which just isn’t interesting enough to be an effective setting – especially as Bond seems to spend a long time staking out a boring-sounding office plaza: ‘Three six-storey glass and concrete office blocks… a large granite-paved public space… stone benches and a generous planting of assorted saplings…  An oval pool with a fountain and a plinth-mounted piece of modern sculpture.’  The mansion house that appears in the book’s climax is disappointingly generic as well.

 

Solo also disappoints with its depiction of the villains – a mysterious multimillionaire called Hulbert Linck and a war-disfigured mercenary called Kobus Breed.  Linck isn’t in the book long enough to make any impression.  Breed gets more to do, but is portrayed as a fairly straightforward psychotic thug – his calling card is to hang up the corpses of his victims with hooks through their jaws – with few quirks or eccentricities to engage the reader’s interest.  That said, I like how Boyd uses Breed’s possible presence to give the book its melancholic ending.

 

And there’s something else lacking, although I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Perhaps it’s the fact that in 2014 nobody can ever quite write a Bond novel in the way that Fleming did – because in our more politically correct times, nobody can invest Bond with quite the same amount of snobbishness, and sexism, and general un-PC-ness, which Fleming did between the 1940s and 1960s.  Sure, Boyd attempts to connect Bond with his dark side a few times.  We see him viciously taking out his frustrations on a trio of young Washington DC muggers who get more than they bargained for when they attempt to rob him, and having a disturbingly voyeuristic snoop around Bryce’s London home just after he’s met her, and confessing late in the book that he feels ‘a little astonished at his own savagery’.  Yet Boyd’s Bond, like all the attempted recreations of Bond in the 21st century, feels a shade too nice.

 

The book has its good points, then, but at the end of the day I can only judge Solo to be, well, so-so.  Despite his talents and despite the fact that he obviously tackled the job conscientiously, William Boyd doesn’t quite have Ian Fleming’s ability to write a Bond novel with the requisite polish and sparkle.

 

But then, who does?